Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force in the execution of their official duties. Most of the killings were associated with the armed conflict in the two Anglophone regions (see also section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict). Additionally, many included unarmed civilians not in conflict-afflicted areas, and others resulted from the use of excessive force on citizens by government agents, including members of defense and security forces.
The Ministry of Defense, through the Secretariat of State in charge of the National Gendarmerie (SED), is responsible for investigating whether security force killings, including police killings, are justifiable. Prosecutions related to these matters are conducted through the Military Tribunal. In some high-profile cases, preliminary investigations are entrusted to a mixed commission of inquiry, including civilian members with relevant professional backgrounds.
On July 23, the Douala-based private television channel Equinoxe TV reported that a taxi driver died in a health center after he was allegedly tortured at the 6th district police station in New Bell, a neighborhood in Douala. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mandela Center, on July 20, Mitterrand Tchouateum Nja parked his vehicle incorrectly and was subsequently punished for refusing to pay a bribe. Police commissioner Mvoundi Evina and members of the 21st Armored Reconnaissance Battalion of Terminus Saint Michel, including Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Nkimantap, brutally assaulted Tchouateum. After the assault, police detained Tchouateum at the 6th district police district. He was transferred to Nkoloulou district medical center on July 22 after his condition rapidly deteriorated. Tchouteum remained chained to his hospital bed until a few hours before his death, which came soon after his release from police custody. As of December 8, the Mandela Center had filed a complaint with the Military Tribunal in Douala, and the Military Tribunal had referred the case to the High Court. No criminal charges had been filed against the perpetrators of the attack as of December 15.
According to the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (CHRDA), on August 13, Cameroonian soldiers raided the village of Mautu in the Southwest Region and killed seven unarmed civilians. The victims, including an elderly man and a pregnant woman known as ‘Mami Blessing,’ were reportedly shot at close range in their homes. Before these killings, the military raided a church on the outskirts of Mautu and shot the church’s pastor. The soldiers executed two boys alongside the pastor and shot another as he tried to escape. The soldiers allegedly invaded the church because the worshipers sympathized with separatist ideology. The CHRDA reported that they were unaware of any ongoing investigation into the incident.
On August 11, multiple media outlets reported the beheading of 32-year-old Comfort Tumassang by suspected Anglophone separatists. The incident took place in Muyuka, Southwest Region. A video circulating on social media that day showed a woman seated on the ground with her hands tied behind her. She begged for mercy before she was beheaded; her body was left in the street. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a second video, filmed before the killing, showing separatists interrogating and threatening Tumassang, whom they accused of collaborating with the military. The three main Anglophone separatist groups–the Ambazonia Governing Council, the “interim government” led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, and its splinter faction led by Samuel Ikome Sako–condemned the killing and denied responsibility for the crime.
On November 24, suspected Islamist terrorists attacked the village of Gabas, located within Mayo Tsanaga in the Far North Region, killing three civilians. On November 25, a member of the Gabas vigilance committee, Jean Baptiste Yagai, told the media that terrorists attacked at about 7:00 p.m., hours before the normal time that residents leave the village to hide in the surrounding hills every evening to avoid Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacks. The assault on Gabas was the latest in a series of attacks by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA in the Far North Region, especially within Mayo Tsanaga and Mayo Sava. In November at least six civilians were killed in attacks in Mayo Sava, while five civilians were killed and at least four others abducted in Mayo Moskota.
While the government repeatedly promised to investigate abuses committed by security forces, it did not do so transparently or systematically. Unlike in the previous year, however, some information was made available concerning the outcome of investigations into abuses committed by security forces as well as the status of some ongoing trials. President Biya ordered an investigation into the February 14 killing by security forces of an estimated 23 civilians in the village of Ngarbuh, Northwest Region. On April 22, the president released a summary of the investigation’s findings, identifying a sergeant, a gendarme, and a soldier as responsible for the killing of 13 civilians during the incident. President Biya reportedly ordered disciplinary action against the battalion commander, who oversaw the operation, and the arrest of the other three suspects. Their trial was expected to begin on December 17 at the Yaounde Military Tribunal. A total of 17 members of a vigilante group and a former separatist fighter were also charged but remained at large.
On September 21, the Yaounde Military Tribunal issued a sentence in the case against seven soldiers accused of the extrajudicial killing of two women and two children, believed to have taken place in 2015 in the village of Zelevet, Far North Region. The lead officer, Captain Etienne Fabassou, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and breach of regulations for his role and received a sentence of 10 years in prison. Sergeant Cyriaque Bityala, Corporal Barnabas Donssou Gorvo, and Soldier First Class Jean Baptiste Tchanga Chiengang were found guilty of murder and breach of regulations and were also sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of the remaining three soldiers, Soldier First Class Ghislain Landry Ntieche Fewou was found guilty of breach of regulations and sentenced to two years in prison. The two remaining soldiers were found not guilty. Both the prosecution and all those convicted filed appeals. In the case of the prosecution, the sentences were less than those the prosecution had requested.
As in the previous year, government security forces were believed to be responsible for enforced disappearances of suspected Anglophone separatists or their supporters. Multiple credible organizations documented the case of Samuel Abue Adjiekha (aka “Wazizi”), a news anchor for Buea-based independent radio station Chillen Muzik and Television Pidgin. Wazizi was detained on August 2, 2019, and pronounced dead on June 5. Wazizi was accused of having connections with armed Anglophone separatists. He was transferred to a military-run facility in Buea on August 7, 2019, and never appeared in court, despite several scheduled hearings. In a June 5 press release, the Defense Ministry asserted Wazizi died of severe sepsis on August 17, 2019 (see also section 1.c.). On June 5, the French ambassador to Cameroon told the press at the end of an audience with President Biya that the president had promised to order an investigation into Wazizi’s death. As of mid-December, there were no developments reported on the investigation.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports that security force members tortured or otherwise abused citizens, including separatist fighters and political opponents. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which security forces severely mistreated political opponents and others in which armed separatists mistreated civilians and members of defense forces. Public officials, or persons acting at their behest, reportedly carried out acts that resulted in severe physical, mental, and emotional trauma.
On July 2, the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union denounced the hijacking of Wazizi’s body as a move to conceal signs of torture on the journalist during his detention.
On July 7, according to CHRDA, 39-year-old Ben Uze was tortured and maimed by the military in Wum, Northwest Region. He reportedly sold 10 liters of palm wine and pineapples to soldiers, who took the items but refused to pay. An eyewitness reportedly told CHRDA that the victim reported the matter to the army commander, who accused him of associating with separatists. As a result, when Uze refused to pay the soldiers he encountered, they severely beat him, causing severe damage to his eye and groin area. Uze reportedly died of his injuries in a hospital.
In a September 24 preliminary report, Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) lawyers claimed police violently suppressed the party’s peaceful demonstrations throughout the country, beating protesters and arresting journalists. They stated that police elements, who used water cannons, batons, and tear gas, injured demonstrators in cities throughout the country, including Douala, Bafoussam, and Kribi. The lawyers reported cases of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment at Yaounde central police station No. 1, listing Therese Assomo Ondoua, Nde Diffo Jaurel, and Wilfred Siewe as some of those tortured during their arrests. Anecdotal evidence and accounts by some protesters who were released corroborated the lawyers’ preliminary report.
Human Rights Watch reported that on May 30, separatists kidnapped and tortured a humanitarian worker in Bali, Northwest Region, accusing him of collaborating with security forces. They released him the following day, and he spent several days in a Bamenda hospital for treatment of the injuries sustained during his detention. The victim told Human Rights Watch that he was blindfolded and taken to a separatist camp on a motorbike. He was later taken to a second location, tied to a tree with a rope, and beaten and kicked before he was released.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, five allegations were submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Cameroonian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. There were also 29 other open allegations dating from previous years of sexual exploitation and abuse by Cameroonian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, including 16 from 2019, four from 2018, four from 2017, two from 2016, and three from 2015. As of September, the Cameroonian government had not yet provided the accountability measures taken for all 34 open cases. Of the open cases, nine allegedly involved rape of a child, 16 allegedly involved transactional sex with one or more adults, five allegedly involved an exploitative relationship with an adult, one allegedly involved rape of an adult, and one allegedly involved sexual assault of an adult. There were also two cases that involved multiple instances within each case. One of those case allegedly involved four instances of rape of a child and two instances of exploitative relationships with an adult. The other case allegedly involved rape by two peacekeepers of two children and an exploitative relationship with an adult.
Credible organizations including the CHRDA reported that Reverend Thomas Nganyu Tangem died chained to his hospital bed in Yaounde in July. He was a member of the Mbengwi Monastery in the Northwest Region and was arrested at Mile 16 in Buea in 2018 and transferred to Yaounde where he was allegedly tortured while in detention for two years without charge. Equinoxe Television reported that on several occasions, prison authorities dismissed concerns expressed by other prisoners regarding his health. On July 25, prison authorities took him to Yaounde Central Hospital, where he was shackled to his hospital bed. He died a few days later on August 5. Tangem was never officially charged with a crime.
Anecdotal reports suggested there were cases of rape and sexual abuse by persons associated with the government in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions. NGOs also indicated armed separatists were involved in rape and sexual abuse cases in the two regions.
There was at least one report of medical abuse by government forces. Djilieu Pommier alleged that after being arrested during MRC demonstrations on September 22 in Bafang (West Region), army Lieutenant Mvoundi Evina on September 22 injected him with an unknown substance. As a result of the injection, Djilieu lost the use of his legs and was effectively paralyzed pending an official medical diagnosis.
On May 6, the High Court of Mbam and Inoubou in the Center Region sentenced the head of local police to a three-year suspended prison sentence for mistreatment of 16-year-old Ibrahim Bello in 2017 that resulted in his losing both legs and his left hand; a colleague received a four-year prison sentence. The court ordered them jointly to pay 50 million Central African francs (CFA) ($86,800) in damages. Following the ruling, the NGO Mandela Center filed an appeal requesting damages be increased to CFA one billion ($1.74 million) due to the gravity of the injuries. The convicts and the General Delegation of National Security also filed separate appeals, requesting that damages be reduced. In mid-December, the court of appeals of the Center Region in Yaounde opened appeal hearings; there was no ruling as of year’s end.
While some investigations and prosecutions were conducted and a few sanctions meted out, especially in high-profile cases, security force impunity remained a concern. Such impunity involved most defense and security force branches from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) to police. Few of the reports of trials involved those in command. The General Delegation of National Security and the Secretariat of State for Defense in charge of the National Gendarmerie investigated some abuses. The government meted out some sanctions to convicted low-level offenders, and other investigations were ongoing as of year’s end. Factors contributing to impunity included the government’s lack of transparency on the steps taken to address allegations of human rights violations.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages and poor-quality food, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a significant problem in most prisons, especially in major urban centers. Prison overcrowding was exacerbated by sustained increases in the number of arrests related to the conflict in the Anglophone regions and the September 22 protests by the opposition MRC. Officials held prisoners in dilapidated, colonial-era prisons. Authorities often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in the same cells. In many prisons, toilets were only common pits. In some cases, female detainees benefitted from better living conditions, including improved toilet facilities and less crowded living quarters. Prisons generally had separate wards for men, women, and children. Authorities reported that the sick were held separately from the general prison population, but this was often not the case.
According to prison administration officials, the country had 79 operational prisons, with an intended capacity of 17,915. As of October 31, the overall prison population was 22,430, including 580 women and 577 minors. The Ministry of Exterior Relations’ Minister Delegate to the Commonwealth Felix Mbayu provided the figures on November 19, within the framework of the 67th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Access to food, water, sanitation, heating and ventilation, lighting, and medical care was inadequate. Consequently, malnutrition, tuberculosis, bronchitis, malaria, hepatitis, scabies, and numerous other treatable conditions, including infections, were rampant. Hundreds of cases of COVID-19 were recorded among inmates released from five prisons across Cameroon’s Central Region in April, according to Reuters, which cited unpublished government data. According to the article, the Yaounde Central Prison was the worst hit. More than 31 inmates died there in April, compared with a prepandemic average of one or two a month. A senior prison official reportedly told Reuters that no inmates were tested for COVID-19.
Physical abuse by prison guards and prisoner-on-prisoner violence were problems. Some credible organizations reported that physical abuse by persons associated with the government was less prevalent in prisons than in gendarmerie and police detention cells, where some officers often used harsh interrogation techniques. Conversely, violence among inmates was reported in virtually all prisons. In an August 18 letter to the Minister of Justice Shufai Blaise Sevidzem Berinyuy representing detained Anglophones separatists at the Kondengui Principal Prison, informed the minister that Reverend Kisob Bertin was attacked on August 16 in his bed by fellow inmates. He stated that witnesses said the attack had the blessing of the prison administrators, who told some inmates they would not face sanctions if they attacked “Ambazonians” and seized their property.
Administration: Authorities allegedly did not address all credible allegations of mistreatment. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, independent authorities did not investigate the most credible allegations of mistreatment. Visitors needed formal authorization from the state counsel; without authorization, they had to bribe prison staff to communicate with inmates. Overall prison visits were limited in compliance with COVID-19-related restrictions. Authorities allowed prisoners and detainees to observe their religious practices without interference.
Independent Monitoring: Independent monitoring of prisons was constrained by COVID-19-related restrictions. The NGO Nouveaux Droits de l’Homme, however, stated it visited a few prisons up to April and a few others as of August, including in Bafia, Bafoussam, and Nanga Eboko. The Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Archdiocese in Bamenda also stated it conducted regular visits to the Bamenda Central Prison and provided legal assistance to inmates facing crimes related to the ongoing Anglophone conflict at the Military Tribunal. The National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) reported it did not conduct any prison visits as of late August because of a lack of funding.
Improvements: The new Douala-Ngoma Central Prison located approximately 12 miles from Douala, was completed. The facility is expected to help address prison overcrowding and improve the living environment of inmates at the Douala-New Bell central prison. The new prison needed equipment and some other finishing touches before receiving inmates. On April 15, President Biya signed a decree to decongest prisons as part of government measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, approximately 1,800 inmates were freed by May 8. As of July, the total number of inmates who benefitted from the decree was estimated at close to 3,000.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness in court of an arrest or detention. The law states that except in the case of an individual discovered in the act of committing a felony or misdemeanor, the officials making the arrest must disclose their identity and inform the person arrested of the reason. Any person illegally detained by police, the state counsel, or the examining magistrate may receive compensation. The government did not always respect these provisions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a judge or prosecutor before making an arrest, except when a person is caught in the act of committing a crime, but police often did not respect this requirement. The law provides that suspects be brought promptly before a judge or prosecutor, although this often did not occur, and citizens were detained without judicial authorization. Police may legally detain a person in connection with a common crime for up to 48 hours, renewable once. This period may, with the written approval of the state counsel, be exceptionally extended twice before charges are brought. Nevertheless, police and gendarmes reportedly often exceeded these detention periods. The law also permits detention without charge for renewable periods of 15 days by administrative authorities, such as governors and civilian government officials serving in territorial command. The law also provides that individuals arrested on suspicion of terrorism and certain other crimes may be detained for investigation for periods of 15 days, renewable without limitation with authorization of the prosecutor. The law allows access to legal counsel and family members, although police frequently denied detainees access to both. The law prohibits incommunicado detention, but such cases occurred, especially in connection with the Anglophone crisis. The law permits bail, allows citizens the right to appeal, and provides the right to sue for unlawful arrest, but these rights were seldom respected.
Arbitrary Arrest: Police, gendarmes, the BIR, and other government authorities reportedly continued to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily, often holding them for prolonged periods without charge or trial and at times incommunicado. “Friday arrests,” a practice whereby individuals arrested on a Friday typically remained in detention until at least Monday unless they paid a bribe, continued, although on a limited scale.
On May 11, six volunteers from “Survival Cameroon,” a fundraising initiative launched by opposition leader Maurice Kamto to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, were arrested while handing out free personal protective equipment in Yaounde. They were placed in custody at the Yaounde II police district without judicial authorization. The volunteers were released on bail after several days of detention. Two other volunteers were arrested on May 14 while filming the transfer of their comrades from the police station to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor released them on bail on May 26. Christian Penda Ekoka, president of the management committee of the initiative, stated that three other volunteers who were peacefully distributing free masks and hand sanitizer in Sangmelima, South Region on May 23 were arrested and placed in custody at the city’s central police station. They were released on bail after several days of detention. The individuals were accused of unauthorized demonstrations. If found guilty, they could face four years in prison.
According to Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) president Edith Kah Walla, on September 19, members of security forces abducted at least five members of the NGO consortium Stand Up for Cameroon. The arrest occurred after the members left a “Friday in Black” meeting held at the CPP headquarters in Douala. The abductees, including Moussa Bello, Etienne Ntsama, Mira Angoung, and Tehle Membou, were reportedly subjected to brutality and interrogated without legal counsel.
On September 19, 21, and 22, security forces arrested approximately 593 citizens in connection with peaceful protests called for by the MRC opposition party. While some were released, the Military Tribunal charged many with revolution, insurrection, and rebellion and placed them in pretrial detention. MRC women’s wing president Awasum Mispa was arrested on November 21 when she led a group of women to visit MRC president Maurice Kamto. On November 23, an investigating magistrate at the Yaounde Military Tribunal charged her with complicity in revolution and rebellion and placed her in pretrial detention for a period of six months renewable. On November 27, the same investigating magistrate dropped the charges and released her. Kamto’s de facto house arrest was lifted on December 8, two days after the election of regional councilors. The Yaounde Court of First Instance had not opened any substantive hearings in the proceedings initiated by his lawyers.
Pretrial Detention: The code of criminal procedure provides for a maximum of 18 months’ detention before trial, but many detainees waited years to appear in court. The 2014 antiterrorism law provides that a suspect may be held indefinitely in investigative detention with the authorization of the prosecutor. Of the 22,430 detainees as of October 31, a total of 14,973 were pretrial detainees.
Amadou Vamoulke, a former general manager of state-owned Cameroon Radio Television, who was arrested and detained in 2016 on embezzlement charges, continued to await trial at the Kondengui Central Prison. After at least 30 hearings as of July 15, the Special Criminal Court failed to produce strong evidence to support the charges against him.
See also section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, case of Thomas Tangem.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but this is not always the case in practice. In some instances, the outcomes of trials appeared influenced by the government, especially in politically sensitive cases. Authorities did not always respect and enforce court orders.
Despite the judiciary’s partial independence from the executive and legislative branches, the president appoints all members of the bench and legal department of the judicial branch, including the president of the Supreme Court, and may dismiss them at will.
Military courts may exercise jurisdiction over civilians in a broad number of offenses including civil unrest.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, and the defendant is presumed innocent. Authorities did not always respect the law. Criminal defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, with free assistance of an interpreter. Defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney of their choice, but in many cases the government did not respect this right, restricting access to lawyers, particularly in cases of individuals suspected of complicity with Boko Haram, Anglophone separatists, or political opponents. When defendants cannot pay for their own legal defense, the court may appoint trial counsel at public expense, but the process was often burdensome and lengthy and the quality of legal assistance was poor. Authorities generally allowed defendants to question witnesses and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but authorities often violated this right. Hearsay and anonymous testimony were sometimes permitted, especially in terrorism cases. Defendants are entitled to an interpreter at no charge, but often the quality of interpretation was described as poor. Defendants may appeal convictions. In some cases, authorities did not give the victim a chance to confront the offender and present witnesses or evidence to support his or her case.
Courts often limited procedural rights in politically sensitive cases. On July 16, the Court of Appeals in Yaounde heard a case involving 10 Anglophone separatist leaders, including Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, whom the Yaounde Military Tribunal sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2019. On July 17, prison officials denied the Anglophone leaders access to their defense lawyers, according to several lawyers, including Emmanuel Simh. In a July 17 statement, Dabney Yerima, the jailed vice president of the Ambazonian “interim government,” confirmed and then denounced the denial of access to legal representation. Although they were present at the court, Sisiku and his companions reportedly refused to be judged in French, demanding that their trial be conducted in English. The case was adjourned until August 20, and then until September 17 when a final decision was to be delivered. They reportedly did not receive a legal opinion from the court official on this case. On August 20, the case was postponed until September, after the magistrate in charge was transferred to the Supreme Court. On September 18, the Court of Appeals eventually confirmed the initial life sentence for separatist leader Ayuk Tabe and others.
There were cases where the courts demonstrated some neutrality. On June 16, the Administrative Court in Yaounde ruled that the minister of territorial administration had acted illegally when he independently declared that the leader of the CPP, Edith Kah Walla, had been replaced by the proregime party founder Samuel Fon before the October 2018 Presidential election.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were reports of newly identified political detainees as of September, most of whom were associated with the September 22 protests called for by the MRC opposition party. While there were no official statistics available, the number of detainees was estimated to be close to 600. Prominent among the detainees were MRC Treasurer Alain Fogue and Maurice Kamto’s spokesperson, Olivier Bibou Nissack. Political prisoners were detained under heightened security, often in SED facilities and at the Kondengui Principal Prison and the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde. Some were allegedly held at Directorate General for External Research facilities. The government did not readily permit access to such individuals.
The 10 Anglophone separatist leaders, including Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, whom the Yaounde Military Tribunal sentenced to life imprisonment on August 20, 2019, remained in detention, as the Court of Appeals in September confirmed the sentence. MRC Vice President Mamadou Mota and a few other MRC members, in addition to the 10 leaders sentenced to life, remained in detention as of December, despite a reduction of their sentences upon appeal. Former minister of state for territorial administration Marafa Hamidou Yaya, who was convicted in 2012 on corruption charges and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment, remained in detention. In 2016 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention described Marafa’s detention as “a violation of international laws.” The government did not respond to repeated requests for members of the diplomatic community to meet with Marafa.
There were credible reports that for political reasons the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse legal action against specific individuals, including Anglophone separatists and other political opponents.
On August 18, Serge Sihonou, the secretary of MRC’s operation in Gabon, was allegedly detained by the counterinterference service of the B2 Brigade in Libreville, where he was harassed and physically abused. He was accused of continuing to run an MRC operation that he created in the town of Oyam, despite a ban on the party in Gabon. On August 21, MRC leader Maurice Kamto sent a letter to the Gabonese ambassador to Cameroon denouncing the treatment and demanding the release of Sihonou. In his letter, Kamto accused the Cameroonian ambassador to Gabon of instigating the harassment of MRC members in Gabon since 2018.
Citizens and organizations have the right to seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through administrative procedures or the legal system; both options involved lengthy delays. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions domestically or to regional human rights bodies, but the decisions of regional human rights bodies are not binding.
There were reports that the government delegate to the Douala City Council had failed to comply with civil court decisions pertaining to labor matters of city council employees. The Douala City mayor, who replaced the government delegate, however, found a compromise solution after more than 30 months of litigation between Douala City Council workers and the government.
Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, these rights were subject to restriction in the interests of the state, and there were credible reports police and gendarmes abused their positions by harassing citizens and conducting searches without warrants.
The law permits a police officer to enter a private home during daylight hours without a warrant only if pursuing a person suspected of or seen committing a crime. Police and gendarmes often did not comply with this provision and entered private homes without a warrant whenever they wished. According to media reports, security forces on June 27 conducted raids in the mostly Anglophone neighborhoods of Obili and Melen in Yaounde, following the detonation of two improvised explosive devices in the city. They entered private homes by force and arrested anyone deemed suspicious or who did not possess a national identification card. Many of those detained told media they had been harassed, humiliated, and abused in the process. A video on social media showed more than 100 men and women sitting on the ground surrounded by security officers within a large courtyard in Obili. At the end of the operation, the security officers took away dozens of persons without identification.
An administrative authority, including a governor or senior divisional officer, may authorize police to conduct neighborhood sweeps without warrants, and this practice occurred. Following a late March decision by Jean Claude Tsila, the senior divisional officer for Mfoundi, approximately 50 prostitutes were placed in police custody after coming in contact with travelers in quarantine due to COVID-19 in some hotels in Yaounde.
Killings: There were credible reports that members of government forces and separatist fighters deliberately killed innocent citizens. On April 22, according to credible organizations, members of government security forces executed six unarmed men in Muambong, Southwest Region. The victims included four former separatist fighters who had accepted an amnesty offer in 2019. Most of the executions were reportedly carried out in front of the victims’ relatives.
On March 12, according to credible accounts, Anglophone separatists killed at least five civilians held hostage, including the deputy mayor of Babessi council, Chefor Oscar, and the newly elected mayor of the Mbengwi council, Ndangsa Kenedy Akam, who was kidnapped 15 days earlier. The killings took place after the Cameroonian army raided their camp, freed five hostages, and killed seven separatist fighters. According to reports, the hostages were subjected to both physical and sexual violence. On May 10, Anglophone separatists ambushed and killed the newly elected mayor of Mamfe, 35-year-old Priestley Ashu Ojong. Shortly after news of Ashu Ojong’s death, Lucas Ayaba Cho, leader of the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), praised ADF fighters for eliminating a high value target.
Boko Haram and ISIS-WA intensified deadly attacks on civilians and members of security forces in the Far North Region. L’Oeil du Sahel reported that on June 25 in Goudoumboul, Boko Haram insurgents killed 18-year-old Almada Ali. On June 26, in Cheripouri, assailants believed to be Boko Haram fighters ambushed and killed 12-year-old Ousmane and his older brother while they were asleep in their home.
On October 24, according to Amnesty International, unidentified gunmen in civilian clothes on motorbikes attacked a school in Kumba in the Southwest Region, firing into a classroom. The attackers killed eight schoolchildren and injured another 12 children. On October 28, Minister of Communications Rene Emmanuel Sadi announced security forces had killed one of the gunmen allegedly responsible for the attack. The government declared a national day of mourning and a delegation of government ministers traveled to Kumba to meet with the victims’ family members. The government also sent a medical team to provide medical and psychosocial support. On the day of the attack, Communications Minister Sadi announced an investigation into the killing, but the government did not follow through with an independent investigation into the attack.
On December 6, unidentified gunmen shot at Encho Elias Ambi, a municipal councilor for Widikum in the Northwest Region, after he cast his vote for the election of regional councilors. He was not harmed during the incident.
Abductions: Armed separatists kidnapped dozens of persons, burned property, and threatened voters in the period before the February 9 legislative and municipal elections. Armed separatists allegedly kidnapped several traditional leaders in retaliation for the traditional leaders’ participation in the December 6 regional elections. They held noncombatants as hostages, including public officials, political leaders, teachers, schoolchildren, and traditional leaders. There were credible allegations that separatists physically abused abduction victims, including committing rape, using stress positions, administering beatings, and flogging with machetes. In some cases the abductors freed the victims after either negotiations or receiving ransom payments.
On July 13, armed individuals abducted at least 60 men, women, and children in the village of Mmouck Leteh in the Southwest Region. On July 15, a local administrator told the BBC that gunmen entered the village late at night, moved through the community kidnapping persons–many of whom were at a local snack bar–and led them away at gunpoint to an unknown destination. According to the BBC, a significant number of the victims were children between the ages of 12 and 16. Later that day, the BBC reported that at least 12 of the abductees had escaped captivity and had returned to the community, and that separatist leader General Ayeke had demanded a ransom totaling $2,500 for the remaining victims. Several hours later, multiple local media outlets announced the release of the remaining abductees, reportedly after negotiations with separatists.
On July 7, five civilians were kidnapped in Muyuka, Southwest Region, presumably by Anglophone separatists. A week later, the victims were still missing. On May 30, according to Human Rights Watch, separatists abducted and mistreated a humanitarian worker, whom they accused of being a spy. The worker was released the next day. In Bambui on May 30, separatists abducted seven staff members of a religious nonprofit organization; they were released after two days.
On April 24, armed men abducted three government officials in Boyo, Northwest Region.
On January 21, suspected separatists abducted 24 schoolchildren in Kumba in the Southwest Region. Security forces rescued the hostages in an operation later the same day, killing two of the abductors in the process.
On January 5, armed separatists kidnapped Choh Issa Bouba, the opposition party Social Democratic Front’s mayor of Babessi, Northwest Region, along with some councilors of his municipality.
On December 12, Anglophone separatists allegedly kidnapped traditional leader Nelson Sheteh in the Northwest Region. On December 13, suspected Anglophone separatists in the Southwest Region abducted three traditional rulers, including Chief Emmanuel Ikome Ngalle. Ngalle died in separatist custody and the other two traditional leaders, Simon Kombe, traditional ruler of Bolifamba, and Emmanuel Efande Ewule, traditional ruler of Lower Bokova, were released on December 14. Many Cameroonians believed that the timing of the abductions and social media statements by separatist leaders suggested the abductions were in retaliation against leaders who participated in the December 6 regional elections.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to anecdotal reports, members of government forces physically abused civilians and prisoners in their custody. Reports suggested that on January 5, a detainee died in Ndu, Northwest Region after being abused by soldiers (See also section 1.a).
In a March 13 report available online, journalist Moki Edwin Kindzeka reported that Anglophone separatists killed four hostages, including a local official, after troops attacked their camp in a western part of the country. The military reportedly freed five others. According to Kindzeka, a young woman recovering at a military base in Bafoussam told a reporter that she had also been raped by her abductors.
Child Soldiers: The government did not generally recruit or use child soldiers, but there were allegations that some members of defense and security forces in at least one instance allegedly used a child for intelligence gathering in the Southwest Region in November 2019. Some community neighborhood watch groups, known as vigilance committees, may have used and recruited children as young as 12 in operations against Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that from mid-March to late April, soldiers in Mozogo, Far North Region, forced civilians to perform local night guard duty to protect against attacks by Boko Haram. According to the report, the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion in Mozogo worked with local authorities to compile lists of approximately 90 men and at least one boy who were required to join night guard duty.
Boko Haram continued to use child soldiers, including girls, in its attacks on civilian and military targets. There were also some reports that Anglophone separatists in the Southwest and Northwest Regions used children as fighters.
According to UNICEF, from January to December 2019, there were nine incidents involved minors used as forced suicide bombers in the Far North Region (Mayo Sava, Mayo Tsanaga, and Logone-and-Chari divisions). UNICEF’s analysis found individuals manipulated into serving as suicide bombers or forced suicide bombers included children whose parents had been killed in violence, abducted orphaned children, and women whose husbands had been killed.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: As in the previous year, there were reports of repeated attacks on health workers and institutions and the use of firearms around health facilities by members of security forces and Anglophone separatists.
Human Rights Watch reported in July that security forces and armed separatists attacked hospitals and medical staff on multiple occasions. The organization indicated that on June 10, following clashes between separatists and soldiers, including members of the BIR, a grenade was fired into the courtyard of the district hospital in Bali, Northwest Region. One patient died, four others were injured, and four vehicles were destroyed. Human Rights Watch further reported that on June 30 soldiers forcibly entered St. Elizabeth Catholic Hospital in Shisong, Northwest Region, looking for wounded separatists. They fired three gunshots and broke down doors, causing panic among patients, nurses, and other workers who fled.
On July 6, separatists in the Southwest Region killed a Doctors without Borders community health worker known as Felix, after accusing him of collaborating with the military. In addition, in response to the announcement of the Presidential Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of the Northwest and Southwest Regions on July 5, separatists launched attacks on July 6 in villages across the Anglophone regions, destroying public buildings in Lebialem and Manyu in the Southwest Region as well as in Bui, Donga and Mantung, and Ngoketunjia in the Northwest Region.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Research and Education of the Populace (CINEP), from January 1 through August 19, there were 15 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”
For example, in June a group of army soldiers allegedly killed rural community leader Salvador Jaime Duran in the department of Norte de Santander. A local community association responded by detaining six army soldiers whom they identified as responsible for the killing, ultimately turning the soldiers over to the Attorney General’s Office. According to press reports, army officials said they were in the area conducting security and defense operations when they were attacked. The investigation into the killing continued as of the end of August.
On September 8, police officers allegedly killed civilian Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez in Bogota. According to press reports, Ordonez was drinking publicly in violation of COVID-19 restrictions and officers told him he would be fined for public intoxication. A video of the incident shows police officers using taser shocks and beating Ordonez to restrain him. Ordonez later died in the hospital, and an autopsy revealed the beating was the cause of death. President Duque, the minister of defense, and other government officials condemned the killing, and authorities arrested the two police officers allegedly responsible. The inspector general banned the two officers from public service for 20 years. The attorney general appointed a special human rights prosecutor to lead the investigation into the killing. Ordonez’ killing sparked widespread demonstrations.
Illegal armed groups, including the ELN, committed numerous unlawful or politically motivated killings, often in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).
Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly. From January 1 through August, the Attorney General’s Office registered 25 new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents for killings that occurred between 2008 and August 2020. During the same period, authorities formally charged six members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian, with all six of those crimes occurring in previous years.
Efforts continued to hold officials accountable in “false positive” extrajudicial killings, in which thousands of civilians were killed and falsely presented as guerrilla combatants in the late 1990s to early 2000s. As of June the Attorney General’s Office reported the government had convicted 1,740 members of the security forces in 270 cases related to false positive cases since 2008.
The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of 14 retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of August. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,286 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.
In addition the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law. This included activities to advance Case 003, focused on extrajudicial killings or “false positives” committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. As of August 31, the JEP reported it had received 250 “voluntary versions” in the case from alleged perpetrators recounting their versions of events that occurred during the conflict. Such testimony led investigators to uncover a mass grave of alleged false positive victims in the department of Antioquia. On July 25, retired army general William Henry Torres Escalante admitted his responsibility for false positives before the JEP and apologized to the families of the victims.
In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and illegal armed groups could heighten the risk of civilian casualties. An independent commission established by President Duque to review the facts regarding these alleged military orders submitted a preliminary report in July 2019 concluding that the orders did not permit, suggest, or result in abuses or criminal conduct, and that the armed forces’ operational rules and doctrine were aligned with human rights and international humanitarian law principles. As of September a final report had not been issued.
Human rights organizations, victims, and government investigators accused some members of government security forces of collaborating with or tolerating the activities of organized-crime gangs, which included some former paramilitary members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January and September, nine members of government security forces were formally accused of having ties with illegal armed groups.
According to a February 26 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there were 108 verified killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2019. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2020, the government had obtained 60 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 75 percent of the 2019 social leader killings occurred in rural areas, and 98 percent occurred in areas where the ELN and other criminal groups were present. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on March 19, armed men reportedly kidnapped and killed crop substitution activist Marco Rivadeneira in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. On April 10, authorities arrested Abel Antonio Loaiza Quinonez, alias “Azul,” in Puerto Asis. According to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, Azul was a senior member of an illegal armed group linked to several killings in the region, possibly including the killing of Rivadeneira.
The Commission of the Timely Action Plan for Prevention and Protection for Human Rights Defenders, Social and Communal Leaders, and Journalists, created in 2018, strengthened efforts to investigate and prevent attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders. The Inspector General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman continued to raise awareness on the situation of human rights defenders through the public “Lead Life” campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there is an elite corps of the National Police, a specialized subdirectorate of the National Protection Unit (NPU), a special investigation unit of the Attorney General’s Office responsible for dismantling criminal organizations and enterprises, and a unified command post, which shared responsibility for protecting human rights defenders from attacks and investigating and prosecuting these cases.
By law the Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year. According to the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine, from January 1 through June, a total of 2,052 cases of disappearances were registered, including 53 forced disappearances. The government did not provide information on the number of victims of disappearances who were located.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of October there were no convictions in connection with forced disappearances.
The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, launched in 2018, continued to investigate disappearances that occurred during the conflict.
Although the law prohibits such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. CINEP reported that through August, security forces were allegedly involved in six cases of torture, including nine victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts.
The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted 18 members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31, all for crimes occurring in previous years. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by the police or armed forces through July. All but one of the investigations were linked to alleged crimes committed in previous years.
CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and illegal armed groups were responsible for six documented cases of torture through August.
According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates. In June seven members of the army were charged with raping a 12-year-old indigenous girl in the department of Risaralda. The Attorney General’s Office was investigating the incident and prosecuting the accused persons. According to one NGO, police officers allegedly sexually assaulted three women who were protesting police violence in September.
The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP. The JEP continued investigations in its seven prioritized macro cases with the objective of identifying patterns and establishing links between perpetrators, with the ultimate goal of identifying those most criminally responsible for the most serious abuses during the conflict.
Some NGOs complained that military investigators, not members of the Attorney General’s Office, were sometimes the first responders in cases of deaths resulting from actions of security forces and might make decisions about possible illegal actions. The government made improvements in investigating and trying cases of abuses, but claims of impunity for security force members continued. This was due in some cases to obstruction of justice and opacity in the process by which cases were investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. Inadequate protection of witnesses and investigators, delay tactics by defense attorneys, the judiciary’s failure to exert appropriate controls over dockets and case progress, and inadequate coordination among government entities that sometimes allowed statutes of limitations to expire–resulting in a defendant’s release from jail before trial–were also significant obstacles.
The military justice system functioned under both the old inquisitorial and a newer accusatory justice system, which was not yet fully implemented. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not yet developed an interinstitutional strategy for recruiting, hiring, or training investigators, crime scene technicians, or forensic specialists, which is required under the accusatory system. As such, the military justice system did not exercise criminal investigative authority; all new criminal investigation duties were conducted by judicial police investigators from the CNP and the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators.
With the exception of some new facilities, prisons and detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, poor health care, and lack of other basic services. Poor training of officials remained a problem throughout the prison system.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding existed in men’s and in women’s prisons. The National Prison Institute (INPEC), which operated the national prisons and oversaw the jails, estimated there were 106,700 persons incarcerated in 132 prisons at a rate of approximately 29 percent over capacity. The government made efforts to decrease the prison population in the context of COVID-19. In March the government issued a decree suspending new prisoner admissions during the pandemic, and there was an overall slowdown in judicial proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 14, the government issued a decree allowing for the compassionate release of prisoners who were 60 years or older, pregnant women, mothers of children younger than age three, persons with disabilities or chronic serious illnesses, those sentenced to five years or less, and offenders with 40 percent of their sentence complete.
The law prohibits holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although this frequently occurred. Juvenile detainees were held in separate juvenile detention centers. The Superior Judiciary Council stated the maximum time that a person may remain in judicial detention facilities is three days. The same rules apply to jails located inside police stations. These regulations were often violated.
The practice of preventive detention, in combination with inefficiencies in the judicial system, continued to result in overcrowding. The government continued to implement procedures introduced in 2016 that provide for the immediate release of some pretrial detainees, including many accused of serious crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual assault.
On March 21, 24 prisoners died during a failed escape attempt at La Modelo Prison in Bogota. The attempted escape took place during coordinated riots with 19 other prisons that occurred in apparent response to the health and sanitation conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown and suspension of prison visits. A November Human Rights Watch report alleged the deaths were consistent with intentional homicide. The attorney general and inspector general launched investigations into the prison authority’s use of force during the attempted escape and overall handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physical abuse by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities’ failure to maintain control were problems. INPEC’s office of disciplinary control continued to investigate allegations that some prison guards routinely used excessive force and treated inmates brutally. As of July 29, INPEC reported disciplinary investigations against 135 prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and inhuman treatment.
INPEC reported 392 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 29, including 37 attributed to internal fights.
Many prisoners continued to face difficulties receiving adequate medical care. Nutrition and water quality were deficient and contributed to the overall poor health of many inmates. Inmates stated authorities routinely rationed water in many facilities, which officials attributed to city water shortages.
INPEC’s physical structures were generally in poor repair. The Inspector General’s Office noted some facilities had poor ventilation and overtaxed sanitary systems. Prisoners in some high-altitude facilities complained of inadequate blankets and clothing, while prisoners in tropical facilities complained that overcrowding and insufficient ventilation contributed to high temperatures in prison cells. Some prisoners slept on floors without mattresses, while others shared cots in overcrowded cells.
Administration: Authorities investigated credible prisoner complaints of mistreatment and inhuman conditions, including complaints of prison guards soliciting bribes from inmates, but some prisoners asserted the investigations were slow.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights groups. INPEC required a three-day notice before granting consular access. Some NGOs complained that authorities, without adequate explanation, denied them access to visit prisoners. In March the government suspended prison visits to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were allegations, however, that authorities detained citizens arbitrarily. CINEP reported 31 cases of arbitrary detention committed by state security forces through August 19.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Authorities must bring detained persons before a judge within 36 hours to determine the validity of the detention, bring formal charges within 30 days, and start a trial within 90 days of the initial detention. Public defenders contracted by the Office of the Ombudsman assisted indigent defendants but were overloaded with cases. Detainees received prompt access to legal counsel and family members as provided for by law. Bail was generally available except for serious crimes such as murder, rebellion, or narcotics trafficking. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, this requirement was not always respected. NGOs characterized some arrests as arbitrary detention, including arrests allegedly based on tips from informants about persons linked to guerrilla activities, detentions by members of the security forces without a judicial order, detentions based on administrative authority, detentions during military operations or at roadblocks, large-scale detentions, and detentions of persons while they were “exercising their fundamental rights.” For example, NGOs alleged that on May 20, members of the army’s Seventh Division arbitrarily detained and searched crop substitution leader Ariolfo Sanchez Ruiz along with a group of rural farmers in the department of Antioquia. According to media reports, army soldiers killed Sanchez. Army officials stated that soldiers were in the area to eradicate illicit crops and that the killing was under investigation.
Pretrial Detention: The judicial process moved slowly, and the civilian judicial system suffered from a significant backlog of cases, which led to large numbers of pretrial detainees. Of the 106,700 prison detainees, 29,450 were in pretrial detention. The failure of many jail supervisors to keep mandatory detention records or follow notification procedures made accounting for all detainees difficult. In some cases detainees were released without a trial because they had already served more than one-third of the maximum sentence for their charges.
Civil society groups complained that authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Much of the judicial system was overburdened and inefficient, and subornation, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses hindered judicial functioning.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. While the government began implementing an accusatory system of justice in 2005, the use of delay tactics by defense lawyers to slow or impede proceedings, prosecutors’ heavy caseloads, and other factors, diminished the anticipated increased efficiencies and other benefits of adopting the adversarial model. Under the criminal procedure code, the prosecutor presents an accusation and evidence before an impartial judge at an oral, public trial. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and have the right to confront the trial evidence and witnesses against them, present their own evidence, and communicate with an attorney of their choice or have one provided at public expense. Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal their proceedings. Although defendants have the right to an interpreter, the court system lacked interpreters for less commonly encountered languages. Crimes committed before 2005 are processed under the prior written inquisitorial system in which the prosecutor investigates, determines evidence, and makes a finding of guilt or innocence. In those cases, the trial consists of the presentation of evidence and finding of guilt or innocence to a judge for ratification or rejection.
In the military justice system, military judges preside over courts-martial. Counsel may represent the accused and call witnesses, but most fact finding takes place during the investigative stage. Military trial judges are required to issue rulings within eight days of a court-martial hearing. Representatives of the civilian Inspector General’s Office are required to be present at a court-martial.
Criminal procedure within the military justice system includes elements of the inquisitorial and accusatory systems. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to timely consultation with counsel.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government declared that it did not hold political prisoners; nevertheless, authorities held some members of human rights advocacy groups on charges of conspiracy, rebellion, or terrorism, which the groups described as government harassment against human rights advocates. According to INPEC, the government held 66 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regular access to these prisoners.
Citizens may sue a government agent or entity in the Administrative Court of Litigation for damages resulting from a human rights violation. Although critics complained of delays in the process, the court generally was considered impartial and effective. Cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights may be submitted through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured.
The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Victims’ Law) continued to provide a legal basis for assistance and reparations to victims of the conflict, including victims of government abuses, but the government acknowledged that the pace of restitution was slow. From January through August 31, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 171 cases related to land reclamation, i.e., requests for restitution.
The Land Restitution Unit, a semiautonomous entity in the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for returning land to displaced victims of conflict. The unit reported that as of July 31, it had received 571 requests for collective restitution of territories of ethnic communities.
The law prohibits such actions, but there were allegations the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government authorities generally need a judicial order to intercept mail or email or to monitor telephone conversations, including in prisons. Government intelligence agencies investigating terrorist organizations sometimes monitored telephone conversations without judicial authorization; the law bars evidence obtained in this manner from being used in court.
NGOs continued to accuse domestic intelligence or security entities of spying on lawyers and human rights defenders.
In May media reported that members of the intelligence community, including its cyber intelligence unit, had inappropriately developed dossiers on 130 politicians, judges, former members of the military, human rights defenders, and journalists. The government subsequently announced the dismissal of 11 army members for inappropriate surveillance of domestic and foreign citizens. The Attorney General’s Office reported that as of August 13, there were two criminal investigations underway in connection with the allegations. The Inspector General’s Office reported that as of August 31, there were 16 disciplinary investigations of state agents in connection with the allegations.
The government and the FARC, formerly the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency group, continued to implement the 2016 peace accord. In 2017 the FARC completed its disarmament, and as of November 3, nearly 14,000 former members had begun reincorporation activities, including the formation of a political party. An estimated 800 to 1,500 FARC dissident members did not participate in the peace process from the outset. As of November FARC dissident numbers had grown to approximately 2,600 due to new recruitment and some former combatants who returned to arms. Some members of the FARC who did participate in the peace process alleged the government had not fully complied with its commitments, including ensuring the security of demobilized former combatants or facilitating their reintegration, while the government alleged the FARC had not met its full commitments to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts. In August 2019 a small group of FARC dissidents called for a return to armed conflict, alleging the government had not lived up to its obligations under the peace agreement. This did not result in a significant response from former FARC combatants who have been participating in the peace process. Following the signing of the 2016 peace accord, three transitional justice mechanisms were established and were operational throughout the year: the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Nonrepetition; the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons; and the JEP.
The ELN, a leftist guerilla force of approximately 2,500 armed members, continued to commit crimes and acts of terror throughout the country, including bombings, violence against civilian populations, and violent attacks against military and police facilities. Illegal armed groups and drug gangs, such as the Gulf Clan, also continued to operate. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group and other NGOs, considered some of these illegal armed groups to be composed of former paramilitary groups. The government acknowledged that some former paramilitary members were active in illegal armed groups but noted these groups lacked the national, unified command structure and explicit ideological agenda that defined past paramilitary groups, including the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Killings: The military was accused of some killings, some of which military officials stated were “military mistakes” (see section 1.a.). In other cases military officials stated they believed an individual was fighting on behalf of an illegal armed group, while community members stated the victim was not a combatant. On May 18, media reported members of the army’s Second Division killed Emerito Digno Buendia Martinez in Cucuta and injured three other rural farmers. According to a statement from the army, soldiers in the area engaged in illicit crop eradication efforts were fired upon first. Community leaders and NGOs disputed the army’s account and denounced the killing.
Armed groups, notably the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan, committed unlawful killings, primarily in areas with illicit economic activities and without a strong government presence. Government officials assessed that most of the violence was related to narcotics trafficking enterprises.
Independent observers raised concerns that inadequate security guarantees facilitated the killing of former FARC militants. According to the UN Verification Mission, as of November 3, a total of 232 FARC former combatants had been killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord. The Attorney General’s Office reported 22 cases with convictions, 15 in the trial stage, 17 under investigation, and 44 with pending arrest warrants. The United Nations also reported the government began to implement additional steps to strengthen security guarantees for former FARC combatants, including deploying additional judicial police officers and attorneys to prioritized departments, promoting initiatives for prevention of stigmatization against former combatants, and establishing a roadmap for the protection of political candidates, including the FARC political party.
Abductions: Organized-crime gangs, FARC dissidents, the ELN, and common criminals continued to kidnap persons. According to the Ministry of Defense, from January 1 to June 30, there were 13 kidnappings, five attributed to the ELN, and the remaining attributed to other organized armed groups. On August 12 in Pailitas, Cesar, the ELN allegedly kidnapped farmer Andres Jose Herrera Orozco.
Between January and June, the Ministry of Defense reported 15 hostages had been freed, one hostage died in captivity, and seven were released after pressure from the government.
The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons provided for in the peace accord is mandated to account for those who disappeared in the context of the armed conflict and, when possible, locate and return remains to families. According to the Observatory of Memory and Conflict, more than 80,000 persons were reported missing as a result of the armed conflict, including 1,214 military and police personnel who were kidnapped by the FARC and ELN.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: From January through August, CINEP reported FARC dissidents and organized-crime gangs were responsible for nine documented cases of torture.
The ELN, FARC dissidents, and other groups continued to lay land mines. According to the Integral Action against Land Mines of the High Commissioner for Peace, there were 13 persons killed and 74 wounded as the result of improvised explosive devices and land mines between January 1 and September 1.
Child Soldiers: There were reports the ELN, FARC dissident groups, the Gulf Clan, and other illegal armed groups recruited persons younger than age 18. According to the Child and Family Welfare Department, 6,860 children separated from armed illegal groups between November 16, 1999, and July 31, 2020. The government concluded a program to counter recruitment of child soldiers that had reached 500 at-risk villages, an estimated 28,250 minors, and 15,000 families. It announced the next iteration of the child recruitment prevention program in July that expanded the definition of recruitment measures, including the use of children for illicit economies and sexual coercion. Government and NGO officials confirmed rates of child recruitment increased with the appearance of COVID-19 and related confinement measures.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: During the year reports of other human rights abuses occurred in the context of the conflict and narcotics trafficking. Drug traffickers and illegal armed groups continued to displace predominantly poor and rural populations (see section 2.e., Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons).
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Human rights organizations reported excessive force by security forces who were likely responsible for several of the 11 deaths reported by the comptroller during the October 2019 violent protests against the government’s economic reforms. Ministry of Government officials indicated that only eight deaths were linked to demonstrations, and they argued that the causes of death were either due to force majeure actions of police attempting to control violent crowds or accidents that did not result from direct police action. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Regional Human Rights Advisory Foundation and other NGOs reported that as of August 17, the Attorney General’s Office had not significantly advanced investigations concerning deaths during the protests. Criminal investigations concerning the entire range of crimes committed during the several weeks of organized violence–including lootings, arson, attacks on public employees and institutions–that accompanied the political protests did not significantly advance before year’s end.
In December 2019 the Provincial Court of Imbabura overturned police officer David Velastegui’s June 2019 sentence for “overreaching in the execution of an act of service.” In 2018 Velastegui shot and killed Andres Padilla, an Afro-Ecuadorian man, during a scuffle. The court, in reversing its ruling, determined Velastegui’s life was in imminent danger, justifying use of his service weapon in self-defense. The court further found “no advance planning or intentionality in Padilla’s death,” and no “criminal responsibility in the accused, since the death did not occur as a consequence of an act of excess of duties.” Padilla’s family appealed the ruling, and a decision on the appeal was pending as of October 19.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
On August 14, after the National Court of Justice sentenced former intelligence officers Raul Chicaiza and Jessica Falcon to one year in prison for the 2012 kidnapping in Bogota, Colombia, of opposition legislator Fernando Balda, the court ruled that government officials used public funds to orchestrate Balda’s kidnapping. The court found former intelligence director Pablo Romero guilty of planning the abduction under the orders of former president Rafael Correa, who was also indicted but remained in Belgium despite extradition requests. The extradition request remained in process as of October 27.
While the constitution and the law prohibit torture and similar forms of intimidation and punishment, there were reports that police officers and prison guards tortured and abused suspects and prisoners.
In two cases stemming from arrests relating to the violent October 2019 protests, victims reported to NGOs and international organizations alleged police kidnappings and torture or other forms of degrading treatment during police interrogations. Human rights activists asserted that as of August 17, officials had not investigated these claims. On January 14, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a preliminary report from its state-sponsored October 2019 visit on reported abuses relating to the 2019 protests. Numerous detainees claimed authorities abused them through verbal threats, beatings with fists and metal truncheons, and forced physical exercises. The IACHR noted that judicial authorities in some cases did not record evidence presented by victims. Local human rights organizations reported that torture continued to occur in prisons, especially at Turi Prison in Azuay Province. On February 27, Azuay Public Prosecutor Leonardo Amoroso stated that contrary to official accounts claiming six prisoners died on February 20 in the prison by suicide, a forensic report (indicating one prisoner whose liver had burst) suggested the prisoners might have died as the result of torture, but he did not speculate who may have been responsible for the deaths. As of October 27, an inquiry request from human rights organizations to the Ombudsman’s Office on the case was pending.
On October 13, media reported a female police officer in Duran, Guayas Province, assaulted a female street vendor with a disability, who was tied to a pole, by placing her hands on the vendor’s buttocks while observers ridiculed the vendor and poured water over her head. The offending officer was dismissed from her duties the same day. On October 14, the public prosecutor launched an investigation and arrested two additional suspects involved in the incident.
The Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police investigates whether police killings are justifiable and can refer cases to the Attorney General’s Office to pursue prosecutions. An intelligence branch within the military has a role similar to the police internal affairs unit. The law states that the Attorney General’s Office must be involved in all human rights abuse investigations, including unlawful killings and forced disappearance. Although the National Police’s Internal Affairs division is designed to investigate complaints of police abuses, human rights defenders reported these units often failed to conduct investigations adequately. Activists stated follow-up on abuse claims was difficult due to high staff turnover in the Internal Affairs Unit.
Although impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces, human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported the lack of prosecutions against police officers who allegedly used excessive force against demonstrators during October 2019 protests could be interpreted as impunity. The government did not announce further actions taken to address general public concern about alleged human rights abuses during the October 2019 protests.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gang violence, official corruption, food shortages, gross overcrowding, harassment by security guards against prisoners and visitors, physical and sexual abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prisons continued to be overcrowded despite efforts to alleviate the problem. Officials reported a reduction in total prison overpopulation from 36 percent at the end of 2019 to 28 percent through June 1 by releasing 1,525 inmates between April 1 and June 1 in response to COVID-19 contagion concerns. A human rights NGO reported prison conditions were often better for female inmates due to their lower population density.
By law juveniles cannot be tried as adults, and individuals convicted as juveniles serve their full sentence in juvenile prisons. In May 2019 the daily newspaper El Comercio reported 40 percent of the population in the 11 centers for juvenile offenders were juveniles due to reach adulthood during their sentence. Human rights organizations reported no juveniles resided in adult prisons.
Media reports documented 22 violent deaths in prisons nationwide through August 20. Prison officials and human rights organizations agreed most violent deaths in prisons were linked to tension among criminal gangs with links to drug cartels. An August 3 confrontation between armed prison gangs left 11 inmates dead (including two who died from incineration) and 20 injured at Litoral Prison in Guayaquil. An August 11 gang confrontation in the Latacunga Rehabilitation Center in Cotopaxi Province maximum-security block left two inmates dead and five injured. An NGO reported criminal organizations operating within and outside of prisons intimidated prison staff while on and off duty.
On August 8, Israeli citizen Shy Dahan (incarcerated for alleged ties to corruption in acquiring medical equipment and fraudulent COVID-19 testing kits in a scheme allegedly involving former president Abdala Bucaram) was found dead in his cell in Litoral Prison. On October 1, media reported Litoral Prison director Hector Vivar was arrested for alleged involvement in a bribery scheme in which he demanded $30,000 in exchange for Dahan’s protection and safety.
On September 2, seven prisoners were sentenced to 46 total additional years in prison for the June 11 kidnapping and murder–by decapitation and incineration–of a fellow prisoner in the Eighth Rehabilitation Regional Prison in Guayas Province.
On August 11, President Moreno declared a state of emergency for the nationwide penitentiary system to address the escalation of prison violence, similar to a May 2019 declaration. The government also ordered the presence of police inside prison centers and military personnel at security perimeters and entry checkpoints of prisons. The state of emergency remained in effect as of October 27. During the state of emergency, the government reclassified and segregated inmates at facilities according to assessed threat levels.
Access to and quality of food, potable and hot water, heating, sanitation, and medical care were inadequate. Officials verified that inmates did not have safe and permanent access to healthful food. In 2018 government officials detected a deterioration of the water systems at prison facilities with noticeable difficulties in access to drinking water, especially at the Latacunga Rehabilitation Center, and these problems persisted. In some facilities health measures were sufficient only for emergency care. On June 20, national prison officials reported 699 inmate infections and 10 deaths due to COVID-19 in the national detention centers. Prisoners noted inconsistent and generally insufficient protection and isolation measures from COVID-19 infection in prisons.
An NGO reported that prison officials, including medical staff, often failed to screen adequately and segregate prisoners with mental and physical disabilities from the rest of the prison population. On June 26, President Moreno signed a decree pardoning persons with disabilities and commuting their prison sentences. Pardoned inmates were required to comply with alternative measures, including community service and appearing personally before a judge twice a month.
Administration: Authorities sometimes conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment in prisons.
On March 15, President Moreno ordered the suspension of visits to inmates and curtailed recreational activities at all prison centers as a measure to prevent COVID-19 contagion. Human rights organizations continued to report that the few visitors allowed before the pandemic faced degrading treatment during check-in at prison facilities, including the removal of clothing and illumination of genitalia by flashlights while forced to jump naked. Such treatment dissuaded relatives and religious officials from visiting prisons. An NGO reported that access to inmates had been limited during the May-August 2019 emergency declaration, as inmates continued living in almost complete isolation from their relatives.
Independent Monitoring: Civil society representatives continued to report restrictions to monitoring by independent NGO observers. According to the NGO Permanent Committee (CDH) for the Defense of Human Rights, authorities failed to respond to many independent observers’ requests to visit prisons. Prison officials explained that monitoring groups’ safety could not be guaranteed, especially during the state of emergency in the penitentiary system.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but there were reports that provincial and local authorities did not always observe these provisions. According to NGOs, illegal detentions continued to occur.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires authorities to issue specific written arrest orders prior to detention, and a judge must charge a suspect with a specific criminal offense within 24 hours of arrest. Authorities generally observed this time limit, although in some provinces initial detention was often considerably longer. Detainees have the right to be informed of the charges against them. By law, if the initial investigation report is incriminating, the judge, upon the prosecutor’s request, may order pretrial detention. Judges at times ordered a detainee’s release pending trial with the use of ankle-monitoring bracelets.
Detainees have a constitutional right to an attorney. Those without financial means to pay for an attorney have the right to request a court-appointed attorney from the Public Defenders’ Office. Although there were many available court-appointed defenders, the number of cases and limited time to prepare for the defense continued to present a disadvantage during trials.
The law entitles detainees to prompt access to lawyers and family members, but NGOs continued to report delays depending on the circumstances and the willingness of local courts and prison guards to enforce the law.
Arbitrary Arrest: Several NGOs and international organizations reported that security forces arbitrarily detained protesters during the October 2019 violent antigovernment demonstrations. In its January 14 report, the IACHR highlighted information received indicating that “a large number of arrests were allegedly carried out arbitrarily or illegally,” underlining the comptroller’s October 2019 claim that up to 76 percent of the government’s reported 1,192 detentions during the demonstrations were arbitrary or illegal.
Pretrial Detention: Corruption and general judicial inefficiency caused trial delays. Police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges did not receive adequate training. The length of pretrial detention did not usually exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crime.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, outside pressure and corruption impaired the judicial process. Legal experts, bar associations, and NGOs reported on the susceptibility of the judiciary to bribes for favorable decisions and faster resolution of legal cases. No updates were available through September 18 on the selection of permanent replacement of Judicial Council members after 23 of 36 evaluated judges were deemed not to have met the minimum qualification threshold in November 2019 and were replaced by temporary judges from lower courts appointed by the council.
On January 29, six former police officials convicted for “paralyzing a public service” during a 2010 police protest known as 30-S were released from prison on appeal. All of the officers declared they would seek to reintegrate into the police force. On June 29, four other former police officials sentenced to 12 years in prison in the same incident presented a revision appeal to the National Court of Justice. The appellants, after serving nearly six years in prison, were released as they awaited the court’s ruling, which was pending as of October 27.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, although delays occurred frequently. The law presumes a defendant innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of the charges in detail. The accused have the right to consult with an attorney or to have one provided and to appeal. Defendants have the right to free assistance from an interpreter, but some defendants complained about the lack of an interpreter at court hearings. Defendants have the right to adequate time and resources to prepare their defense, although in practice this was not always the case, and delays in providing translation services made this difficult for some foreign defendants. Foreigners also often faced a language barrier with their public defenders, which impaired their ability to present a defense. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial. The accused may also present evidence and call witnesses, invoke the right against self-incrimination, and confront and cross-examine witnesses.
Judges reportedly rendered decisions more quickly or more slowly due to political pressure or fear in some cases. There were reported delays of up to one year in scheduling some trials.
Criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing congested dockets in criminal cases produced “simplified” proceedings in pretrial stages, resulting in faster resolution of cases. Prisoners reported that after cases reached a higher court, however, lengthy delays ensued in setting dates for preliminary hearings.
The regular court system tried most defendants, although some indigenous groups judged members independently under their own community rules for violations that occurred in indigenous territory, as provided under the constitution.
The court system slowed considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all courts initially moving to remote working conditions. Defendants’ counsels complained this format inhibited their ability to represent their clients adequately, and several noted that new procedural rules were inconsistently and sometimes arbitrarily applied. By June some courts had returned to in-person appearances, but judges in at-risk health or demographic categories continued to telework.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
On July 30, the National Assembly approved a resolution granting amnesty to 20 indigenous leaders charged and convicted in 2015 for kidnapping and extortion after participating in mobilizations against the former Correa administration. Aside from ordering the immediate release of four leaders still in detention, the resolution expunged all criminal records related to the charges, revoked any outstanding arrest warrants against any individuals, and removed any precautionary measures or prison alternatives that had been previously issued. Human rights organizations reported that 150 abused and detained demonstrators continued to face legal processes for the same alleged 2015 acts.
Civil courts and the Administrative Conflicts Tribunal, generally considered independent and impartial, handle lawsuits seeking damages for, or immediate ending of, human rights violations. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions domestically and to regional human rights bodies.
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. The Attorney General’s Office (FGR) investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions. According to the FGR, as of August 24, there were seven extrajudicial killings under investigation in which nine National Civilian Police (PNC) officers were implicated, including cases that originated in past years. As of August 27, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating six complaints of such killings, some by law enforcement, including those in which PNC officers were alleged to have directly participated and one attributed to prison guards.
On April 26, President Bukele responded, via Twitter, to an increase in gang-related homicides, stating, “the use of lethal force is authorized for self-defense or for the defense of the lives of Salvadorans.” This tweet did not grant police any additional powers, although international civil society and multilateral organizations criticized the president for heightening the risk that police would commit extrajudicial killings of gang members. On July 9, the news agency EFE reported that the official figures from Minister of Security Rogelio Rivas indicated that from January to late May, there were 90 confrontations between security forces and alleged gang members, leaving 44 persons dead, 29 injured, and 70 detained.
On May 13, media outlets reported the case of a woman killed by PNC officers while she was shopping in San Julian Municipality, Sonsonate Department. According to police reports, the woman was a gang member who attacked three police officers with a firearm, and in response, the officers returned fire and killed the woman. The newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported police sources did not find it credible that the woman attacked police, and the woman’s family denied she was involved with gangs. The police officers faced an initial hearing before the justice of the peace of San Julian. Per the request of the FGR, the judge decided the officers would continue to face the judicial process but without being detained in prison.
On August 13, the FGR arrested three PNC officers who were allegedly linked to an extermination group accused of murdering three persons in July 2019.
On August 16, the Specialized Court of Instruction C of San Salvador, at the request of the FGR, announced a sentencing hearing for four PNC officers accused of forced disappearances and aggravated homicide. Three of the officers worked in rural Usulutan and the fourth in Zacatecoluca, La Paz Department. According to media reports, the officers were charged with a triple homicide that occurred on July 7, as well as prior homicides from 2017 and 2019.
On June 20, media reported that Víctor David Castillo Campos, an officer of the elite Police Reaction Group (GRP) and alleged accomplice in the killing of fellow GRP member Carla Ayala after a GRP gathering in 2017, received house arrest after serving two years in prison without a final verdict. Castillo Campos was arrested in 2018 and was one of 13 defendants (eight police officers and five civilians) implicated as accomplices in Ayala’s killing. Juan Jose Castillo Arevalo was also accused of killing Ayala and since 2017 remained a fugitive. The PNC disbanded the GRP in 2018.
In July the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), Servicio Social Pasionista, Cristosal, Due Process of Law Foundation, and other organizations presented a report on extrajudicial killings that was a follow-up to the UN special rapporteur’s 2018 recommendations. On July 9, EFE stated the report concluded extrajudicial killings persisted in the country despite a change of the presidency in June 2019. According to the report, from June to December 2019, there were 156 clashes between the security forces and alleged gang members that left 107 civilians dead and 43 injured.
Reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. Law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances since 2017, citing a discrepancy between data collected by the PNC and the FGR. Media reported in March that the discrepancy continued.
According to media reports, the FGR recorded 542 disappearances between January and March, with an average of six missing persons cases per day. This marked a decrease from the same period in 2019 when the FGR tracked 829 cases, equivalent to nine disappearances daily. The PNC reported that 65 percent of those reported missing were later found alive and that there was a likelihood that many of the remaining 35 percent had emigrated. The FGR reported 724 cases of “deprivation of liberty” through July 13, compared with 2,234 cases from January through October 2019; however, this offense included both disappearances and missing persons.
On August 10, media reported that the PNC registered 728 missing persons cases in the first half of the year, compared with 1,295 reported during the same time period in 2019. Of the cases reported in the first six months, 56 percent were still missing as of September, 40 percent were found alive, and 4 percent were found deceased. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Servicio Social Pasionista reported that as of June there were 434 disappearances, compared with 652 in 2019.
The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 15 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and two by the armed forces, compared with 33 and nine complaints, respectively, as of August 2019. The PDDH also received 55 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC, four by the armed forces and one by the PNC and armed forces together.
Reports of abuse and police misconduct came mostly from residents of metropolitan San Salvador and mainly from men and young persons. As of June, according to the PNC, 104 officers had been involved in crimes and offenses, resulting in 92 charges. Furthermore, as of September 14, the PNC received 90 complaints of general misconduct by police, including but not limited to torture or cruel or inhuman treatment; five of the 90 complaints were officially submitted to the FGR.
On May 6, in Zacatecoluca, La Paz Department, media reported on the case of a man who died while in provisional detention under police custody. Allegedly, the PNC told the family of the man, arrested on homicide and gang membership charges connected to the 2019 killing of a soldier, that he had died of COVID-19 and that he should be buried immediately and without opening the casket. Media reported that the family did not believe the cause of death and inspected the body at the grave, finding the man still handcuffed, with a bloodied face and broken teeth. The family believed he died after being tortured and took photographs of the body. The PNC maintained the man died of massive bleeding. The PDDH called for an investigation into the case. On May 12, the FGR exhumed the body for an autopsy but, as of September 16, had not made any arrests.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in March of sexual exploitation and abuse by Salvadoran peacekeepers deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of September the United Nations was investigating the allegation.
Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Media reported cases of the PNC abusing their authority during the nationwide stay-at-home order. The government repeatedly defied judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The FGR is responsible for investigating abuses. The government provided annual training to military units to dissuade any potential for gross abuses of human rights, such as the training provided to the Marine Infantry Battalion by the navy’s Legal Unit on the need to respect human rights.
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, at one-third above capacity as of August, was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prisons system had a capacity for 27,037 inmates, but, as of August 17, there were more than 36,000 inmates. For example, the PDDH reported that in one prison, 1,486 inmates were held in facilities designed for 280.
Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.
Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. After a sudden increase in gang violence in late April, President Bukele ordered a lockdown and imposed strict measures in the seven prisons where most imprisoned gang leaders and members were held. Prison authorities implemented the order, placing gang leaders in solitary confinement, mixing rival gang members together, conducting cell searches for contraband, and boarding up cells to prevent prisoners communicating among cells using visual signals. As of September approximately 55 percent (18,746 prisoners) of the prison population were active or former gang members.
According to the PDDH, many prisons had inadequate sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting. Inmates experienced gastrointestinal illnesses and skin problems due to poor water quality.
In August the PNC reported 51 percent overcrowding in police holding cells, with more than 4,000 detainees in cells designed for 1,500-1,800 individuals. This was up from 2,300-2,400 detainees held in similar facilities in 2019.
On March 11, President Bukele announced a quarantine plan that required anyone entering the country be placed in a government-run quarantine center for 30 days. Government officials began implementation immediately after President Bukele’s announcement and forced many who were already in transit to enter the quarantine centers. According to media reports, the government was not sufficiently prepared and faced high levels of overcrowding; one facility in particular held 700 persons in an area meant to house 400. Quarantined individuals posted photographs and videos on social media denouncing poor sanitary conditions, including dirty restrooms and a lack of personal hygiene supplies, as well as a lack of food, water, and medical attention.
Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. During the state of emergency, authorities did not allow prisoners and detainees to receive any visitors or to gather for religious observances.
Independent Monitoring: As of August, according to the PDDH, COVID-19 made it temporarily impossible to inspect detention centers or interview inmates due to the serious health risk. At times the prison system was entirely closed to visits, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, NGOs, churches, and others were completely suspended.
Improvements: New construction and a redistribution of prisoners reduced overcrowding from 141 percent in September 2019 to 139 percent as of August.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces carried out arbitrary arrests. NGOs reported that the PNC arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals on suspicion of gang affiliation.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed this provision.
On March 21, President Bukele issued a mandatory nationwide stay-at-home order for 30 days. Following this announcement, the PNC and armed forces began enforcement and placed those violating the order in containment centers for 30 days of quarantine. Some of those detained for violating the stay-at-home order were taken to police stations and held for more than 24 hours.
Apolonio Tobar, the ombudsman for human rights, reported that individuals in detention were not receiving their COVID-19 test results until weeks after being tested. According to media, this delay contributed to extended time in detention as individuals were forced to stay in the quarantine facilities longer than the mandated 30 days without a specific explanation from health officials regarding the reason for their continued quarantine or the date of their release.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime. Authorities generally apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge, although this was frequently ignored when allegations of gang membership arose. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case; this period may be extended by an appeals court. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 27, the PDDH reported 22 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 66 from January to August 2019. Most of the complaints were related to alleged violations of the COVID-19 quarantine.
In March the NGO Cristosal presented a habeas corpus petition to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court on behalf of three women in Jiquilisco, Usulutan Department, who were arrested and taken into police custody after they went shopping for food and medication. On April 8, the court ordered the government to release the women, since shopping for food and medication was a permitted exception to the stay-at-home order and thus the arrests were illegal. On the same day, the Constitutional Chamber issued a resolution ordering the executive branch to stop illegal and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The Constitutional Chamber stated that any arrest or decision to take someone to a quarantine facility needed the legal framework of a legislative decree, not a presidential decree. The court stated that the decision to move someone into quarantine should be made by health officials only in cases where there are risks of being exposed to or spreading COVID-19.
In a follow-up order on April 15, the Constitutional Chamber ordered the executive branch to set up a registry of persons who had been detained and those who had been released, and mandated that the PDDH monitor the situation and send progress reports to the court every five days. President Bukele announced via Twitter that his administration did not recognize the court’s resolutions or the oversight role of the PDDH.
The Constitutional Chamber ruled in April that any military, police, or other security officials who committed abuses in applying COVID-19 containment policies, including strict enforcement of a stay-at-home order resulting in arbitrary arrests or detention, would be held personally responsible for their actions. The court warned that no one would be allowed to claim “due obedience” for complying with orders and that neither the military nor police were authorized to carry out discretionary or arbitrary arrests.
The Constitutional Chamber received 330 habeas corpus petitions in the two months after the government instituted the nationwide stay-at-home order. Prior to COVID-19, the Constitutional Chamber averaged approximately 400 petitions a year. Most of the complaints involved alleged violations of citizens’ freedom of movement, brought by individuals who were detained in containment centers for disobeying the stay-at-home order. On or about May 11, security forces stopped sending individuals to containment centers for circulating publicly and instead began sending them home. According to the IDHUCA Human Rights Observatory report, 16,756 persons were detained and released from the containment centers from March 21 to August 24.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of August three-quarters of the general prison population had been convicted and one-quarter had yet to be tried. Some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances detainees were permitted to request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect judicial independence, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency.
On February 9, President Bukele used the PNC and armed soldiers to pressure and intimidate the Legislative Assembly to approve funding for his security plan. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice stated his action put “at risk the republican, democratic and representative form of government, the pluralist political system and in a particular way the separation of powers.” Observers noted that although at the time President Bukele believed his actions were justified based on the advice of his legal counsel, his subsequent acquiescence to the ruling of the Supreme Court prohibiting further such actions demonstrated the independence of the judicial branch.
While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies ignored or minimally complied with orders.
As of August the PDDH received 12 complaints of lack of a fair public trial.
On August 28, the judge in the prosecution of 13 surviving former military officers for the alleged El Mozote massacre of more than 800 civilians in 1981 ordered inspections of 12 military archives and the national historical archives between September 21 and November 13. After the Ministry of Defense refused to permit the El Mozote judge to access archives on September 21, President Bukele defended the ministry’s actions in a national address on September 24, claiming the judge has no jurisdiction over the armed forces and no right to access the archives. On October 12, the Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber rejected a Ministry of Defense petition seeking to block the military archive inspections. As of October 19, the ministry continued to refuse the El Mozote judge access to inspect the military archives, notwithstanding the Supreme Court ruling.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political, economic, or other corrupting influences. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. In those cases after the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.
Defendants have the right to be present in court (except in virtual trials; see below), question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay (seldom observed), protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent.
In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case.
While implemented in 2015 to expedite fair trials, virtual trials still involved delays. The law allows for virtual trials for gang membership charges to proceed without the defendants present, although with defense counsel participating. The law requires judicial and prison authorities to provide a video copy of the virtual trial to the defendants within 72 hours so they may exercise their right to defense.
Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defendants unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. The law allows defense lawyers to attend a hearing without the defendant’s presence. Human rights groups questioned the constitutionality of the reform.
Legal experts pointed to an overreliance on witness testimony, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. The justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensic capabilities.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to submit civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the state intelligence service tracked journalists or collected information regarding their private lives.
In many neighborhoods, armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons and interfered with privacy, family, and home life. Efforts by authorities to remedy these situations were generally ineffective.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. As of August 31, the Public Ministry, which is responsible for the prosecution of all criminal cases, as well as the Office of Professional Responsibility of the National Civil Police (PNC), reported two complaints of homicide by police, the same number of complaints as in 2019. The Public Ministry continued to investigate a case of alleged excessive use of force, in which video security surveillance captured PNC officers shooting and killing Edgar Ic Perez after COVID-19 curfew hours on June 17.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders alleged that at least 14 members of rural and indigenous activist groups were killed or died in disputed circumstances between January and August. Some of the killings appeared to be politically motivated, and all the cases remained under investigation at year’s end (see section 6, Indigenous People). In 2019, 15 activists or human rights defenders were killed.
The national government’s prosecution of former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continued. Rodriguez Sanchez was accused of genocide against the Maya Ixil community during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-96). On February 4, a military expert proposed by the Public Ministry testified in the case against Luis Enrique Garcia Mendoza, operations commander under former president Rios Montt. The testimony focused on the chain of command of the Ministry of Defense during that period, both as a means to provide expert witness against the defendants and to identify other officers that might have given the orders. Judge Jimmi Bremer of High-Risk Court C indicted Garcia Mendoza in November 2019 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Public Ministry continued investigation of another case for genocide against the Maya Ixil community from the last months of former president Romeo Lucas Garcia’s government (1978-82). Three high-ranking military officers, Cesar Octavio Noguera Argueta, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and Benedicto Lucas Garcia, were charged in this case. According to the ministry, the case involved a minimum of 32 massacres, 97 selected killings, 117 deaths due to forced displacement, 37 cases of sexual assault, and 80 cases of forced disappearance. Many victims were children. In November 2019 the courts found sufficient evidence in the Public Ministry’s preliminary investigation to order a deeper investigation. Judge Miguel Angel Galvez scheduled a hearing for September 1 to rule on whether there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial against the three defendants, but the hearing was suspended. The defense filed a request for house arrest for Callejas y Callejas and Lucas Garcia due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 in prison facilities. Judge Galvez denied the request because the defendants’ charges made them ineligible for house arrest under the law. Callejas and Lucas were both previously convicted of serious crimes in the Molina Theissen case and were serving 58-year sentences.
There were no reports of new disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The Public Ministry continued to investigate and prosecute cases of forced disappearances from the internal armed conflict period. The government did not comply, however, with an order from the high-risk courts, which handle sensitive cases often risky for judges to take on, to create a national commission on the search for disappeared persons and a national registry of victims.
The CREOMPAZ case, named after the Regional Center for UN Peacekeeping Training Institute where a mass burial site for disappeared persons was found, continued for former military officers indicted in 2017 on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity during the 1960-96 armed conflict. The courts needed to resolve several appeals and recusal motions filed in 2016 before a full trial could begin. The defense filed a request for house arrest for two former military officers indicted in the case, Byron Barrientos and Carlos Garavito, due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 in prison facilities. High-Risk Court A denied the request because the defendants’ charges made them ineligible for house arrest under the law. Former congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, also charged in the case, remained in hiding after the Supreme Court lifted his immunity from prosecution in 2017.
The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there were reports alleging government workers employed them at the Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that documentation and reporting mechanisms for torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment remained weak, thereby hindering a full understanding of the prevalence of the problem.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, in February an allegation was made that Guatemalan peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, raped a child. As of October the government was investigating the allegation.
Impunity within the PNC was not a pervasive and systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC has generally been in decline for more than a decade, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers now serving prison sentences. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. Negligence by officers was largely the result of a lack of sufficient training. The law requires officers to hold at least a high school degree, but they often had much less, and some individuals had as little as six months of police training before being sent out on the streets. Small monthly salaries of approximately 4,000 quetzals ($535) created an incentive to extort bribes. A large number of PNC officers were removed from the force over the past three years based on allegations of bribery. There were also anecdotal reports that the military extorted bribes and arbitrarily and temporarily detained persons when acting in support of the PNC. These instances seemed scattered and not related to military orders.
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening, with multiple instances of inmates killing other inmates. Sexual assault, inadequate sanitation, poor medical care, and significant overcrowding placed prisoners at significant risk. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male with female detainees.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of October 8, according to prison authorities, there were 25,691 inmates, including 2,883 women, held in facilities designed to hold 6,997 persons. To ease prison overcrowding, the Rehabilitation Sub-Directorate of the penitentiary system processed 1,519 early release requests from April to October. Better coordination between sentencing judges and defense attorneys led to 750 inmates being granted early release by the courts during the same period.
As of September 22, there were 657 juvenile inmates in four traditional detention centers and the halfway house, which were designed for 549 inmates. Another 1,242 juvenile inmates were held in three new alternative measures facilities. Despite a reduction in overcrowding, there were 271 inmates in the Las Gaviotas juvenile detention facility, designed for 175 individuals. The courts had not sentenced approximately 28 percent of juvenile inmates held in detention.
Physical conditions including sanitation facilities, medical care, ventilation, temperature control, and lighting were inadequate. Prisoners had difficulty obtaining potable water, complained of inadequate food, and often had to pay for additional sustenance. Illegal drug sales and use were widespread.
Prison officials acknowledged safety and control problems, including escape attempts, gang fights, inability to control the flow of contraband goods into prisons, inmate possession of firearms and grenades, and the fabrication of weapons. Prisoners conducted criminal activity both inside and outside of prisons. Media reported that transnational criminal gangs and drug trafficking groups controlled major prisons. According to prison authorities, from January through August 31, at least eight inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 39 Barrio 18 gang leaders negotiated their transfer to Fraijanes II, the only detention center with a full clinic for treatment of COVID-19. When prison officials began sending Barrio 18 leaders to other facilities to prevent them from operating the gang from Fraijanes II, gang members took 10 prison guards hostage in El Infiernito Prison and four prison guards hostage at the preventive detention center in zone 18, demanding the return of their leaders to Fraijanes II. In both cases the prison guards were released after 24 hours.
Media and NGOs reported female inmates faced physical and sexual abuse. Female inmates reported unnecessary body searches and verbal abuse by prison guards. Children younger than age four could live in prison with their mothers, but the penitentiary system provided inadequate food for young children, and many suffered from illness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals, and there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTI prisoners were not implemented, noting particular concern regarding procedures for transgender individuals.
Administration: While the law requires authorities to permit prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities failed to investigate most allegations or to document the results of such investigations.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by local and international human rights groups, the Organization of American States, public defenders, and religious groups. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and the National Office for the Prevention of Torture, both independent government bodies responsible for ensuring that the rights and wellbeing of prisoners are respected, also periodically visited prison facilities.
Improvements: The Secretariat of Social Welfare improved the juvenile system by opening a training academy and adding a K-9 unit to search for narcotics and cell phones. The adult penitentiary system moved toward a new correctional model that includes polygraphs and training for prison staff. On October 9, the government announced the creation of a unit for electronic monitoring to ease prison overcrowding through greater use of house arrest.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but there were credible reports of extrajudicial arrests, illegal detentions, and denial of timely access to a magistrate and hearing as required by law. Suspects are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. There was no compensation for those ruled unlawfully detained.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires presentation of a court-issued warrant to a suspect prior to arrest unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Police may not detain a suspect for more than six hours without bringing the case before a judge. Authorities did not regularly respect this right. After arraigning suspects, the prosecutor generally has three months to complete the investigation if the defendant is in pretrial detention and six months to complete the investigation if the defendant is granted house arrest. The law prohibits the execution of warrants between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless the government has declared a state of siege. Judges may order house arrest for some suspects. The law provides for access to lawyers and bail for most crimes. The government provides legal representation for indigent detainees, and detainees have access to family members. A judge has the discretion to determine whether bail is permissible for pretrial detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 31, the PNC Office of Professional Responsibility had received two complaints of illegal detention by police, compared with 26 in 2019. Reports indicated police ignored writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood antigang operations.
Pretrial Detention: As of October prison system records indicated 49 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention, approximately the same percentage as in 2019 despite court closures due to COVID-19. The law establishes a one-year maximum for pretrial detention, regardless of the stage of the criminal proceeding, but the court has the legal authority to extend pretrial detention without limits as necessary. Authorities regularly held detainees past their legal trial-or-release date. Lengthy investigations and frequent procedural motions by both defense and prosecution often led to lengthy pretrial detention, delaying trials for months or years. Observers noted the slow pace of investigations and lack of judicial resources hampered efforts to reduce pretrial detention and illegal incarceration. Authorities did not release some prisoners after they completed their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary. The judicial system generally failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.
Judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses continued to report threats, intimidation, and surveillance, most often from drug trafficking organizations. From January through December 11, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists received 194 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch, compared with 70 from January to August 2019.
The existing selection process for the election by the congress of 13 Supreme Court and 135 appellate court magistrates suffered widespread manipulation of selection committees by politicians, judicial operators, and other influential citizens, resulting in a judiciary that lacked full independence. In September 2019 the Constitutional Court halted the selection process for Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates, ruling that formal evaluation procedures were not followed within the selection committees. The selection committees provided a list to congress of 270 candidates for the appellate courts on February 14 and a list of 26 candidates for the Supreme Court on February 19. Public Ministry investigations found Gustavo Alejos, former chief of staff under President Alvaro Colom in prison on corruption charges, accepted at least 20 visits from officials associated with the selection process in his hospital ward on February 12-16. The Constitutional Court issued a final ruling on May 6 requiring removal of candidates associated with Gustavo Alejos and a voice vote for each position in congress. The new magistrates should have taken office in October 2019. As of November 30, congress had not started the election of judges, and the sitting Supreme Court and appellate court judges remained in their positions.
On June 25, the Supreme Court granted an immunity review/impeachment against four Constitutional Court magistrates and sent the case to congress for further action and a plenary session vote. The Constitutional Court then granted an injunction against the Supreme Court that ordered congress to halt its proceedings. On June 28, Congress responded by filing a criminal complaint against the four Constitutional Court magistrates. Civil society organizations largely interpreted impeachment to be a retaliatory measure against Constitutional Court magistrates that stood in the way of influence peddling in the selection of magistrates.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence, the defendant’s right to be present at trial, and the right to legal counsel in a timely manner. The law requires the government to provide attorneys for defendants facing criminal charges if the defendant cannot find or afford an attorney. Defendants and their attorneys may confront adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. The law provides for “abbreviated processing,” similar to plea bargaining, for minor offenses with short-term prison sentences and the right of appeal. Three-judge panels render verdicts. The law provides for oral trials and mandates free language interpretation for those needing it; however, interpreters were not always available, including for indigenous victims in the high-risk courts. Officials conduct trials in Spanish, the official language, although many citizens speak only one of the 23 officially recognized indigenous languages.
The Public Ministry, acting independently of the executive branch but dependent on funding that goes through congress, may initiate criminal proceedings on its own or in response to a complaint. Private parties may participate in the prosecution of criminal cases as plaintiffs.
Most courts closed at the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March while the judicial system created sanitation protocols and amended regulations to allow virtual hearings. Courts began reopening in June, with individual judges allowed to decide whether to return to work and whether to hold court virtually. The judicial system reported 40,000 hearings were cancelled by June. The system was working through the backlog, but as a result of the closure, conviction rates for most crimes were lower than in 2019.
International and domestic observers considered the number of judges insufficient. Lack of sufficient personnel, training, and evidence hampered Public Ministry prosecutors’ ability to bring cases to trial.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Individuals and organizations have access to administrative and judicial remedies to submit lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation or other alleged wrongs. While the judiciary was generally impartial and independent in civil matters, it suffered from inefficiencies and a legal system that often permits spurious complaints.
Negotiations between the government and families affected by the construction of the Chixoy hydroelectric dam continued. As of October the government had paid approximately 99 percent of the 200 million quetzals ($26 million) in individual reparations to families affected by the dam. During the dam’s construction from 1975 to 1985, more than 400 individuals died and thousands were displaced.
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Offices tasked with investigating security force killings include civilian and military security services, civil and military courts, and inspectors general within the Ministry of Security and Civilian Protection. According to the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) opposition political party, security forces killed 99 individuals from the October 18 presidential election through December. The government rejected this figure but did not provide its own estimate of security force killings during this period.
There were multiple reports of killings by security forces in the capital city of Conakry and other major towns related to the March legislative election and constitutional referendum and the October presidential election. The minister of security reported six persons killed, four of whom were shot by security forces. Civil society leaders in the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), a broad opposition coalition protesting the constitutional referendum and presidential election, reported 10 persons killed in Conakry and four in N’Zerekore. The FNDC accused military units of involvement in the killings. There were no reports of investigations into these incidents.
In April the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Collective of Organizations for the Protection of Human Rights in the Forested Guinea Region reported on the March election violence in the region, noting security forces did not intervene and instead were involved in some of the killings and other abuses exacerbated by longstanding intercommunal and ethnic tensions. The NGO reported 36 persons killed, 129 wounded, 127 arrested, and 83 buildings destroyed. Several local media and other sources, however, reported that the death toll could have been as high as 60, and that local authorities buried the victims in a mass grave. There were no reports of investigations into these incidents.
Since October 2019 the Guinean Organization for the Defense of Human and Citizen’s Rights (OGDH) identified at least 60 killings during FNDC protests, the January Teachers’ Union strike, the March legislative elections and constitutional referendum, and the October presidential election and subsequent violence. The families of 10 victims testified that most of the victims were outside the perimeters of the protests when they were shot and killed by security forces. There were no reports of investigations into these incidents.
Impunity persisted for abuses perpetrated by state actors in past years, including the 2009 Conakry stadium massacre by security forces of the previous military regime. At least 150 opposition demonstrators were killed, and more than 100 women and girls were raped. Since 2011 the judiciary confirmed indictments against 13 individuals. Two of the alleged ringleaders of the massacre, Colonel Claude Pivi and Colonel Moussa Tiegboro Camara, remained in high-level government posts. General Mathurin Bangoura, a person of interest whose indictment was dismissed following a judicial review, remained governor of Conakry.
The steering committee established in 2018 to organize the trial of the accused in the 2009 stadium massacre continued its work. The body did not meet regularly. In January the minister of justice announced that the trial would start in June; however, this was delayed.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, human rights observers reported that government officials continued to employ such practices with impunity.
Abuse of inmates in government detention centers continued. Security officials designated as “judicial police officers” abused detainees to coerce confessions. Human rights activists noted the most egregious abuses occurred during arrests or at detention centers. Human rights associations stated that complainants often presented evidence of abuse, and wardens did not investigate these complaints. These NGOs also alleged that guards abused detainees, including children, and coerced some women into exchanging sex for better treatment.
According to the OGDH, following killings by security forces, some relatives who came to assist victims were subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, violence, and humiliation by individuals wearing security force uniforms.
In January a victim reported security officers beat him and other protesters with batons at a detention center in Conakry following their arrest during a political protest. He reported security forces also demanded 1,100,000 Guinean francs ($115) from the prisoners to avoid transfer to Conakry Central Prison (CCP).
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in July of sexual exploitation and abuse by Guinean peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of September the United Nations was investigating the allegation.
According to a December 15 Amnesty International report, authorities arrested an elderly person on October 24 for “criminal participation in a gathering with violence” following an attack on a freight train that killed four security officials and a civilian. The person died on November 17 while in custody. Immediately following his death, the government announced that the individual had tested positive for COVID-19 and departed the detention center, then added later that the individual had complained about diabetes complications and died at a hospital. Multiple persons who viewed his body, including medical staff, reported seeing burns, cuts, and other marks on his body, indicating he had been abused while in custody.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, particularly in the gendarmes, police, and military forces. Factors contributing to impunity included corruption, lack of training, politicization of forces, and a lack of transparency in investigations. Offices tasked with investigating abuses included civil and military courts and government inspectors general within the Ministry of Security and Civilian Protection.
Conditions in civilian prisons, which are under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, remained abusive, with poor sanitation, malnutrition, disease, and lack of medical attention pervasive throughout the prison system. Conditions were allegedly worse in gendarme and police detention facilities designed for short-term detention.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a problem. According to the NGO World Prison Brief, in 2019 authorities held 3,782 detainees in facilities designed for 2,412 persons. Government-funded rehabilitation programs were underfunded and ineffective, leading some NGOs to try filling the void.
Authorities held minors in separate sections at prisons and detention facilities, where they slept on iron bunk beds with no mattresses, or on the floor because it was too hot on the upper bunks below the building’s metal roof. Prison officials did not separate pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners. There were reports the government had trouble tracking the location of pretrial detainees in the justice system.
Although the Ministry of Justice administered civilian prisons, prisoners allegedly controlled cell assignments and provided better conditions at some detention centers to prisoners who were able to pay. In addition prison administrators at detention centers reported receiving directives from their prison service superiors that directly conflicted with orders from the Ministry of Justice. Rumors persisted that guards ignored court orders to free prisoners until bribes were paid.
In July a prisoner was decapitated and mutilated in a gendarmerie detention center. According to authorities, his cellmate killed him, but the victim’s mother suspected the gendarmes, who reportedly threatened her son during arrest. Authorities charged the cellmate with murder, while charging several gendarmes with endangering the lives of others because of their inattention to duty. Since the gendarmerie is under the jurisdiction of the military services, authorities transferred the case to the military courts. As of December the gendarmes awaited trial.
A lack of health-care personnel, medicine, and medical supplies in prisons, combined with malnutrition and dehydration, sometimes made infection or illness life threatening; cases of beriberi were recorded, and of the several reported deaths of prisoners, none were investigated. Only two of the 31 detention centers had a full-time doctor and medical staff. Reports of overcrowding in medical wards at detention centers were common, including at the CCP. Prisoners relied on family members, charities, or NGOs to bring medication, but visitors often had to pay bribes to provide the medicine to prisoners.
Authorities recorded COVID-19 cases in prisons across the country, with 155 positive cases as of September. In May media reported two COVID-19 deaths at the CCP. Since the victims did not receive COVID-19 tests, the National Health Security Agency did not include them in its COVID-19 statistics.
Mismanagement and neglect were prevalent. Toilets reportedly did not function, and prisoners often slept and ate in the same space used for sanitation purposes. Access to drinking and bathing water was inadequate. Many prisons were former warehouses with little ventilation and little access to electricity for air conditioning or other cooling techniques.
NGOs as well as the National Institution for Human Rights reported endemic malnutrition throughout the prison system. Authorities provided food at the CCP, but most prison directors relied on charities and NGOs to provide food for inmates. The CCP claimed it provided two meals a day; however, NGOs reported prisoners in Conakry and elsewhere received only one meal per day and that many relied on food from their families or other outside sources. Guards often demanded bribes for delivering food to prisoners, which they then frequently confiscated.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and NGOs noted that conditions at gendarmerie detention centers, intended to hold detainees for not more than two days while they awaited court processing, were much worse than in prisons. Such “temporary” detention could last from a few days to more than two years, and facilities had no established systems to provide meals or medical treatment. As in the case of prisons, gendarmerie facilities were dank and unsanitary.
An NGO reported that during March election violence the majority of arrestees transited the Fourth Military District’s camp before detention at the N’Zerekore gendarmerie headquarters. Prisoners stated that more than 50 persons were crammed into small cells and were not provided food, water, or other basic necessities for at least two days.
In April the Collective of Organizations for the Protection of Human Rights in the Forested Guinea Region noted that authorities held several persons arrested during the March and October election violence in a military facility in substandard living conditions before being transferred to gendarmerie facilities.
Administration: Prison authorities did not investigate credible allegations of abuse or inhuman prison conditions. Prisoners and detainees have the right to submit complaints but seldom did due to possible reprisals from prison guards. Prisoners must use a lawyer to file a complaint, but lawyers were scarce and expensive. The local NGO Equal Rights for All (MDT) stated religious practice was restricted at prisons other than the CCP. Prisoners complained that they were regularly denied access to visitors, including family members. Visitors were often required to pay bribes to access prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: Local NGOs such as MDT and the Association for the Support of Refugees, Displaced Persons, and Detainees received regular and unimpeded access to the CCP; authorities rarely granted access to other facilities to monitor conditions.
Military prison conditions, managed by the Ministry of Defense, could not be monitored since the government denied access to prison advocacy groups and international organizations. Although military authorities claimed they did not hold civilians at military prisons, previously reported cases contradicted this assertion. Reports indicated a prison continued to exist at a military camp on Kassa Island, and that political prisoners were at times held at a military camp near Kankan.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always observe these prohibitions.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but few detainees chose this option due to the difficulties they might face and fear of retribution.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Although the law requires arrest warrants, police did not always follow this protocol. The law also provides that detainees be charged within 48 hours, renewable once if authorized by a judge. In cases involving national security, the law allows the original length of detention to be increased to 96 hours, renewable once. Many detainees were held for much longer periods before being charged. Authorities held most detainees in the three main prisons indefinitely and without trial.
The law precludes the arrest of persons in their homes between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., but arrests between those times occurred. After being charged the accused may be held until the conclusion of the case, including a period of appeal. Authorities routinely ignored the legal provision entitling defendants to an attorney and did not provide indigent defendants with an attorney at government expense.
Release on bail is at the discretion of the magistrate under whose jurisdiction the case falls. The law allows detainees prompt access to family members, but access was sometimes denied or restricted until families paid bribes to the guards at detention facilities.
Arbitrary Arrest: Many arrests took place without warrants and in violation of other due process protections provided in the law, such as the prohibition on arrests at night. Authorities arrested family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives.
In February authorities arrested without charge more than 30 persons in various Conakry neighborhoods and held them for more than a month at the Soronkoni camp in Kankan, Upper Guinea. The detainees reported they were arrested by police and other security service units, were isolated, and had no contact with family. Some believed they had been held to prevent their protesting a third term for President Conde. Following postelectoral violence in N’Zerekore in March, local sources reported that at least 40 persons were transferred to the same Soronkoni camp. In late September authorities conditionally released 35 individuals.
On September 10, authorities arrested UFDG communications chief and youth activist Roger Bamba on unknown charges and placed him in pretrial detention. Bamba became critically ill on December 16 and was transported to a hospital for emergency treatment where he succumbed to an unknown illness on December 17.
Pretrial Detention: According to an NGO working on prisoners’ rights, a 2016 reform of the justice sector decreased the length of pretrial detention by 65 percent. In September 2019 pretrial detainees constituted 67 percent of the CPP population; 2017 figures cited by World Prison Brief estimated 60 percent of detainees overall were pretrial detainees. Figures were not available for the average length of detentions, or whether detentions exceeded the maximum possible sentence.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, the judicial system was plagued by corruption. The judicial process often lacked independence and impartiality. Political and social status often influenced decisions. A shortage of qualified lawyers and magistrates, outdated and restrictive laws, nepotism, and ethnic bias limited the judiciary’s effectiveness. Domestic court orders were often not enforced. For example, some prisoners ordered to be freed by courts remained in detention because they failed to pay “exit fees” to guards. On the other hand, politically connected criminals often evaded prosecution.
Many citizens, wary of judicial corruption or with no other choice, relied on traditional systems of justice at the village or urban neighborhood level. Litigants presented their civil cases before a village chief, neighborhood leader, or a council of “wise men.” The dividing line between the formal and informal justice systems was vague, and authorities sometimes referred a case from the formal to the traditional system to assure compliance by all parties. Similarly, a case not resolved to the satisfaction of all parties in the traditional system could be referred to the formal system for adjudication. In the traditional system, evidence given by women carried less weight (see section 6, Women).
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary, although burdened by corruption and limited effectiveness, generally strived to enforce this right.
Trials are public and defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Trials must be timely. The prosecution prepares a case file, including testimony and other evidence, and provides a copy for the defense. Defendants have the right to confront and question prosecution witnesses and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law provides for the presumption of innocence of accused persons, the independence of judges, the equality of citizens before the law, the right of the accused to counsel (but only for major crimes), and the right to appeal a judicial decision, but these rights were not consistently observed.
Authorities must inform defendants promptly of charges. Defendants are entitled to free assistance from an interpreter, if necessary. Defendants generally had adequate time but lacked resources, such as access to a lawyer, to prepare a defense. Most cases never came to trial.
Although the government was responsible for funding legal defense costs in serious criminal cases, it rarely disbursed funds for this purpose. The attorney for the defense frequently received no payment. Authorities allowed detainees’ attorneys access to their clients, but often on condition that prison guards or gendarmes be present. The law provides that defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but torture or other harsh treatment and conditions in detention centers undermined this protection.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government arrested or summoned individuals without cause. Civil society described the actions as “political intimidation.” Local sources estimated the number of such arrestees or summoned individuals to be more than 300. The government permitted access to such persons on a regular basis by the International Committee of the Red Cross or other human rights or humanitarian organizations.
Police arbitrarily arrested and detained opposition members. In April authorities arrested and charged a civil society activist member of the FNDC for “communicating and spreading false information” and for “violence and death threats.” During an interview on a local popular radio show, he had denounced the March 22 postelectoral violence in N’Zerekore and the arbitrary arrest of FNDC members. Authorities released him in August after a court found him not guilty of all charges. In May authorities arrested and charged another FNDC member for “violence, threats, assault and public insults.” As of September, despite two court orders for his release, he remained in detention.
According to Human Rights Watch, in October authorities arrested approximately 325 persons after postelection violence. Amnesty International reported “400 arbitrary arrests targeting opponents and members of civil society after the presidential election.” Lawyers for the detainees reported that authorities made many of the arrests during house-to-house searches at night in neighborhoods considered opposition strongholds. Authorities also reportedly used excessive force in the arrests. The government announced that these individuals were arrested for participating in postelection violence.
In November police arrested and detained five senior-level opposition figures, including members of the UFDG. Authorities charged them with possession and use of military firearms, threats, violating fundamental interests of the nation, and criminal association. Authorities sought two other leading opposition figures on the same charges but they remained at large. Another opposition leader turned himself in after the state prosecutor announced arrest warrants against him. Opposition parties, including the FNDC, and civil society groups believed that the seven individuals were wanted due to their opposition status.
Also in November the government reported that it detained or completed judicial proceedings against more than 137 individuals in Conakry for participating in illegal demonstrations, using weapons, inciting violence, and other crimes during the postelectoral period. Authorities announced they were still looking for “activists” who threatened public security.
The law provides for a judicial procedure in civil matters, including lawsuits seeking damages for human rights abuses. There were few lawsuits seeking damages for human rights abuses, in part due to public fear of suing security force members and lack of confidence in the competence and impartiality of the judiciary. NGOs that filed cases for civilians in 2012, 2013, and 2014–ranging from complaints of torture to indefinite detention–claimed their cases had yet to be heard. NGOs subsequently opted to lodge complaints with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice.
Between February and May 2019, the government forcibly evicted persons from four neighborhoods in Conakry. The government alleged the inhabitants were squatters on land long planned as the relocation site of multiple ministries. Authorities demolished an estimated 2,500 buildings, resulting in 20,000 persons evicted, some of whom allegedly had legal ownership of their land. The victims formed a collective and appealed to the ECOWAS Court of Justice for compensation. The hearing, scheduled for November 8, was postponed at the request of the victims’ lawyer, who asked the court to conduct a site visit. The government made no efforts to protect, assist, resettle, or integrate these displaced persons in other areas.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but police reportedly ignored legal procedures in the pursuit of criminal suspects, including when it served their personal interests. Authorities sometimes removed persons from their homes without legal authorization, stole their personal belongings, and demanded payment for the release of the belongings.
The government continued to punish family members for alleged offenses committed by relatives.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports of arbitrary and unlawful killings perpetrated by armed gangs allegedly supported and protected by members of the government. The Office of the Inspector General of the Haitian National Police (HNP) was responsible for investigating whether killings by police officers were justifiable and referring cases of allegedly unlawful killings to the government prosecutor.
There were 960 reported homicides between January and the end of September, according to the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). The Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice blamed most deaths on gang warfare and called on the government to investigate the “hidden forces” behind the killings. In June the Eyes Wide Open Foundation reported there were more than 150 active gangs in the country; it alleged active government support for the gangs.
The National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH) reported two gang attacks in the Cite-Soleil neighborhood in May and June that left a total of 34 persons dead. In July gang attacks resulted in 50 deaths, 15 rapes, and 30 persons missing, the organization reported. On August 31, a gang attack in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince killed at least 12 persons, according to press accounts. According to an RNDDH report, former police officer Jimmy Cherizier led one of the key gangs. Press accounts and human rights advocates reported Cherizier had access to government vehicles and equipment and worked to unite several gangs.
BINUH and numerous civil society organizations reported gang violence in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area and Artibonite Department increased as gangs attempted to expand their spheres of control. In June the United Nations reported that arrests of gang members and leaders had risen from 169 in January and February to 232 in March and April. Civil society groups alleged gangs had close ties to political and economic elites who either protected the gangs from arrest or obtained their release if detained.
Attackers killed several prominent public officials and figures, including Port-au-Prince judge Fritz Gerald Cerisierin in June and Monferrier Dorval, president of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, on August 28. Dorval was killed in front of his home by unknown assailants. Authorities stated they were continuing to investigate the Cerisierin killing but did not have a suspect. The Port-au-Prince prosecutor announced the arrest of three suspects in the Dorval killing.
On October 2, student Gregory Saint-Hilaire was allegedly shot and killed by security officials working for the General Security Unit of the National Palace during a protest at the Ecole Normale Superieure. The government stated it had launched an investigation.
While authorities claimed they continued to investigate the 2018 and 2019 attacks in the La Saline and Bel Air neighborhoods that left dozens dead, as of December the government had not brought any perpetrators to justice. Among those implicated in the violence were Jimmy Cherizier, Fednel Monchery, and Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan, who were government officials at the time of the La Saline attacks.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
While the law prohibits such practices, several reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged that HNP officers beat or otherwise abused detainees and suspects. Detainees were subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in overcrowded, poorly maintained, and unsanitary prisons and makeshift detention centers.
A May 5 video clip showed Patrick Benoit, with hands and feet tied and bloodied clothing, being dragged on the ground by police. The incident took place after magistrate judge Ricot Vrigneau and police officers attempted to enforce what they claimed was a court judgment. Family members said the case was still before the courts, and a final judgment had not been issued. Benoit was taken to the police station in Petionville on obstruction charges, and then released within hours to be taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. The prime minister condemned the incident, and Vrigneau was suspended a few days later.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Between October 2019 and August, according to the United Nations, the HNP Inspector General’s Office opened investigations into 172 accusations of human rights abuses allegedly committed by security forces. The HNP took steps to impose systematic discipline on officers found to have committed abuses or fraud, but some civil society representatives continued to allege widespread impunity. Impunity was alleged to be driven largely by poor training and a lack of police professionalism, as well as rogue elements within the police force allegedly having gang connections. Reportedly more than 150 gangs were active in the country and allegedly received government support. To address impunity, the government provided training to police and investigated and punished allegations of wrongdoing.
Prisons and detention centers throughout the country were life threatening due to being overcrowded, poorly maintained, and unsanitary, and providing insufficient nutrition. BINUH reported that prisons and detention centers had an occupancy rate of 345 percent.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding at prisons and detention centers was severe, especially at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince and the prison in Cap Haitien, where each prisoner had 8.6 square feet of space. In many prisons detainees slept in shifts due to the lack of space. Some prisons had no beds for detainees, and some cells had no natural light. In other prisons the cells often were open to the elements or lacked adequate ventilation. Many prison facilities lacked adequate basic services such as plumbing, sanitation, waste disposal, electricity, ventilation, and lighting.
Prison conditions generally varied by gender; female inmates had more space per person in their cells than their male counterparts.
As of November approximately 365 prisoners were held in makeshift and unofficial detention centers such as police stations in Petit-Goave, Miragoane, Gonaives, and some parts of Port-au-Prince. Local authorities held suspects in these facilities, sometimes for extended periods, without registering them with the HNP’s Directorate of Prisons.
Authorities in Port-au-Prince maintained separate penitentiaries for adult men, adult women, and minors. In Port-au-Prince all male prisoners younger than 18 were held at the juvenile facility at Delmas 33. Due to the lack of documentation, authorities could not always verify the ages of detainees. At times authorities mistakenly detained minors believed to be 18 or older, whose ages they could not confirm, with adult inmates. Authorities moved the vast majority of these minors to juvenile detention centers within two months of verifying their ages. Outside the capital, due to lack of prison space and oversight, authorities sometimes did not separate juveniles from adult prisoners or separate convicted prisoners from pretrial detainees, as the law requires.
There are specific provisions for juvenile offenders. Children younger than age 13 are not held responsible for their actions. Until age 16, children may not be held in adult prisons or share cells with adults. Juvenile offenders (anyone younger than 18) are placed in re-education centers with the objective of having the offender successfully rejoin society. There were two rehabilitation centers, both in Port-au-Prince, which held offenders up to age 18.
Because of poor security, severe understaffing, and a lack of adequate facilities in some detention centers, prison officials often did not allow prisoners out of their cells for exercise. In the National Penitentiary, prisoners spent approximately one hour per day outside of confinement, but in all other facilities, prisoners had 15-20 minutes to bathe before returning to their cells.
International and local observers said prisoners and detainees suffered from malnutrition. Approximately 1,000 inmates within the penitentiary system were acutely malnourished. Prisoners’ access to adequate nutrition was problematic. The HNP was responsible for the delivery of food to prisons. Human rights observers reported that delays in fund disbursement and payments to contracted food suppliers reduced the number of meals fed to prisoners. Some prisons had kitchen facilities and employed persons to prepare and distribute food. Prison authorities generally gave prisoners one or two meals a day, consisting of broth with flour dumplings and potatoes, rice and beans, or porridge. None of the regular meals provided sufficient calories, according to medical standards. Authorities allowed regular deliveries of food to prisoners from relatives and friends.
International and local observers also reported a lack of basic hygiene, poor health care, and waterborne illnesses within the prison system. The NGO Health through Walls reported that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding led to high rates of tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Most detention facilities had only basic clinics and lacked medications. Many lacked medical isolation units for patients with contagious illnesses. Few prisons had the resources to treat serious medical situations. Some very ill prisoners were treated at hospitals outside of prisons, but many hospitals were reluctant to accept prisoners as patients since there was no formal arrangement between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Public Health regarding payment for treatment.
Administration: The country’s independent human rights monitoring body, the Office of Citizen Protection (OPC), investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions in prisons. The OPC regularly visited prisons and detention facilities throughout the country and worked closely with NGOs and civil society groups.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives from the United Nations, local human rights NGOs, and other organizations to monitor prison conditions. These institutions and organizations investigated allegations of abuse and mistreatment of prisoners.
Improvements: To decrease the number of inmates in prisons, 415 detainees received a presidential pardon in June and were released. Following special court hearings, the government released an additional 627 detainees to reduce the prison population and avoid mass infection.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but it does not provide for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention. The constitution stipulates that authorities may arrest a person only if the person is apprehended during the commission of a crime, or if the arrest is based on a warrant issued by a competent official such as a justice of the peace or a magistrate. Authorities must bring the detainee before a judge within 48 hours of arrest. By routinely holding prisoners in prolonged pretrial detention, authorities often failed to comply with these requirements.
Local human rights groups reported detainees were often held in detention after completing their sentences due to difficulty obtaining release orders from the prosecutor’s office.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
While authorities generally acknowledged the right to counsel, most detainees could not afford a private attorney. By law the National Legal Assistance Program provides free assistance to criminal defendants and victims of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer. In September, President Moise appointed the members of the National Legal Assistance Committee charged with overseeing the program, which was in the process of being implemented. The law has a bail procedure that was rarely used.
Arbitrary Arrest: Independent reporting confirmed instances in which, contrary to law, police without warrants or with improperly prepared warrants apprehended persons not actively committing crimes. Authorities frequently detained individuals on unspecified charges.
Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention remained a serious problem due to the arbitrary application of court rules, court discretion, corruption, and poor record keeping. The judicial system rarely observed the constitutional mandate to bring detainees before a judge within 48 hours. Many pretrial detainees never consulted with an attorney, appeared before a judge, or received a docket timeline. In some cases detainees spent years in detention without appearing before a judge. According to the RNDDH, pretrial detainees constituted 78 percent of the prison population in October, up from 72 percent at the same time in 2019. Prison population statistics did not include the large number of persons held in police stations around the country for longer than the 48-hour maximum initial detention period. Statistics were not available on the average length of stay in pretrial detention.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution stipulates that it is illegal for an individual to be detained more than 48 hours without being seen by a judge. The OPC’s national and 12 regional offices worked to verify that law enforcement and judicial authorities respected the right to due process. When authorities detained persons beyond the maximum allotted 48 hours and OPC representatives learned of the case, the OPC intervened on the detainee’s behalf to expedite the process. The OPC was unable to intervene in all cases of unlawful detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Human rights organizations alleged politicians routinely influenced judicial decisions and used the justice system to target political opponents. Detainees reported credible cases of extortion, false charges, illegal detention, physical violence by HNP personnel, and judicial officials refusing to comply with basic due-process requirements.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but senior officials in the executive and legislative branches exerted significant influence on the judicial branch and law enforcement authorities. Local and international NGOs repeatedly criticized the government for attempting to influence judicial officials. Since executive-appointed prosecutors could prevent cases from being seen by judges, judges themselves faced less direct executive pressure in making decisions. Nonetheless, civil society organizations reported judges often feared ruling against powerful interests due to concerns for the judges’ personal security.
The Superior Council of the Judiciary (CSPJ) is responsible for independently overseeing appointments, ethics, transparency, and accountability in the judicial system, and managing the judiciary’s financial resources. Internal political divisions as well as organizational, funding, and logistical problems often hampered the CSPJ. Observers stated the CSPJ was ineffective in providing judicial accountability, transparency, and judicial vetting. The terms of trial judges and investigative judges are renewable by the president, on the recommendation of the CSPJ. As of November the CSPJ had submitted the names of at least 60 judges for renewal of their terms, but the president had not acted on those submissions. Consequently the judges were unable to carry out their duties.
Strikes by essential judicial actors hobbled the right to fair trials. On June 2, the Association of Magistrate Judges launched a one-week strike, requesting better working conditions. Its president, Michel Dalexis, stated the work stoppage would be renewed one week at a time until their demands were met. They were joined one week later by trial judges, who were protesting the judicial budget. The combined strikes lasted until July 2. On July 28, clerks and other court personnel went on strike, also demanding better work conditions.
Judges frequently closed cases without bringing charges and often did not meet time requirements. By law the chief prosecutor generally launches criminal investigations by transferring a case to the chief judge of the jurisdiction, who then assigns it to an investigative judge who takes control of the case. The investigative judge must order a trial or dismiss the case within three months, although this time period was often extended to six months. Judges and other judicial actors frequently did not meet time requirements, resulting in prolonged pretrial detention for many detainees.
The law requires each of the country’s 18 jurisdictions to convene jury and nonjury trial sessions twice per year, usually in July and December, for trials involving major, violent crimes. During a jury trial session, the court may decide for any reason to postpone the hearing to the next session, often because witnesses are not available. In these cases defendants return to prison until the next jury trial session. Human rights groups highlighted poor treatment of defendants during criminal trials, saying defendants in some jurisdictions spent the entire day without food or water.
Corruption and a lack of judicial oversight severely hampered the judiciary. Human rights organizations reported several judicial officials, including judges and court clerks, arbitrarily charged fees to begin criminal prosecutions. These organizations also claimed judges and prosecutors ignored those who did not pay these fees. There were credible allegations of unqualified and unprofessional judges who received judicial appointments as political favors. There were also persistent accusations that court deans, who are responsible for assigning cases to judges for investigation and review, at times assigned politically sensitive cases to judges with close ties to the executive and legislative branches. Many judicial officials reportedly held full-time jobs outside the courts, although the constitution bars judges from holding any other type of employment except teaching.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not uniformly enforce this right. The judiciary follows a civil law system based on the Napoleonic Code, largely unchanged since 1835. The constitution denies police and judicial authorities the right to interrogate suspects unless legal counsel or a representative of the suspect’s choice is present or the suspect waives this right. Authorities widely ignored constitutional trial and due-process rights.
The constitution provides defendants a presumption of innocence, as well as the right to attend their trial and to be informed promptly of their charges. Defendants also have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice. Legal aid programs were limited, and those who could not pay for attorneys were not always provided one free of charge. The law does not clearly provide a defendant time to prepare an adequate defense. Defendants have the right to confront hostile witnesses, call witnesses, and provide evidence on their own behalf. Judges often denied these rights. The perception of widespread impunity discouraged some witnesses from testifying at trials. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal.
While French and Haitian Creole are both official languages, with Haitian Creole being the most commonly spoken language, all laws and most legal proceedings are in French. Observers noted judges often spoke to defendants in Haitian Creole to facilitate comprehension. Interpreters were used only in cases involving foreigners. Judges generally ensured that defendants fully understood the proceedings.
The functioning of justice of the peace courts, the lowest courts in the judicial system, was inadequate. Judges presided based on their personal availability and often maintained separate, full-time jobs. Law enforcement personnel rarely maintained order during court proceedings, and frequently there was no court reporter. Defendants would often bribe judges to get their cases heard.
In many communities, especially in rural areas, elected communal administrators with no legal judicial authority took on the role of state judges and asserted powers of arrest, detention, and issuance of legal judgments. Some communal administrators turned their offices into courtrooms.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Victims of alleged human rights abuses may bring a civil or criminal complaint before a judge. Courts may award damages for human rights abuse claims brought in civil court, but seeking such remedies was difficult and rarely successful.
Human rights cases may be submitted directly through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
In February the El-Saieh family complained that authorities were attempting to confiscate arbitrarily their property in West Department to build a school and that authorities had not followed the appropriate legal procedures. President Moise subsequently declared the property would be confiscated; however, he promised the appropriate legal procedures for expropriation of land would be followed. As of October the situation was not resolved.
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The reported killings took place during law enforcement operations or were linked to other criminal activity by government agents. The Ministry of Security’s Directorate of Disciplinary Police Affairs (DIDADPOL) investigated members of the Honduran National Police (HNP) accused of human rights abuses. The Office of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and the Humanitarian Law Directorate investigated and arrested members of the military accused of human rights abuses. Impunity, however, remained a serious problem, with significant delays in some prosecutions and sources alleging corruption in judicial proceedings.
The Autonomous University of Honduras Violence Observatory reported 13 arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces during the year. The Public Ministry reported five such cases undergoing trial, with four cases in the sentencing phase of trial. Five other cases were under investigation. DIDADPOL conducted internal investigations of HNP members in a continuation of the police purge begun in 2016.
On September 16, the Public Ministry filed an indictment against army military police officer Josue Noe Alvarado Giron for the April 24 murder of Marvin Rolando Alvarado Santiago at a military roadblock in Omoa, Cortes. Josue Alvarado allegedly shot Marvin Alvarado after a heated discussion over Marvin Alvarado’s failure to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Josue Alvarado was assigned to Task Force Maya Chorti.
On February 4, media reported unknown assailants shot and killed three National Party local leaders in three separate incidents within five days in Tegucigalpa: Oscar Obdulio Licona Ruiz on January 31 and Dagoberto Villalta and Marcial Martinez on February 4.
The government continued to prosecute individuals allegedly involved in the 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Caceres. The legal process against Roberto David Castillo Mejia, one of the alleged intellectual authors of the killing, continued slowly due to motions and appeals by the defense, and Castillo remained incarcerated. On November 23, the court halted the presentation of evidence hearing after the defense filed an appeal. The appeals court would have to rule on the motion before the trial could move forward.
Reports of violence related to land conflicts and criminal activity continued. On April 2, a private security guard for the sugar company La Grecia shot and killed land rights defender Iris Argentina Alvarez Chavez during a confrontation between land rights defenders and private guards. Police later arrested the guard accused of killing Alvarez.
Organized-crime organizations, such as drug traffickers and local and transnational gangs including MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, committed killings, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and intimidation of police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders. Major urban centers and drug-trafficking routes experienced the highest rates of violence.
There were no credible reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
Although the law prohibits such practices, government officials received complaints and investigated alleged abuses by members of the security forces on the streets and in detention centers.
The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) reported 28 cases of alleged torture by security forces through September, while the Public Ministry received three such reports. The quasi-governmental National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CONAPREV) received 210 complaints of the use of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, many related to the enforcement of the national curfew during the COVID-19 pandemic. COFADEH reported police beat and smeared a tear gas-covered cloth on the face of an individual detained for violating the national curfew in April in El Paraiso.
Corruption along with a lack of investigative resources and judicial delays led to widespread impunity, including in security forces. DIDADPOL investigated abuses by police forces. The Office of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and the Humanitarian Law Directorate investigated abuses by the military. The National Human Rights Commission of Honduras received complaints about human rights abuses and referred them to the Public Ministry for investigation. The Secretariat of Human Rights provided training to security forces to increase respect for human rights. Through September the secretariat trained 2,764 law enforcement officials in human rights and international humanitarian law.
Prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life-threatening due to pervasive gang-related violence and the government’s failure to control criminal activity within the prisons. Prisoners suffered from overcrowding, insufficient access to food and water, violence, and alleged abuse by prison officials.
Physical Conditions: Prisoners suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and medical care, and, in some prisons, lack of adequate ventilation and lighting. The Secretariat of Human Rights reported that as of September 2, the total prison population was 21,675 in 25 prisons and three detention centers. According to the secretariat, the system had a designed capacity for approximately 10,600 inmates.
The National Prison Institute (INP) reported 12 violent deaths. On June 11, alleged members of the 18th Street gang in the National Women’s Penitentiary in Tegucigalpa killed six alleged members of the MS-13 gang.
As of September the Secretariat of Human Rights reported the country’s three pretrial detention centers held 79 individuals. These INP-administered centers were on military installations and received some support services from the military. The government used pretrial detention centers to hold high-profile suspects and those in need of additional security. Long periods of pretrial detention remained common and problematic, with many other pretrial detainees held in the general population with convicted prisoners.
The government failed to control pervasive gang-related violence and criminal activity within the prisons. Many prisons lacked sufficient security personnel. Many prisoners had access to weapons and other contraband, inmates attacked other inmates with impunity, and inmates and their associates outside prison threatened prison officials and their families. These conditions contributed to an unstable, dangerous environment in the penitentiary system. Media reported prison riots and violent confrontations between gang members in prisons throughout the year.
In response to the pervasive violence in the prison system, the government declared an emergency in the National Penitentiary System in December 2019. The emergency decree instituted the Interinstitutional Force as an auditing commission for the penitentiary system. This force is composed of active members of the army and national police. Despite the emergency decree, CONAPREV reported that violence in the prison system continued unabated.
Authorities did not generally segregate those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases from the general prison population; as of September the INP reported 153 prisoners were being treated for tuberculosis. The lack of space for social distancing combined with the lack of adequate sanitation made prison conditions even more life threatening during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 1,695 cases of COVID-19 in 25 prisons as of September, including cases among medical personnel, security personnel, and administrators. CONAPREV reported 27 prisoner deaths due to COVID-19 through August. There was only limited support for persons with mental illnesses or disabilities. CONAPREV reported every prison had a functioning health clinic with at least one medical professional, but basic medical supplies and medicines were in short supply throughout the prison system. In most prisons only inmates who purchased bottled water or had water filters in their cells had access to potable water.
Administration: The judicial system was legally responsible for monitoring prison conditions and providing for the rights of prisoners. The government tasks CONAPREV with visiting prisons and making recommendations for protecting the rights of prisoners. CONAPREV conducted more than 84 visits to adult prisons as of the end of August. Media reports noted that family members often faced long delays or were unable to visit detainees.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted prison visits by independent local and international human rights observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Improvements: Through August, CONAPREV trained 494 technical, administrative, and security personnel on topics including prison management and human rights.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that authorities at times failed to enforce these requirements effectively.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law provides that police may make arrests only with a warrant unless: they make the arrest during the commission of a crime, there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a crime and might otherwise evade criminal prosecution, they catch a person in possession of evidence related to a crime, or a prosecutor has ordered the arrest after obtaining a warrant. The law requires police to inform persons of the grounds for their arrest and bring detainees before a competent judicial authority within 24 hours. It stipulates that a prosecutor has 24 additional hours to decide if there is probable cause for indictment, whereupon a judge has 24 more hours to decide whether to issue a temporary detention order. Such an order may be effective for up to six days, after which the judge must hold a pretrial hearing to examine whether there is probable cause to continue pretrial detention. The law allows persons charged with some felonies to avail themselves of bail and gives prisoners the right of prompt access to family members. The law allows the release of other suspects pending formal charges, on the condition that they periodically report to authorities, although management of this reporting mechanism was often weak. The government generally respected these provisions. Persons suspected of any of 22 specific felonies must remain in custody, pending the conclusion of judicial proceedings against them. Some judges, however, ruled that such suspects may be released on the condition that they continue to report periodically to authorities. The law grants prisoners the right to prompt access to a lawyer of their choice and, if indigent, to government-provided counsel, although the public defender mechanism was weak, and authorities did not always abide by these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government instituted a national curfew, suspending constitutional provisions and limiting the free movement of individuals. Peace Brigades International (PBI) reported more than 34,000 persons were detained for violating the curfew. The Human Rights Board condemned some of these arrests as arbitrary under the guise of curfew enforcement. According to the Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights, on March 24, police arbitrarily detained Evelyn Johana Castillo, sub-coordinator of the Women’s Network of Ojojona and member of the National Network of Defenders of Human Rights. Castillo was returning from the market at 3:30 p.m. when a police officer arrested her for violating the curfew, even though the curfew did not start until 7:00 p.m. Castillo said the arrest was a reprisal for an encounter a few days previously, when Castillo confronted the officer who was attempting to expel a vendor from a park. The Public Ministry reported 15 cases of alleged illegal detention or arbitrary arrest as of November.
Pretrial Detention: Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings in the criminal justice system, and lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem. For crimes with minimum sentences of six years’ imprisonment, the law authorizes pretrial detention of up to two years. The prosecution may request an additional six-month extension, but many detainees remained in pretrial detention much longer, including for more time than the maximum period of incarceration for their alleged crime. The law does not authorize pretrial detention for crimes with a maximum sentence of five years or less. The law mandates that authorities release detainees whose cases have not yet come to trial and whose time in pretrial detention already exceeds the maximum prison sentence for their alleged crime. Even so, many prisoners remained in custody after completing their full sentences, and sometimes even after an acquittal, because officials failed to process their releases expeditiously.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the justice system was poorly funded and staffed, inadequately equipped, often ineffective, and subject to intimidation, corruption, politicization, and patronage. Low salaries and a lack of internal controls rendered judicial officials susceptible to bribery, although the Supreme Court significantly raised salaries during the year and made improvements in transparency. Powerful special interests, including organized-crime groups, exercised influence on the outcomes of some court proceedings.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary did not always enforce this right.
The law presumes an accused person is innocent. The accused has the right to an initial hearing before a judge, to ask for bail, consult with legal counsel in a timely manner, have a lawyer provided by the state if necessary, and request an appeal. Defendants may receive free assistance from an interpreter. The law permits defendants to confront witnesses against them and offer witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Credible observers noted problems in trial procedures, such as a lack of admissible evidence, judicial corruption, widespread public distrust of the legal system, witness intimidation, and an ineffective witness protection program.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The law establishes an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including access to a court to seek damages for human rights violations. Litigants may sue a criminal defendant for damages if authorized by a criminal court. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the Inter-American Human Rights System.
Although the law generally prohibits such actions, a legal exception allows government authorities to enter a private residence to prevent a crime or in case of another emergency. There were credible complaints that police occasionally failed to obtain the required authorization before entering private homes.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
The government and its agents reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, most commonly by execution after arrest and trial without due process, or for crimes that did not meet the international threshold of “most serious crimes.” Media and human rights groups also documented suspicious deaths while in custody or following beatings of protesters by security forces throughout the year.
As documented by international human rights observers, revolutionary courts continued to issue the vast majority of death sentences and failed to grant defendants due process. The courts denied defendants legal representation and in most cases solely considered as evidence confessions extracted through torture. Judges may also impose the death penalty on appeal, which deterred appeals in criminal cases. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Activists in Iran, the government did not disclose accurate numbers of those executed and kept secret as many as 60 percent of executions. As of October 12, NGOs Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), Human Rights News Activists (HRANA), and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center reported there were close to 200 executions during the year, while the government officially announced only 36 executions in that time period. The government often did not release further information, such as names of those executed, execution dates, or crimes for which they were executed.
On December 12, according to widespread media reporting, authorities executed opposition journalist and activist Ruhollah Zam after sentencing him to death in June on five charges including “corruption on earth.” On December 8, the judiciary announced that the Supreme Court upheld a revolutionary court of Tehran’s death sentence. Zam was editor of a website and a popular channel on the social media platform Telegram called Amad News, which he managed from France, where he lived since 2011 under political asylum. Zam’s Telegram account had more than one million followers, and he used it to post information on Iranian officials and share logistics regarding protests in the country in 2017 and 2018. According to media reports, as part of an Iranian-led intelligence operation, Zam was lured to a business meeting in Iraq in 2019 and captured there by Iranian security agents. Zam appeared on state-affiliated news outlets soon after his detention and purportedly “confessed” to his alleged crimes, before an investigation or the judicial process had commenced. In February, Zam’s initial trial was held without the presence of a defense lawyer.
On September 12, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and widespread media reports, authorities executed professional wrestler Navid Afkari convicted of murdering a sanitation worker, who was also a law enforcement officer, during antigovernment protests in 2018 in Shiraz. Authorities arrested Afkari and his brother Vahid one month after the protests and charged them with taking part in illegal demonstrations, insulting the supreme leader, robbery, and “enmity against God.” In early September the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence imposed upon conviction by a criminal court in Shiraz against Navid and a 25-year prison sentence for Vahid convicted of assisting in the alleged murder, while simultaneously dismissing the brothers’ allegations that security officials obtained their confessions under torture and used as “evidence” against them a forced confession broadcast on state television Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Five UN special rapporteurs condemned the execution as “summary” and concluded that it appeared to have been used by the government “as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.” According to HRANA, on December 17, authorities arrested Afkari’s father and a different brother as they sought to clear a site in Fars Province to install a gravestone memorializing Navid Afkari’s death.
In March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces home to Ahwazi Arabs, staged protests regarding fears of contracting COVID-19. Prison authorities and security forces responded with live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 prisoners and injuring hundreds of others, according to Amnesty International (see sections 1.b., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
UN human rights experts stated they were disturbed to hear authorities reacted to these prison riots by using “torture and ill-treatment that results in extrajudicial killings, or [through] executions.” In April, NGOs alleged authorities hastily executed political prisoner Mostafa Salimi, following his extradition from Iraq after escaping from prison during riots. Security forces initially arrested Salimi in 2003 and charged him with “enmity against God” for being a member of a Kurdish opposition party and allegedly engaging in armed conflict. On March 27, Salimi escaped during a riot that reportedly broke out due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Saqqez Prison. He crossed the border into the Iraqi Kurdistan Region before being extradited back to Iran without an opportunity to apply for asylum.
The Islamic penal code allows for the execution of juvenile offenders starting at age nine for girls and age 13 for boys, the legal age of maturity. The government continued to execute individuals sentenced for crimes committed before the age 18. In April, UN human rights experts expressed concern for the up to 90 individuals on death row for alleged offenses committed when they were younger than age 18.
According to widespread media, the United Nations, and NGO reports, in April authorities carried out two executions for conviction of crimes committed by juveniles. Majid Esmailzadeh, arrested in 2012 as a minor for allegedly committing murder, convicted, and executed in a prison in Ardabil Province. A few days later, authorities in Saqqez Prison executed by hanging Shayan Saeedpour for conviction of committing murder in 2015 when he was age 17. Saeedpour escaped from Saqqez Prison during COVID-19 related riots in March; he was rearrested a few days later.
On April 22, the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the death of Danial Zeinoalebedini, who died early April in prison from abuse while facing execution for a crime committed in 2017 when he was age 17. Security officials allegedly beat Zeinoalebedini to death in Miandoab Prison in West Azerbaijan Province after they transferred him from Mahabad Prison with other prisoners who had rioted because of COVID-19 concerns.
According to Amnesty International, authorities executed four persons in 2019 who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes–Amin Sedaghat, Mehdi Sohrabifar, Amir Ali Shadabi, and Touraj Aziz (Azizdeh) Ghassemi.
According to human rights organizations and media reports, the government continued to carry out some executions by torture, including hanging by cranes. Prisoners are lifted from the ground by their necks and die slowly by asphyxiation. In addition adultery remains punishable by death by stoning, although provincial authorities were reportedly ordered not to provide public information regarding stoning sentences since 2001, according to the NGO Justice for Iran.
Although the majority of executions during the year were reportedly for murder, the law also provides for the death penalty in cases of conviction for “attempts against the security of the state,” “outrage against high-ranking officials,” moharebeh (which has a variety of broad interpretations, including “waging war against God”), fisad fil-arz (corruption on earth, including apostasy or heresy, see section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals located Outside the Country), rape, adultery, recidivist alcohol use, consensual same-sex sexual conduct, and “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.” Capital punishment applies to the possession, sale, or transport of more than approximately 110 pounds of natural drugs, such as opium, or approximately 4.4 to 6.6 pounds of manufactured narcotics, such as heroin or cocaine. It also applies to some drug offenses involving smaller quantities of narcotics, if the crime is carried out using weapons, employing minors, or involving someone in a leadership role in a trafficking ring or who has previously been convicted of drug crimes and given a prison sentence of more than 15 years.
Prosecutors frequently used “waging war against God” as a capital offense against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of “struggling against the precepts of Islam” and against the state that upholds those precepts. Authorities expanded the scope of this charge to include “working to undermine the Islamic establishment” and “cooperating with foreign agents or entities.”
The judiciary is required to review and validate death sentences.
In late November the Supreme Court reaffirmed the death sentence of dual national scientist Ahmadreza Djalali, leading observers to believe his execution was imminent. A court initially sentenced Djalali to death in 2017 on espionage charges. According UN experts, Djalali’s trial was “marred by numerous reports of due process and fair trial violations, including incommunicado detention, denial of access to a lawyer, and forced confession.”
On July 19, the Associated Press reported the Supreme Court announced it would suspend the execution of three young men who participated in 2019 protests and review their case. A revolutionary court sentenced Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi to death on charges of “participation in armed conflict,” “illegal exit from the country,” “attending protests,” and “sabotage.” NGOs reported the court denied their lawyers access to them during the investigation phase and that security officials tortured them. Moradi said authorities coerced him into giving a “confession” and broadcast it on state television, using it as evidence to convict them.
In a July report, the UN special rapporteur (UNSR) on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman expressed “deep concern” regarding the “lack of independent, transparent and prompt investigations into the events of November 2019.” Estimates from Amnesty International and Reuters found security forces killed between 300 and 1,500 persons across the country in response to demonstrations against a fuel price hike. Authorities reportedly used firearms, water cannons, tear gas, and snipers against the largely peaceful protesters. The United Nations noted that seven months following the protests, authorities had still not announced official death and injury figures.
There continued to be reports the government directly supported the Assad regime in Syria, primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters, which contributed to prolonging the civil war and the deaths of thousands of Syrian civilians during the year (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria). According to IranWire, in June pro-Iranian militias reinforced Syrian regime forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in southwestern Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights attributed 89 percent of civilian deaths in Syria since the beginning of the conflict to government forces and Iranian-sponsored militias. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups in an effort to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The government directly supported certain pro-Iran militias operating inside Iraq, including terrorist organization Kata’ib Hizballah, which reportedly was complicit in summary executions, forced disappearances, and other human rights abuses of civilians in Iraq (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Iraq).
In May the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq reported that none of the “unidentified armed actors” responsible for 99 cases of abductions and disappearances of protesters and activists during protests across Iraq in October and November 2019 had been detained or tried. Activists blamed Iran-backed militia groups operating in Iraq for many of these deaths and abductions. Reuters reported that Kata’ib Hizballah member Abu Zainab al-Lami directed sniper shootings of peaceful Iraqi demonstrators during the 2019 protests.
Since 2015 the government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and proliferated weapons that exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. Houthi rebels used Iranian funding and weapons to launch attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure both within Yemen and in Saudi Arabia (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
There were reports of politically motivated abductions during the year attributed to government officials. Plainclothes officials seized lawyers, journalists and activists without warning, and government officials refused to acknowledge custody or provide information on them. In most cases the government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts.
In May, Amnesty International reported on the disappearance of four death row prisoners–Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Naser Khafajian, members of the Ahwaz Arab minority, and Hedayat Abdollahpour, a member of the Kurdish minority. Family members feared the government executed them in secret. On March 31, Silawi, Khasraji, and Khafajian were transferred to an undisclosed location from Sheiban Prison in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province (see sections 1.a., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). On May 9, Hedayat Abdollahpour was transferred from the central prison in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, to an unknown location.
In late June the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities were holding human rights lawyer Payam Derafshan incommunicado at an undisclosed location since his arrest without a warrant at his office in Tehran on June 8. Derafshan’s lawyer told CHRI the court had opened a case against him on an unspecified charge and refused to allow him to select his own counsel. In May, Derafshan received a suspended sentence for charges of “insulting the supreme leader,” but his lawyer said the second arrest was not connected to that case. On July 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to two and a half years, later reduced to two years, for “propaganda against the state,” “spreading falsehoods,” and “unauthorized disclosure.” As of August he was reportedly in poor health.
Although the constitution prohibits all forms of torture “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information,” use of physical and mental torture to coerce confessions remained prevalent, especially during pretrial detention. There were credible reports that security forces and prison personnel tortured and abused detainees and prisoners throughout the year.
Commonly reported methods of torture and abuse in prisons included threats of execution or rape, forced tests of virginity and “sodomy,” sleep deprivation, electroshock, including the shocking of genitals, burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.
Human rights organizations frequently cited some prison facilities, including Evin Prison in Tehran, Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, Greater Tehran Penitentiary, Qarchak Prison, Adel Abad Prison, and Orumiyeh Prison for their use of cruel and prolonged torture of political opponents, particularly Wards 209 and Two of Evin Prison, reportedly controlled by the IRGC.
In March and April, the suppression of riots by security officials in at least eight prisons led to the deaths of approximately 35 prisoners and left hundreds of others injured (see sections 1.a. and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
According to a May report by Amnesty International, Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was severely beaten in 2019. Sepanta was already critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for his spinal cord disorder (syringomyelia). In July 2019 CHRI reported that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” inside Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he trembled and had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta is serving a 14-year sentence since 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
According to a September 2 report by Amnesty International, police, intelligence agents, and prison officials used “widespread torture and other ill-treatment against men, women, and children” in detention following protests in November 2019. Methods of torture included severe beatings, forcible extraction of finger and toenails, electric shocks, mock executions, and sexual violence.
One anonymous protester interviewed by Amnesty stated that IRGC intelligence officials arrested him and several of his friends at a protest in November 2019. The security officers put him in the trunk of a car and took him to a detention center in Tehran, where they repeatedly kicked and punched him, suspended him from the ceiling, and administered electroshocks to his testicles. They subjected him twice to mock executions during which they informed him he had been sentenced to death by a court, placed a noose around his neck, and pushed a stool out from under his feet, only to have him fall to the ground instead of hang in the air. He was later convicted of a national security offense and sentenced to prison.
Authorities also allegedly maintained unofficial secret prisons and detention centers, outside the national prison system, where abuse reportedly occurred.
In early October according to media reports, videos posted on social media and apparently filmed in Tehran showed police beating detainees in pickup trucks in the middle of the street and forcing them to apologize for the “mistakes” they committed. On October 15, the judiciary announced a ban on the use of forced confessions, torture, and solitary confinement, and stressed the presumption of innocence and right to a lawyer. The judiciary chief called the public beatings a “violation of civil rights,” and stated measures would be taken to hold the violators responsible, according to online news website Bourse and Bazaar. There was no information on results of any investigation into the incident, and many of the purportedly banned activities continued to be reported after the order.
Judicially sanctioned corporal punishments continued. These included flogging, blinding, stoning, and amputation, which the government defends as “punishment,” not torture. Conviction of at least 148 crimes are punishable by flogging, while 20 may carry the penalty of amputation. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, from January 1 to September 24, authorities sentenced at least 237 individuals to amputation and carried out these sentences in at least 129 cases.
According to media and NGO reports, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s sentence ordering the amputation of all fingers on the right hand of four men convicted of theft, Hadi Rostami, Mehdi Sharafiyan, Mehdi Shahivand, and Kasra Karami. As of November 6, the men were held in Orumiyeh Prison in West Azerbaijan Province. There was no information available on whether the sentence was carried out.
According to the NGO Article 18, on October 14, authorities flogged Christian convert Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi 80 times. A court had sentenced him to the flogging in 2016 for drinking wine as part of Holy Communion.
Authorities flogged four political prisoners in prisons across the country in the month of June, according to a report from Iran News Wire. On June 8, authorities flogged Azeri rights activists Ali Azizi and Eliar Hosseinzadeh for “disturbing public order,” by taking part in the November 2019 protests in the city of Orumiyeh. Prison officials at Greater Tehran Penitentiary flogged protester Mohamad Bagher Souri on the same day. Authorities flogged Tehran bus driver and labor activist Rasoul Taleb Moghadam 74 times for taking part in a peaceful Labor Day gathering outside parliament in 2019.
Extrajudicial punishments by authorities involving degrading public humiliation of alleged offenders were also frequently reported throughout the year. Authorities regularly forced alleged offenders to make videotaped confessions that the government later televised. According to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, on August 22, IRGC-affiliated Fars News posted a “documentary” on twin sisters Maryam and Matin Amiri, who had participated in “White Wednesday” demonstrations against mandatory veiling. The segment included a “confession” in which the women called themselves “naive, dumb, and passive” and “of weak personality,” for protesting hijab laws. Days after the segment aired, expatriate women’s rights activist and founder of the movement Masih Alinejad reported via Twitter a court sentenced the twins to 15 years in prison and that they were being held in solitary confinement.
Impunity remained a widespread problem within all security forces. Human rights groups frequently accused regular and paramilitary security forces, such as the Basij, of committing numerous human rights abuses, including torture, forced disappearances, and acts of violence against protesters and bystanders at public demonstrations. The government generally viewed protesters, critical journalists, and human rights activists as engaged in efforts to “undermine the 1979 revolution” and consequently did not seek to punish security force abuses against those persons, even when the abuses violated domestic law. According to Tehran prosecutor general Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, the attorney general is responsible for investigating and punishing security force abuses, but if any investigations took place, the process was not transparent, and there were few reports of government actions to discipline abusers.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. Prisoner hunger strikes in protest of their treatment were frequent.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, long a problem in prisons with many prisoners forced to sleep on floors, in hallways, or in prison yards, became particularly acute following mass arrests during the November 2019 protests, according to comments by local government officials referenced in a July report by UNSR Rehman.
Overall conditions worsened significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by Amnesty International, which cited letters written by senior prison authorities, prisons had serious shortages of disinfectant products and protective equipment needed to address the spread of virus. The letters reportedly acknowledged many prisons held individuals with underlying health conditions, which increased their risk of complications if infected with COVID-19. Authorities announced that between late February and late May, they had temporarily released around 128,000 prisoners on furlough and pardoned another 10,000 in response to the outbreak. On July 15, as COVID-19 cases spiked again, the judiciary spokesperson announced the government had issued guidelines to facilitate a second round of furloughs. Prisoners of conscience were mostly excluded from these measures, including human rights defenders, foreign and dual nationals, environmentalists, individuals detained due to their religious beliefs, and persons arbitrarily detained in connection with the November 2019 protests.
There were reported deaths in custody and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, which authorities sometimes failed to control. In April, Amnesty International reported at least 35 prisoners were killed and others injured in at least eight prisons across the country when security officials used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress riots because of COVID-19 safety fears. As of December 8, the government had not investigated these events.
According to IranWire and human rights NGOs, guards beat both political and nonpolitical prisoners during raids on wards, performed nude body searches in front of other prisoners, and threatened prisoners’ families. In some instances, according to HRANA, guards singled out political prisoners for harsher treatment.
Prison authorities often refused to provide medical treatment for pre-existing conditions, injuries that prisoners suffered at the hands of prison authorities, or illnesses due to the poor sanitary conditions in prison. Human rights organizations reported that authorities used denial of medical care as a form of punishment for prisoners and as an intimidation tool against prisoners who filed complaints or challenged authorities. Medical services for female prisoners were reported as grossly inadequate.
An October 6 OHCHR statement expressed serious concern regarding a consistent pattern of the government denying medical treatment to detainees, including political prisoners, which was heightened during the year due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout prisons. The statement called for the unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights.
The United Nations and NGOs have consistently reported other unsafe and unsanitary detention conditions in prisons, including contaminated food and water, frequent water and food shortages, rodent and insect infestations, shortages of bedding, intolerable heat, and poor ventilation.
There were no updates on the status of Gonabadi Sufi dervish women unjustly detained in Shahr-e Rey Prison on national security-related charges since 2018. The women were routinely denied urgently needed medical care and kept in unsanitary, inhuman conditions.
Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. According to a June 2019 report from IranWire, there was a noticeable increase from the previous two years of the practice of holding political prisoners in wards with allegedly violent and dangerous criminals, with the goal of “breaking” the political prisoners’ wills. A July report by UNSR Rehman noted that prisoners ordinarily held in wards controlled by the IRGC or Ministry of Intelligence were moved to public wards after the sharp increase in detainees following the November 2019 protests. Also, according to HRANA, juvenile detainees were held with adult prisoners in some prisons, including Saghez Central Prison in Kurdistan Province. Male juvenile detainees were held in separate rehabilitation centers in most urban areas, but female juvenile detainees and male juvenile detainees in rural areas were held alongside adults in segregated detention facilities, according to NGO reports.
IranWire reported multiple prisons across the country held older children who lived with their incarcerated mothers without access to medical care or educational and recreational facilities. Following the November 2019 protests, child detainees were reportedly held in the same cells as adults at a facility in Ahvaz due to overcrowding, according to UNSR Rehman.
There were numerous reports of prisoner suicides throughout the year in response to prison conditions or mistreatment. According to a September 27 IranWire report, Mohammad Ghaderi attempted suicide in May to escape continuous torture by IRGC intelligence agents. In June prisoners Farzin Nouri and Hadi Rostrami reportedly attempted suicide at Orumiyeh by consuming poison. In September, 20 prisoners attempted suicide within two weeks in Orumiyeh Central Prison in West Azerbaijan Province due to the horrific conditions in that prison. According to his wife, in May journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, imprisoned since 2019 for signing an open letter with 13 others calling for the resignation of the supreme leader, attempted suicide in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. Authorities had prevented Nourizad from receiving a temporary furlough, being transferred to a prison closer to his home, and receiving regular telephone calls.
Administration: According to reports from human rights NGOs, prison authorities regularly denied prisoners access to an attorney of their choice, visitors, telephone calls, and other correspondence privileges. Prisoners practicing a religion other than Shia Islam reported experiencing discrimination.
Authorities did not initiate credible investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions or suspicious deaths in custody. Prisoners were able to submit complaints to judicial authorities but often faced censorship or retribution in the form of slander, beatings, torture, and denial of medical care and medication or furlough requests, as well as charges of additional crimes.
On October 23, HRW highlighted the cases of environmentalist Niloufar Bayani and student activist Parisa Rafiee, both of whom authorities charged with “publishing false information,” and “propaganda against the state,” for reporting abuse in detention.
Families of executed prisoners did not always receive notification of their scheduled executions, or if they did, it was often on very short notice. Authorities frequently denied families the ability to perform funeral rites or an impartial autopsy.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent monitoring of prison conditions. Prisoners and their families often wrote letters to authorities and, in some cases, to UN bodies to highlight and protest their treatment (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, the practices occurred frequently during the year. President Rouhani’s 2016 Citizen’s Rights Charter enumerates various freedoms, including “security of their person, property, dignity, employment, legal and judicial process, social security, and the like.” The government did not implement these provisions. Detainees may appeal their sentences in court but are not entitled to compensation for detention.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution and law require a warrant or subpoena for an arrest and state that arrested persons should be informed of the charges against them within 24 hours. Authorities, however, held some detainees, at times incommunicado, for prolonged periods without charge or trial and frequently denied them contact with family or timely access to legal representation.
The law obligates the government to provide indigent defendants with attorneys for certain types of crimes. The courts set prohibitively high bail, even for lesser crimes, and in many cases courts did not set bail. Authorities often compelled detainees and their families to submit property deeds to post bail, effectively silencing them due to fear of losing their families’ property.
The government continued to use house arrest without due process to restrict movement and communication. At year’s end former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, remained under house arrest imposed in 2011 without formal charges. Security forces continued to restrict their access to visitors and information. In November it was reported that Mousavi and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Concerns persisted regarding Karroubi’s deteriorating health, reportedly exacerbated by his treatment by authorities.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities commonly used arbitrary arrests to impede alleged antiregime activities, including by conducting mass arrests of persons in the vicinity of antigovernment demonstrations. According to Amnesty International, these arrests sometimes included children and bystanders at protests and were conducted in an often violent manner, involving beating detainees. Plainclothes officers arrived unannounced at homes or offices; arrested persons; conducted raids; and confiscated private documents, passports, computers, electronic media, and other personal items without warrants or assurances of due process.
Individuals often remained in detention facilities for long periods without charges or trials, and authorities sometimes prevented them from informing others of their whereabouts for several days. Authorities often denied detainees’ access to legal counsel during this period.
According to a September report by Amnesty International, at least 7,000 persons were arrested in relation to the November 2019 protests, and at least 500 were subjected to criminal investigations on vague and unsubstantiated charges as of August, although Amnesty estimated the number to be “far higher.”
International media and human rights organizations documented frequent detentions of dual nationals–individuals who are citizens of both Iran and another country–for arbitrary and prolonged detention on politically motivated charges. UNSR Rehman continued to highlight cases of dual and foreign nationals who authorities had arrested arbitrarily and subjected to mistreatment, denial of appropriate medical treatment, or both. The UNSR noted most dual and foreign nationals did not benefit from temporary furloughs granted by authorities to many other prisoners. The UNSR previously concluded the government subjected dual and foreign nationals to “sham trials which have failed to meet basic fair trial standards and convicted them of offenses on the basis of fabricated evidence or, in some cases, no evidence at all, and has attempted to use them as diplomatic leverage.” Dual nationals, like other citizens, faced a variety of due process violations, including lack of prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing and brief trials during which they were not allowed to defend themselves.
Authorities continued to detain dual nationals Emad Sharghi and Siamak Namazi in Evin Prison on “espionage” charges following lower court trials with numerous procedural irregularities, according to international media and NGO reports. Sharghi was initially detained in April 2018 and released on bail in December of that year. In December 2019 officials informed Sharghi he had been cleared of all charges, but he was re-arrested in December 2020 after having been convicted and sentenced in absentia. Authorities initially detained Namazi in 2015 along with his father, Baquer, who was granted medical furlough in 2018 but was not allowed to leave the country.
On February 23, the Bahai International Community stated that a Houthi court in Yemen was prosecuting a group of Bahai under “directives from Iranian authorities.” The Bahai prisoners were deported in July without a review of their citizenship status. Bahais continued to face arbitrary detention and harassment in Yemen throughout the year because of their religious affiliation (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was often arbitrarily lengthy, particularly in cases involving alleged violations of “national security” law. Authorities sometimes held persons incommunicado for lengthy periods before permitting them to contact family members. Instances of unjust and arbitrary pretrial detention were commonplace and well documented throughout the year involving numerous protesters and prisoners of conscience who were not granted furloughs despite the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prison. According to HRW, a judge may prolong detention at his discretion, and pretrial detentions often lasted for months. Often authorities held pretrial detainees in custody with the general prison population.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The court system, however, was subjected to political influence, and judges were appointed “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary. The head of the judiciary, members of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general were clerics. International observers continued to criticize the lack of independence of the country’s judicial system and judges and maintained that trials disregarded international standards of fairness.
According to the constitution and law, a defendant has the right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent until convicted, to have access to a lawyer of his or her choice, and to appeal convictions in most cases that involve major penalties. These rights were not upheld.
Panels of judges adjudicate trials in civil and criminal courts. Human rights activists reported trials in which authorities appeared to have determined the verdicts in advance, and defendants did not have the opportunity to confront their accusers or meet with lawyers. For journalists and defendants charged with crimes against national security, the law restricts the choice of attorneys to a government-approved list.
When postrevolutionary statutes do not address a situation, the government advised judges to give precedence to their knowledge and interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Under this method judges may find a person guilty based on their own “divine knowledge.”
The constitution does not provide for the establishment or the mandate of the revolutionary courts. The courts were created pursuant to the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict immediately following the 1979 revolution, with a sharia judge appointed as the head of the courts. They were intended as a temporary emergency measure to try high-level officials of the deposed monarchy and purge threats to the regime. The courts, however, became institutionalized and continue to operate in parallel to the criminal justice system. Human rights groups and international observers often identified the revolutionary courts, which are generally responsible for hearing the cases of political prisoners, as routinely employing grossly unfair trials without due process, handing down predetermined verdicts, and rubberstamping executions for political purposes. These unfair practices reportedly occur during all stages of criminal proceedings in revolutionary courts, including the initial prosecution and pretrial investigation, first instance trial, and review by higher courts.
The IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence reportedly determine many aspects of revolutionary court cases. Most of the important political cases are referred to a small number of branches of the revolutionary courts, whose judges often have negligible legal training and are not independent.
During the year human rights groups and international media noted the absence of procedural safeguards in criminal trials, and courts admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture. UNSR Rehman expressed concerns regarding allegations of confessions extracted by torture and a lack of due process or a fair trial, including in cases of persons arrested for participating in the November 2019 protests. In a July report, the UNSR cited unofficial reports documenting 75 court verdicts against protesters by April. For example, UNSR Rehman cited the case of Aref Zarei, whom a judge reportedly told not to bother hiring a lawyer because it would not help.
The Special Clerical Court is headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, overseen by the supreme leader, and charged with investigating alleged offenses committed by clerics and issuing rulings based on an independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. As with the revolutionary courts, the constitution does not provide for the Special Clerical Court, which operates outside the judiciary’s purview. Clerical courts have been used to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Official statistics regarding the number of citizens imprisoned for their political beliefs were not available. According to United for Iran, as of October 18, an estimated 500 prisoners of conscience were held in the country, including those jailed for their religious beliefs.
The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, such as “antirevolutionary behavior,” “corruption on earth,” “siding with global arrogance,” “waging war against God,” and “crimes against Islam.” Prosecutors imposed strict penalties on government critics for minor violations.
The political crimes law defines a political crime as an insult against the government, as well as “the publication of lies.” Political crimes are those acts “committed with the intent of reforming the domestic or foreign policies of Iran,” while those with the intent to damage “the foundations of the regime” are considered national security crimes. The court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office retain responsibility for determining the nature of the crime.
The political crimes law grants the accused certain rights during arrest and imprisonment. Political criminals should be held in detention facilities separate from ordinary criminals. Political criminals should also be exempt from wearing prison uniforms, not subject to rules governing repeat offenses, not subject to extradition, and exempt from solitary confinement unless judicial officials deem it necessary. Political criminals also have the right to see and correspond with immediate family regularly and to access books, newspapers, radio, and television.
Many of the law’s provisions have not been implemented, and the government continued to arrest and charge students, journalists, lawyers, political activists, women’s activists, artists, and members of religious minorities with “national security” crimes that do not fall under the political crimes law. Political prisoners were also at greater risk of torture and abuse in detention. They were often mixed with the general prison population, and former prisoners reported that authorities often threatened political prisoners with transfer to criminal wards, where attacks by fellow prisoners were more likely. Human rights activists and international media reported cases of political prisoners confined with accused and convicted violent criminals, being moved to public wards in cases of overcrowding, and having temporary furloughs inequitably applied during the COVID-19 pandemic (see section 1.c., Physical Conditions). The government often placed political prisoners in prisons far from their families, denied them correspondence rights, and held them in solitary confinement for long periods.
The government reportedly held some detainees in prison for years on unfounded charges of sympathizing with real or alleged terrorist groups.
The government issued travel bans on some former political prisoners, barred them from working in their occupations for years after incarceration, and imposed internal exile on some. During the year authorities occasionally gave political prisoners suspended sentences and released them on bail with the understanding that renewed political activity would result in their return to prison. The government did not permit international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives access to political prisoners.
According to CHRI, on September 26, Iran Writers Association members Reza Khandan Mahabahi, Baktash Abtin, and Keyvan Bajan began serving prison sentences for “assembly and collusion against national security,” related to publishing documents objecting to censorship and organizing memorial ceremonies for association members killed by state agents in the 1990s.
Also according to CHRI, authorities arbitrarily extended a five-year prison sentence by two years against activist Atena Daemi, shortly before she was due to be released in July after serving the full term on “national security” charges and for insulting the supreme leader. The additional two-year sentence reportedly stemmed from Daemi singing a song in prison honoring executed prisoners.
On October 7, judicial authorities ordered the release of human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi was arrested in 2015 and sentenced by a revolutionary court to 16 years in prison for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and establishing the illegal Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty organization. During her time in prison, authorities repeatedly denied her telephone contact with her family, as well as appropriate medical treatment related to a major operation she underwent in May 2019.
Lawyers who defended political prisoners were often arrested, detained, and subjected to excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities. The government continued to imprison lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group.
In June, CHRI reported that at least five human rights attorneys–Soheila Hejab, Payam Derafshan, Mohammad Nafari, Amirsalar Davoudi, and Nasrin Sotoudeh–were in prison for their human rights work. Hejab and Derafshan (see section 1.b.) were detained during the year. In late May security officials incarcerated Hejab on earlier charges of supporting dissident groups, after she had been temporarily freed in March. In November the Kurdish Human Rights Network reported authorities charged Hejab with additional crimes related to a letter she wrote from prison marking the first anniversary of the November 2019 protests.
On November 7, the judiciary reported it had temporarily released Nasrin Sotoudeh, amid reports her health was rapidly deteriorating. On December 2, she was returned to Qarchak Prison despite continuing health challenges. In March 2019 a revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing hijab. Sotoudeh was previously arrested in 2010 and pardoned in 2013.
According to HRW, on February 18, a judiciary spokesperson announced a revolutionary court upheld prison sentences against eight environmentalists sentenced to between six to 10 years for conviction of various “national security” crimes. Authorities arrested the environmentalists, including United States-British-Iranian triple national Morad Tahbaz, in 2018 and convicted them following an unfair trial, in which the judge handed down the sentences in secret, did not allow access to defense lawyers, and ignored the defendants’ claims of abuse in detention.
There were credible reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country.
In August, Reuters reported Ministry of Intelligence officials detained Jamshid Sharmahd, a member of a promonarchist group “Tondar” (Thunder) or “Kingdom Assembly of Iran” based outside the country, which it accused of responsibility for a deadly 2008 bombing at a religious center in Shiraz and of plotting other attacks. A man who identified himself as Sharmahd appeared on Iranian television blindfolded and “admitted” to providing explosives to attackers in Shiraz. The ministry did not disclose how or where they detained Sharmahd. His son told Radio Free Europe that Sharmahd was likely captured in Dubai and taken to Iran.
In November al-Arabiya reported the former leader of the separatist group for Iran’s ethnic Arab in minority in Khuzestan Province, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), Habib Asyud also known as Habib Chaab, who also holds Swedish citizenship, was arrested in Turkey and later resurfaced in Iran under unclear circumstances. Neither Turkey nor Sweden officially commented on Asyud’s case. The Iranian government holds ASMLA responsible for a terror attack in 2018 on a military parade that killed 25 individuals including civilians.
In October 2019 France-based Iranian activist Ruhollah Zam was abducted from Iraq. Iranian intelligence later took credit for the operation. Zam was executed in December (see Section 1.a.).
Citizens had limited ability to sue the government and were not able to file lawsuits through the courts against the government for civil or human rights violations.
The constitution allows the government to confiscate property acquired illicitly or in a manner not in conformity with Islamic law. The government appeared to target ethnic and religious minorities in invoking this provision.
The constitution states that “reputation, life, property, [and] dwelling[s]” are protected from trespass, except as “provided by law.” The government routinely infringed on this right. Security forces monitored the social activities of citizens, entered homes, offices, and places of worship, monitored telephone conversations and internet communications, and opened mail without court authorization. The government also routinely intimidated activists and government critics by detaining their family members as a form of reprisal.
On July 13, authorities arrested Manouchehr Bakhtiari for a second time related to activism on behalf of his son, Pouya, killed by security forces in the city of Karaj during the November 2019 demonstrations. The government previously detained 10 other members of Pouya Bakhtiari’s family, including his 11-year-old nephew and two of his elderly grandparents, to prevent them from holding a traditional memorial service for Bakhtiari 40 days after his death. According to media reports, in December Manouchehr Bakhtiari was released on bail.
According to international human rights organizations, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and intimidated BBC employees’ family members, including elderly family members, based in Iran. The government also froze and seized assets of family members, demoted relatives employed by state-affiliated organizations, and confiscated passports. The government also compelled family members of journalists from other media outlets abroad to defame their relatives on state television.
On July 16, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Alireza Alinejad, brother of expatriate activist Masih Alinejad, to eight years in prison for “national security” crimes, and for insulting the supreme leader and “propaganda against the regime.”
On August 17, security officials detained and questioned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh’s daughter, Mehraveh, on unspecified charges, according to CHRI. She was later released on bail.
There are currently no comprehensive data-protection laws in place in the country, therefore there are no legal safeguards for users to protect their data from misuse. The online sphere is heavily monitored by the state despite Article 37 of the nonbinding Citizens’ Rights Charter, which states that online privacy should be respected.
The operation of domestic messaging apps is based inside the country, leaving content shared on these apps more susceptible to government control and surveillance. Lack of data protection and privacy laws also mean there are no legal instruments providing protections against the misuse of apps data by authorities.
In January, Certfa Lab reported a series of phishing attacks from an Iranian hacker group known as Charming Kitten, which was allegedly affiliated with Iran’s intelligence services. According to the report, the phishing attacks targeted journalists as well as political and human rights activists.
In March, Google removed a COVID-19 app known as AC19 from the Google Play store. No official reason was provided concerning the app’s removal, although Iranian users raised concerns regarding the app’s security, in light of its collection of geolocation data, and a lack of transparency from the government as to why the data were being collected and how it was being used.
In March, Comparitech reported that data from 42 million Iranian Telegram accounts were leaked online. Telegram released a statement alleging the data came from the two unofficial Telegram apps Hotgram and Telegram Talaei, which became popular after the platform’s ban in the country. There were reports the two client apps have ties to the government and Iranian hacker group Charming Kitten.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
The law prohibits extrajudicial killings by government security forces, and there were no reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents during the year.
The government took no action during the year in response to the preliminary findings of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which visited the country in 2019 for a general inspection. Following its visit, the Working Group noted “little interest” on the part of the government in addressing violations, including enforced disappearances that occurred during the 1992-97 civil war, and noted reports of some political opponents whose whereabouts were still unknown after being forcibly returned to the country.
The constitution prohibits the use of torture, although the government amended the criminal code in 2012 to add a separate article to define torture in accordance with international law. According to the 2019 UN Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) concluding observations, reports of beatings, torture, and other forms of coercion to extract confessions during interrogations were of concern. While authorities took some limited steps to hold perpetrators accountable, reports of torture and mistreatment of prisoners continued, and a culture of impunity and corruption weakened investigations and prosecutions. In some cases, judges dismissed defendants’ allegations of abuse during their pretrial detention hearings or trials. Officials did not grant sufficient access to information to allow human rights organizations to investigate claims of torture.
During the first six months the year, the Coalition against Torture, a group of local NGOs, documented 25 new cases of mistreatment with some victims alleging severe physical abuse. Of these complaints, 19 were against the Internal Affairs Ministry, one against the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), two against the Ministry of Justice’s Penitentiary Department, one against the State Financial Control and Anticorruption Agency, one against the Ministry of Defense, and one case was a victim of sexual harassment at work (in the private sector).
On July 14, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that it had received eight complaints during the first six months the year of the possible use of torture and mistreatment. In the course of the prosecutor’s investigations, a criminal case was opened based on one allegation. In a July 16 press conference, Human Rights Ombudsman Umed Bobozoda stated that during the first six months of the year, his office received three complaints regarding the possible use of torture and mistreatment, but the facts of torture were not confirmed.
The government operated 10 prisons, including one for women, and 12 pretrial detention facilities. Exact conditions in the prisons remained unknown, but detainees and inmates described harsh and life-threatening conditions, including extreme overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: As of October, the total prison population was approximately 8,000. The government began a mass amnesty in October 2019 that reportedly released 3,000 prisoners. No official statistics were available regarding the actual number of prisoners released, although Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other outlets reported the mass amnesty. The RFE/RL report noted that this was the country’s 15th mass amnesty since 1992, but the list of those released did not include political prisoners. On October 30, President Rahmon announced an amnesty decree for another 378 prisoners, but the government did not publicly release the list of prisoners.
On July 13, the Ministry of Justice reported that in the first half of the year, 41 prisoners died from various diseases. The ministry reported that within the prison population, there were 213 HIV-positive inmates, 85 inmates with tuberculosis, and 244 drug-addicted inmates.
The government did not acknowledge the COVID-19 outbreak until the end of April and claimed the country had zero cases. The Ministry of Justice reported no instances of prisoners with COVID-19 but confirmed that 98 were ill with pneumonia, with 11 deaths. Relatives of prisoners expressed concern about the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities. Prison authorities banned prison visits starting March 30 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Shukhrat Rahmatullo, the son of Rahmatullo Rajab, an imprisoned member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), told media at the end of April that his father was in critical condition with a fever of over 102 degrees, and that doctors subsequently told him that “90 percent of sick prisoners have COVID-19.” Rahmatullo also claimed that prison authorities never tested any prisoners for COVID-19 despite likely community spread among prisoners. Additional media reports alleged that prisoners were denied access to medications and lacked personal protective equipment and that there were few thermometers. Authorities responded to these reports by asserting that prisons were well equipped with medicines, beds, X-ray machines, and mechanical ventilation devices.
Penal Reform International, an organization conducting prison reform work with regional representation out of Kazakhstan, described in a 2019 report the conditions in the women’s prison as frigid in the winter, with only intermittent electricity and heat, and a lack of sufficient food provisions for both inmates and staff. Disease and hunger were serious problems. The 2019 OHCHR concluding observations found concerning levels of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons. Authorities often held juvenile boys with adult men.
Administration: The Office of the Ombudsman conducted prison visits throughout the year but resolved fewer than 2 percent of complaints filed related to torture or other abuse. NGOs reported mistrust of the ombudsman due to the office’s loyalty to the president and frequent dismissal of human rights concerns. A special monitoring group with ombudsmen and NGO representatives conducted announced visits of prison conditions. No known complaints were filed regarding specific prison conditions.
Independent Monitoring: The Ministry of Justice continued to restrict access to prisons or detention facilities for representatives of the international community. Throughout the year the Coalition against Torture and the human rights ombudsman conducted visits of closed institutions, although officials denied Coalition against Torture monitors private interviews with detainees or access to internal correctional institution documents. The International Committee of the Red Cross continued to lack access to prisons due to the absence of an agreement with the government, a situation that has persisted since 2004.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrests were common and the law does not prohibit the practice. The law states that police must prepare a detention report and inform the prosecutor’s office of an arrest within 12 hours and file charges within 10 days. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but use of this provision was limited. Few citizens were aware of their right to appeal an arrest, and there were few checks on the power of police and military officers to detain individuals. Human rights activists reported incidents of forced military conscription, including of persons who should have been exempted from service.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law provides that police may detain a suspect for up to 12 hours before authorities must decide whether to open a criminal case against the individual. If authorities do not file charges after 12 hours, the individual must be released, but police often did not inform detainees of the arrest charges even if ones were filed. If police file criminal charges, they may detain an individual for 72 hours before they must present their charges to a judge for an indictment hearing. Judges are empowered to order detention, house arrest, or bail pending trial.
According to law, family members are allowed access to prisoners after indictment, but prisoners are often denied access to visitors. The law states that a lawyer is entitled to be present at interrogations at the request of the detainee or lawyer, but in many cases, authorities did not permit lawyers timely access to their clients, and initial interrogations occurred without them. Detainees suspected of crimes related to national security or extremism were held for extended periods without being formally charged.
Arbitrary Arrest: The government generally provided a rationale for arrests, but detainees and civil society groups frequently reported that authorities falsified charges or inflated minor incidents to make politically motivated arrests. According to Human Rights Watch, the country has arbitrarily detained and imprisoned more than 150 individuals on politically motivated charges since 2015.
On January 28, the prosecutor general reported that the government had detained 113 suspected members of “Ikhwon-ul-muslimin” (“Muslim Brotherhood”), a group banned and labelled as an extremist organization by the government in 2006. Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon announced that while detainees were members of the clergy, teachers, and employers of various universities, the group’s goal was to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. In February authorities released from custody about 30 detainees from Isfara and Istaravshan in the Sughd region after 10 to 20 days in detention.
On December 18, the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe, following closed-door proceedings, found Asroriddin Rozikov guilty of participation in the activities of banned political parties or organizations and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. Human Rights Watch reported that on June 25, the GKNB detained Rozikov, son of Zubaidulloi Rozik, an imprisoned leader of the IRPT. The GKNB did not comment on the detention or conviction. Relatives alleged the motive for Rozikov’s arrest was to pressure his father to condemn publicly the leadership of the IRPT.
Jannatullo Komil, the head of the bureau of IRPT in Germany, one of the hundreds of members who live in exile in Europe, wrote in a July 8 Facebook post that local law enforcement bodies arrested five members of his family and detained them for a week without charges. According to Komil, his brother, sister, daughter-in-law, and two nieces were interrogated by the GKNB and Ministry of Internal Affairs. The interrogators demanded that the family hand over their sons who were living abroad in exile, largely in Europe.
Pretrial Detention: Defense lawyers alleged that prosecutors often held suspects for lengthy periods and registered the initial arrest only when the suspect was ready to confess. In most cases, pretrial detention lasted from one to three months but could extend as long as 15 months. Law enforcement officials must request an extension from a judge to detain an individual in pretrial detention after two, six, and 12 months. According to the OHCHR concluding observations, authorities tortured defendants in pretrial detention in attempts to extract confessions.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of charge, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. Despite such rights to challenge detention, a decrease in the number of lawyers licensed to take on criminal cases and the general apprehension with which lawyers take on sensitive cases limited the exercise of this right for those arrested on charges suspected to be politically motivated.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive branch exerted pressure on prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges. Corruption and inefficiency were significant problems. According to numerous nongovernmental contacts, police and judicial officials regularly accepted bribes in exchange for lenient sentencing or release. During a research mission on the independence of the judiciary in May, the International Commission of Jurists noted, “judicial decisions are generally not available to members of the public unless they are participants in the proceedings.”
Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but this presumption was often absent in practice. More than 90 percent of defendants were eventually found guilty. The International Commission of Jurists noted acquittals were extremely rare.
Although the law requires that defendants be informed of the criminal charges against them within 10 days, in practice they were not always promptly informed or granted a trial without undue delay. Courts generally allowed defendants to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial, but defendants are often denied access to an attorney during the pretrial and investigatory periods, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Authorities continued to file politically motivated criminal charges against some defense lawyers to obstruct detained political opposition figures’ access to legal counsel and to dissuade other lawyers from taking on similar cases.
The government provides attorneys at public expense when requested, but defendants and civil society members complained that the government sometimes appointed attorneys as a means to deny defendants’ access to the legal counsel of their choice. Defendants and private attorneys said government-appointed attorneys often provided a poor and counterproductive defense. Moreover, the government abolished a grandfather clause allowing experienced lawyers to continue to practice after a 2016 law required all lawyers to retake the bar examination to renew their licenses. As a result, the number of lawyers accepting criminal defense cases in the country shrank from approximately 2,000 to little more than 500. International observers found many criminal cases in which defendants did not have legal representation. Criminal defendants enjoy the legal right to prepare their defense but this right was often infringed.
Defendants may present witnesses and evidence at trial with the consent of the judge. Defendants and attorneys have the right to confront and question witnesses and to present evidence and testimony. Courts provide interpreters for defendants who do not speak Tajik, the official language used for court hearings. No groups are barred from testifying and, in principle, all testimony receives equal consideration. Courts, however, generally give prosecutorial testimony far greater consideration than defense testimony. Local legislation allows criminal defendants not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants also enjoy the right to appeal.
Low wages for judges and prosecutors left them vulnerable to bribery, a common practice. Government officials subjected judges to political influence.
Although most trials were public, the law also provides for secret trials when there is a national security concern. Civil society members faced difficulties in gaining access to high-profile public cases, which the government often declared secret.
In July the Supreme Court began the trial of 116 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including some of those arrested in January. The press center of the Supreme Court announced the trial would be held behind closed doors. The defendants’ lawyers refused to speak with media due to the Supreme Court classifying the case as secret. Relatives of the accused also declined to comment on the case to journalists but said they were able to bring food to the detention center but not see their relatives. The family members also claimed that state-provided lawyers frequently do not communicate with relatives of suspects.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
While authorities claimed there were no political prisoners or politically motivated arrests, opposition parties and local and international observers reported the government selectively arrested and prosecuted political opponents. Although there was no reliable estimate of the number of political prisoners, in 2018 the government reported 239 prisoners who were members of banned political parties or movements.
On December 5, police in Dushanbe detained the deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Mahmurod Odinaev, on criminal charges of “hooliganism” and threats against law enforcement. The maximum punishment for these charges is five years in prison. The Office of the Prosecutor General released a statement indicating that the charges stemmed from an alleged altercation on October 29 during which Odinaev reportedly confronted military officials in Hissor for illegally drafting Odinaev’s son, Hojiakbar. A court in Hissor on December 7 approved a request by the local prosecutor’s office to order that Odinaev remain in detention for up to two months. Odinaev’s relatives claimed publicly that authorities targeted him due to his political activism.
During the year there were credible reports of attempted misuse of international law enforcement tools, such as law enforcement systems (for example, INTERPOL red notices), for politically motivated reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country. The government used INTERPOL notices in an effort to locate and forcibly repatriate Tajik dissidents targeted by the government. The Central Bank of Tajikistan keeps a public list of over 2,400 names of suspected terrorists as defined by authorities. The list also includes names of opposition journalists and activists. According to a RFE/RL report from October 2019, six journalists and opposition activists living in self-exile in Europe publicly demanded the bank remove their names from the list. Other dissidents were frequently harassed or detained on politically motivated charges of extremism. As of July, the government had placed 72 Muslim Brotherhood members on the international wanted list.
In June the Supreme Court sentenced 29-year-old opposition activist Hizbullo Shovalizoda to 20 years in prison on charges of extremism after he was extradited from Austria in March. The Supreme Court classified the trial as secret, preventing officials from discussing Shovalizoda’s trial with embassies and other interested parties. Shovalizoda’s relatives told RFE/RL that the family was not permitted to attend the trial. In July the Austrian Supreme Court invalidated the extradition order, ruling that Austria’s decision to reject Shovalizoda’s asylum request and extradite him to Tajikistan was illegal. The court further noted that the decision to reject the asylum request was based on outdated information.
In September a member of banned opposition “Group 24” told RFE/RL that one of its members, Shobuddin Badalov, had been arrested in Russia and forcibly repatriated to the country, where he was likely to face torture. Neither Russian nor Tajik officials issued official statements regarding the situation. In response to an inquiry, the government confirmed that Badalov was detained upon his arrival in Tajikistan and a case against him for “arranging activities of an extremist organization” was in pretrial investigation. He remained in custody.
Civil cases are heard in general civil courts, economic courts, and military courts. Judges may order monetary compensation for victims in criminal cases. No separate juvenile justice system exists, although there were some courts that provided a separate room for children linked to the courtroom by video camera. Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts or through administrative mechanisms.
The constitution states the home is inviolable. With certain exceptions, it is illegal to enter a home by force or deprive a person of a home. The law states police may not enter and search a private home without the approval of a judge. Authorities may carry out searches without a prosecutor’s authorization in exceptional cases, “where there is an actual risk that the object searched for and subject to seizure may cause a possible delay in discovering it, be lost, damaged, or used for criminal purposes, or a fugitive may escape.” The law states courts must be notified of such searches within 24 hours. Police frequently ignored these laws and infringed on citizens’ right to privacy, including conducting personal searches without a warrant.
According to the law, “when sufficient grounds exist to believe that information, documents, or objects that are relevant to the criminal case may be contained in letters, telegrams, radiograms, packages, parcels, or other mail and telegraph correspondence, they may be intercepted” with a warrant issued by a judge. The law states only a judge may authorize monitoring of telephone or other communication. Security offices often monitored communications, such as social media and telephone calls, without judicial authorization.
According to the law, government authorities can punish family members for offenses committed by their relatives, for example, if an underage child commits an offense. There were continuing reports that Tajikistan-based relatives of perceived government critics in exile were harassed or targeted by local authorities.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Opposition media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year, nor were there reports of killings by narcotics traffickers or similar criminal groups.
There was a report of the hazing of military conscripts that resulted in three deaths. The law requires that the government protect the health and lives of members of the armed forces.
Opposition media and NGOs did not report politically motivated disappearances during the year. Nonetheless an NGO-led advocacy campaign, Prove They Are Alive!, maintained a list of reported disappeared prisoners. The 2019 list included the names of 121 prisoners, the same number as the previous year, including two releases and two new names from 2018, although the NGO estimated the actual number to be in the hundreds. The list included former ministers of foreign affairs Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev, former director of the Turkmenbashy oil refinery Guychmyrad Esenov, and many others accused of participation in an alleged 2002 assassination attempt on previous president Saparmurat Niyazov.
On August 10, Memorial Human Rights Center based in Russia provided an update on Kakajan Halbayev and Kemal Saparov, Turkmen students who were imprisoned in 2018 after they returned from St. Petersburg, Russia. Halbayev and Saparov received 15 years of imprisonment and were accused of conspiracy violently to overthrow the constitutional order, incitement to religious hatred committed by an organized group, and organization and participation in a criminal community. Memorial reported that, according to the investigation, all the “criminal acts” were committed by them on the territory of St. Petersburg. According to the Memorial report, the government of Turkmenistan alleged 12 citizens of Turkmenistan, who were in St. Petersburg in 2015-16, became members of the religious communities Wahhabi, Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb ut-Tahrir; met in cafes and mosques to discuss religious issues; and with citizens of Russia unidentified by the investigation created an organized criminal group, called for the seizure of power in Turkmenistan, used the internet for their activities, and through the media regularly called for the creation of an Islamic state in Turkmenistan. In 2018 the Ashgabat City Court sentenced Halbayev and Saparov to 15 years in prison in a strict-regime penal colony. They were in Bayramaly colony at the end of the year.
Although the constitution and law prohibit mistreatment, in its January 2017 report (the latest available) the UN Committee against Torture noted its concern at “consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions.” Activists and former prisoners related mistreatment, such as beating kidneys with plastic bottles full of water so bruises do not show on the body and a practice known as sklonka, in which prisoners are forced to stay in the open sun or cold for hours at a time.
In its 2019 review of the country, Amnesty International stated, “Torture and other ill-treatment is reported to be widespread.” Human Rights Watch in its 2019 report stated, “Torture and ill-treatment remain integral to Turkmenistan’s prison system.”
Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government were known to act with impunity, although numerous officials were arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.
Prison conditions reportedly remained unsanitary, overcrowded, and in some cases life threatening due to harsh treatment and inadequate medical care.
Physical Conditions: The prisoners in pretrial detention facilities were predominantly those sentenced but not yet transferred to penal colonies. The six pretrial detention facilities were designed for 1,120 persons but were believed to hold many times that number.
According to RFE/RL, a mosque for 600 individuals was built at MR-E/16 facility. According to the ombudsperson’s report, inspected facilities “… in general comply with the requirements of the law; however, some circumstances have been identified that require improvement of activities and ensuring consistent monitoring.” The ombudsperson sent three recommendations to the Ministry of Internal Affairs: to comply with labor and health safety rules, safety regulations, and industrial sanitation standards; to provide sports grounds with the necessary equipment to perform physical exercise; and to equip special rooms for cultural leisure activities.
On January 27, Turkmen.news published a monologue of a former convict who served at the maximum-security colony LB-K/11 in Lebap Province regarding the deteriorating conditions in the prison system. In June 2019 a commission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs inspected Mary prison hospital MR-B/15, which revealed numerous violations. As a result, the head of the hospital, deputy head, chief doctor, and several staff were demoted and transferred to other places. The inspection also revealed such violations as fake diagnoses and unexplained healthy prisoners living in the medical unit. The former prisoner also reported worsening food conditions.
Prisons were reportedly short on food and medication because the government reduced state support around the country. In February and March 2019, prisoners were cut off from quality bread, meat, rice, and pasta.
On August 4, Chronicles of Turkmenistan (CT) reported a female penal colony in Dashoguz prohibited movement between prison blocks and created an isolation zone for sick inmates. Doctors and nurses from the city infectious disease hospital were sent to work in the colony’s quarantine zone. Inmates were reportedly told to sew their own masks. Some inmates were apparently able to receive medication from relatives, due to a medicine shortage in the colony. CT also reported that two prisoners in Lebap’s LBK/12 penitentiary died of pneumonia in late July. Relatives were not permitted to take the bodies; Ministry of Interior soldiers reportedly buried the bodies in a Lebap cemetery. The General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice apparently agreed to suspend the transfer of convicts to prisons in other provinces.
On August 24, Turkmen.news reported that detainee Bayramdurdy Saparov in LB-K/11 prison colony in Lebap Province died of COVID-19-related pneumonia. Despite suffering chest pains and a lack of oxygen, he could not be transported to the prison hospital MR-B/15 for proper treatment, since all penitentiary institutions were in quarantine due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that began in March.
Administration: Authorities claimed they investigated mistreatment; however, the government did not provide written reports of its investigations to the diplomatic community. The government did not confirm whether it established a prison ombudsman.
According to relatives, prison authorities sometimes denied family members access to prisoners; denied family members permission to give food, medical, and other supplies to some prisoners; and did not make religious facilities available to all prisoners.
Turkmen.news reported in May that authorities prohibited relatives from visiting prisoners starting on March 5, due to COVID-19 concerns.
Independent Monitoring: There was no independent monitoring of the prisons.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
A warrant is not required for arrest when officials catch a suspect in the act of committing an offense. The prosecutor general must issue an authorization for arrest within 72 hours of detention. If investigating authorities do not find evidence of guilt and issue a formal indictment within 10 days of detention, they must release the detainee; however, authorities did not always comply with this requirement. If evidence is found, an investigation may last as long as two months. A provincial or national-level prosecutor may extend the investigation to six months. The national prosecutor general or deputy prosecutor general may extend the investigation period to a maximum of one year. Following the investigation, the prosecutor prepares a bill of indictment and transfers the case to the court. Courts generally follow these procedures, and the prosecutor promptly informs detainees of the charges against them.
The criminal procedure code provides for a bail system and surety, but authorities did not implement these provisions. The law entitles detainees to immediate access to an attorney of their choice after a formal accusation, although detainees for various reasons may not have prompt or regular access to legal counsel. For example, detainees may have been unaware of the law, security forces may have ignored the entitlement to counsel, or the practice of seeking formal counsel was not a cultural norm. Authorities denied some detainees family visitation during the year. Families sometimes did not know the whereabouts of detained relatives. Incommunicado detention was a problem. The extent to which authorities failed to protect due process in the criminal justice system was unclear.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Persons convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning. In the past the government arrested and filed charges on economic or criminal grounds against those expressing critical or differing views instead of charging its critics with treason.
There were reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. Authorities frequently singled out human rights activists, journalists, members of religious groups, ethnic minorities, and dissidents, as well as members of NGOs who interacted with foreigners.
Pretrial Detention: In most cases the law permits detention of no more than two months, but in exceptional cases it may be extended to one year with approval of the prosecutor general. For minor crimes a much shorter investigation period applies. Authorities rarely exceeded legal limits for pretrial detention. Forced confessions also played a part in the reduction of time in pretrial detention. Accused persons are entitled to challenge the court but were unlikely to do so.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained or obtain prompt release if unlawfully detained. Persons arrested or detained unlawfully may seek reimbursement for damages following release. Law enforcement authorities found guilty of unlawful detention or arrest may be punished by demotion or suspension for five years, correctional labor service for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to eight years.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive controls it, and it is subordinate to the executive. There was no legislative review of the president’s judicial appointments and dismissals. The president had sole authority to dismiss any judge. The judiciary was widely reputed to be corrupt and inefficient.
The law provides for due process for defendants, including a public trial; the right to attend the trial; access to accusatory material; the right to call witnesses; the right to a defense attorney, including a court-appointed lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one; and the right to represent oneself in court. Authorities, however, often denied these rights. Defendants frequently did not enjoy a presumption of innocence. The government permits the public to attend most trials, but it closed some, especially those considered politically sensitive. There were few independent lawyers available to represent defendants. The criminal procedure code provides that defendants be present at their trials and consult with their attorneys in a timely manner. The law sets no restrictions on a defendant’s access to an attorney. The court at times did not allow defendants to confront or question a witness against them and denied defendants and their attorneys access to government evidence. In some cases courts refused to accept exculpatory evidence provided by defense attorneys, even if that evidence might have changed the outcome of the trial. Courts did not offer interpreters to defendants who did not speak Turkmen.
Legal proceedings are conducted in the state language (Turkmen). Participants in the proceedings who do not speak the state language are guaranteed the right to make statements, give explanations and testimonies, file motions, bring complaints, become acquainted with all the materials of the case, speak in court in their native language or another language that they speak, and use the services of an interpreter. The legal code requires the government to hand over investigative and judicial documents to the defendant and translated into their native language or into another language they speak.
Even when the courts observed due process, the authority of the government prosecutor far exceeded that of the defense attorney, making it difficult for the defendant to receive a fair trial. Court transcripts frequently were flawed or incomplete, especially when there was a need to translate defendants’ testimony from Russian to Turkmen. Defendants could appeal a lower court’s decision and petition the president for clemency.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Opposition groups and some international organizations stated the government held political prisoners and detainees.
The precise number of political prisoners remained unknown. Observers estimated a number between 100 and 200, including the NGO Prove They Are Alive’s list of 121 prisoners.
Those convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning, although they could receive reductions of sentence from the president. The government continued to assert that none of these persons was a political prisoner. Humanitarian and human rights organizations were not permitted to visit political prisoners.
In February 2018 authorities reportedly arrested Omruzak Omarkulyev, a Turkmen university student studying in Turkey. Omarkulyev had created an informal Turkmen students’ club at his university in Turkey. In March 2018 Omarkulyev went missing after migration authorities allegedly banned him from returning to Turkey for his studies. RFE/RL and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an exile group, reported that Omarkulyev was sentenced to 20 years in prison on unknown charges and was being held at the maximum-security prison in Ovadandepe. In September, RFE/RL reported on a video in which Omarkulyev appeared although he did not speak in the video. The video claimed authorities had not arrested Omarkulyev and, instead, he was serving his mandatory two-year military service. The video was Omarkulyev’s first appearance since he disappeared in March 2018. Prove They Are Alive! included him in its 2019 report.
Amnesty: Although the president granted pardons to several hundred individuals with criminal convictions, the names of those pardoned were not made public. It was widely assumed that he did not pardon any political prisoners.
On August 1, RFE/RL reported Dursoltan Taganova, an activist and representative of the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (DCT) living in Istanbul, was detained during a July 19 protest in front of the Turkmen consulate. One of the DCT leaders, Myrat Gurbanov, told RFE/RL that Taganova was transferred to a deportation camp in Istanbul because her immigration documents had expired. Gurbanov stated Turkish business representatives were pressuring Turkish authorities to send Taganova to Turkmenistan. According to media reports, Turkish officials released Taganova from the detention center on October 13 and granted her asylum in Turkey. On October 30, RFE/RL reported Turkmenistan government officials continued to harass Taganova and her family.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reported the national security services had increased their efforts to recruit informants among the growing community of Turkmenistani citizens who resided in Turkey. On July 1, Turkmen News reported that officials of the Ministry of National Security were persecuting Turkmen activists abroad, as well as their relatives who were in Turkmenistan.
The civil judiciary system was neither independent nor impartial, as the president appointed all judges. According to the law, evidence gathered during a criminal investigation can serve as the basis for a civil action in a process called “civil lawsuit in criminal justice.” Observers noted that in principle, this could include human rights abuses. In the past there were reports of bribes in the civil court system to ensure a particular outcome. In cases in which it had interests regarding an individual citizen, the state used the judiciary to impose court orders. Persons and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to regional human rights bodies, but local courts were unlikely to reverse decisions despite successful appeals.
Any individual or organization may file a complaint related to human rights abuses with the Office of the Ombudsperson. According to the law, the ombudsperson may then make a recommendation to the offending party on the necessary measures to restore the violated rights or freedoms immediately.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but authorities frequently did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities reportedly searched private homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
The law does not regulate surveillance by the state security apparatus, which regularly monitored the activities of officials, citizens, opponents, and critics of the government, and foreigners. Security officials used physical surveillance, telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, and informers. Authorities frequently queried the parents of students studying overseas and sometimes threatened state employees with loss of employment if they maintained friendships with foreigners.
The government reportedly intercepted surface mail before delivery, and letters and parcels taken to the post office had to remain unsealed for government inspection.
Persons harassed, detained, or arrested by authorities reported that the government caused family members to be fired from their jobs or expelled from school. Authorities sometimes also detained and interrogated family members.
The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, as well as to some virtual private network (VPN) connections. The government controlled the internet (there was only one provider in the country) and monitored users’ (journalists, civil society, etc.) internet activities.
According to CT, surveillance of activists and their relatives consisted of wiretapping, monitoring of postal correspondence, and periodic visits by district police officers. Local authorities conducted personal surveillance in special cases.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including due to torture. The law provides for several agencies to investigate, inquire into, and or prosecute unlawful killings by the security forces. Human rights campaigners, however, claimed these agencies were largely ineffective. The constitution established the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) to investigate any person or group of persons for violations of any human right (see section 5). The Police Disciplinary Court has the power to hear cases of officers who breach the police disciplinary code of conduct. Military courts have the power to hear cases against officers that break military law, which bars soldiers from targeting or killing nonmilitants.
Opposition activists, local media, and human rights activists reported that security forces killed individuals the government identified as dissidents and those who participated in protests against the government (see section 1.e). Opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, reported on February 24 that a Uganda Police Force (UPF) truck assigned to the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) killed his supporter Ritah Nabukenya. The UPF had deployed heavily in Kampala to block a Kyagulanyi political meeting with his supporters, and local media, citing eyewitness accounts, reported the police truck driver, upon seeing Nabukenya on a motorcycle taxi wearing red insignia associated with Kyagulanyi’s People Power political group, drove toward her, knocked down the motorcycle, and then ran over her. Later that day the UPF released a statement saying Nabukenya fatally injured herself when her motorcycle taxi collided with another motorcycle as it attempted to overtake the police truck. The UPF stated it would investigate what happened and promised to review the roadside CCTV as part of its investigations. Kyagulanyi demanded police release the CCTV footage of the incident, but on February 26, the UPF declared the cameras at the location were faulty and had failed to record the incident. At year’s end police had not revealed findings from its investigations.
On February 25, Kyagulanyi reported that as his motorcade drove through Nansana Town on his way back from Nabukenya’s funeral, an officer attached to the military’s Local Defense Unit (LDU) shot into a crowd of his supporters, killing 28-year-old Daniel Kyeyune. According to local media, a military spokesperson denied that an LDU officer was involved in the shooting and stated investigations had shown the assailant used a pistol, a firearm that he said LDU officers do not carry. On March 18, Kyagulanyi released amateur cellphone video footage, which showed an LDU officer firing straight into the crowd of Kyagulanyi’s supporters, after which Kyeyune can be seen on the ground. A military spokesperson, upon seeing the footage, cast doubt on the video’s authenticity, adding that the military would study it further. At year’s end the military had not released any findings from its investigations.
Local media reported several disappearances. Officials of the opposition National Unity Platform party (NUP) said they could not account for dozens of their supporters whom they said the security agencies had arrested while participating in party activities. The government neither acknowledged the persons were missing nor complied with measures to ensure accountability for disappearances. In addition, the UPF did not share any findings into the 2019 disappearance of Kyagulanyi supporter John Bosco Kibalama, who remained missing.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. The law stipulates that any person convicted of an act of torture may receive a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment, a monetary fine, or both. The penalty for conviction of aggravated torture is life imprisonment. Nevertheless, there were credible reports security forces tortured and physically abused suspects.
Human rights organizations, opposition politicians, and local media reported that security forces tortured dissidents as punishment for their opposition to the government. On April 24, local television stations showed images of opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Francis Zaake receiving medical treatment at the Iran-Uganda hospital in Naguru. The UPF and Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) had arrested Zaake at his home in Mityana District on April 19, accusing him of violating COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings when he distributed food to his constituents. On May 6, Zaake told journalists that upon his arrest, UPF officers under the watch of Mityana District police commander Alex Mwine and regional police commander Bob Kagarura beat him with sticks and batons, kicked him on his head, and then tied his legs and hands to suspend him under the bench in the flatbed on a police pickup truck, which drove him to the headquarters of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) in Mbuya. He said CMI officials sprayed his eyes with an unknown liquid that created a sharp burning sensation, then later beat him with a stick bearing sharp objects that tore at his skin. He said UPF officers then drove him to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) offices in Kireka, where UPF officers kicked, slapped, and punched him while telling him to quit politics, quit opposing the government, and retire to business. Zaake said his health deteriorated further while in detention, and on April 22, the UPF drove him to the Iran-Uganda hospital in Naguru for treatment. According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs document, the Iran-Uganda hospital found that Zaake had “blunt injuries on the forehead, earlobes, right and left of the chest, right side flank, right upper arm, right wrist, lower lip, left leg, and left leg shin.” On April 27, a court in Kampala ordered the UPF to release Zaake or arraign him in court. That same day the UPF drove Zaake, dressed only in shorts and unable to walk, to a court in Mityana. UPF officers carried him on a stretcher into the courtroom where a magistrate declined to hear the charges against Zaake and ordered the UPF to take him to hospital for medical treatment. The UPF, however, drove Zaake back to the SIU, where they detained him for another night and then released him on April 28. On May 6, the minister for internal affairs concluded that Zaake must have inflicted his injuries on himself “by knocking himself on the metal of the UPF police pickup truck.” On May 7, Zaake sued CMI commander Abel Kandiho, Mityana police commander Alex Mwine, SIU commander Elly Womanya, and three others for abusing him. On September 3, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) exercised its constitutional right and took over Zaake’s private suit against the security officers. Zaake told local media on September 3 that the ODPP had taken over the case in order to exonerate his abusers by putting up a dispirited prosecution, which would lead the court to issue an acquittal. The trial continued at year’s end. The ODPP also dropped its charges against Zaake on August 6.
Civil society organizations and opposition activists reported that security forces arrested, beat, and killed civilians as punishment for allegedly violating regulations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 18, the president announced restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which included an indefinite closure of all schools and a ban on religious gatherings, which he would later expand to include a nighttime curfew, restrictions on public and private transport, and a closure of nonessential business (see section 2.d.). The president instructed police and military to enforce the regulations. Local media reported LDU and UPF officers indiscriminately beat persons they found outside after the nighttime curfew with sticks, batons, and gunstocks, maiming some and killing others. On May 13, LDU officers shot primary school teacher Eric Mutasiga in the leg and chest, as he pleaded with the officers not to arrest his neighbor, whom the officers had found selling food three minutes into a nighttime curfew. On June 8, Mutasiga died of the gunshot wounds at Mulago hospital. The UPF stated it had arrested the LDU officers involved but declared Mutasiga was injured when he got into a scuffle with the security officers. At year’s end the UPF had not released details of its investigations into the killing. LDU and UPF personnel also attacked pregnant women who sought health care during periods when the government restricted use of public transport due to COVID-19.
On April 4, local media reported that on the night of April 3, UPF, LDU, and UPDF officers had raided a community in Elegu Town, driven dozens of persons out of their houses, beaten them with sticks and iron bars, and forced them to remove their clothes, roll in the dirt, and for some specifically to rub the dirt on their genitals, accusing them of violating the curfew. The UPDF and UPF released statements condemning the actions and promised to prosecute the officers involved. By year’s end the UPF and UPDF had not released findings from their investigations.
Impunity was a problem, and it was widespread in the UPF, UPDF, the Uganda Prisons Service (UPS), and the executive branch. The security forces did not take adequate measures to investigate and bring to account officers implicated in human rights abuses, especially in incidents involving members of the political opposition. The UPDF did not arrest or prosecute the LDU officer whom amateur cellphone video showed shooting into a crowd of opposition supporters and killing Daniel Kyeyune (see section 1.a.). Impunity was widespread because authorities gave political and judicial cover to officials who committed human rights violations. While speaking on November 29 about the November 18-19 protests, President Museveni directed police to investigate and audit the killings of 20 unarmed protesters struck by stray bullets, but not of the other 34 unarmed protesters, who he said were rioters (see section 1.e.). On August 22, President Museveni commended the UPDF’s Special Forces Command (SFC) officers who beat Kyagulanyi in August 2018. Speaking at a police recruits graduation ceremony, Museveni stated: “I found the man (Kyagulanyi) had been beaten properly, in the right way. He boxed them, and they also tried to box back until they subdued him. I was surprised that the SFC people acted properly; it was self-defense and beyond self-defense they didn’t beat. It was in order.” The government also provided legal services to police and prison officers facing charges of abuse in court. On September 23, the Attorney General’s Office sent one of its lawyers to defend UPS officer Philemon Woniala in a civil court case that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons filed against him in his individual capacity, accusing him of torture and inhuman treatment. The law bars government lawyers from defending officials sued in their individual capacity (see section 6). On July 20, the UPDF instituted human rights refresher training courses for its LDU officers to increase respect for human rights.
Conditions in detention centers remained harsh and in some cases life-threatening. Serious problems included overcrowding, physical abuse of detainees by security staff and fellow inmates, inadequate food, and understaffing. Reports of forced labor continued. Most prisons did not have accommodations for persons with disabilities. The government operated unofficial detention facilities where it detained suspects for years without charge.
Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding remained a problem. On August 7, the UPS reported its prison population had risen from 59,000 to 65,000 in four months after security forces arrested numerous individuals for defying COVID-19 restrictions. The UPS said this population was more than three times its capacity, although other data from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Prison Brief showed the prison detainees held were actually at 375 percent of prisons’ capacity.
Local NGOs and the UHRC declared overcrowding made the prisons a potential hotspot for the spread of COVID-19. On May 18, local media reported that some UPF posts kept male and female detainees in the same cell, and others kept adult detainees together with child detainees. On November 13, UPF officers in Oyam District arrested six NUP party officials for violating COVID-19 restrictions at an election campaign rally and detained both female and male officials in the same cell.
There were reports of deaths in prisons due to prison conditions. On February 20, local media reported that three pretrial detainees died in Atopi prison after they went to work on a prison farm despite reporting in the morning that they were ill. Prison authorities said they were carrying out postmortems to establish the causes of death but did not report the findings. Political prisoners faced different conditions from those of the general population. Zaake’s lawyers reported in April that UPF officers denied Zaake medical care.
Administration: Authorities did not always carry out investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. The local civil society organization Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum reported in June that UPS officials beat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) detainees on account of their sexual orientation. UPS officials denied this and declined to investigate (see section 6). Local media and human rights activists reported that the UPF, UPDF, CMI, ISO, and UPS denied access to visitors for some detainees held at official and unofficial detention facilities (safe houses) (see section 6).
Independent Monitoring: The UPS reported in August that due to COVID-19 restrictions, it stopped visitors from accessing prison facilities. The UPS, however, reported that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it allowed the local civil society organization African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims to conduct prison visits with advance notification; however, no independent monitors received access to any unregistered detention facilities or pretrial detention cells. The International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on whether it conducted prison visits during the year.
Improvements: The UPS reported in August that the president had pardoned 2,833 prisoners to decongest prisons and help prevent the spread of COVID-19, although this was only half the number of detainees that entered prison between March and August. The pardoned detainees largely comprised convicts of petty offenses serving less than two-year sentences, mothers of infants, and convicts older than age 60. The Ministry of Health donated four modern tuberculosis-testing machines to the UPS, which improved the prisons’ capacity to quickly diagnose and treat the disease.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, security forces often arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, especially opposition leaders, politicians, activists, demonstrators, journalists, LGBTI persons, and members of the general population accused of violating COVID-19 restrictions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but this mechanism was seldom employed and rarely successful.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires that judges or prosecutors issue a warrant before authorities make an arrest unless the arrest occurs during commission of a crime or while in pursuit of a perpetrator. Nevertheless, authorities often arrested suspects without warrants. The law requires authorities to arraign suspects within 48 hours of arrest, but they frequently held suspects longer without charge. Authorities must try suspects arrested for capital offenses within 360 days (120 days if charged with an offense triable by subordinate courts) or release them on bail; however, if prosecutors present the case to the court before the expiration of this period, there is no limit on further pretrial detention. While the law requires authorities to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for detention, at times they did not do so. The law provides for bail at the judge’s discretion, but many suspects were unaware of the law or lacked the financial means to cover the bond. Judges generally granted requests for bail. The law provides detainees the right to legal representation and access to a lawyer, but authorities did not always respect this right. The law requires the government to provide an attorney for indigent defendants charged with capital offenses. Most defendants endured significant delays in this process. Security forces often held opposition political members and other suspects incommunicado and under house arrest.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention, particularly of dissidents, remained problems. The UPF and UPDF on numerous occasions arrested and harassed opposition politicians, their supporters, and private citizens who engaged in peaceful protests and held public rallies. LDU officers raided communities at night, dragged persons out of their houses, and arrested them for violating the COVID-19 nighttime curfew (see section 1.c.). UPF officers arrested journalists for hosting opposition politicians on radio stations (see section 2). UPF officers also raided an LGBTI shelter and arrested occupants, accusing them of violating COVID-19 regulations on social distancing (see section 6). On February 26, the UPF arrested journalist Moses Bwayo as he was on a set, shooting a documentary and music video for opposition politician Kyagulanyi. Police accused Bwayo of holding an illegal assembly “in the middle of a busy public road, causing heavy traffic jam, which inconvenienced residents.” The UPF detained Bwayo, impounded his cameras and recording equipment, and released him on February 27 without charge.
Pretrial Detention: Case backlogs due to an inefficient judiciary, inadequate police investigations, the absence of plea bargaining prior to 2015, insufficient use of bail, the absence of a time limit for the detention of detainees awaiting trial, and restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 contributed to frequent prolonged pretrial detentions. The UPS reported that although the rate of the country’s pretrial detainees had fallen to 47 percent of the then 59,000 total inmates in the prison system, mainly as a result of plea bargaining, it rose to 53 percent when COVID-19 restrictions came into force. In August the UPS reported COVID-19 regulations on social distancing had stopped court sessions from taking place regularly, and only a few prison facilities had videoconferencing facilities that could facilitate an online trial, which further slowed the rate at which prisons processed detainees through the system.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Citizens detained without charge have the right to sue the Attorney General’s Office for compensation for unlawful detention; however, citizens rarely exercised this right.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but the government did not always respect this provision. Corruption, understaffing, inefficiency, and executive-branch interference with judicial rulings often undermined the courts’ independence. Chief Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo repeatedly decried the shortage of judges and criticized parliament and executive decisions to spend limited resources to create new legislative positions without expanding the number of judges, which contributed to a case backlog in the courts and prevented access to justice. The executive, especially security agencies, did not always respect court orders. UPF officers in April defied court orders for the immediate release of Zaake to seek medical attention and kept him in detention an extra day (see section 1.a.).
The president appoints Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeal and High Court judges, and members of the Judicial Service Commission (which makes recommendations on appointments to the judiciary) with the approval of parliament.
Due to vacancies on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, and the lower courts, the judiciary did not deliver justice in a timely manner. At times the lack of judicial quorum precluded cases from proceeding.
Judicial corruption was a problem, and local media reported numerous cases where judicial officers in lower courts solicited and accepted bribes from the parties involved. In January outgoing Chief Justice Bart Katureebe announced the judiciary would subject seven judicial staff to disciplinary hearings after receiving credible allegations of corruption against them. The judiciary had not released its findings by year’s end.
Although the law provides for a presumption of innocence, authorities did not always respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them and are entitled to free assistance of an interpreter. An inadequate system of judicial administration resulted in a serious backlog of cases, undermining suspects’ right to a timely trial. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney of their choice. The law requires the government to provide an attorney for indigent defendants charged with capital offenses. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and appeal. The law allows defendants to confront or question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, but authorities did not always respect this right. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt, and they have the right to appeal. The UPF and UPS denied some political and some LGBTI detainees access to their lawyers as they prepared their legal defense (see section 6).
All nonmilitary trials are public. A single judge decides cases in the High Court, while a panel of at least five judges decides cases in the Constitutional and Supreme Courts. The law allows military courts to try civilians who assist members of the military in committing offenses or are found possessing arms, ammunition, or other equipment reserved for the armed forces.
In September 2018, 10 years after he was arrested, the International Crimes Division of the High Court began the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kwoyelo faced 93 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity; his was the first war crimes trial in the country’s history. Civil society and cultural leaders criticized the slow pace of the trial, which was suspended due to COVID-19 in March with no definite date of planned resumption.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Authorities detained numerous opposition politicians and activists on politically motivated grounds. Authorities released many without charge but charged others with crimes including treason, annoying the president, cyberharassment, inciting violence, holding illegal meetings, and abuse of office. No reliable statistics on the total number of political detainees or prisoners were available.
On December 22, plainclothes UPF officers arrested and detained human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and four other lawyers while they were dining in a restaurant. The state released the other lawyers without charges but accused Opiyo of money laundering. The first court he appeared in denied him bail, citing jurisdiction issues. On December 30, Opiyo was released on bail, and his trial continued at year’s end.
On November 18, UPF officers arrested and detained presidential candidate Kyagulanyi in Luuka District as he attempted to address a campaign rally, accusing him of defying COVID-19 restrictions. Police detained Kyagulanyi at Nalufenya police station in Jinja and held him until November 20, when the Iganga chief magistrate’s court granted him bail upon his arraignment. Kyagulanyi said that UPF officers detained him alongside 19 other male suspects in the same cell with three women. Kyagulanyi’s arrest sparked widespread protests during which, according to local media, security forces attacked journalists, killed at least 54 unarmed persons and left hundreds injured. Local media showed images and footage of UPDF, military police, and UPF officers, as well as plainclothes individuals shooting with assault rifles at unarmed persons on the roadside, in office buildings, and in food markets. Several recordings of amateur cellphone footage showed military police officers shooting at unarmed individuals who were recording the security forces’ actions. Officials at Mulago hospital told local media on November 20 that most of those killed died of gunshot wounds, while others died of asphyxiation caused by tear gas. On November 20, Minister for Security Elly Tumwine told local media that the killings were justified because “the police [have] a right to shoot you and kill you if you reach a certain level of violence.” Kyagulanyi’s trial continued at year’s end.
On March 12, UPF and CMI officers surrounded the home of former minister for security, retired soldier, and presidential hopeful Henry Tumukunde in Kololo, Kampala, and told him he was under arrest for making treasonous statements. On March 3, Tumukunde had written to the Electoral Commission expressing his intention to consult the electorate regarding supporting him for a presidential election bid. Then on March 5, he appeared on a television program and said he welcomed Rwanda to support political change in Uganda. Local media and human rights activists reported that the UPF and CMI also arrested at least 13 Tumukunde associates, including his two sons and a cousin, and later charged them with obstruction of justice. The UPF detained Tumukunde at the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Kibuli and later at the Special Investigations Unit in Kireka. The UPF detained his associates and sons at Jinja Road Police Station but released the sons on March 14. On March 18, the UPF arraigned Tumukunde in court and formally charged him with treason and unlawful possession of firearms. On March 23, Tumukunde applied for bail and while initially denied, on May 11, the court granted him bail. At year’s end hearings for Tumukunde’s treason trial had not begun.
On February 20, an appellate court overturned a 2019 cyberharassment conviction against dissident Stella Nyanzi on grounds that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and that it had not carried out a fair hearing.
Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through the regular court system or the UHRC, which has judicial powers under the constitution. The law also empowers the courts to grant restitution, rehabilitation, or compensation to victims of human rights abuses as well as to hold public officials involved in human rights violations personally liable, including contributing to compensation or restitution costs. The UHRC’s powers include the authority to order the release of detainees, pay compensation to victims, and pursue other legal and administrative remedies, such as mediation. Civil courts and the UHRC have no ability to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses criminally liable. Bureaucratic delays hampered enforcement of judgments that granted financial compensation to victims. The government rarely complied with judicial decisions related to human rights. On May 13, opposition politician and Kampala city mayor Erias Lukwago said that courts had since 2009 awarded him in excess of 900 million Ugandan shillings ($243,000) in compensation for inhuman treatment by security forces, but the executive had not paid him.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but there were reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Police did not always obtain search warrants to enter private homes and offices. In August 2019 media reported the government hired Huawei technicians to hack into Kyagulanyi’s private WhatsApp communications to gather political intelligence against him. The Ugandan and Chinese governments both denied spying on Kyagulanyi. The UPF, however, noted in an August 2019 statement that Huawei had supplied it with closed-circuit television cameras with facial recognition technology, which it installed across the country. According to media reports, the government used Huawei surveillance technology to monitor the whereabouts of Kyagulanyi and other political opponents.
Human rights activists said that government agencies broke into activists’ homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization and arbitrarily sought to access activists’ private communication. On September 9, human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo reported unidentified individuals broke into his private apartment and stole his communication equipment, including his computers and cell phones. Opiyo reported on September 11 that he digitally tracked his missing phones to the CMI headquarters in Mbuya. The law authorizes government security agencies to tap private conversations to combat terrorism-related offenses. The government invoked the law to monitor telephone and internet communications.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In January a man died as a result of beatings suffered while in detention at the Chirakchi District Ministry of the Interior branch office in the Kashkardarya Region, and on September 21, two officers who had been charged in the case received from four to nine years in prison. The first deputy chief of the police department resigned his position following the death.
In a separate case on May 30, press reported that Alijon Abdukarimov suffered critical wounds from the Andijan police while in detention on May 29 over charges of theft. After allegedly being beaten at a police station, Abdukarimov was taken to a hospital, where he died on June 11. The Prosecutor General’s Office launched an investigation into his case, leading to the June 13 arrest of six police officers. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently filed charges against them, and an additional 19 law enforcement officers faced disciplinary measures. On November 27, the Andijan regional criminal court announced that the six police officers were sentenced from one to 10 years in prison.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The country has laws governing the conduct of law enforcement officers and addressing torture, including language that states, “Employees of the Internal Affairs Ministry may not employ torture, violence, or other cruel or degrading treatments. The employee of the Internal Affairs Ministry is obliged to prevent intentional acts causing pain, physical, or moral suffering to the citizen.” The law bans the use of evidence obtained by torture in court proceedings. In addition, an antitorture law includes liability for the use of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment. Prior to the adoption of the law, there were formal obstacles to the prosecution of persons involved in torture. These restrictions were eliminated.
During the year the UN Committee Against Torture concluded “that torture and ill-treatment continue to be routinely committed by, at the instigation of and with the consent of the State party’s law enforcement, investigative and prison officials, principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.” In addition, a number of criminal trials during which defendants raised torture allegations, as well as several trials of persons charged with committing torture under Article 235 of the criminal code, including the 2018 trial of six National Security Service officers and others charged with torturing Ilhom and Rahim Ibodov, were closed to the public. Court decisions in those cases were not publicly available.
In September 2019 local officials in Khorezm detained blogger Nafosat “Shabnam” Ollashkurova after she criticized local government corruption on Facebook, including posts about illegal demolitions. Ollashkurova served 10 days of administrative detention, following which the Urgench District Civil Court ordered authorities to place her in the Khorezm regional psychiatric center for six months of evaluation and treatment against her will. Ollashkurova was released from the regional psychiatric center on December 28, 2019. In mid-January she reported authorities continued to harass her, claiming officials were visiting her apartment building and reminding family members her classification as a mental patient meant she could be detained without a court order at any time. Fearing for her safety, Ollashkurova fled the country on January 18 and sought political asylum in another country.
According to Forbes and other media sources, Farrukh Khidirov, a prisoner in penal colony #11 in the Navoi Region, died on June 27 after officials beat and burned him with boiling water. According to human rights activists, a few days before his death, Khidirov called home and said penal colony officials were demanding money from him. The officials provided him with their bank account information so that he could transfer funds. When they did not receive the money, they tortured him, human rights activists reported. Khidirov spent eight days in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. After the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Ezgulik published accounts of his case, the Main Directorate of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs published a refutation in local online media. The message stated, “The body was examined by the Prosecutor’s Office, no bodily injuries were detected, and an appropriate examination was appointed regarding the incident. The redness that appeared on the video is a cadaveric stain and has nothing to do with bodily harm.”
In June a resident of the Surkhandarya Region told local media that “National Guard officers strangled me for not wearing a mask.” The officers allegedly approached him near his home and reported they had photographed him without a mask, which national directives required be worn in public at all times due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. One officer allegedly tried to force the victim into a police van, strangling him in the process.
On July 12, the Analytical Center for Central Asia and other media reported that police officers and National Guard officers beat a judge at a checkpoint by the entrance to the Jarkurgan District of the Surkhandarya Region. Following a traffic jam, police eventually closed the entrance to the city due to COVID-19 restrictions. The judge, who had been waiting in traffic for an hour to enter the city, spoke with the officers, who then pulled him from his vehicle and beat him, causing a concussion. On July 15, the General Prosecutor’s Office declared it had instituted criminal proceedings under Article 206 against employees who had worked at the checkpoint.
Media reported that on December 1 Zhanabay Ismayilov of Chimbay was severely beaten in the Karalkalpakstan Region–suffering cuts, bruises, and a broken arm–after two drunken Ministry of Interior officers assaulted him when he tried to get into their taxi, which he believed was free. Despite appeals by the victim’s family, at year’s end authorities had not opened a case against the two officers.
Prison conditions were in some circumstances harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Reports of overcrowding, severe abuse, and shortages of medicine were common. On August 17, the government reported there were 22,867 prisoners in the penal system, held in 43 prisons and 11 pretrial detention facilities. Of the 43 prisons, 18 were “closed colonies” and 25 were open, “resettlement” colonies. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the prison capacity was at 56 percent.
Officials generally provided inmates access to poor quality potable water and food. Visiting family members often brought provisions to detained family members. Upon release, political prisoners in the last two to three years reported to Human Rights Watch and others of being beaten and otherwise tortured, including being held in stress positions, while in prison.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prisoners are entitled to outdoor exercise during nonworking hours, psychological treatment, and safe working conditions. In addition, prisoners are eligible for salaries and other work benefits. In the event of serious illness, prisoners can receive additional telephone privileges and family visits upon a physician’s advice. The rules also state that prisoners should undergo a medical examination upon request and at intervals of not more than six months. No information on implementation of these rules was publicly available.
Prison administration officials reported an active World Health Organization tuberculosis program in the prisons and an HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention program. International experts noted, however, that the rate of infectious diseases in prisons was not public knowledge and believed that the rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS were very likely higher in prisons than in the general population. Poor compliance with treatment plans and other implementation issues undermined government efforts to lower infection rates.
Civil society activists raised concerns that prison officials were not adequately addressing COVID-19-related safety measures and specifically noted that older and medically compromised prisoners were at a higher infection risk due to lack of such measures.
On May 11, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, along with the government-run NGO Yuksalish, announced it would begin conducting public monitoring in penal institutions to assess the level of protection against COVID-19. According to human rights activists, during the COVID quarantine and restrictive movement measures instituted in March, family members of prisoners stopped receiving mail, were restricted from visiting the prisons, and were denied telephone calls.
On May 22, the Cabinet of Ministers published a decree instructing the Ministry of Internal Affairs to publish information regarding the number of persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention institutions; the number of penitentiaries and pretrial detention institutions; information on types of manufactured goods and monetary value of such goods produced in the penitentiary facilities; information on the number of deaths among persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention facilities; and information on the number of convicts kept in penitentiary institutions that are subject to compulsory medical measures.
One human rights activist reported that prison administrators continued to charge current prisoners, often those convicted on religiously based charges, with new offenses, such as organizing criminal communities or participating in banned organizations. Such charges served as grounds for extending their prison terms. According to the law, prison officials are allowed to file new charges against prisoners resulting in new prison terms. Activists often referred to this as an “extension” of a term, but in reality it was a new sentence imposed on a current prisoner. For example, during the year 11 religious prisoners (each serving 20 year sentences) received an additional prison term of 10 years under this practice.
Administration: The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office may investigate complaints from detainees and the public. The Ombudsman’s Office may make recommendations on behalf of specific prisoners, including changes to the sentences of nonviolent offenders to make them more appropriate to the offense. Some family members of detained or released prisoners said the ombudsman did not respond to their complaints. On June 17, media reported that volunteers of the “Open Line Initiative” group held a protest to demand the resignation of the ombudsman. The protesters, family members of prisoners, contended that prisoners were routinely harassed, bullied, beaten, humiliated, and psychologically tortured by prison officials, including senior officials, and that the ombudsman routinely ignored family pleas for assistance.
Some human rights activists reported that lawyers had no problems meeting with their clients, although others disputed this, saying access was both limited and monitored.
Prison officials typically allowed family members to visit prisoners for up to four hours two to four times per year. Officials also permitted longer visits of one to three days two to four times per year, depending on the type of prison facility, as well as overnight stays. In March officials instituted COVID-19 restrictions on visitations. Authorities relocated some religious and political prisoners to housing in prison colonies rather than formal prisons. The colonies often allowed prisoners to come and go regularly and to have more family contact. Some prisoners were allowed to work and earn money inside or outside the colony.
The government stated that prisoners have the right to practice any religion, but some prisoners complained to family members that prison authorities did not permit them to observe religious rituals that conflicted with the prison’s schedule. Such rituals included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation has improved, others said the restriction continued. Authorities forbid all prisoners to observe religious holidays, such as Ramadan, with no fasting allowed. Although some prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to complain that authorities did not allow all religious prisoners access to religious materials.
According to official government procedures, prisoners have the right to “participate in religious worship and family relations, such as marriage.” Close relatives also have the right to receive oral and written information from prison officials regarding the health and disciplinary records of their family members. Families continued to report that the government provided limited to no information or withheld information contained in health and prison records.
Independent Monitoring: Some independent observers had limited access to some parts of the penitentiary system, including pretrial detention facilities, women’s prisons, and prison settlements. Ezgulik, however, reported it had no problems accessing any prisoner. UNICEF regularly visited the country’s four juvenile offenders’ colonies. The International Committee for the Red Cross had not visited detainees since 2013.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these requirements.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law a judge must review any decision to arrest accused individuals or suspects. Judges granted arrest warrants in most cases. Defendants have the right to legal counsel from the time of arrest. State-appointed attorneys are available for those who do not hire private counsel. Officials did not always respect the right to counsel and occasionally forced defendants to sign written statements declining the right. Authorities’ selective intimidation and disbarment of defense lawyers produced a chilling effect that also compromised political detainees’ access to legal counsel.
Some defense lawyers noted difficulty in accessing clients, the lack of private meeting spaces at law enforcement facilities to meet with detainees, and the lack of access to information about their client’s case.
The law authorizes the use of house arrest as a form of pretrial detention. The law allows detainees to request hearings before a judge to determine whether they should remain incarcerated or released before trial. Authorities often granted these hearings but typically granted detention requests from prosecutors, thereby undermining the spirit of judicial oversight. The arresting authority is required to notify a relative of a detainee of the detention and to question the detainee within 24 hours of arrest.
On April 1, compulsory procedures to protect detainees, including video recording of actions involving detainees and explanation of procedural rights to detainees, were introduced. The new procedures also stipulate that police are required to notify either family members or other designated persons regarding the arrest and location of a detainee within 24 hours. According to media reports and human rights activists, these protective measures had not been well implemented and reports of police abuse following detention were common.
Civil society reported that authorities physically abused or tortured suspects before notifying either family members or attorneys of their arrest in order to obtain a confession. In February the Ombudsman’s Office released its 2019 annual report, which noted that cameras in interrogation rooms at law enforcement facilities were frequently turned off or detainees were tortured and interrogated within camera blind spots. The report called for the creation of a special investigative committee to look into such cases. The ombudsman stated publicly on May 29 that 80 to 90 percent of the complaints of torture received by the office occurred at pretrial detention facilities rather than in the prison system.
On August 10, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree aimed at introducing mechanisms to eliminate the torture of detainees by ensuring the right of detainees to meet privately with defense lawyers upon arrest, ensuring the presence of defense lawyers during witness interrogation, outlawing the use of illegally obtained evidence; and introducing the use of plea agreements.
Suspects have the right to remain silent and must be informed of the right to counsel. Detention without formal charges is limited to 48 hours, although a prosecutor may request that a judge extend detention an additional 48 hours, after which the person must be charged or released. Judges typically grant such requests, and the judge who issues such an extension is often the same one that presides over the trial, which creates incentives to cover up violations. Authorities typically held suspects after the allowable period of detention, according to human rights advocates. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail (or on the guarantee of an individual or public organization acting as surety), stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. The judge conducting the arrest hearing is allowed to sit on the panel of judges during the individual’s trial.
The law requires authorities at pretrial detention facilities to arrange a meeting between a detainee and a representative from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office upon the detainee’s request. Officials allowed detainees in prison facilities to submit confidential complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Once authorities file charges, suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months while investigations proceed. The law permits an extension of the investigation period for as much as seven months at the discretion of the appropriate court upon a motion by the relevant prosecutor, who may also release a prisoner on bond pending trial. Those arrested and charged with a crime may be released without bail until trial on the condition they provide assurance of “proper behavior” and that they would appear at trial.
A decree requires that all defense attorneys pass a comprehensive relicensing examination. In past years several experienced and knowledgeable defense lawyers who had represented human rights activists and independent journalists lost their licenses after taking the relicensing examination or because of letters from the bar association under the control of the Ministry of Justice claiming that they violated professional ethical norms.
The country had relatively few defense lawyers per capita, and activists said this likely was due to lower levels of pay, prestige, and influence in comparison to judges and prosecutors.
On November 30, the president signed a law that allows the National Guard, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and police the right to surveil electronically attorneys’ communications with clients. With the consent of the prosecutor or an investigator, officials (including prosecutors, investigators, and state bodies) can have access to conversations, messages, and other forms of information conveyed between a defendant and his or her lawyer by telephone and other telecommunications devices. Officials may also record these conversations. In some cases, authorities detained suspects and required them to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from discussing their case publicly. Human rights lawyers complained authorities used this tactic as a way to prevent lawyers and clients from receiving outside assistance or boosting publicity about their cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: Bloggers and activists were occasionally detained arbitrarily. In July local police illegally detained and interrogated journalists in Karakalpakstan without a court summons and seized their phones and laptops due to claims of “false” reporting about the health of a local government official. The Prosecutor General’s Office criticized the local police for what it termed “illegal acts.”
In contrast with previous years, religious groups reported that arbitrary detention of their members no longer occurred.
The government phased out the use of preventive watch lists, which contained the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the regime. In 2019 Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov announced that since 2016, authorities removed more than 20,000 prisoners convicted on religious grounds from the watch list. It was unknown how many individuals remained on the watch list. Previously, authorities compelled named individuals on the watch list to submit to police for interrogation, denied issuance of passports and travel visas, and in some cases, prohibited the purchase and use of smartphones.
The law provides for a commission to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. On August 26, the Ministry of Interior press service released a video announcing that some prisoners would be pardoned or released in honor of Independence Day. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that a large number of the pardons included those convicted on “religious extremism” charges. The video and accompanying press declared the government had released or pardoned 4,500 prisoners since the death of former president Karimov in 2016, including 1,584 religious prisoners (of these, 1,215 were released and 369 received reduced sentences). On August 27, in advance of the country’s Independence Day, an additional 113 prisoners received pardons, including 105 religious prisoners. On December 7, to mark Constitution Day, the government released 104 prisoners, including 21 religious prisoners, bringing the total number of religious prisoners released since 2016 to 1,710. Another commission reviews the petitions of persons “who mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” While the commission has the power to exonerate citizens from all criminal liability, observers reported it did not exercise this power in the majority of cases the commission reviewed.
Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors generally exercised discretion regarding most aspects of criminal procedures, including pretrial detention. Authorities did not provide access to detainees to a court to challenge the length or validity of pretrial detention, despite the law granting detainees the right to do so. Even when authorities did not file charges, police and prosecutors frequently sought to evade restrictions on the length of time that persons could be held without charges by holding them as witnesses rather than as suspects. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the prison system, did not provide information regarding the number of persons held in pretrial detention centers or allow access to independent organizations.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law detainees or former detainees are able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Appeals were sometimes open to the public by request of the applicant. New evidence was rarely heard. Appeal courts generally reviewed previous trial records and asked applicants to declare for the record their innocence or guilt. Appeals rarely resulted in the courts overturning their original decisions.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for a judiciary; however, the judiciary does not operate with complete independence and impartiality. The Prosecutor General’s Office and other law enforcement bodies occasionally exerted inappropriate pressure on members of the judiciary to render desired verdicts. Regardless of the length of their term, judges can still be arbitrarily dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council, making them vulnerable to political pressure.
Judges are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council, subject to concurrence by the Senate. According to the law, lifetime appointments are possible under certain circumstances. The law states, “A judge shall be appointed or elected in accordance with the established procedure for an initial five-year term, a regular 10-year term, and a subsequent indefinite period of tenure.” Regardless of the term of appointment, the Supreme Judicial Council may dismiss judges. On August 20, the council invited media representatives to a first-ever meeting during which council members discussed the appointment of 19 new judges.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but in practice this was not always the case. The criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence. Judicial authorities officially opened most trials to the public and generally permitted international observers at proceedings, but judges or other officials arbitrarily closed some proceedings to observers, even in civil cases. Judges may close trials in exceptional cases, such as those involving state secrets or to protect victims and witnesses. Authorities generally announce trials only one or two days before they begin, and they frequently postponed hearings.
A panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors, selected by committees of worker collectives or neighborhood committees, generally presided over trials. Lay assessors rarely speak. The professional judge usually accepts the prosecutors’ recommendations on procedural rulings and sentencing.
Defendants have the right to attend court proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence, but judges often declined defense motions to summon additional witnesses or to enter evidence supporting the defendant into the record.
While the overwhelming majority of criminal cases brought to trial resulted in guilty verdicts, the number of acquittals has risen. According to the Supreme Court’s website, the number of acquittals increased from six in 2016, to 263 in 2017, to 867 in 2018, and to 859 in 2019 (compared to 27,603 convictions in 2019).
Following his September 2019 visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego Garcia-Sayan highlighted the 2019 creation of the Supreme Judicial Council, the increase in acquittals, and the establishment of a process to improve the public’s access to court rulings, as key steps toward promoting judiciary independence in the country. His formal report, issued in June, noted that corruption remained a concern and a number of forms of interferences continued to undermine both the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government (affecting institutional independence) and the independence of individual judges to adjudicate the cases before them impartially and autonomously (affecting personal independence). The report noted that “prosecutors retain a prominent role in criminal proceedings, and the proceedings for the appointment and dismissal of the prosecutor general do not provide sufficient guarantees to prevent undue political influence from the legislative and executive branches of power, raising considerable concerns as to the institutional independence of the whole prosecution service.”
The UN special rapporteur’s report also noted that, “the shortage of lawyers severely affects access to justice, especially outside of Tashkent, and lawyers continue to encounter several obstacles in obtaining access to clients, in particular during pretrial detention.” It stated that some lawyers, for example, those defending persons who charged with terrorist offenses or who are political prisoners, reported harassment and illegal searches prior to meetings with clients in detention facilities. Further, it stated lawyers also experienced a lack of access to information, files, and documents in the possession of government authorities. The report found that lawyers were frequently denied access to case files prior to indictments or were prevented from summoning or cross-examining witnesses. In cases involving state security, lawyers did not have access to the indictment or the final ruling. The report concluded that this constituted a serious violation of the principle of equality of arms, since defendants were de facto deprived of any effective legal assistance.
The government provided legal counsel and interpreters without charge when necessary. According to credible reports, state-appointed defense attorneys routinely acted in the interest of the government rather than of their clients because of their reliance on the state for a livelihood and fear of possible recrimination.
In 2019 the Ministry of Justice registered the nongovernmental, nonprofit organization Madad, whose purpose is to help increase legal awareness and provide free legal advice and practical legal assistance, including through the operation of an online portal Advice.uz (e-maslahat.uz).
By law a prosecutor must request an arrest order from a court, and courts rarely denied such requests. Prosecutors have considerable power after obtaining an arrest order. They direct investigations, prepare criminal cases, recommend sentences to judges, and may appeal court decisions, including sentences. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail, stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. Although the criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor’s recommendations generally prevail. If a judge’s sentence does not correspond with the prosecutor’s recommendation, the prosecutor may appeal the sentence to a higher court. Judges often based their verdicts solely on confessions and witness testimony that authorities in some cases allegedly extracted through abuse, threats to family members, or other means of coercion. Authorities commonly used these practices in religious extremism cases in particular. Both defense lawyers and prosecutors may call on judges to reject confessions and investigate claims of torture.
The government continued to broadcast live coverage of court hearings when both parties consent, limiting such broadcasts to minor cases typically involving administrative offenses or economic cases. Despite the Supreme Court’s efforts to publish its rulings on its website, lower-level courts generally did not publish their rulings, making it difficult for defense lawyers to build arguments based on legal precedent.
The law provides a right of appeal to defendants, but appeals rarely resulted in reversal of convictions. In some cases, appeals resulted in reduced or suspended sentences.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
In August the government released four high-profile prisoners. Three of these (Rustam Abdumannopov, Iskandar Khudaiberganov, and Akrom Malikov) were considered by Tashkent-based human rights organization Ezgulik and other domestic human rights activists to be the only three remaining political prisoners in the country. The fourth prisoner released was Rukhitdin Fakhrutdinov, a well known religious prisoner. It was unknown how many other religious prisoners remained in custody.
In years past the government targeted peaceful political dissidents and convicted them of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or for belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations. NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention. There were no reports of such detentions during the year.
Authorities sometimes did not provide political prisoners and detainees the same protections as other detainees, including by holding some incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, limiting their access to lawyers of their choosing, and psychologically intimidating some of them. The government sometimes did not permit access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with an allowance upon parole to help them reintegrate into society, although some reported not receiving all promised benefits. Such allowances include travel expenses to one’s place of residence, health benefits, and the issuance of an internal passport, which is the primary form of identification in the country. Upon release, convicts sign a document acknowledging they understand the terms of their parole. This document typically includes a prohibition on travel abroad for up to one year. In years past, several former prisoners reported that authorities levied a fine against them as a condition of their parole. Failure to abide by the terms of payment may result in the termination of parole. One former prisoner, for example, was reportedly required to pay 20 percent of his monthly salary to the government for 18 months following his release.
In 2019 high-level government officials periodically visited different regions of the country to conduct outreach to vulnerable social groups, such as former prisoners, and the government said it maintained this policy. COVID-19-related movement restrictions and strict quarantine protocols issued throughout the country likely affected the ability of officials to conduct such visits. In years past, former prisoners expressed concerns regarding the difficulty of placing children into kindergartens, obtaining assistance in securing housing, and receiving medical treatment, as well as concerns over their parole terms.
Some former political prisoners pointed out that they were still considered criminals because authorities did not fully exonerate them upon their release from prison. Three former political prisoners, including Azam Farmonov, whom authorities released in 2017 after serving 11 years of a 13-year sentence, attempted to register an NGO named Restoration of Justice three times in 2019, without success. On March 9, the Ministry of Justice registered the NGO under a new name, Hoquqiy Tayanc (Legal Pillar); the NGO sought redress for the unlawful detention of political prisoners, including clearing their records through exoneration, expungement, or other means.
Amnesty: Authorities annually grant amnesty and release individuals imprisoned for religious extremism or other crimes. In five separate instances during the year, President Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious extremism or other grounds.
Kyrgyzstan authorities extradited journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev to Tashkent on August 9 at the request of Uzbekistan authorities. The Uzbekistan government charged the journalist on two counts of crimes against the government, reportedly based on accusations that he had published allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan officials. After Abdullayev signed a nondisclosure agreement, he was released, and the charges were eventually dropped (see section 2.a.).
Citizens may file suit in civil courts for alleged human rights violations by officials, excluding investigators, prosecutors, and judges. Civil society reported in the past that bribes accepted by judges influenced their court decisions in these cases.
Government urban renewal campaigns to demolish older, Soviet-era apartment blocks and private homes in both Tashkent and other regions continued to displace citizens from their homes or businesses, often without due process. On February 14, a fight broke out between police and residents of a village in the southern region of Surkhondaryo due to news this campaign would demolish their homes. Also in February, a woman was severely burned in Qarshi after she set herself on fire in front of the regional prosecutor’s office to protest the illegal demolition of her home. On August 28, more than 100 residents in a Tashkent neighborhood began protesting the demolition of their private garages where a builder planned to construct an apartment building. The residents had been fighting the planned construction for months.
Although the constitution and law forbid arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, authorities did not respect these prohibitions. The law requires that prosecutors approve requests for search warrants for electronic surveillance, but there is no provision for judicial review of such warrants.
On August 6, unknown assailants simultaneously hacked the Telegram accounts (a popular social messaging app) of several bloggers and journalists, including the owners of Telegram channels https://t.me/nobody_cares_but (10,000 subscribers) https://t.me/insider_uz (7,000 subscribers), https://t.me/kurbanoffnet (7,000 subscribers), and journalists Zafarbek Solizhonov and Anora Sodikova. Bloggers and journalists later posted online their belief that the aim was not only to attack freedom of speech but also to obtain personal information that could later be used against them. “We know that this attack was aimed at specific individuals, so it can be said that the main target was not money,” wrote journalist and blogger Eldar Asanov on his Telegram channel (8,000 subscribers).
The government adopted a unified statute addressing matters related to personal data protection and processing in 2019. Previously, numerous laws and resolutions regulated the government’s protection of and processing procedures for individuals’ personal data, which complicated compliance requirements. This law was the country’s first attempt to unify personal data regulations in line with international standards.
There were no reports of raids of the homes of religious groups’ members and unregistered congregations.
The government continued to use an estimated 12,000 mahalla (neighborhood) committees as a source of information on potential “extremists.” The committees provide various social support functions, including the distribution of social welfare assistance to the elderly, single parents, or families with many children; intervention in cases of domestic violence; and adjudication of disputes between residents, but they also serve as a way to feed information about local community members to the government and law enforcement entities. Mahallas in rural areas tended to be more influential than those in cities.
In February, President Mirziyoyev issued a decree that established the Ministry for the Support of the Mahalla and the Family. The new ministry is tasked with ensuring close cooperation between the state level government and the local mahallas on issues of women, family, and social structures.