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Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In 2017 the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters. Local elections took place in June 2019, but the main opposition party and others boycotted, accusing the government of electoral fraud. The organization’s observation mission to the local elections reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options, although voting “was conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner.” The organization identified credible allegations of vote buying as well as pressure on voters from both the ruling party and opposition parties.

The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police are primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces. The State Intelligence Service is responsible to the prime minister, gathers information, and carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were some reports of abuses by members of the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press; pervasive corruption in all branches of government and municipal institutions; and failure to enforce child labor laws.

Impunity remained a serious problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

On December 8, State Police shot and killed a man in Tirana who was violating a COVID-19 curfew. The officer who shot him was arrested and a prosecutor is investigating the killing. There were no other reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Civilian law enforcement agencies such as the State Police investigated whether civilian security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions for civilian agencies. Military law enforcement conducted investigations of killings by the armed forces.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were allegations that police and prison guards sometimes beat and abused suspects and prisoners, usually in police stations.

In the September 2019 report on its most recent visit in 2018 to a number of the country’s prisons and detention centers, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported receiving a significant number of allegations of mistreatment of criminal suspects by police officers. Most allegations involved use of excessive force at the time of or immediately following apprehension. Several allegations also concerned mistreatment during transport or initial questioning, apparently to extract a confession, obtain information, or as punishment. The alleged mistreatment consisted of slaps, punches, kicks, blows with a hard object, and excessively tight handcuffing.

The Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to investigations of police actions. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse during the year occurred during arrest and interrogation.

Impunity for police misconduct remained a problem, although the government made greater efforts to address it by increasing the use of camera evidence to document and prosecute police misconduct. The SIAC recorded an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions, and sanctions against officers for criminal and administrative violations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Poor physical conditions and a lack of medical care, particularly for mental health conditions, were serious problems, as was corruption. Conditions remained substandard in some police detention facilities outside of Tirana and other major urban centers.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the General Directorate of Prisons suspended family visits to reduce the spread of the virus. Authorities increased time for inmates’ telephone calls with their families and installed computers to enable communication through Skype. Lawyers could visit their clients but were required to use protective equipment and maintain physical distance. On March 23, the government granted a three-month leave to approximately 600 prisoners, allowing them to serve their sentences at home.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem in some facilities. The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) and the Office of the Ombudsman reported overcrowding in Zaharia prison in Kruje.

Prison and detention center conditions varied significantly by age and type of facility. Prisoners complained prison authorities left the lights on in their cells all day; this measure is required by law. Prison facilities in Kruja, Lushnja, Rrogozhina, Saranda, Lezha, and Tepelena were reported by the Office of the Ombudsman to have urgent infrastructure issues.

The Office of the Ombudsman and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that authorities held inmates with mental disabilities in regular prisons, where access to mental health care was inadequate. Since 2018 the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health have tried to accommodate Zaharia inmates and detainees in the prison in Lezha. The AHC and ombudsman reported the government had not taken measures to turn the planned buildings in the Lezha prison into a special medical institution. The Ministry of Justice is constructing a prison for inmates over the age of 60 that is scheduled for completion in 2021.

With the exception of regional facilities in Tirana (excluding its commissariats, which are smaller units falling under regional police directorates), Durres, Gjirokaster, Kukes, Fier, and Korca, conditions in facilities operated by the Ministry of Interior, such as police stations and temporary detention facilities, were inadequate in some respects. Some detention facilities in remote areas were unheated during the winter, and some lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks. Facilities were cramped, provided limited access to toilets, and had little or no ventilation, natural light, or beds and benches. Camera monitoring systems were nonexistent or insufficient in most police stations. The ombudsman reported that detention facilities operated by the Interior Ministry were overcrowded mainly due to increased numbers of arrests for recently added criminal offenses and a lack of coordination with, and delays, including delays in setting trials, from the Ministry of Justice.

Administration: The ombudsman reported that prison and police officials generally cooperated with investigations. The General Directorate of Prisons received 173 complaints through November, mostly regarding employment decisions or corruption in the penitentiary system, while the ombudsman received 141 complaints from detainees and inmates through August, but did not refer any cases for prosecution.

Corruption continued to be a serious problem in detention centers, particularly in connection with access to work and special release programs. In 2018 the former general director of prisons, Arben Cuko, was arrested on corruption charges. In January the court closed the case against Cuko after reducing the charges several times. In July the director of Lushnja prison, Judmir Shurdhi, and another prison staff member were arrested for the unauthorized release of a convict. As of October, their case continued to be under investigation. Through July the General Directorate of Prisons reported that it had carried out disciplinary proceedings against 422 prison staff and had fired an additional 33. Through August the directorate dismissed six prison directors, and four more were under investigation.

In July the Assembly adopted legislation to minimize communications between organized crime and gang members in prison and their outside contacts to prevent them from running criminal organizations while incarcerated. Through August seven inmates were placed under this regime.

Through August the AHC reported one suspicious death in the Jordan Misja prison in Tirana, for which an inmate with a mental disability was charged and tried. The committee alleged prosecutors and judges in the case violated criminal procedures by denying the defendant the right to a lawyer and using excessive security measures on a person with a mental disability.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed local and international human rights groups, the media, and international bodies such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture to monitor prisons and detention facilities.

Due to the pandemic, the ombudsman and other organizations monitoring the penitentiary system were forced to telework. The ombudsman did not conduct physical inspections of prisons during the year.

Improvements: The ombudsman and the AHC confirmed an overall decrease in prison overcrowding due to new infrastructure and amnesties. Nevertheless some penitentiary facilities were still overcrowded.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law and constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that, except for arrests made during the commission of a crime, police arrest a suspect on criminal grounds with a warrant issued by a judge and based on sufficient evidence. There were no reports of secret arrests. By law, police must immediately inform a prosecutor of an arrest. The prosecutor may release the suspect or petition the court within 48 hours to hold the individual further. A court must also decide within 48 hours whether to place a suspect in detention, require bail, prohibit travel, or require the defendant to report regularly to police. Prosecutors requested, and courts ordered, detention in many criminal cases, although courts sometimes denied prosecutors’ requests for detention of well connected, high-profile defendants.

By law and based on a prosecutor’s request, the court has 72 hours to review pretrial detention status of a court-ordered arrest. Police may detain rather than formally arrest a suspect for a period not exceeding 10 hours. Due to overcrowding in the prison system, detainees, including juveniles, occasionally remained in police detention centers for longer than the 10-hour legal maximum.

The ombudsman reported that police used excessive force when arresting protesters who took part in rallies, mainly in Tirana. The ombudsman received several complaints of excessive use of force and injuries from tear gas during those protests and referred one case for prosecution. Protests against the municipality of Tirana’s demolition of the National Theater on May 17 resulted in 64 arrests, charged with disobeying law enforcement and participating in illegal gatherings (violating curfew imposed to counter the spread of COVID-19).

The constitution requires authorities to inform detainees immediately of their rights and the charges against them. Law enforcement authorities did not always respect this requirement. The law provides for bail and a system is operational; police frequently release detainees without bail, on the condition that they report regularly to the police station. Courts also often ordered suspects to report to police or prosecutors on a weekly basis. While the law gives detainees the right to prompt access to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, NGOs reported interrogations often took place without the presence of a lawyer. Authorities placed many suspects under house arrest, often at their own request, because they would receive credit for time served if convicted.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Although the government generally observed these prohibitions, there were instances when police detained persons for questioning for inordinate lengths of time without formally arresting them.

Pretrial Detention: While the law requires completion of most pretrial investigations within three months, a prosecutor may extend this period. The law provides that pretrial detention should not exceed three years. Extended pretrial detention often occurred due to delayed investigations, defense mistakes, or the intentional failure of defense counsel to appear. The law authorizes judges to hold offending attorneys in contempt of court. Limited material resources, lack of space, poor court-calendar management, insufficient staff, and failure of attorneys and witnesses to appear prevented the court system from adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As of August, 47 percent of the prison and detention center population was in pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently. Court hearings were often not open to the public. Court security officers frequently refused to admit observers to hearings and routinely telephoned the presiding judge to ask whether to admit an individual seeking to attend a hearing. Some agencies disregarded court orders.

The government continued to implement an internationally monitored process to vet judges and prosecutors and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of November, 45 percent of judges and prosecutors who had undergone vetting had failed and been dismissed, 37 percent passed, and 18 percent resigned. As a result, the Constitutional Court had only four of nine judges seated for most of the year, depriving it of a quorum to decide on cases pending review. In December, parliament and the president added three more judges to the court, reaching a quorum of seven of nine judges. The Supreme Court had only three of 19 judges seated. Those judges did not constitute a quorum to decide cases but have begun to reduce the backlog of cases, which requires just three judges.

The politicization of past appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court at times threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The implementation of justice reform provisions led to a pause in normal disciplinary processes while the country establishes independent disciplinary bodies. Since its establishment in February, the High Justice Inspectorate, which conducts disciplinary investigations, approved six decisions to start disciplinary investigations against magistrates. In July the High Justice Inspectorate initiated disciplinary proceedings on human rights violations against a prosecutor and submitted its findings to the High Prosecutorial Council.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult an attorney. If they cannot afford one, an attorney is to be provided at public expense. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to an attorney was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must petition a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, courts were susceptible to corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tampering. These factors undermined the judiciary’s authority, contributed to controversial court decisions, and led to an inconsistent application of civil law. Courts have taken steps to address the issue by using audio recording equipment. Despite the statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from this during the year. The Ministry of Justice established the Free Legal Aid Directorate, law clinics at state universities, an online platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a telephone line to request free legal aid to address these issues.

Claimants who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings, especially those concerning the right to a fair trial. The Office of the Ombudsman expressed its concern about the increasing number of cases before the ECHR, the country’s low rate of compliance with judicial decisions, and the failure to execute the final rulings of courts and the ECHR.

Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government made some progress on disbursing compensation during the year.

Property Restitution

The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that some claimants struggled to obtain due process from the government for property claims. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for the Treatment of Property. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR, and many cases were pending ECHR review. The ombudsman reported that as of June, 39 cases against the state were before the ECHR, involving millions of euros in claims. The ombudsman reported that the government generally paid judgements against the state according to the timeframe set by the ECHR. The Assembly enacted legislation in April that allows owners to claim restitution or compensation for agricultural property the communist government collectivized.

The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscation of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence, but there were reports that the government failed to respect those prohibitions. The Tirana Prosecution Office referred two cases to trial after conducting investigations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government usually respected these rights, although defamation is a criminal offense. There were reports that the government, businesses, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. There were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption.

Business owners freely used their media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. There were credible reports of senior media representatives using media outlets to blackmail businesses by threatening unfavorable, sometimes factual and sometimes speculative, media coverage. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union (AJU) continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at many media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. According to the journalist union, the pandemic worsened these delays. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity in reporting.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 900-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial, political, and criminal interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views as well as opportunities for corruption.

Violence and Harassment: The AJU reported five cases of violence and intimidation through November against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure. In March the police detained a reporter following the asylum petition of Turkish citizen Selami Simsek (see subsection on Access to Asylum below) for several hours. In June the police detained a reporter for several hours while he was filming a demolition operation in Lezha. The police gave no reason for the detention. In October an explosion occurred at the gate of the house of News 24 TV correspondent Elidon Ndreka; no injuries were reported. The AJU condemned the incidents and called on authorities to punish perpetrators.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment. The AJU cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists. A survey of 800 media professionals published in 2019 found that 62 percent of respondents thought there was interference from individuals or politics, 60 percent thought there was interference from media owners, 39 percent thought there was self-censorship, and 31 percent thought there was corruption in the media. About 78 percent of media professionals thought there were journalists who engaged in corrupt practices to misreport stories.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines were excessive and, combined with the entry of a criminal conviction into the defendant’s record, undermined freedom of expression. The AJU expressed concern that as of August, there were more than 20 lawsuits against journalists, mainly for defamation.

In 2019 the Assembly passed legislation, the so-called antidefamation package, which amended existing media laws to address defamation. NGOs and some international organizations criticized the amendments, sparking public debate, and the president returned the law to parliament on January 11.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: To receive government services, citizens changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many individuals could not provide documentation and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register. In September media reported on cases in which the Interior Ministry, while preparing voter lists for national elections scheduled for April 2021, had transferred the residency of some citizens without their knowledge. The ministry corrected a number of these transfers.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported some cases of border police returning migrants to Greece despite indicating an intention to seek asylum.

Authorities detained 7,404 irregular migrants who entered the country between January and August, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. Migrants who claimed asylum were housed at the Babrru open migrant facility. Many of the irregular migrants placed in Babrru were later apprehended again attempting to cross into Montenegro rather than remaining in the country to pursue asylum requests. Karrec and Babrru centers faced funding constraints, and the government closed the Babrru center temporarily to assess wear and tear to the facility and estimate needed repairs.

Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the access of arrivals to national procedures and return of persons to countries from which they arrived. The ombudsman and Caritas were also allowed to monitor the detention of migrants.

Refoulement: The January 1 expulsion of Harun Celik, a citizen of Turkey and alleged follower of Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government claimed was behind the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, raised questions about Celik’s access to asylum. Celik had been arrested in 2019 in Tirana International Airport for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. When Celik finished his prison sentence, border authorities expelled him from the country and placed him on a flight to Turkey, despite assertions that Celik had requested asylum. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, along with other UN bodies, opened an inquiry, including the question of whether or not this was a case of refoulement.

Celik’s compatriate and alleged follower of Gulen, Selami Simsek, was also arrested in 2019 for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. Simsek was released from prison on March 9 but remained in the Karrec closed-migrant facility. Media reported that Simsek was taken to the Interior Ministry at 9 p.m.–outside working hours–on March 9 after his release from prison for an interview regarding his asylum application. The ministry denied the application the same day, and the National Commission on Asylum and Refugees rejected his appeal on September 10. It was disputed whether Simsek was provided adequate notice of either decision. The Turkish government continues to press for summary return of Simsek and others alleged to be connected to Fethullah Gulen.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the social care and other services due to limited issuance of identification cards. Caritas and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.

The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law limits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or being granted refugee status. UNHCR reported that one asylum request had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.

Employment: While the law permits refugees to work, they must first obtain Albanian citizenship to receive identification cards and work permits.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, approximately 700 persons at risk of statelessness were identified under the agency’s statelessness mandate by November. The government does not have data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country. The law allows stateless persons to acquire citizenship under certain conditions, although there is no separate legislation that specifically addresses citizenship for stateless persons. UNHCR reported that new legislation on citizenship significantly reduced the risk of statelessness in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national parliamentary elections took place in 2017. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission for the elections reported that contestants “were able to campaign freely and fundamental freedoms were respected.” The OSCE further noted the “continued politicization of election-related bodies and institutions as well as widespread allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters detracted from public trust in the electoral process.” Regarding voting itself, the OSCE mission noted “an overall orderly election day” but found that “important procedures were not fully respected in a considerable number of voting centers observed.”

Local elections took place in June 2019. The main opposition party and others boycotted the elections, alleging government collusion with organized crime to commit electoral fraud. The OSCE election observation mission reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, “voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options” and “there were credible allegations of citizens being pressured by both sides.”

Political Parties and Political Participation: Media outlets reported allegations of the use of public resources for partisan campaign purposes in the 2017 parliamentary and 2019 local elections, and there were reports of undue political influence on the media. There were also reports of limited access to voting for persons with disabilities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Following the 2017 elections, the share of Assembly members who were women increased to a record 29 percent, and following a major cabinet reshuffle the female senior government officials rose to 53 percent. The law governing the election of Assembly members requires that 30 percent of candidates be women and that they occupy 30 percent of appointed and elected positions. According to the OSCE final report on the 2017 elections, however, the largest parties did not always respect the mandated 30 percent quota in their candidate lists. The Central Election Commission fined the parties but nonetheless accepted their lists.

Members of national minorities stood as candidates in both minority and mainstream parties in the 2017 parliamentary elections and 2019 local elections. Observers noted campaigning in the Greek and Macedonian languages without incident. Nevertheless, observers reported that some minorities remained vulnerable to vote buying. One Balkan-Egyptian candidate joined the Assembly as a member when the Central Election Commission replaced members of the opposition who resigned from the body in February 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, and also prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from serving as mayors, parliamentarians, or in government or state positions, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Examples include a 2019 mayoral candidate previously convicted of drug trafficking.

The constitution requires judges and prosecutors to undergo vetting for unexplained wealth, ties to organized crime, and professional competence. The Independent Qualification Commission conducted vetting, and the Appeals Chamber reviewed contested decisions. The International Monitoring Operation, composed of international judicial experts, oversaw the process. As of November, 125 judges and prosecutors were dismissed, 103 confirmed, while 48 others had resigned rather than undergo vetting.

Several government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations.

Corruption: Between January and September, the prosecutor general’s office registered 20 new corruption cases and dismissed seven. The Department of Administration, Transparency, and Anticorruption investigated 29 cases, resulting in 115 administrative and 153 disciplinary measures.

The December 2019 establishment of the Special Prosecution Office on Corruption and Organized Crime, one of two entities constituting the Special Structure on Anticorruption and Organized Crime, resulted in 327 new criminal investigations and 65 requests sent to court as of November. While prosecutors made significant progress in pursuing low-level public corruption cases, including corrupt prosecutors and judges, prosecution of higher-level suspects remained rare due to investigators’ fear of retribution, a lack of resources, and corruption within the judiciary itself. In September the appellate court remanded the conviction of a former interior minister for retrial. In November the Special Prosecution Office filed charges against a former prosecutor general for hiding assets and seized several of those assets in December.

The High Inspectorate reported that through August, it had referred 60 new cases for prosecution, involving two Assembly members, one deputy minister, three mayors, 32 general directors of public agencies, one head of public procurement at customs, and five heads of regional customs departments. Charges included refusing to declare assets, hiding assets, or falsifying asset declarations; money laundering; tax evasion; falsification of documents; and general corruption.

Police corruption remained a problem. Through June the SIAC received 5,051 complaints via an anticorruption hotline, of which 1,819 were within the jurisdiction of the service and 3,232 were referred to other agencies. Through November the SIAC investigated 1,016 complaints. Most of the complaints alleged a failure to act, violation of standard operating procedures, abuse of office, arbitrary action, police bias, unfair fines, and passive corruption. SIAC referred to the prosecution 202 cases involving 299 officials. The Office of the Ombudsman also processed complaints against police officers, mainly concerning problems with arrests and detentions.

Police did not always enforce the law equitably. Personal associations, political or criminal connections, deficient infrastructure, lack of equipment, and inadequate supervision often influenced law enforcement. Authorities continued to address these problems by renovating police facilities, upgrading vehicles, and publicly highlighting anticorruption measures. The government has established a system of vetting security officials and, as of November, had completed vetting 32 high-level police and SIAC leaders.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interest, which monitored and verified such disclosures and made them available to the public. The law authorizes the High Inspectorate to fine officials who fail to comply with disclosure requirements or to refer them to the prosecutor.

Through August the High Inspectorate fined 10 individuals for not disclosing their assets or conflicts of interest or for violating the law on whistleblower protection. Courts generally upheld fines imposed by the High Inspectorate.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is the main independent institution for promoting and enforcing human rights. It is authorized by law to monitor and report on prisons and detention centers. The office may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights violations.

The Office of the Ombudsman was underfunded and understaffed.

The Assembly has committees on legal issues, public administration, and human rights, which review the annual report of the Office of the Ombudsman. The committee was engaged and effective in legislative matters.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime; the law also includes provisions on sexual assault. Penalties for rape and sexual assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the penalty is three to 10 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Authorities did not disaggregate data on prosecutions for spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

The law on domestic violence extends protection to victims in a relationship or civil union and provides for issuance of a protective order that automatically covers children as well. In November the Assembly amended the law to provide for ordering the abuser to leave the premises of the victim. Police operated an automated application issuance process within the police case management system, which allows for rapid issuance of protective orders and produces a record of orders issued. Through November the system was used to document the generation of 2,324 protective orders.

In April the Ministry of Health and Social Protection approved a protocol for operating shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol provides services to victims of domestic violence and trafficking while following guidance on social distancing. The ministry posted a video message reminding citizens to report any case of suspected domestic violence and provided a hotline and police number on its web page.

As of November, investigators and prosecutors had registered 81 cases of alleged sexual assault. Also through November, investigators and prosecutors registered 4,313 cases of domestic violence, six of which were murders. UNICEF reported 370 cases of domestic violence through August, with fewer cases referred in 2020 than in 2019. NGOs reported high levels of domestic violence against women. According to a 2018 survey of women between the ages of 18 and 74 that the UN Development Program released in March 2019, 52.9 percent of women surveyed reported having been subjected to violence or sexual harassment during their lifetimes.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that also accommodated victims of domestic violence. In 2018 the government began operating a crisis management center for victims of sexual assault at the Tirana University Hospital Center. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection reported that as of December, the center had treated 20 victims, 14 of whom were minors.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection from discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. There are no legal barriers to access to contraceptives, which are provided free of charge to insured women. Nevertheless, women and girls often did not use this right for a variety of reasons, including fear of stigma from health-care service providers and members of their community. Some women and girls, particularly those living in remote, rural areas, faced significant challenges in accessing essential sexual and reproductive health services. Women from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as women with disabilities, LGBTI community members, Roma, and Balkan Egyptian women, were often unaware of their rights to reproductive health services.

In 2018 the Ministry of Health and Social Protection established the Lilium Center with the support of UNDP to provide integrated services to survivors of sexual violence. The center is in a hospital setting and provides health care services, social services, and forensic examinations at a single location by professionals trained in cases of sexual violence. The center functions are based on the model adopted by the Albanian National Council for Gender Equality.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were underrepresented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. Through August the commissioner for protection from discrimination received 83 complaints of employment discrimination, 54 of which were against public entities and 29 against private entities. The complaints alleged discrimination based mainly on political affiliation, health conditions, or disability. The commissioner ruled in favor of the employee in nine cases, five of which were against public entities and four against private entities. Through August the commissioner had received 11 complaints of discrimination on the basis of gender and ruled in favor of the employee in one case. In that case, the commissioner for protection from discrimination ruled against the Trans Adriatica Spiecapag company for dismissing a female employee due to her pregnancy, status as a parent, and gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to official figures, in 2019 the ratio of boys to girls at birth was 108 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children. The law on civil status provides financial incentives for birth registration.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad, frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and members of other minorities.

Children in first through fourth grade are legally entitled to free textbooks. Because of the need to use online class delivery during the pandemic, the government offered free schoolbooks to students from the first to the seventh grade; children with special needs were eligible for free schoolbooks from the first through the twelfth grade.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law; the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography, which is punishable by imprisonment for three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that as of November, 13 children had been sexually exploited none of them involving pornography. In early June, reports emerged of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and later sexually exploited; videos of the abuse were posted online. The case has gone to trial.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Some street children begged and some of them became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open-migrant facility in Babrru.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and municipalities have not used this option frequently.

Through August the General Directorate of Prisons reported that there were 17 juveniles in the justice system, none of whom had been convicted. The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children, although the Juvenile Institute in Kavaja, the only institution in the country for juvenile offenders, was adequate for the population it served. The directorate reported that the number of minors in pretrial detention and detention facilities had decreased because of alternative sentencing.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Anti-Semitism

Reports indicated that there were 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. In September Valentina Leskaj, a former government minister, joined the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement Advisory Board, becoming its first Muslim member.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law.

As of August the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received two complaints of alleged discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ruled in favor of the complainants in five cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against the local education office in Elbasan for refusing to hire a teacher because of her disability.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were in facilities that lacked accessibility or other accommodations. A 2018 study by World Vision and Save the Children reported that none of the 10 municipalities surveyed had a plan to eliminate barriers to information, communication, and mobility for persons with disabilities, or a dedicated budget to address the problem.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if the students appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received 12 complaints of discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity, ruling in favor of the complainant in two cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against Fier municipality and its water and sewage utility for discriminating against Romani households. The commissioner ordered the municipality and utility to supply running water to the families. When the municipality and utility did not respond, the commissioner imposed fines.

The government adopted legislation on official minorities in 2017 but has not passed all the regulations needed for its implementation. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The legislation provides for minority language education and dual official language use for the local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the commission started ex officio and ruled that discrimination had occurred.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with HIV or AIDS. The Association of People Living with HIV or AIDS reported that stigma and discrimination caused individuals to avoid getting tested for HIV, leading to delayed diagnosis and consequently delayed access to care and support. Persons living with HIV or AIDS faced employment discrimination, and children living with HIV faced discrimination in school.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law and related regulations and statutes provide the right for most workers to form independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law prohibits members of the military and senior government officials from joining unions and requires that a trade union have at least 20 members to be registered. The law provides the right to strike for all workers except indispensable medical and hospital personnel, persons providing air traffic control or prison services, and fire brigades. Strike action is prohibited in “special cases,” such as a natural catastrophe, a state of war, extraordinary situations, and cases where the freedom of elections is at risk. Workers not excluded by their positions exercised their right to strike.

The law provides limited protection to domestic and migrant workers. Labor unions were generally weak and politicized. Workers who engage in illegal strikes may be compelled to pay for any damages due to the strike action.

Government enforcement of the law remained largely ineffective, in part due to the extent of informal employment. Resources for conducting inspections and remedying violations were not adequate. Penalties were rarely enforced and were not commensurate to those under other laws related to the denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Arbitration procedures allowed for significant delays that limited worker protections against antiunion activity.

Civilian workers in all fields have the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law establishes procedures for the protection of workers’ rights through collective bargaining agreements. Unions representing public sector employees negotiated directly with the government. Effective collective bargaining remained difficult because employers often resisted union organizing and activities. In this environment collective bargaining agreements, once reached, were difficult to enforce.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. Lack of coordination among ministries and the sporadic implementation of standard operating procedures hampered enforcement. Penalties for violations were commensurate to those for other serious crimes but were seldom enforced. Some law enforcement organizations and the victim advocates at the prosecutors’ offices received training in a victim-centered approach to victims of human trafficking. The government continued to identify victims of forced labor and prosecuted and convicted a small number of traffickers.

The Labor Inspectorate reported no cases of forced labor in the formal sector during the year. See section 7.c. for cases involving children in forced labor in the informal sector.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age of employment at 16 but allows children at the age of 15 to be employed in “light” work that does not interfere with school. Children younger than 18 may generally only work in jobs categorized as “light.” Children may work up to two hours per day and up to 10 hours per week when school is in session, and up to six hours per day and 30 hours per week when school is not in session. Children who are 16 or 17 may work up to six hours per day and up to 30 hours per week if the labor is part of their vocational education. By law, the State Inspectorate for Labor and Social Services (SILSS), under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, is responsible for enforcing minimum age requirements through the courts, but it did not adequately enforce the law.

Labor inspectors investigated the formal labor sector, whereas most child labor occurred in the informal sector. Children engaged in gathering recyclable metals and plastic, small-scale agricultural harvesting, selling small goods in the informal sector, serving drinks and food in bars and restaurants, the clothing industry, and mining. There were reports that children worked as shop vendors, vehicle washers, textile factory workers, or shoeshine boys. There were isolated reports of children subjected to forced labor in cannabis fields in 2019. The number of children engaged in street-related activities (such as begging or selling items) increased during the summer, particularly around tourist areas.

Children were subjected to forced begging and criminal activity. Some of the children begging on the street were second- or third-generation beggars. Research suggested that begging started as early as the age of four or five. While the law prohibits the exploitation of children for begging, police generally did not enforce it, although they made greater efforts to do so during the year. In several cases, police detained parents of children found begging in the street and referred children for appropriate child services care. The State Agency on Children’s Rights continued to identify and manage cases of street children identified by mobile identification units.

In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the government’s statistical agency and the International Labor Organization estimated that 54,000 children were engaged in forced labor domestically. An estimated 43,000 children worked in farms and fishing, 4,400 in the services sector, and 2,200 in hotels and restaurants. Nearly 5 percent of children were child laborers.

SILSS did not carry out inspections for child labor unless there was a specific complaint. Most labor inspections occurred in shoe and textile factories, call centers, and retail enterprises; officials found some instances of child labor during their inspections. Penalties were rarely assessed and were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. As of July, SILSS reported 101 children under the age of 18 registered to work, 88 percent of whom were in manufacturing enterprises.

The NGO Terre des Hommes reported that the COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened child labor violations. Restriction of movement and other measures against COVID-19 produced new exploitation trends, such as door-to-door begging and afternoon and night street work.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws prohibit employment discrimination because of race, skin color, gender, age, physical or mental disability, political beliefs, language, nationality, religion, family, HIV/AIDS status, or social origin. The government did not enforce the law and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws related to denials of civil rights. The commissioner for protection from discrimination reported that most allegations of discrimination involved race, sexual orientation, economic status, or disability.

There are laws prohibiting women from engaging in work that requires lifting more than 20 kilograms.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the national poverty threshold. SILSS and tax authorities are responsible for enforcing the minimum wage but had an insufficient number of staff to enforce compliance.

While the law establishes a 40-hour work week, individual or collective agreements typically set the actual work week. The law provides for paid annual holidays, but only employees in the formal labor market had rights to paid holidays. Many persons in the private sector worked six days a week. The law requires rest periods and premium pay for overtime, but employers did not always observe these provisions. The government rarely enforced laws related to maximum work hours, limits on overtime, or premium pay for overtime, especially in the private sector. These laws did not apply to migrant workers or workers in the informal sector, which made up 56 percent of the economy, according to the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Overview of the Informal Economy in Albania.

SILSS is responsible for occupational health and safety standards and regulations, and while these were appropriate for the main industries, enforcement was lacking overall. Violations of wage and occupational safety standards occurred most frequently in the textile, footwear, construction, and mining industries. Resources and inspections were not adequate, and penalties were not commensurate to those of other similar crimes. Law enforcement agencies lacked the tools to enforce collection and consequently rarely charged violators. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors did have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

Workers often could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Employers did not effectively protect employees in this situation. Through October there were 137 major industrial accidents that caused death or serious injury to workers.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister must be approved by the Assembly. Parliamentary elections were last held in October 2019 in a process generally considered free and fair, although European Union election observers noted that misuse of public resources and a lack of transparency of campaign finances resulted in an uneven playing field throughout the country. The Assembly was constituted in December 2019 with Albin Kurti confirmed as prime minister in February. After a no-confidence vote unseated Kurti’s government in March, Avdullah Hoti became prime minister on June 3 in a reconstituted government.

Security forces include the Kosovo Police and the Kosovo Security Force, which respectively report to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. The government continued the process of gradually transitioning the Kosovo Security Force into a territorial defense force in accordance with a 10-year plan which began in 2019. The Border Police, a subgroup of the Kosovo Police, are responsible for security at the border. Police maintain internal security, with the European Union rule-of-law mission in the country as a second responder for incidents of unrest. The NATO-led Kosovo Force, an international peacekeeping force, is a third responder. NATO’s Kosovo Force is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement for all citizens. As of August, NATO’s Kosovo Force mission had approximately 3,400 troops from 27 countries. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including alleged use of excessive force and mistreatment of prisoners by police.

Significant human rights issues included: undue restrictions on the press, including violence or threats of violence against journalists; government corruption and impunity; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but at times lacked consistency. Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media reported instances of senior officials engaging in corruption or acting with impunity. The government sometimes suspended or removed offenders from office, and the justice sector sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish those officials who committed abuses, offenses, and crimes. Many corrupt officials, however, continued to occupy public sector positions.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Police Inspectorate is responsible for investigating allegations of arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, and State Prosecution is responsible for prosecuting such cases. Its current mandate renewal extends through June 2021.

The EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) monitors selected criminal and civil cases and trials in the judicial system, advises the Correctional Service, and provides logistics support to the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague. It had some executive responsibility for witness protection and served as a secondary security responder supporting police.

As of September the Special Prosecutor of the Republic of Kosovo (SPRK) had 101 war crime cases under formal investigation. During the year, the SPRK issued one ruling for initiation of an investigation.

Two of the cases under SPRK investigation, referred to as the “Drenica” war crimes cases, involved 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members suspected of war crimes against civilians. The charges include torture, mistreatment of prisoners, and murder, all allegedly committed in a KLA detention center in the village of Likoc/Likovac in the Drenica region in 1998. The cases initially resulted in 11 convictions in 2015. Six of those convicted avoided serving jail time until July 2019, when the court remanded them to prison. Another war crimes case known as the “Drenica I” case was sent for retrial in 2017, but the initial hearing in December 2019 did not take place because the government did not produce its protected witness. The hearing was rescheduled for December 2020, a full year after the initial hearing was cancelled, and as of the end of the year had not been held.

In June the Prizren basic court sentenced Darko Tasic, a displaced Serbian, to 22 years in prison for war crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in 1999 in the village of Krushe e Vogel/Mala Krusa in Prizren municipality. He was also accused of participating in confiscation, robbery, desecration of human remains, and illegal and deliberate destruction of property. According to media reports, a group of Kosovo-Albanian youth attempted to enter the police station behind the court during his sentencing, subsequently clashing with police after a crowd attacked the vehicle transporting Tasic. The NGO Humanitarian Law Center reported that the verdict exceeded legal maximums. In December the appeals court lowered his sentence to 11 years, within the legal maximum.

In June media outlets reported the Supreme Court ruled that verdicts acquitting Milorad Zajic of involvement in killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanians during the war in 1998 were incorrect, but the Supreme Court was unable to order a retrial, as it cannot overturn a final decision to the detriment of the defendant. Zajic was acquitted by the basic court in Peje/Pec in March 2019 of killing two persons and expelling ethnic Albanians from a village during the Kosovo war in 1998 as a member of an armed group. In October 2019 the appeals court upheld the acquittal. An appeals court judge cited trial witnesses’ “contradictory” testimonies as the reason for Zajic’s acquittal.

The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) and Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) are Kosovo institutions, created by Kosovo law and staffed with international judges, prosecutors, and officers. The SPO and the KSC continued to investigate crimes committed during and after the 1999 conflict. The SPO and its predecessor, the EU Special Investigative Task Force, were established following the 2011 release of the Council of Europe report, Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo, which alleged crimes by individual KLA leaders. The SPO interviewed several key figures from the period in question, including then president Hashim Thaci. In June the SPO announced it had filed indictments with the KSC against Thaci and Assembly Speaker Kadri Veseli. In November the KSC confirmed an indictment filed by the SPO charging Thaci, Veseli, and others with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Leading politicians and civil society leaders, particularly veterans’ organizations, publicly denounced the SPO and the KSC and worked to undermine public support for the work of the SPO and the KSC. These efforts included public protests, a petition drive to abrogate the court, and a legislative initiative proposed by former president Thaci that could have undermined the KSC’s mandate.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

As of September the government’s Missing Persons Commission listed as missing 1,640 persons who disappeared during the 1998-99 conflict and the political violence that followed. By law the government’s missing-persons database does not include the ethnicity of missing persons unless voluntarily reported by their family. The commission suggested approximately 70 percent were ethnic Albanians and 30 percent were Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, Bosniaks, Goranis, Montenegrins, and others.

During the year the commission resolved three missing-persons cases pertaining to the Albanian community and handed over the remains of the three persons to their families. In November satellite images available to the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed human remains at the Kizevak mine in Serbia. Forensic teams from Kosovo, Serbia, and the international community began exhumations.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and laws prohibit such practices, but the laws are inconsistently implemented and there were continuing allegations by some detainees of mistreatment by police and, to a lesser degree, by correctional service personnel.

As of October the Ombudsperson Institution reported receiving 21 registered complaints, seven of which met their admissibility criteria, of mistreatment of prisoners: six complaints against police and one against the correctional service. The police inspectorate investigated three of the cases, while the Ombudsperson Institution reviewed the remaining cases. The Ombudsperson Institution reported the COVID-19 pandemic constrained its ability to follow up on cases.

The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPMT), which operates under the Ombudsperson’s Institution, temporarily suspended its visits to prisons, detention centers, psychiatric facilities, and police stations in March due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. The pandemic also hindered detainees’ contact with the NPMT via lawyers, family members, and international organizations. To ensure detainee protection, the NPMT established four hotline numbers providing round-the-clock access to NPMT officials and used secure drop-boxes for written complaints in detention centers. Only Ombudsperson Institution staff have access to these telephone calls and written complaints. Before suspending its site visits, the NPMT carried out 40 visits to police stations, prison facilities, psychiatric facilities, social care homes and institutions used for quarantine. It received no allegations of torture or mistreatment from persons in police custody during NPMT visits. The NPMT filed reports on its findings, generated investigations, and published follow-up reports on government compliance.

The Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (KRCT), the country’s leading NGO on torture-related issues, conducted eight visits to detention centers, and reported it received no credible reports of torture during the year, although it reported that mistreatment of prisoners continued to be a problem.

In June the police inspectorate investigated a complaint lodged by an arrestee stating he was punched in the head by police, causing him to bleed. According to the complaint the incident occurred after his arrest and transfer to the police station in Pristina. Following the investigation the officer was suspended by police, placed in detention, and the PIK filed a criminal report for misconduct.

In July the police inspectorate suspended two police officers from the Peja police station following complaints of mistreatment of a 16-year-old boy. The juvenile fled from police and once caught, per the complaint, police abused him by using pepper spray, kicking him in his ribs, punching him in his head and face, handcuffing him and insulting him in the police vehicle.

The government sometimes investigated abuse and corruption, although mechanisms for doing so were not always effective or were subject to political interference. Security forces did not ensure compliance with court orders when local officials failed to carry them out. Although some police officers were arrested on corruption charges during the year, impunity remained a problem.

The police inspectorate is responsible for reviewing complaints about police behavior. As of August it had investigated 360 police officers in connection with 935 citizen complaints regarding police conduct. The inspectorate found disciplinary violations in 545 of these complaints and forwarded them to the police’s Professional Standards Unit. During the year the inspectorate investigated 23 criminal cases from 2019 and filed 29 criminal charges for disciplinary violations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions met some international standards but problems persisted in penitentiaries, specifically, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, corruption, exposure to radical religious or political views, and substandard medical care.

Physical Conditions: Physical conditions remained substandard in some parts of the Dubrava prison. The KRCT observed a significant decrease in prison population since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and stated overcrowding was no longer a problem in correctional facilities. The population decrease was apparently due to a reduction in convictions due to a COVID-19-related slowdown in judicial proceedings and increased reluctance by judges to send prisoners into detention during the pandemic. Physical conditions in the Peje/Pec detention center do not meet international standards, according to the NPMT, due to a lack of natural light and inadequate ventilation in the cells. Some similar shortcomings continued at the Prizren detention center as well.

The KRCT reported that authorities provided adequate protection for both prisoners and corrections officials. The KRCT received complaints from prisoners alleging verbal harassment, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and some cases of physical mistreatment by correctional officers, mainly at the juveniles’ unit of the Dubrava prison and the Lipjan/Lipljan correctional center. The KRCT reported that Lipjan correctional center officials removed mattresses from several juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement during daytime hours as a disciplinary measure and noted this violates standards for the treatment of minors. The KRCT noted instances of inmates blackmailing and harassing other inmates at the Dubrava prison. It reported prisoners and detainees had difficulty accessing medical care. There were allegations of corruption and the use of transfers between detention facilities as disciplinary measures. The KRCT reported that convicts at times harmed themselves to draw attention to their needs including medical care, transfers, or privileges. The KRCT reported alleged instances of corruption and nepotism, including by correctional and health staff, especially at the correctional center in Dubrava.

As of September the NPMT had received 14 medical reports from prison health authorities of prisoner injuries due to interprisoner violence and four cases of prisoners claiming injuries sustained from correctional officers. The NPMT checked medical files sent by authorities but due to COVID-19 restrictions was unable to visit and interview prisoners involved in the alleged incidents.

Following the delivery of a Swiss forensic report to authorities in late 2019, the chief state prosecutor reopened an investigation into the 2016 prison death of Vetevendosje party activist, Astrit Dehari, and assigned the case to Kosovo’s Special Prosecution. Dehari was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an attack on parliament. Authorities investigated whether Dehari committed suicide but members of his family and Vetevendosje party representatives claimed he was killed due to his political activism. The government requested Swiss assistance in 2018; the 2019 Swiss report noted forensic analysis could not exclude other possible causes of death and recommended further investigation. At the end of the year investigation of this case was ongoing.

Due to poor training and inadequate staffing, authorities did not always exercise control over facilities or inmates. There was a lack of trained staff to facilitate drug treatment programs. There was no drug addiction testing within the correctional service and the classification system of inmates with addiction-related issues was not fully functional. The KRCT reported that drugs, mostly marijuana, were regularly smuggled into these facilities, despite a ban on in-person visitations for prisoners due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One staff member was caught smuggling drugs to prisoners.

The KRCT documented delays and errors in medical care of prisoners as well as a lack of specialized treatment outside the correctional institutions, especially in the Dubrava prison. In many instances these conditions forced prisoners to procure needed medications from private sources. The KRCT observed gaps in the prison health-care system at the Dubrava facility and reported an insufficient number of mental-health professionals. The Ministry of Health is responsible for providing medical care and health personnel in correctional facilities.

Facilities and treatment for inmates with disabilities remained substandard. The Kosovo Forensic Psychiatric Institute provided limited treatment and shelter for detained persons with mental disabilities. While pretrial detainees were held separately from the convicted prisoner population, advocates for persons with disabilities faulted the government for regularly housing pretrial detainees with diagnosed mental disabilities together with other pretrial detainees. The law requires convicted criminals with documented mental health issues to be detained in facilities dedicated to mental health care, but these prisoners were often housed in standard prisons due to overcrowding at mental health institutions. The KRCT reported approximately 30 inmates above the age of 60 who were not properly placed, based on their specific mental disability. Apart from drug therapy and regular consultations with a psychiatrist, inmates with mental health issues were not provided with any occupational or therapeutic activities.

Prison conditions for foreign terrorist fighters and those convicted of terrorist offenses were not significantly different from those of the general prison population.

Administration: Authorities did not always conduct proper investigations of mistreatment. The KRCT noted the internal complaint mechanism (as opposed to the NPMT mechanism) mandated by law did not function effectively, with officials responding too slowly to complaints. In addition, inmates often did not report abuses due to lack of confidentiality and fear of retribution. The KRCT noted, however, that authorities regularly provided inmates with written decisions justifying solitary confinement and information on deadlines for appeals. The KRCT noted a lack of response by the general director of the correctional service regarding inmate transfer requests.

Independent Monitoring: Although all visits were hampered by COVID-19 conditions, the government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, but only the national Ombudsperson Institution and EULEX had unfettered access to correctional facilities throughout the year. The KRCT and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms were required to provide 24-hour advance notice of planned visits.

Improvements: The KRCT reported improvements in housing conditions due to some renovations in the Dubrava prison and the Pristina high-security prison, as well as the opening of new facilities at the Pristina correctional center. The KRCT noted the Prison Health Department hired additional staff during the year.

Inmates received access to Skype and other video communication applications and permission to communicate with their families. The KRCT reported some convicts received permission for employment outside of correctional facilities, improving the physical, mental, and economic well-being of convicts and their families. The Women’s Correctional Center manufactured anti-COVID facial masks for all correctional facilities.

Administrative improvements included a pilot program to improve the assessment and classification of criminal cases. The KRCT also noted that the correctional service issued disciplinary standards to describe specific disciplinary measures, their length and justification, and give legal advice for inmate appeals.

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 of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government, EULEX, and NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) generally observed these prohibitions. EULEX and KFOR personnel were not subject to the country’s legal system but rather to their missions’ and their countries’ disciplinary measures.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law, except when a crime is in progress, police may apprehend suspects only with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge or prosecutor. Within six hours of an arrest, prosecutors must issue the arrested person a written statement describing the alleged offenses and the legal basis for the charges. Authorities must bring arrested persons before a judge within 48 hours and must provide detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state. There is a bail system, but courts seldom used it. They often released detainees without bail, pending trial.

Suspects have the right to refuse to answer questions, except those concerning their identity, at all stages of an investigation. Suspects have the right to the free assistance of an attorney and interpretation, as well as medical and psychological treatment. At all stages of the process, suspects may communicate with their legal representation and have a family member notified of their arrest.

Following an initial ruling, a court may hold individuals in pretrial detention for 30 days from the date of their arrest and may extend pretrial detention for up to one year. After an indictment and until the conclusion of trial proceedings, only a trial judge or a trial panel can order or terminate detention. The law allows a judge to order house arrest, confiscate travel documents, and expand use bail or other alternatives to pretrial detention.

Although in some instances police operated undercover, they generally carried out arrests using warrants. There were no confirmed reports that police abused the 48-hour rule, and prosecutors generally either provided arrested persons with documents describing the reasons for their detention or released them. While officials generally respected the requirement for prompt disposition of cases, the KRCT reported detainees occasionally faced delays when attorneys were temporarily unavailable.

The KRCT reported that authorities did not always allow detained persons to contact attorneys when initially arrested and in some cases authorities permitted consultation with an attorney only once police investigators began formal questioning. In several cases detainees were allowed access to an attorney only after their formal questioning. Some detained persons complained that, despite requests for lawyers, their first contact with an attorney took place at their initial court appearance.

The law limits police use of force only in order “to protect a person’s life, to prevent an attack, to prevent a criminal act, to prevent the flight of a perpetrator, or, when other measures are not successful, to achieve another legitimate police objective.” The law also provides that when using force, police “shall attempt to minimize the intrusion into a person’s rights and freedoms and to minimize any detrimental consequences.”

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy detentions, averaging six months, both before and during judicial proceedings, remained a problem. The law allows judges to detain a defendant pending trial if there is a well-grounded suspicion the defendant is likely to destroy, hide, or forge evidence; influence witnesses; flee; repeat the offense; engage in another criminal offense; or fail to appear at subsequent court proceedings. Judges routinely granted pretrial detention without requiring evidentiary justification. Lengthy detention was also partly due to judicial inefficiency and corruption.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary did not always provide due process. According to the European Commission, NGOs, and the Ombudsperson Institution, the administration of justice was slow and lacked the means to ensure judicial officials’ accountability. Judicial structures were subject to political interference, disputed appointments, and unclear mandates.

Although backlogs once presented a substantial problem, judicial efficiency in resolving pending cases improved markedly. The backlog in basic courts has been reduced by 85 percent since 2016.

The Judiciary Council improved its website by adding a judicial accountability module that includes guidelines on filing a complaint against a judge or a court official. The council issued nonpublic written reprimands or wage reductions for three judges, although these sanctions were considered insufficient to significantly deter future misconduct. The Prosecutorial Council initiated five investigations and rendered five decisions, three of which were findings of guilt. Both councils published these decisions on their respective webpages.

Authorities sometimes failed to carry out court orders, including from the Constitutional Court, particularly when rulings favored minorities, as in numerous Kosovo-Serb property dispute cases. Central and local authorities in Decan/Decani continued to refuse to implement the 2016 decision of the Constitutional Court confirming the Serbian Orthodox Church’s ownership of more than 24 hectares of land adjacent to the Visoki Decani Monastery. None of the officials failing to carry out the court order have been sanctioned.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for a fair and impartial trial, and while there were severe shortfalls in the judicial system, including instances of political interference, it generally upheld the law. Trials are public and the law entitles defendants to: the presumption of innocence; the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges against them; a fair, timely, and public trial where they can address the court in their native language; to be present at their trials; to remain silent and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt; to confront adverse witnesses; to see evidence; and to have legal representation. Defendants have the right to appeal. These rights extend to all citizens without exception. The country does not use jury trials.

The constitution defines free legal aid as a basic human right, and the law guarantees free legal aid in civil cases, administrative cases, minor offenses, and criminal procedure to individuals who meet certain legal and financial criteria. The government’s Free Legal Aid Agency provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals. During the year it undertook outreach campaigns targeting disadvantaged and marginalized communities and expanded the availability of legal aid information through online platforms.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There are civil remedies for human rights violations but victims were unable to avail themselves of this recourse due to complicated bureaucratic procedures and a large backlog of cases. Individuals may appeal to courts to seek damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations.

Individuals may turn to the Constitutional Court for review of alleged violations by public authorities of their individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, but only after exhaustion of all other legal remedies.

The Ombudsperson Institution received 12 complaints of nonexecution of court decisions regarding civil, property, or employment disputes. The Ombudsperson Institution recommended that the Judicial Council give priority to readjudication over new cases.

Property Restitution

A complex mix of laws, regulations, administrative instructions, and court practices, as well as the illegal reoccupation of properties and multiple claims for the same property, continued to hamper resolution of property restitution cases arising from the war and its aftermath. More than 96 percent of these claims were filed by ethnic Serbs. Private citizens and religious communities were largely unsuccessful in petitioning for the return of properties seized or confiscated during the Yugoslav era.

By law the Kosovo Property Comparison and Verification Agency (KPCVA) has authority to adjudicate claims regarding the extent, value, and ownership of land parcels and to resolve discrepancies between cadastral documents. The absence of cadastral records, which Serbia removed from Kosovo in 1999, however, prevented the KPCVA from fully fulfilling its mandate. Claimants have the right to appeal decisions in the courts.

The KPCVA had difficulty enforcing the eviction of illegal occupants and, in general, failed to remove illegal structures built on land after claimants had their rights confirmed. The majority of the claimants were ethnic Serbs. In April the agency adopted an administrative instruction to expedite removal of illegal structures. As a result one demolition took place in October in Pristina. The agency reported it initiated compensation in 143 cases to those who lost property in the 1990s, mostly ethnic Albanians. As of October the KPCVA had 61 evictions pending, 23 of which were in the Mitrovica/e region, primarily involving property owned by Kosovo Albanians. Reusurpation of property continued to be an issue, although the numbers have reportedly declined. Civil society organizations complained the country lacked an effective system to allow displaced Kosovo Serbs living outside the country to file property claims and receive notification of property claim decisions.

In 2019 the Assembly appointed Naser Shala as head of the KPCVA. Shala was unable to secure appointment from the parliament to this position in 2018 due to widespread views that he was corrupt, unqualified, and under criminal investigation. Shala remained in office despite numerous international calls for his resignation, diminishing the institution’s credibility.

On September 4, Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements which included pledges to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports the government, EULEX, or KFOR failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. Funding problems also threatened media independence. Journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions, notwithstanding laws providing access to public documents, due to delays in adopting implementing regulations. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.

Freedom of Speech: In December 2019 former minister of local government administration Ivan Teodosijevic was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for denying a wartime massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999. The court ruled Todosijevic’s remarks incited hatred and intolerance, while his defense argued there was no legal basis for such decision. As of October his appeal was pending.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals pressured media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security.

While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because the government was reluctant to purchase advertising in media outlets that published material critical of government policies.

Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 18 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists.

In March a Kosovo-Albanian journalist was injured after unknown perpetrators attacked him and his crew while they were reporting on the COVID-19 situation in northern Kosovo. Media outlets reported police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

On April 11, Serbian-language online portal KoSSev editor in chief Tatjana Lazarevic was arrested by police while traveling to a health center to investigate complaints she received about its readiness for COVID-19. Despite presenting her press credentials, Lazarevic was detained for at least an hour and a half and held without charge. Law enforcement authorities maintained she was picked up for breaking curfew, although the government had exempted journalists from movement restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lazarevic said the true reason for her arrest was to intimidate her from continuing her reporting.

On October 18, the car of investigative journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi was hit with bullets shortly after he parked and left the car. This was the second attack on Kajtazi, whose car was the target of an apparent arson attack in June that was prevented when the journalist’s neighbors notified police. Police have not publicly identified suspects or filed charges in either case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.

According to the Association of Journalists, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.

Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases, media owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that media owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.

As of September the Ombudsperson Institution investigated 20 complaints of violations of the right of access to public documents, seven of which were filed by civil society organizations and 13 by individual citizens. The Ombudsperson Institution concluded that public institutions lacked capacity to answer requests for access to public documents and often failed to provide legal justification for denying or restricting access.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government did not consider Serbia-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 and 2019 greatly expanded Kosovo Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased significantly during the year. Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed some challenges remained, such as access to civil documents for Serbian nationals married to Kosovo-Serb citizens.

In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic, allegedly to prevent civil disturbances, but was fully open to pedestrians. KFOR and police maintained permanent security at the location. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.

Exile: The return to the country by ethnic-minority refugees from the war remained a challenge. Parliamentary representatives of the Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma. These persons were formerly resident in the country and informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

UNHCR estimated more than 90,000 individuals had displacement-related needs due to the 1999 Kosovo conflict, including 65,000 in Serbia, 16,406 in Kosovo, 7,500 in “third countries,” 729 in Montenegro, and 394 in North Macedonia. The Ministry for Communities and Return does not collect, process, or manage data on the displaced population and voluntary returnees. UNHCR continued to maintain its internal database of returnees and assistance applications. According to the Communities and Return Ministry, obstacles to return included security incidents, insufficient protection of property rights, failure of courts to resolve property disputes, disobedience to court decisions, lack of access to public services, issues with language rights implementation, limited economic prospects, and societal discrimination. According to UNHCR the lack of a detailed census and adequate profiling data left displaced persons excluded from human rights protections and development plans.

The government promoted the safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through the Communities and Returns Ministry, it promoted policies and protections for IDPs in line with EU policies and cooperated with domestic and international organizations to ensure IDPs had access to their property and tools for their sustainable return. These include assistance repossessing property, land allocations for housing, and improved socioeconomic prospects.

As of December the Ministry of Communities and Return reported that 273 individuals–including 133 Serbs, 42 Gorani, 36 Roma, 33 Balkan Egyptians, 23 Ashkali, and five Albanians–had returned to their place of origin in the country. As of June, 408 IDPs, mostly Kosovo Serbs, were living in collective shelters across the country. The construction of social housing apartments for 255 IDPs and refugees residing in five collective shelters was ongoing, and the project was expected to finish by the end of the year. The municipalities of Leposavic and Zvecan allocated land for construction of social housing for the remaining residents of 10 collective shelters, with funding expected from the EU and the Ministry for Communities and Return.

By September, under an EU-funded return and reintegration program and in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, the Communities and Return Ministry successfully constructed and conducted technical acceptance of 53 houses for displaced persons and returnees, with 38 additional houses under construction. In addition, 65 selected beneficiaries of newly constructed houses received furniture and household appliances. The Communities and Return Ministry expected to finalize construction of 101 houses for displaced and returnees by the end of the year. As part of the same EU program, 100 beneficiaries received financial assistance to start their own businesses to generate income. The ministry also provided care packages to 872 vulnerable families.

The return process in some areas of the country continued to be marked by security incidents and local communities’ reluctance to accept the return of, or visits by, Kosovo Serbs. In January Kosovo Albanians in Gjakove/Djakovica, including persons whose family members remain missing, protested the planned pilgrimage of displaced Serbs to the town’s Serbian Orthodox church. The pilgrims’ association said it cancelled the visit due to security reasons. As of July UNHCR noted 45 incidents primarily affecting returnees and their property, mainly in the Peje/Pec region. For example, in April a vehicle and livestock were stolen from a returnee in the Istog/Istok area. UNHCR said the targets of the incidents were believed to be Kosovo Serbs, except for one case involving a Kosovo-Ashkali returnee.

Police maintained a presence in areas with ethnic minorities and returnees to prevent crime, build the confidence of returnees, and to protect returnees’ property.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated. The country has no central-level migration management system.

Reception facilities at the asylum center could host children but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for unaccompanied children seeking asylum or for determining their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases continued to increase, the country was largely a point of transit. Those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increased number of asylum seekers did not challenge the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum were housed at the asylum center.

Despite a straightforward registration process, new arrivals were not granted immediate access to services and asylum procedures, which resulted in a considerable applications backlog. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to June UNHCR advocated for reasonable access for asylum seekers and IDPs during temporary entry bans or border closures applied by the government. UNHCR suspended the refugee status determination process from March until June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Refoulement: In August 2019 the police inspectorate filed a criminal report including criminal violations against 22 police officers who participated in an operation involving the rescission of residence permits and subsequent refoulement to Turkey of six Turkish citizens in March 2018. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of ties to the Gulen network. In September 2019 the appellate court affirmed a prior ruling that the rationale for rescinding the residence permits was baseless. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had not received a final judgment from the court.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both the central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR stated health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.

The government partnered with UNHCR to designate a detention center for foreigners as a quarantine site for new arrivals and to secure personal protective equipment and hygienic items for asylum seekers. UNHCR provided access to internet services at asylum centers to provide asylum seekers with online legal and psychosocial assistance as well as education for children.

The government introduced regulations mandating support and integration for asylum seekers, refugees, persons granted temporary protection or subsidiary protection, and stateless persons, but is still finalizing its standard operating procedures.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.

g. Stateless Persons

Official figures on stateless persons were not available. The law contains no discriminatory provisions that might cause groups or individuals to be deprived of or denied citizenship. Citizens convey citizenship to their children. Children born to noncitizen parents acquire citizenship by virtue of birth within the country; this situation most often occurs within minority communities with large numbers of undocumented residents. Government procedures provide for access to naturalization for those granted stateless or refugee status five years after the determination.

Laws relating to civil status permit stateless persons to register life events such as birth, marriage, and death; however, implementation varied among municipalities. The government’s capacity to identify stateless persons and those with undetermined nationality remained inadequate.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published an ex officio legal opinion for the court of appeals, the basic court in Pristina, the basic court in Peje/Pec, and the basic court in Mitrovica, encouraging them to promptly process lawsuits on the legal identity of unregistered persons, particularly children.

During the year UNHCR provided assistance, including medical and educational aid, to 900 “legally invisible” persons (due to their inability to prove their birth location) from different ethnic groups, most of whom belonged to the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities.

Unregistered residents did not receive social assistance benefits and pension rights and could not register property titles or retain rights to inherited or transferred property. Children born of parents displaced outside the country and who entered with their readmitted parents often lacked documentation, including birth certificates, from their place of birth. Authorities had not developed a systematic solution to this problem. UNHCR provided legal aid for civil registration of 133 unregistered Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage.

The Serbian government continued to operate illegal parallel government structures in Kosovo Serb majority municipalities and in areas primarily inhabited by the Kosovo-Gorani community. These structures were often used by the Serbian government to influence and manipulate Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Gorani communities and their political representatives.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held early parliamentary elections in October 2019. International and independent observers evaluated the process as generally free and fair, although EU observers noted that misuse of public resources and a lack of transparency of campaign finances resulted in an uneven playing field throughout the country. The campaign was marked by a pattern of intimidation within Kosovo-Serb communities. Some Kosovo Serbs reported being pressured not to support parties other than Srpska List, a party closely aligned with the Serbian government.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties operated freely in most of the country, and there were no significant barriers to registration. In Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities, opposition and independent candidates reported pressure on their candidates to withdraw from the elections and on voters to support Srpska List. Kosovo-Serb opposition representatives reported threats of violence during the May 2019 mayoral elections from supporters of Srpska List and the Serbian government. Party affiliation often played a role in access to government services and social and employment opportunities.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. NGOs reported, however, that voter turnout among women tended to be much lower than among male voters. Parties representing the Romani, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, Bosniak, Gorani, and Turkish communities campaigned freely in their native languages.

A woman, Vjosa Osmani, served simultaneously as parliamentary speaker and acting president, and one-third of all cabinet ministers were women. In the Assembly, 38 out of 120 members were women, two more than the constitutional quota. A 2020 Freedom House report noted many women in rural areas have been disenfranchised through the practice of family voting, in which the male head of a household casts ballots for the entire family. Political parties are legally required to abide by a 50-percent gender quota for their candidate lists, but no party met the requirement in 2019.

Ethnic minorities’ representation in the Assembly was more than proportionate to their share of the population, but political parties representing ethnic minorities criticized majority parties for not consulting them on important policy issues, such as a draft Law on Kosovo Liberation Army War Values and the 2018 decision to impose a 100 percent import tariff on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The tariff decision caused Srpska List parliamentarians to essentially boycott participation in Assembly proceedings in 2018 and 2019.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Agency and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. The SPRK filed five corruption related indictments. A small proportion of corruption cases that were investigated and charged led to convictions.

NGOs and international organizations alleged numerous failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. The Kosovo Law Institute reported that two high-profile officials were convicted of corruption during the year by the basic courts but then acquitted by the appeals court. In four other cases, the appeals court overturned the conviction verdicts of lower courts against senior public officials accused of corruption and remitted the cases for retrial. NGOs reported indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.

In at least four high-profile corruption cases, the Supreme Court found lower courts had violated the criminal code to the benefit of defendants. The Prosecution Office used extraordinary legal remedies to request the Supreme Court evaluate decisions rendered by lower courts in these cases. Under the law, the Supreme Court is able only to confirm the violations; it can take no punitive actions against the defendants.

On October 9, police arrested Haki Rugova, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) mayor of Istog/k and one of the party’s deputy leaders, along with his deputy and a municipal civil servant as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. After Rugova was initially placed in detention, the court eventually ordered Rugova’s house arrest for 30 days. The three persons were accused of abuse of office, conflict of interest, and falsifying documents related to a contract the municipality awarded to the mayor’s brother. Rugova was already undergoing a trial in a separate case on charges of conflict of interest. In public comments, LDK leader Isa Mustafa alleged political motivations behind the arrest, stating it was intended to discredit Rugova and the party and tarnish the anticorruption record of Prime Minister Hoti’s LDK-led government. Several legal commentators considered Mustafa’s comments as interference in the judicial process.

On October 19, the government abruptly invalidated the 2010 decision creating an anticorruption task force within the police that supported the work of the SPRK. According to the Prime Minister, the original decision was unconstitutional, but neither the SPRK nor the Constitutional Court was apparently consulted on the issue. The decision was not coordinated within the governing coalition nor with the international community. The Minister of Justice and various international missions publicly criticized the decision. Media outlets commented that the decision came on the heels of the arrest of a prominent LDK mayor (Rugova). Media also noted that several of the task force’s ongoing high-profile investigations involved prominent and politically exposed persons, including former governing coalition officials. The Kosovo Law Institute characterized the decision as political retaliation, given the task force’s investigation of LDK officials. The institute further criticized Prime Minister Hoti’s dismissal of the police general director, the tax administration director, and the customs director, claiming these dismissals were done without sufficient analysis or transparency, and created the perception they were done to undermine law enforcement institutions.

In September a trial continued of former minister of agriculture Nenad Rikalo and seven other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture charged in December 2019 with abuse of power. The group allegedly sidestepped legal safeguards and manipulated the ministry’s grant process to award millions of dollars to companies owned by political associates. The court’s decision was pending as of November.

Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming office or leaving public service. The Anticorruption Agency administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The Anticorruption Agency sends complaints about noncompliant officials to prosecutors, who in turn consider criminal charges.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government was cooperative and sometimes responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes the Ombudsperson Institution as the national human rights institution, mandated to monitor, protect, and promote rights and freedoms of individuals from unlawful or improper acts, or failures to act, by public authorities.

The Ombudsperson Institution has authority to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuse of government authority, and acts as the NPMT. The Institution is the primary agency responsible for monitoring detention facilities. Based on powers granted by the Assembly, the Ombudsperson Institution can file amicus curiae briefs with basic courts on human rights-related cases. It can also make recommendations on the compatibility of laws and other sublegal or administrative acts, guidelines, and practices.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and domestic violence against all persons, including rape of a relative or spouse. By law, rape is punishable by two to 15 years in prison. EULEX noted courts often applied penalties lighter than the legal minimum in rape cases and that law enforcement rarely took steps to protect victims and witnesses. Furthermore, sentences were often further decreased by the appellate court. The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office reported an increased number of domestic violence cases during the year, from 946 cases in 2019 to 1,145 as of October. Sexual violence and rape occurring either within or outside the family or domestic unit, were rarely reported by victims, frequently due to social stigma or lack of trust in authorities.

The law recognizes gender-based violence as a form of discrimination but lacks a definition of gender-based violence for use in criminal and civil proceedings. Women’s rights organizations held a protest in June to draw attention to disparities between domestic violence suspects, who are generally incarcerated, and sexual assault suspects, who are often released. The groups demanded both types of crimes be treated equally by judicial officials.

The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office helped to provide access to justice for victims of all crimes, with a special focus on victims of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, child abuse, and rape. In addition, each prosecutor’s office had a prosecutor who specialized in handling domestic violence cases. These prosecutors could apply risk-assessment tools to mitigate risk of future abuse and were empowered to recommend harsher sentences for repeat offenders and violators of protective orders.

Police investigated cases of domestic violence before transferring them to prosecutors who make the determination on filing charges. In the first half of the year, the prosecution expeditiously processed domestic violence cases and indictments. The rate of prosecution was low, however, and sentences were often lowered on appeal. Advocates and court observers asserted prosecutors and judges favored family unification over victim protection, with protective orders sometimes allowing the perpetrator to remain in the family home while a case was pending. Sentences ranged from judicial reprimands to up to five years’ imprisonment. The criminalization of domestic violence in April 2019 was accompanied by an increase in arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime. The Pristina basic court held online hearings on domestic violence cases consistent with government anti-COVID-19 pandemic measures.

In September a basic court reduced the life sentence of Pjeter Ndrecaj for murder to 24 years’ imprisonment after the Supreme Court returned the case for retrial. Ndrecaj was found guilty of killing his former wife and nine-year-old daughter in 2018. The court’s original sentence of 24 years had been extended in 2019 by the court of appeal, which found aggravating circumstances not considered by the basic court. Ndrecaj’s former wife had sought help from the police station in Gjakove/Djakovica several hours prior to the killing, but police failed to locate Ndrecaj before the murders took place. As a result, three police officers received five-month suspensions for “abuse of official duty.”

The government licensed and supported 10 NGOs to assist child and female survivors of domestic violence. The government established a budget line for financial support of shelters, resolving a long-standing funding problem. Both NGOs and shelters reported timely receipt of funding.

The Office of the Prime Minister maintained a commission to recognize and compensate survivors of wartime sexual violence. The commission has granted pensions to more than 800 women since 2018. The SPRK designated one prosecutor for cases of wartime sexual violence. Police maintained a unit for war crimes cases, including cases of wartime sexual violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment in civil and criminal proceedings. The criminal code stipulates prison sentences as an enhanced penalty for sexual harassment against vulnerable victims and in cases where the criminal procedure is initiated upon the victim’s request. In cases where a crime is committed with the use of a weapon, the sentence may vary from one to five years in prison. The NGO Kosovo Women’s Network reported that implementation of sexual harassment laws was hampered by poorly defined procedures for filing complaints of harassment, and lack of clarity regarding which government bodies should receive these complaints.

According to women’s rights organizations, harassment was common at workplaces in both the public and private sectors and in public institutions of higher education.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals, regardless of gender, ideology, or religious or cultural background; have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government generally respected reproductive rights, but poor, marginalized, and illiterate individuals often had insufficient access to information. To address the problem, the government and the UN Population Fund created family-planning curricula for all educational levels and were training educators to implement it. According to 2018 World Bank data, the country had 16 births per 1,000 inhabitants. A 2019 report from the international coalition Countdown to 2030 found that 88 percent of women had access to modern contraception, 98 percent had at least four prenatal medical visits, and 99 percent had a skilled health-care provider attend the delivery. Accurate maternal mortality data were unavailable, because the government neither gathered nor maintained records of such deaths. The law obligates the government to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Survivors are assigned a “victim’s protection official” who assists with both criminal justice and medical treatment processes. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare registered survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and provided them with medical and psychosocial support as well as a monthly pension. More than 800 individuals received such benefits during the year.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. The law requires equal pay for equivalent work. The law stipulates that partners in marriage and civil unions have equal rights to own and inherit property, but men usually inherited family property and other assets. In rare instances Kosovo-Albanian widows, particularly in rural areas, risked losing custody of their children due to a family custom requiring children and property to pass to the deceased father’s family while the widow returned to her birth family.

Relatively few women occupied upper-level management positions in business, police, or government. The Kosovo Women’s Network reported women were often subject to discriminatory hiring practices.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl ratio at birth was 108 boys to 100 girls. The government did not introduce policies to encourage a more equal gender balance.

Children

Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship from citizen parents or by birth in the country, including those with parents whose citizenship was not documented. Those not registered at birth were primarily from the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities. UNICEF indicated lack of registration could adversely affect a child’s access to social assistance, particularly for repatriated children. Children who were not registered were considered stateless.

Child Abuse: The criminal code does not specifically criminalize child abuse but addresses various elements of child abuse, including in sections on sexual assault, rape, trafficking in persons, and child pornography, among others. Penalties range from five to 20 years’ imprisonment. The incidence of child abuse was unknown due to social stigma and lack of reliable data.

The Law on Child Protection entered into force in July. The international NGO Terre des Homme Kosovo assisted the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare in drafting additional legislation as part of comprehensive implementation measures. The law stipulates establishment of houses offering temporary shelter, protection, and emergency assistance to child victims of physical or sexual abuse, and sets standards for licensing and operation.

In July 2019 a nine-year-old boy from Fushe Kosove was raped and killed. The boy’s mother had reported his rape by the suspect to police prior to the killing, but the suspect was released after questioning and never rearrested. Six months later, the child was found dead in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje. The suspect was then arrested for rape and aggravated murder. Following the trial, police and prosecutors began jointly reviewing all procedures and actions in child abuse cases. Disciplinary investigations were initiated against two prosecutors involved in the case over suspicion they failed to address claims of abuse in a timely and efficient manner. One of the prosecutors was disciplined by the Prosecutorial Council. A human rights lawyer took up the case and sought to hold officials accountable for inaction.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law allows persons to marry at age 16 with parental consent. Although there are no official data on early and forced child marriages, it was a common practice, including in Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, Bosniak, and Gorani communities. According to a government report that focused on these communities, approximately 12 percent of children, mostly girls, married before age 15. High poverty levels in these communities contributed to these rates.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits possession, production, and distribution of child pornography. Persons who produce, use, or involve a child in making or producing pornography may receive a prison sentence of one to five years. The distribution, promotion, transmission, offer, or display of child pornography is punishable by six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. Possession or procurement of child pornography is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

The minimum legal age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape is a criminal offense punishable by five to 20 years in prison. Terre des Homme Kosovo reported that national mechanisms for identification and referral of children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation are ineffective. The organization noted children transported from Albania for street work are inadequately identified as potential victims of trafficking or children at risk of trafficking. The municipality of Pristina established a special task force intended to address these issues and provide protection and necessary services for children engaged in street work.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Anti-Semitism

Approximately 50 Jewish persons resided in the country, according to the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, and provide for equal access to education, employment, and other state services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination in access to education and hiring.

In December the NGO Association of Paraplegic and Paralyzed Children of Kosovo (Handi-Kos) presented an assessment of the country’s disability legislation, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The report noted that elementary schools in Kosovo generally did not ensure adequate disability access, and internal facility design did not ensure the equal status of children with disabilities with their peers. The report stated this lack of access resulted in a higher dropout rate for children with disabilities.

The law on the employment of persons with disabilities states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Health will introduce special legislation that determines the level of working capacity for persons with disabilities. The absence of this legislation directly affects the employment of persons with disabilities and reinforces existing social stigma around disability.

According to Handi-Kos, health and rehabilitative services, social assistance, and assistive devices for persons with disabilities was insufficient. Physical access to public institutions remained difficult, even after the implementation of bylaws on building access and administrative support. Handi-Kos reported municipal compliance with a 2007 mandate on access to government buildings is in the single digits.

The parliament building itself was not accessible, and one member of parliament in a wheelchair had to be carried into the assembly hall by colleagues. Likewise, in the municipality of Sukhareka, persons in wheelchairs had access only to the ground floor of the municipal building, but not floors containing the mayoral and directorate offices. Educational options for children with disabilities were limited. According to Handi-Kos, approximately 38,000 children with disabilities did not attend school.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published a report criticizing unequal access to interurban transportation for blind persons, despite legal requirements for such access. It recommended decreasing transport fees for disabled persons, reserving two seats on public transport for travelers with disabilities, and mandating a minimum number of law-enforcement inspections per month for urban and interurban public transport vehicles. To date, no entity or organization responded to this report.

The law regulates the commitment of persons to psychiatric or social care facilities and protects their rights within such institutions but it has not been implemented. The country lacks an adequate system for classification of procedures, placement, and treatment of detainees with mental disabilities. The KRCT described mental health facilities as substandard and generally at full capacity. The KCRT also noted the need for additional capacity specifically for women and juveniles with mental disabilities. The Institute of Forensic Psychiatry had a capacity of 36 beds, of which 12 were for psychiatric examinations and 24 were for mandatory psychiatric treatment. The institute did not have a specific area for treatment of women and juveniles. There were instances when domestic violence offenders with mental disabilities did not complete mandatory psychiatric care but left institute facilities due to inadequate infrastructure and capacity.

The KRCT noted that the lack of capacity at the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry led to detainees with mental disabilities being sent to standard correctional centers rather than to mental health facilities, in contradiction of both domestic law and international standards.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal violence persisted against Kosovo-Serb and other ethnic minority communities, all of which were also affected by social and employment discrimination.

The Kosovo-Serb community, its representatives, civil society, and the international community expressed concern over incidents involving thefts, break-ins, verbal harassment, and damage to the property of Kosovo-Serbs, particularly returnees in rural areas. The NGO AKTIV reported more than 20 incidents between March and June targeting Kosovo-Serbs, including arson, physical attacks, and robberies. Between January and October, the Communities and Return Ministry received complaints of 49 security incidents affecting Kosovo Serbs and returnees. For example the ministry issued a press release on April 28 condemning the burning of a house in Cernice/a and on May 27 issued a press release condemning the stoning of a returnee house in Lubozhde/Ljubozda and a physical attack in Drenovc/Drenovac. The ministry publicly appealed to police to enhance patrols in critical locations and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed ethnic hatred was the key motive for some incidents, such as the stoning of returnee houses, cases of arson, and graffiti. The representatives claimed the government did not adequately respond to these incidents. In some cases police investigations resulted in the perpetrators’ arrest.

In October unknown perpetrators reportedly shot at a group of Kosovo-Serb youth in the Bernice e Poshtme/Donja Brnjica village school in Pristina municipality. No one was injured in the incident. According to media reports and the youths, the perpetrators spoke Albanian. Police agreed to increase police presence in the area following an October 4 meeting between local Kosovo-Serbs, their representatives, police, and KFOR. Police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

Harassment of Kosovo-Serb members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) by other ethnic Serbs was commonplace, although usually the incidents were difficult to trace. Victims in most cases did not report the incidents to police for fear of escalation and retaliation. In June a local court ordered the 30-day detention of a Kosovo Serb for harassing a Kosovo-Serb KSF member on social media. According to the prosecution, the victim received threatening messages after the suspect posted a photo of the victim in uniform alongside Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and KLA commander. The suspect removed the post, but the victim continued to receive threatening messages. Kosovo-Serb KSF members were also routinely detained by Serbian authorities at Kosovo-Serbia border crossings.

The Ministry of Defense and KSF leadership took some steps to protect Kosovo-Serb members. These steps included better documentation of incidents, routine welfare checks by commanders, and attempts at improving the response of police and the Kosovo Intelligence Agency. The government launched a KSF recruitment campaign where leaders amplified minority recruitment efforts.

Access to justice for Kosovo Serbs improved due to the 2017 integration of the judiciary system in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities and integration of Kosovo-Serb judges and staff in other basic courts in the country. The judiciary suffered from a lack of funding and support for minorities. Poor or delayed translation in court proceedings, a backlog of cases in the north, nonexecution of court decisions, limited numbers of minority staff, and inconsistency between Albanian and Serbian translations of legislation continued to hinder the delivery of justice for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.

The Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities often lacked access to basic hygiene, medical care, and education and were heavily dependent on humanitarian aid for subsistence. The government provided food and hygiene assistance to these communities beginning in March due to the COVID-19-related limitations on movement. Community representatives and civil society stated the assistance was insufficient to protect members of these communities from exposure to the virus and spreading the virus through traditionally practiced street work.

The prime minister’s Office of Community Affairs and the Ombudsperson Institution noted discrimination in public sector employment in almost all local and national institutions. Although the law mandates 10 percent of employees at the national level of government be ethnic minorities, their representation remained limited and generally confined to lower-level positions. Smaller communities, such as Gorani, Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians, were particularly underrepresented.

The law requires equal conditions for all schoolchildren and recognizes minority students’ right to public education in their native language through secondary school. This law was not enforced. Bosniak, Croat, Gorani, Montenegrin, Romani, and Turkish community leaders cited the unavailability of textbooks and other materials in the Serbian, Bosnian, and Turkish languages, occasionally turning to Albanian-language curriculum or curriculum sponsored by Serbia or Turkey to educate students.

The Office of the Language Commissioner monitored and reported on the implementation of legislation that conferred equal status to the country’s two official languages, Albanian and Serbian, as well as other official languages at the local level, including Bosnian and Turkish. The commissioner reported municipal administrations and central government institutions were inconsistent in implementing provisions of national language laws, for example, in providing Serbian translations of government statements, including emergency notices, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a complaint echoed by Kosovo-Serb civil society groups. The Office of the Language Commissioner also reported that failure to consistently implement language laws meant that many citizens were denied equal access to public services, information, employment, justice, and other rights.

Lack of translation or poor translation was also reported as a problem with regards to numerous laws, signs within public institutions, and communication during court proceedings. To address the problem of inconsistently translated legislation, the government passed a concept note sponsored by the country’s language commissioner in May 2019 requiring establishment of a governmental translation unit. As of November, the unit had not been established.

Courts regularly failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to minority defendants and witnesses and did not provide adequate translation of statute and court documents as required by law. The Kosovo-Serb NGO AKTIV reported that courts sent their decisions, including decisions on detention and verdicts, in the Albanian language to members of the Kosovo-Serb and other minority communities. AKTIV noted such practices inhibited access to legal remedies for members of minority communities.

Amendments to administrative rulings permit Bosniaks and ethnic Turks to have identity documents issued in their own languages, but minority representatives often complained of poor treatment by public servants and delayed implementation.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, health care, and education. When the motivation for a crime is based on gender, sexual orientation, or perceived affinity of the victim with persons who are targets of such hostility, the law considers motivation to be an aggravating circumstance.

According to human rights NGOs, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community faced overt discrimination in employment, housing, determination of statelessness, and access to education and health care.

The NGO Center for Equality and Liberty reported that societal pressure persuaded most LGBTI persons to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity. A representative noted police were insensitive to the needs of the LGBTI community. The center also noted increased homophobic public reactions in social media since the introduction of country-wide government measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police were inclusive and accepting of LGBTI and other minority communities in their public messaging, and senior police officials participated in the annual pride parade. Pristina municipality established a drop-in center for at-risk LGBTI persons.

In August 2019 the appeals court upheld a basic court ruling permitting the change of the sex marker on identity documents from female to male for a citizen living abroad. In total, two citizens changed their identity documents following lengthy court procedures, while four citizens’ requests for change of identity documents have not been resolved.

On September 4, Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements in which the two countries agreed to work with foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality in the 69 countries where it is considered a crime.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of official discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS during the year.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and the violation of any individual’s labor rights due to his or her union activities. The law requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, including in essential services. The law applies equally to all individuals working in the public and private sectors, including documented migrants and domestic servants.

The government did not effectively enforce labor laws, which include regulations and administrative instructions that govern employment relations, including rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. According to the Association of Independent Labor Unions in Kosovo (BSPK), resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were circuitous and subject to lengthy delays or appeals.

Employers did not always respect the right of worker organizations to bargain collectively, particularly in the private sector. The BSPK reported many private-sector employers essentially ignored labor laws.

The BSPK reported continued difficulty in establishing unions due to employer interference in workers’ associations and unions, particularly in the banking, construction, and hotel sectors. Representatives from these sectors anonymously told the BSPK some employers used intimidation to prevent the establishment of unions. The labor inspectorate reported receiving no formal complaints of discrimination against employees who tried to join unions during the year; however, the inspectorate was not fully functional due to budgetary and staffing shortfalls. In addition, employers did not always respect the rights of worker organizations and unions to bargain collectively or to network with unions outside their organization, particularly in the private sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law and forced labor, including forced child labor occurred (see section 7.c.), during the year. Government resources, including remediation, were insufficient to bring about compliance, identify and protect victims, and investigate claims of forced or compulsory labor. The labor inspectorate reported conducting only limited investigations for forced labor offenses. Penalties, although commensurate with those for other serious crimes, were seldom applied.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for contractual employment is 15, provided the employment is not harmful or prejudicial to school attendance. If the work is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of a young person, the legal minimum age for work is 18.

The 2020 Law on Child Protection institutes key child labor protection standards unifying all the other legal and sublegal documents on the topic. It provides additional penalties for formal and informal employers of children that are commensurate with those for similar crimes. The law does not fully address the problem of child labor, as the law has little impact on the informal economy.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were seldom applied. Inspectors immediately notified employers when minors were exploited or found engaged in hazardous labor conditions. Child labor occurred primarily in the informal sector. As of May, NGO Terres Des Hommes reported 116 cases of minors (105 Kosovo citizens and 11 minors from Albania) working in hazardous conditions. Of these, 73 were children engaged in begging, 13 in street work, and 14 in coal extraction.

The Coalition of NGOs for the Protection of Children reported that children working in agriculture encountered hazards from operating farm equipment. The coalition reported that child labor in farming persisted as a traditional activity. Government-run social-work centers reported children engaged in farming were primarily in the informal sector and were not prevented from attending school. While children were rarely their families’ main wage earners, child labor contributed substantially to some families’ income.

Urban children often worked in a variety of unofficial construction and retail jobs, such as selling newspapers, cigarettes, food, or telephone cards on the street. Some children, especially those from ethnic minorities or from families receiving social assistance, engaged in physical labor such as transportation of goods or in picking through trash piles for items to sell.

See the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV or AIDS status, or political affiliation. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across sectors with respect to sex, gender identity, disability, religion, political affiliation, and minority status (see section 6). During the year the BSPK received reports from labor unions and individuals claiming discrimination based on union membership, age, and family status. The BSPK and union officials noted employment, particularly in the public sector, often depended on the employee’s political status and affiliation. Union officials reported other mistreatment, including sexual harassment, based on political party affiliation. The BSPK reported instances of employers discriminating against female candidates in employment interviews and illegally firing women for being pregnant or requesting maternity leave.

University of Pristina officials noted a lack of space for conducting prayers on university premises. The Kosovo Center for Peace reported several cases of female students in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and Gjakove/Djakovica being denied elementary school access due to wearing religious garb.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government-set minimum wage was higher than the official poverty income line.

The law provides for a standard 40-hour work week, requires rest periods, limits the number of regular hours worked to 12 per day, limits overtime to 20 hours per week and 40 hours per month, requires payment of a premium for overtime work, and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides for 20 days of paid leave per year for employees and 12 months of partially paid maternity leave. The law sets appropriate health and safety standards for workplaces and governs all industries in the country. The responsibility for identifying unsafe workplaces lies with occupational safety and health experts rather than workers.

Ministry of Labor inspectors were responsible for enforcing all labor standards, including those pertaining to wages, hours, and occupational safety and health. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and fines were not commensurate with those for similar violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations in both the formal and informal sectors and enforcement was further curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

The BSPK reported lack of enforcement by the judiciary, especially in the informal sector, citing resource and capacity limitations within the labor inspectorate.

According to the BSPK, employers failed to abide by official labor standards that provided equal standards of protection to public and private sector workers. The BSPK reported a lack of government oversight and enforcement, particularly of the standard workweek and compulsory and unpaid overtime. Many individuals worked long hours in the private sector as “at-will” employees, without employment contracts, regular pay, or contributions to their pensions. The BSPK reported employers fired workers without cause in violation of the law and refused to respect worker holidays. Women’s rights organizations reported sexual abuse and harassment occurred on the job but went unreported due to fear of dismissal or retaliation.

The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a dangerous work situation without jeopardy to their employment. According to the Labor Ministry, informal employer-employee arrangements may address when and whether employees may remove themselves from work due to dangerous work situations but the government did not track these arrangements. There were eight worker fatalities as a result of inadequate or unsafe work conditions during the year. According to experts, violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards were common for both men and women, as well as foreign migrant workers, particularly those who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions, such as in construction and agriculture.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Presidential elections were last held in May 2019 and won by current president Stevo Pendarovski. Parliamentary elections took place in July after a three-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 3, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned, and a caretaker government, led by interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski and composed of ministers from across the political spectrum, took office for the 100 days preceding scheduled elections. On February 16, the speaker of parliament dissolved the legislature and called elections for April 12. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting state of emergency, the caretaker government postponed elections from April 12 to July 15 and remained in office until August 30, when the new government, again led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, was sworn in. In its July 16 Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the parliamentary elections and October 2 Final Report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observed the elections were “generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency.” The report characterized the elections as “genuinely competitive” despite politicians’ limited ability to conduct outreach during the pandemic. Election day went smoothly.

The national police maintain internal security, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the Ministry of the Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including excessive use of force by police and prison guards.

Significant human rights issues included: violence and threats of violence against journalists, high-level corruption, and instances of violence and threats of violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. The ombudsman believed police impunity continued to be a problem.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and laws prohibit such practices, but there were some reports police abused detainees and prisoners and used excessive force. The government acted to investigate and prosecute legitimate claims. The Ministry of Interior Professional Standards Unit (PSU) reported, during the first seven months of the year, it acted upon 32 complaints referring to use of excessive force by police officers. The unit deemed 13 of the complaints unfounded, dismissed 17 for insufficient evidence, and upheld two. In the latter two cases, the PSU filed criminal reports against the police officers for “harassment while performing duty.”

In response to a September 24 video on social media showing police officers physically abusing Romani citizens in Bitola, the PSU reported November 3 it filed a criminal complaint with the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office’s Police Misconduct Unit. The PSU also took disciplinary action against a traffic police officer implicated by the video, as well as against another police officer present during the incident. The cases were pending as of November 3. Prime Minister Zaev publicly condemned the incident on September 25.

The ombudsman received a total of 30 complaints from detained and convicted persons alleging physical abuse, brutality, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment by police officers and prison police or guards, including at Idrizovo, Skopje, Kumanovo, Stip, and Ohrid Prisons. As of August 11, the ombudsman had filed 10 criminal complaints against members of the prison police with the prosecutors’ office, dismissed one complaint for lack of sufficient evidence, and continued to review the remaining complaints.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were sometimes inadequate, but notable steps were taken to improve prison and detention center conditions since the 2017 Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) report described detention conditions as amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. A CPT delegation conducted a follow-up visit to North Macedonia in December 2019 and visited eight police establishments, six prisons, two psychiatric facilities, and one social care facility where persons were deprived of their liberty. Following the visit, CPT presented its preliminary findings to the government, but the official report was not public as of August 31.

Physical Conditions: The country had 11 prisons as well as two separate correctional facilities, one each for female and juvenile prisoners. Four prisons also held pretrial detainees.

According to the Ministry of Justice and the ombudsman, overcrowding was no longer a significant problem, except in some wards of the state prison Idrizovo. Official information from the Ministry of Justice showed that, as of August 31, there were 1,674 prisoners, while the prisons have the capacity to hold 2,384 inmates. Information from the ombudsman reported a higher number of persons in state custody as of August 11, including 1,897 convicted prisoners and 228 detainees. Despite having excess physical capacity, the prison system continued to suffer from lack of funding and understaffing. Poor conditions persisted in police stations, social care facilities, shelters, and psychiatric institutions.

The ombudsman reported August 14 that the authorities had made notable improvements in prison conditions by reconstructing some facilities. The ombudsman reported, nonetheless, that prison conditions continued to be generally inadequate. Transfer of juveniles kept at Ohrid Prison to the newly constructed Volkovija Juvenile Correction Home was pending as of August 17.

The ombudsman opened inquiries into the death of six incarcerated persons. As of August 17, two inquiries were closed based on a Public Prosecutor’s Office’s (PPO) report ruling out violence as a contributing factor in the deaths, two inquiries were pending reports from the PPO, and the remaining two were awaiting overdue autopsy reports.

The Ministry of Justice Department for Enforcement of Sanctions (DES) received 19 internal notifications of the use of force against inmates by prison police. In all cases the department found the officers acted in accordance with standard operating procedures. There was one report of police using force in self-defense while responding to a prisoner’s attack. The DES found the use of force was in line with applicable regulations.

The Ombudsman’s National Preventive Mechanism received a large number of complaints regarding inadequate health care. According to the ombudsman, prison and detention centers’ medical facilities were understaffed and underequipped. No information was available on whether these complaints were investigated.

Ministry of Justice authorities continued to distribute brochures published with assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) explaining to prisoners how to file anonymous complaints to the ombudsman regarding mistreatment.

Administration: As of August 11, the ombudsman had received four complaints for excessive use of force by the prison police. Based on the information collected, the ombudsman filed two criminal complaints against members of the prison police with the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecution Office (OCCPO)’s Police Misconduct Unit. As of August 11, the complaints were pending review.

Independent Monitoring: The law allows physicians, diplomatic representatives, and representatives from the CPT and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to pretrial detainees with the approval of the investigative judge. In accordance with a 2018 memorandum of understanding, the government granted the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights unrestricted access to convicted prisoners. The ombudsman visited the country’s prisons monthly and investigated credible allegations of problematic conditions and treatment.

Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported making improvements at all prisons, including completing a full reconstruction of Bitola prison and constructing the Volkovija Juvenile Correctional Facility in Tetovo and a courtroom in the Idrizovo Prison.

Authorities opened a new healthcare facility in Idrizovo Prison with two medical doctors, three nurses, one dentist, and one dental technician on staff. Despite this, access to satisfactory health care remained an issue. Staff members in penitentiary and educational-correctional institutions were trained on the new Code of Conduct for Prison Personnel, based on the European Code of Ethics for Prison Staff. The COVID-19 outbreak impeded some regular staff training.

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, as well as to receive compensation for unlawful detention. The government generally observed these requirements, but in some cases, prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires that a judge issue warrants for arrest and detention of suspects based on evidence, and police generally followed this requirement. The law prohibits police from interrogating suspects without informing them of their status and their rights and enabling them to obtain a lawyer. The law states prosecutors must arraign a detainee within 24 hours of arrest. A pretrial procedure judge, at the request of a prosecutor, may order detention of suspects for up to 72 hours before arraignment. Police generally adhered to these procedures. Authorities generally informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. Detention prior to indictment may last a maximum of 180 days. Following indictment, pretrial detention may last a maximum of two years.

The Ministry of Interior PSU received one complaint alleging excessive use of force in interrogations of suspects and detainees. The PSU dismissed the complaint for lack of evidence.

There is a functioning bail system. In addition to bail, the law allows the substitution of pretrial detention with house arrest or other measures for securing defendants’ presence at trial. Common measures include passport seizure, a prohibition on leaving one’s place of residence, and an obligation to report to the court on a weekly basis.

The law provides advisory deadlines to avoid protracted criminal proceedings. Prosecutors should generally complete investigations within six months, although the deadlines can be extended to 12 months in more complex cases and 18 months in organized crime cases with a supervisor’s consent. In practice, prosecutors often exceeded those deadlines and suffered no adverse consequences for failing to meet them.

The law allows defendants to communicate with an attorney of their choice, but authorities did not always inform detainees properly of this right and did not always allow them to consult with an attorney prior to arraignment. Indigent detainees have the right to a state-provided attorney, and authorities generally respected this right. Judges usually granted permission for attorneys to visit their clients in detention. Authorities did not practice incommunicado detention.

In addition to investigating allegations of police mistreatment, the PSU conducted all internal investigations into allegations of other forms of police misconduct. The unit has authority to impose administrative sanctions, such as temporary suspension from work, during its investigations. The unit may not take disciplinary measures, which require a ruling from a disciplinary commission, nor may it impose more serious criminal sanctions, which require prosecutorial action, but it may refer cases as appropriate.

As of August 20, the OCCPO’s Unit for Investigating and Prosecuting Criminal Misconduct of Police Officers and Prison Guards had investigated 21 cases against police officers and prison guards based on criminal complaints accusing them of mistreatment, unlawful arrest, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. All 21 cases were still pending as of August 31. Separately, the unit obtained a guilty plea and five-month prison sentence against a police officer for accepting bribes.

Pretrial Detention: In most cases the courts adhered to the law for pretrial detention procedures. During the year the number of court detention orders remained stable when compared with 2019; most orders related to cases brought by the OCCPO and the Skopje Basic PPO. As of August 20, the courts issued 227 detention orders, which is in line with the 289 issued by mid-November 2019. The number of detention orders issued during 2020 and 2019 decreased significantly from 2018 when the courts issued 457 detention orders. Prosecutors across the country requested detention in 5 to 10 percent of all cases. Usually, prosecutors requested, and the court issued, preventive measures instead of detention orders for suspects and defendants to mitigate flight risk, evidence tampering, and repeating or committing new crimes.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for “autonomous and independent” courts, supported by an independent and autonomous Judicial Council. Instances of judicial misconduct, undue pressure of judges, protracted justice, and inadequate funding of the judiciary continued to hamper court operations and effectiveness and affected public confidence in the judiciary. Courts continued to operate after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, but with significantly reduced dockets. Both the judiciary and the PPO remained underfunded.

The government demonstrated greater respect for judicial independence and impartiality compared with previous years. According to a European Commission (EC) October 6 update report, the country established mechanisms to ensure judicial independence and accountability, including creating rules on merit-based appointments, checking assets and conflicts of interest, and establishing disciplinary procedures. The EC’s March 2 report also noted positive developments, including the adoption of a new law on the PPO and improvements in the country’s record in fighting corruption and organized crime, while also noting the judiciary remained underfunded, susceptible to political influence, and poorly trusted by the public.

On February 16, parliament adopted a new law on the PPO. The law entered into force on June 30, officially terminating the mandate of the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO). The new law provides greater financial independence for the PPO, greater autonomy for the OCCPO, merit-based promotion for prosecutors, and exclusion of illegal wiretaps from evidence, except in the cases indicted by the former SPO on or before June 30, 2017.

As of August 20, the Judicial Council received 283 citizen complaints alleging judicial misconduct. The allegations included biased or unethical conduct, procedural errors, recusals, and exceeding deadlines. Separately, the Judicial Council received 60 formal requests for removal or disciplinary action against judges.

On January 8, the Judicial Council publicly condemned defense counsel pressure on a lay judge in the high-profile “TNT” case and recommended that the Private Attorneys’ Chamber and the PPO take appropriate action to avert and sanction such misconduct.

Citizens filed 90 complaints concerning the judicial system from January to August, according to the Office of the Ombudsman. This represented a decline in comparison with 2019. The ombudsman attributed the smaller number of complaints to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related reduction in court trial calendars. Most of the complaints alleged denial of the right to a fair trial by repeated trial delays, judicial misconduct, violations of in-absentia trial procedures, and failures to respond to discovery. In one instance the ombudsman found that an appellate court dismissed an indictment but refused to award compensation to the defendant for his defense counsel expenses, as required by law. Upon the ombudsman’s intervention, the court granted the former defendant’s compensation request. In another instance the ombudsman endorsed a citizen’s complaint alleging the courts ruled in favor of an electrical supply company in violation of the law and forwarded the case to the Judicial Council for further review.

Between January 1 and August 17, the ombudsman acted as “friend of the court” (human rights amicus curiae) in two criminal cases. This was the second year the ombudsman served as amicus curiae, an increased authority provided under 2016 amendments to the law.

While there were strict rules regulating the assignment of cases to judges through an electronic case management system, a 2017 audit revealed manipulation in the system for assigning judges to specific cases. In July 2019 the Skopje Basic Prosecutor’s Office indicted former chief judge of the Skopje Criminal Court Vladimir Pancevski for misuse of official position. The Judicial Council later suspended him and then removed him from the bench. On August 4, the Veles Basic Court convicted and sentenced Pancevski to three-and-a-half years in prison for misuse of office for interfering with the electronic case management system between 2013 and 2016 and directly assigning cases to handpicked judges. Although briefly detained to appear before the court for the trial, as of August 31, Pancevski remained free, pending appeal before the Skopje Appeals Court.

On January 27, the Judicial Council dismissed Supreme Court Justice Risto Katavenovski for misconduct related to his involvement in a 2017 decision annulling an outstanding detention order against a defendant. Katavenovski’s appeal was pending before a Supreme Court-led appeal panel as of August 20. He is the third Supreme Court justice dismissed in connection to the same case.

In February, Skopje Basic PPO opened an investigation into former chief justice Jovo Vangelovski for hiding cases pending review before the Supreme Court in his chamber. The investigation was pending as of August 20. On July 7, Skopje Basic PPO filed a summary indictment against Vangelovski in a separate matter. The indictment alleges misuse of office in connection to a November 2018 incident in which he withheld a monetary bonus from a colleague that was granted to all other Supreme Court justices. The trial’s start was pending as of November 3.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

The law presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them (with free interpretation as necessary). Trials were generally open to the public. During the year the courts operated under reduced calendars due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizens continued to complain about insufficient civil enforcement practices, resulting in violations of citizens’ rights.

On March 17, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the Judicial Council adopted a decision recommending all courts operate in line with COVID-19 mitigation measures and appropriately reduce their calendars. The decision also advised the courts to close trials to the public and to give priority to cases involving deprivation of liberty, issues of urgency, injunction orders, cases involving foreign nationals without permanent residence status, COVID-19 related offenses, and cases in the final stages of adjudication. The guidance also permitted courts to hold virtual hearings, which allowed some courts to balance health risks with their commitment to ensuring timely trials.

On March 30, the caretaker government adopted a decree with force of law suspending preclusive court deadlines, such as the statute of limitations, during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The decree also extended the terms of lay judges for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency and delayed enforcement of pending prison sentences of up to three years, except in cases where there was a risk of the statute of limitations lapsing.

For certain criminal and civil cases, judicial panels of three to five individuals, led by a professional judge, are used. Lay judges assist in all cases where defendants face potential prison sentences of more than five years. According to observers, lay judges were underpaid and susceptible to corruption or outside pressure. Defendants, particularly those in cases initiated by the SPO, complained the court did not always grant adequate time to prepare a sufficient defense. Defendants may communicate with an attorney of their choice or, for those who are indigent, have one provided at public expense. Defendants may question witnesses and present evidence on their own behalf. Authorities may not compel defendants to testify or confess guilt. Both the prosecution and defendants have the right to appeal verdicts.

On January 9, the Skopje Criminal Court confirmed the OCPPO 2019 indictment against former speaker of parliament Trajko Veljanoski, former minister of transportation Mile Janakieski, former minister of labor Spiro Ristovski, and former director of the Department for Security and Counterintelligence Vladimir Atanasovski. The defendants were charged with “terrorist endangerment of the constitutional order” for orchestrating the April 27, 2017 violence in parliament. Former VMRO-DPMNE party leader and prime minister Nikola Gruevski and former Department for Security and Counter-Intelligence official Nikola Boshkovski were not among the defendants because they fled to Hungary and Greece, respectively, in connection with other court cases against them. The trial began February 26 and continued before the Skopje Criminal Court as of November 3.

On June 4, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against North Macedonia for violating the right to a fair trial of Ljube Boshkoski, former member of parliament and minister of internal affairs. The ECHR found the proceedings in the 2011 illegal election campaign finance case against Boshkoski violated his right to a fair trial insofar as the court excluded the public from several hearings and one witness testified as a protected witness, meaning the court and the defense did not have the opportunity to view his demeanor while testifying, even though the witness was known to the defendant and thus should not have been afforded this status. On July 8, the Constitutional Court accepted a petition challenging the constitutionality of Article 353, paragraph 5 of the Criminal Code criminalizing serious forms of misuse of official position and authority. Article 353, paragraph 5 is the main charging statute in several SPO-initiated, adjudicated, and pending cases. The Constitutional Court’s ruling on the petition’s merit was pending as of November 3.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens had access to courts to submit lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Individuals may file human rights cases in the criminal, civil, or administrative courts, and in the Constitutional Court, depending upon the type of human rights violation in question and its alleged perpetrator. Individuals may appeal adverse decisions. The law provides the right to timely adjudication of cases and a legal basis to appeal excessive judicial delays to the Supreme Court. The government generally complied with domestic courts’ civil decisions. Individuals may appeal cases involving alleged state violations to the ECHR after exhausting all domestic legal options.

Backlogs in some civil trial courts and the Administrative Court increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From March through May, the Skopje Civil Court, the busiest civil court in the country, adjudicated one-third the number of cases it adjudicated during the same period in 2019.

On April 1, the country notified the secretary general of the Council of Europe that it would exercise the right to derogate from its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. In view of the measures the government took in relation to COVID-19 and the declared state of emergency, the country derogated from Article 8 (right to private and family life), Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association), and Article 2 of Protocol Number 4 (freedom of movement).

Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights allows states in time of war or public emergency threatening the life of the nation to derogate from its obligations under the convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, and provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.

On June 29, the country withdrew the derogation and informed the Council of Europe that the state of emergency was terminated on June 23.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place for citizens of the country. The government has no specific laws or mechanisms in place related to the resolution of Holocaust-era claims by foreign citizens, but they may still seek property restitution via civil proceedings. The government made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era restitution claims for citizens of the country, particularly after the 2000 Denationalization Law and the 2007 compensation agreement.

In 2000 the Denationalization Law accorded the right to denationalization of property seized after August 1944 to former owners and their successors, in accordance with the provisions related to the right to inherit. It required claimants to have citizenship of the country at the time of the law entering into force.

Advocacy groups reported some foreign citizens, not covered by the 2000 law, still sought restitution. A report of the Skopje-based Institute of Human Rights covering the first half of the year found that 1,057 denationalization cases were still pending with the Administrative Court, another 101 with the High Administrative Court, and more than 3,000 others in other courts throughout the country. Foreign citizens may apply for restitution in civil proceedings. The country is party to the 2009 Terezin Declaration. For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

The Islamic Community of North Macedonia (ICM) continued to claim the government used a “selective justice” approach and that it failed to provide appropriate and timely restitution for property seized during the period of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Among the disputed property is the Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip that was nationalized in 1955. The ICM claimed the government prevented the ICM from regaining rightful ownership of the mosque complex.

In May the Anticorruption Commission demanded the Constitutional Court look into Article 64 of the Denationalization Law after the Ministry of Transport and Communications sold property in Skopje that had been the subject of a denationalization process since 2003.

As of mid-August, the ombudsman received 14 complaints concerning denationalization of property seized by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, compared with 36 in 2019. As of August 17, the ombudsman dismissed two complaints as inadmissible and five as unfounded. One complaint was successfully resolved after the ombudsman’s intervention, while the remaining six were pending further review. The ombudsman noted there are major difficulties and procedural oversights in denationalization cases and said he received citizen complaints about unjustified delays and court inefficiencies in clearing a backlog of property-related cases. This situation persists even though the 2000 Denationalization Law stipulates the denationalization procedure is urgent in nature. The Ombudsman’s Office continued to improve its collaboration with the Ministry of Finance’s denationalization commissions.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions during the year.

The Operational Technical Agency, responsible for lawful intercepts in the country, became operational in 2018. It serves as the technical facilitator of operations for legal interception of communications, operating with its own budget separately from the Ministry of Interior.

Parliament amended the Law on the Protection of Privacy in 2016 to prohibit the possession, processing, and publishing of any content, including wiretapped conversations, which violate the right to privacy with regard to personal or family life. The amendments also prohibit the use of such materials in election campaigns or for other political purposes.

Although there was a Council for Civilian Oversight of Wiretapping, the council was not functional as of November 3. On June 14, the president and the deputy of the council resigned citing lack of operational resources.

The ombudsman reported receiving two complaints alleging unlawful interference with privacy and home.

On February 16, parliament adopted a Law on Personal Data Protection, aligned with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679). On April 10, the Personal Data Protection Agency submitted a criminal complaint against unidentified persons for abuse of personal data before the Skopje Basic PPO. The Agency submitted the complaint in response to the publication of lists with personal data (name, surname, address, personal identification number) of persons from Kumanovo who allegedly contracted COVID-19. The complaint was pending prosecutors’ review as of August 20.

On August 4, the agency ordered the State Election Commission (SEC) to address breaches of data protection rules within set deadlines in relation to the events surrounding SEC’s website breaches on election day.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. The media environment continued to improve during the year. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the authorities’ response to instances of violence toward and intimidation of journalists was slow and inefficient.

In the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the July 15 parliamentary elections, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated, “media coverage of the elections lacked critical assessment of platforms and provisions regarding paid political advertisement favored the three largest parties.” The statement noted, “Significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sectors, such as ensuring the political neutrality of the public Macedonian Radio and Television and the media regulator” (Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services). Observers expressed concerns the COVID-19 pandemic caused deterioration in already challenging conditions for journalists. The OSCE report further noted, “Ongoing stagnation in the advertising market caused by the pandemic has further increased the dependence of media on owners and state subsidies.”

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report released March 4 noted an improvement in the score from two to three (out of maximum four points), “because pressure on journalists has eased in recent years. The April 21 Reporters without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index noted “slight improvement” of the country’s media freedom. The report added that, “regrettably, senior government officials have an engrained tendency to threaten and insult journalists. The culture of impunity is well entrenched and still an obstacle for journalists’ safety. The number of the physical attacks on journalists declined; however, there is a growing practice of cyberbullying and verbal abuse.”

As of October 1, the government had not taken measures to address calls from media stakeholders and the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest (SCPC) to abolish 2018 amendments to the Electoral Code permitting taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.

The government prosecuted journalists during the year for disclosing confidential or classified documents. On March 4, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted journalist Aleksandar Mitovski and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison sentence for leaking confidential documents related to the “Racketeering” criminal investigation. He published the first page of a witness deposition on his portal, Infomax, in August 2019. On July 30, the PPO filed a summary indictment against Ljupco Zlatev, the editor of Lider, a financial news portal, for disclosing classified documents from the National Security Agency in two texts the portal published in July.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately. The Helsinki Human Rights Committee and other human rights and media freedom activists reported an increase in hate speech, particularly along interethnic lines and in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. On June 8, the committee issued a press release urging public figures to refrain from speech blaming interethnic coexistence for the public health crisis and to focus instead on increased compliance with COVID-mitigation measures.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.

Central government advertising on commercial channels is banned, but local government advertising is permissible. The state continued to subsidize print media. Budget funds were allocated to media to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The state subsidized paid political ads in commercial media for the campaign leading to the July 15 early parliamentary elections.

Several organizations raised concerns over the media environment prior to the July 15 parliamentary elections. The ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission’s (SEAM) Preliminary Findings noted: “The legal framework for the allocation of funds for paid time, and the distribution of maximum limits for such advertisements, was modified by a government decree enacted on 22 June, the last day of the state of emergency. The provisions favor the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led coalition, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).” The ODIHR also noted: “The newscasts of all national broadcasters monitored by the ODIHR SEAM provided superficial coverage of the campaign activities…in-depth analytical reporting or policy-based discussions were largely absent from the coverage of the campaign, limiting the opportunity for voters to make an informed choice between distinct policy alternatives.”

According to an analysis of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, published August 14, parties spent nearly two million euros ($2.4 million) on commercials, 550,000 euros ($660,000) on online media, 150,000 euros ($180,000) on radio ads, and 40,000 euros ($48,000) on print media. For the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, it was problematic that the political parties could decide without any criteria in which media outlets to place ads. The State Anticorruption Commission, in its draft National Anticorruption Strategy endorsed by the executive in January, urged the government to terminate paid political advertising in media, seeing it as a “potential risk for corruption and creation of clientelist relationships.”

The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media filed misdemeanor charges against Macedonian Radio 1, Alsat-M TV, Shenja TV, and Telma TV for violating the media blackout preceding the election. On July 30, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld a conviction against both Macedonian Radio 1 and its director. On November 3, the Skopje Misdemeanor Court issued a judgment against TV Shenja and Alsat-M TV. Both outlets were appealing the decision before the Skopje Criminal Court. Telma TV was acquitted.

On February 4, following an open call, the government allocated 43.9 million Macedonian denars (MKD, approximately $852,000) to cover half of the 2019 printing and distribution expenses to 12 print media outlets. The State Anticorruption Commission’s draft National Anticorruption Strategy, finalized on January 17, urged the government to introduce more specific subsidizing criteria to avoid “not purposeful spending of awarded funds.”

On October 8, the ECHR issued a judgement against North Macedonia under Article 10 (Violation of Freedom of Expression) in a case involving journalist Nikola Gelevski. The ECHR found that a 2011 criminal conviction for defamation against Gelevski for criticizing another journalist in an opinion piece limited critical and investigative journalism as a matter of legitimate public interest. The court noted the criminal conviction could have a chilling effect on political debate between members of media on matters of importance and characterized the authorities’ interference as disproportionate.

The Media Ethics Council continued to work on promoting self-regulation. As of August 10, the council received 106 complaints for unethical reporting and fake news, which the council noted was triple the number received in the same period in 2019. Of the complaints, 33 percent were related to misinformation on COVID-19.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.

As of October 24, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia registered 16 cases of attacks on journalists, of which 14 cases were verbal attacks, most of them involving life threats on social media, and two were physical attacks. The association noted the fact that of all verbal attacks, eight were directed against female journalists. In all cases the association called on police and the prosecution to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, and reiterated concern that impunity remained a serious issue with respect to attacks on journalists. On July 28, the association reiterated its call to the authorities to amend the criminal code to ensure attacks on journalists were treated as criminal offenses prosecuted ex officio.

On March 16, the Skopje Basic Court issued a 20-month prison sentence, preceded by psychiatric treatment in Bardovci Mental Hospital, for Emil Jakimovski, then assistant head of department in the Central Registry, for death and sexist threats made separately against journalists Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Korovesovska during January and during November and December 2019, respectively. The case triggered numerous reactions domestically and internationally, including by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Over several days in July, Brussels-based correspondent for state news agency MIA Tanja Milevska received numerous death and rape threats from anonymous Twitter and Facebook users. The case triggered reactions by media organizations in North Macedonia, the region, and internationally, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, as well as North Macedonia’s Ministry of Information Society and Administration. Milevska reported the threats to police in Belgium and in North Macedonia but had not received any response as of August 12.

In April journalists and media staff Dushica Mrgja, Natasha Stojanovska, Goran Trpenoski, Vlatko Stojanovski, Biljana Nikolovska, Tome Angelovski, and Igor Jankovski filed civil compensation lawsuits against the state for violating their right to freedom of speech before the Skopje Civil Court. The plaintiffs, who testified in court in the parliament violence case, sought financial and moral compensation for the PPO’s lack of action to prosecute the “United for Macedonia” civil movement members who insulted and physically attacked press crews reporting on the April 27, 2017, storming of parliament. As of August 31, the case was pending before the court.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship.

On February 4, the Independent Media Trade Union signed the first collective agreement with a media outlet, state news agency MIA, which regulates terms and conditions of MIA’s employees, including but not limited to guarantees for a 36-hour working week, paid overtime work, protection from arbitrary dismissal, and guaranteed freedom of expression.

Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

A “state of crisis” has been in force for border areas adjacent to Greece and Serbia since 2015. It has been extended by the government every six months, most recently on October 5. The state of crisis allows the government additional authorities to regulate the entry and transit of migrants and deploy additional resources as needed. Since the closure of the “Western Balkans Route” in 2016, migrants apprehended in these areas were regularly placed in contained temporary transit centers, near the border, and pushed back to the prior transit country within days. No freedom of movement was ensured for migrants while in the transit centers or the reception center for smuggled foreigners, nor was a formal removal or readmission procedure established.

A total of 1,799 persons were housed in transit centers in the first eight months of the year, 1,448 in Tabanovce, near the border with Serbia; and 351 in the Vinojug transit center, near the border with Greece.

The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection prescribes freedom of movement shall be restricted in extraordinary circumstances to determine the identity and citizenship, and establish the facts and circumstances of the asylum requests, particularly if the subject has been determined to be a flight risk, as well as to protect order and national security, or when a foreigner is retained for the purposes of initiating a procedure for his or her return or expulsion.

The government authorities did not exert pressure on migrants to return to their country of origin.

The ombudsman determined that the Ministry of Interior often made arbitrary decisions to restrict freedom of movement, including in cases involving unaccompanied minors.

In-country Movement: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Skopje estimated more than 28,000 persons transited the country from January 1 to August 31, but neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered any hate crimes against them. UNHCR did not note any in-country movement restrictions for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or stateless persons.

According to the EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, in the first seven months of the year, 11,300 migrants were encountered along the so-called Balkans Route that includes North Macedonia.

On March 21, the government introduced a countrywide curfew as part of the measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The curfew limited the movement of citizens outside of their homes to specific periods during the day. It was in effect until May 26.

On May 14, the Constitutional Court suspended as discriminatory select provisions of the government’s COVID-19 state of emergency decrees that ordered more restrictive regimes governing the movement of seniors age 67 and older and minors younger than age 18. The Court ordered the government’s decrees restricting citizens’ movement outside of their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should apply equally to all citizens.

Citizenship: The Agency of National Security reported September 1 that as many as 1,800 individuals were awaiting its decision regarding the granting or revocation of their citizenship.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, 112 persons from 26 families remained displaced from the 2001 internal armed conflict. Of them seven individuals from three families lived in collective housing centers, and 105 from 25 families lived in private accommodations or with host families. The government provided protection and assistance, and supported safe, voluntary, and dignified returns, as well as resettlement or local integration of IDPs. There were no reports of IDPs suffering abuses.

Despite having no national policy document, the government generally observed the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, except on the adoption of a new strategy on integration of refugees, which has been pending since 2017. In addition UNHCR and its partners lacked access to individuals detained in the Reception Center for Foreigners (Skopje-Gazi Baba) and in the transit zones at international airports, which impeded UNHCR’s ability fully to exercise its mandate under its 1951 convention.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities took significant measures to combat and detect cases of migrant smuggling by utilizing the support of mobile teams and a task force consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and prosecutors from the PPO for Organized Crime and Corruption. The May 2019 EC report noted the problem of smuggling needed to be addressed continuously, as the country was under severe pressure due to its geographic location.

The IOM stressed the movement of migrants through the Western Balkans route was facilitated by smuggling networks, which exposed the migrants to significant risks of abuse and exploitative practices, including trafficking in human beings.

There were occasional reports of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against migrants, allegedly by smugglers and traffickers. These reports were infrequent. The majority of migrants in transit were working-age single men.

Authorities provided adequate mechanisms to protect migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons from abuse. A multisector system and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were in place to provide protection from gender-based violence. UNHCR noted the system needed strengthening to ensure universal and systemic application of the SOPs, especially regarding case identification.

Refoulement: During the year no instances of forceful returns of asylum seekers or refugees to unsafe countries were recorded.

Access to Asylum: UNHCR assessed access to asylum practices continued to improve consistently, and previous concerns regarding the practice of arbitrarily denying access to asylum had been addressed. The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to provide protection to refugees. UNHCR reported, however, that the mechanism for adjudicating refugee status failed to provide basic procedural guarantees and proper determinations as prescribed in the law. It reported 181 migrants applied for asylum in the first seven months of the year. Two persons were granted refugee status or a subsidiary form of protection.

The legal framework provides for procedural safeguards and review. There were a number of disputes concerning the application of some safeguards, including at the judicial level. For instance, although legally permissible, in practice the court refused all requests to hear from dissatisfied asylum applicants during the appeals procedure.

The government issued identity documents to recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection, but authorities frequently delayed or failed to issue identification documents to new asylum seekers.

There were some impediments to accessing asylum. Migrant populations detained in the Transit Center for Foreigners were impeded from accessing asylum. An application for asylum by anyone held in the Reception Center for Foreigners was possible only after the person gave a statement before the court, in criminal proceedings against their smugglers. During the year, 76 persons, or approximately 50 percent of all asylum requests registered in the country, were processed through the Reception Center for Foreigners.

Throughout the year the administrative and the higher administrative courts continued to avoid ruling on the merit of asylum applications, despite having the requisite authority, according to the Macedonian Young Lawyers’ Association. They routinely returned the cases to the Ministry of Interior for further review.

Freedom of Movement: According to UNHCR, authorities detained some individuals intercepted while being smuggled. The grounds for detention decisions were arbitrary. As a rule, individuals are supposed to be detained only until their identity could be established. They were routinely detained after identification, however, to prevent them from departing the country prior to providing legal testimony against their smugglers. In addition a majority of asylum seekers who were previously detained reported they were either not issued detention decisions or issued decisions in a language they could not understand. This impeded their ability to exercise their right to judicial review. According to UNHCR, this situation qualifies as arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

The average detention period of asylum seekers during the year was 15 days, with the longest period being 45 days and the shortest period one day.

Some improvement was noted compared with previous years, as women, children, or families were generally not detained; alternatives to detention were employed instead. A safe house, run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) utilizing donor funds, was rented for these individuals, so they were not placed in prison or in detention facilities. They were monitored, however, and needed to report to authorities on a weekly basis. Three unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were housed with foster families during the year.

Employment: There are no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work, and the law allows asylum seekers whose asylum procedure is not completed within nine months to apply for a work permit.

Recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection with work permits were able to access the active labor market. Nevertheless, asylum seekers faced restrictions because of conflicting laws. By law a foreigner needs to have a unique identification number assigned in order to be issued a work permit. Although an asylum seeker has the legal right to apply for a work permit nine months after applying for asylum, she or he has no right to be assigned a unique identification number until asylum is granted. Consequently, an asylum seeker has the right to work but is unable to exercise it. This represents a serious gap in protection since cases sometimes remain pending for two to three years.

Access to Basic Services: In accordance with health insurance regulations, asylum seekers had the right to basic health services while their claims were pending. The same applied to the right to education. Five children from outside the Balkan region (Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) were enrolled in state-run educational facilities in Skopje. Refugees have the right to full health care provided under the same conditions as it is to citizens.

Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR, none of the 275 individuals from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo who remained in the country returned to Kosovo during the year. No cases of resettlement were registered.

The law provides for naturalization of refugees residing in the country under preferred conditions. Individuals under subsidiary protection may naturalize after eight years of legally residing in the country. During the year one refugee and one person under subsidiary protection were naturalized.

Under the law the Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and UNHCR, should facilitate the voluntary return of asylum seekers to their homes. There were no cases of assisted voluntary repatriation during the year.

UNHCR continued to assist rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo, whom the government allowed to stay in the country. The government issued them provisional identification documents to secure access to services. The Ministry of Labor provided integrated, durable solutions with the support of UNHCR for approximately 158 refugees who applied for integration into the country. The ministry provided social assistance, housing assistance, and access to education, health care, and the labor market.

Temporary Protection: The government could provide subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Two persons were granted subsidiary protection during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

Some habitual residents were legally stateless, despite fulfilling one or more criteria for citizenship. According to consolidated statistics from the government, UNHCR, and NGOs, there were 563 stateless persons registered in the country at the end of August. They were primarily Roma who lacked civil registration and documentation. Children born in the country to stateless persons are considered nationals and have access to birth registration and certification. A government program to register persons without documents was initiated in late 2018.

Some 273 persons have been recorded as habitual residents with undetermined nationality and at risk of statelessness since the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Ministry of Labor estimated some 700 children lacked birth certificates or personal name registration in the country.

Despite basic protections against arbitrary detention and some safeguards to prevent and reduce statelessness, there is no mechanism to identify and determine statelessness in the country, no stateless protection status, nor any route to acquiring citizenship for the stateless in the country. Significant gaps remain, which hindered the country’s progress towards compliance with international standards for the protection of stateless persons and prevention of statelessness.

Barriers to universal birth and civil registration continued disproportionately to affect minority groups, including Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. Government-initiated registration campaigns identified 750 individuals lacking personal documents and at risk of statelessness.

Ethnic Albanian opposition parties claimed more than 7,000 ethnic Albanians resident in the country were unjustly denied the right to possess citizenship of North Macedonia.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Early parliamentary elections were held on July 15. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections concluded, “The early parliamentary elections were generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency.” The report continued that “the campaign, although negative in tone, was genuinely competitive and participants could deliver their messages despite limitations on traditional outreach” and “election day proceeded smoothly, despite technical challenges in publishing results and concerns related to voter registration.” The 2020 parliamentary elections had low turnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic and minor reported and confirmed irregularities.

The elections were conducted under a legal framework which was substantially amended on the eve of the announcement of the elections (originally scheduled for April), contrary to international good practice. Amendments introduced into the Electoral Code in February partially addressed some previous ODIHR recommendations on issues such as voter registration, transparency of election dispute resolution, deadlines for campaign finance reporting, and campaign oversight.

Still, most ODIHR recommendations remain unaddressed, including those pertaining to the universality and equality of the vote in the electoral district abroad, revision of electoral district boundaries by an independent body, the accessibility of polling places to persons with disabilities, and an effective campaign finance audit.

A popular election for president was held in two rounds on April 21 and May 5, 2019. Stevo Pendarovski won the election. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections concluded, “in the well administered [second round] to the presidential election, continued respect for fundamental freedoms allowed voters to make an informed choice between candidates.” The report also noted shortcomings in campaign rules reflected broader deficiencies in the electoral law, and the transparency of campaign finance was lacking due to incomplete reporting.

During the year the ombudsman received complaints from nine citizens alleging voter rights or election administration violations: seven from voters omitted from the Voters’ List and two from election boards’ members for not receiving financial compensation for their work. The ombudsman attributed the significant reduction in election-related complaints in part to parliament’s February amendments to the Electoral Code.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were few restrictions on forming or joining political parties, which were subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens. While membership in a political party was not mandatory, there was an active patronage system in the country through which parties conferred special benefits and advantages to their members. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE Party accused the government of continuing these practices, alleging party membership overrode educational and professional qualifications prescribed by law for public administration positions.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and women and minorities did participate. The law requires gender diversity in each political party’s candidate list for parliamentary and municipal elections. No more than two-thirds of a party’s candidates may be the same gender. As of November 3, a total of 47 of the 120 members of parliament were women, and four women served as ministers in the president’s 20-member cabinet. Six of the 81 mayors were women.

Ethnic Albanians and other ethnic minorities continued to complain of inequitable representation within government and discriminatory practices that excluded them from political participation. There were eight ethnic Albanian ministers in the 20-member government cabinet. There were 33 ethnic Albanian members of parliament, including the speaker of parliament, and three Turkish, one Roma, one Vlach, one Serb, and one Bosniak member of parliament.

The ombudsman reported some improvement in the equitable representation of the smaller nonmajority ethnic communities in the public administration ranks but not at the managerial level. The exceptions were ethnic Albanians who participated in the government at the ministerial level.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. The government generally implemented the law, but there were reports officials engaged in corruption. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer. According to the minister of information, society, and administration, as of December 31, 2019, there were 132,900 persons employed in the public sector. There are reports that some individuals on the government’s payroll do not fill real positions in the bureaucracy. On September 13, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Political System and Community Relations Artan Grubi announced the government would assign 1,300 civil servants, paid by the ministry but not currently filling bureaucratic positions, to specific jobs across government institutions as soon as possible.

Corruption: In its October 6 update report on North Macedonia, the EC stated the country “has made good progress as reflected in its consolidated track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying high level corruption cases.” The EC’s March 2 report noted the SCPC took a proactive role in tracing nepotism, conflict of interest, and corruption across political party lines. As of August 20, a total of 49 public-sector institutions and six private-sector entities submitted midyear reports to the commission in accordance with the Law on Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest.

As of August 20, the SCPC received 260 citizen and one whistleblower complaint, the majority dealing with misuse of public funds, failure to exercise due diligence, and other unethical conduct. In addition the commission received 69 conflict of interest complaints. The SCPC opened eight cases on its own initiative involving allegations of corruption, and another four involving conflicts of interest. The commission also published 68 decisions that resulted in public reprimands against public officials, the recommendation of disciplinary action against four public officials, and a proposal to dismiss another official. In July the commission took remedial action in a 2019 whistleblower’s complaint. Eighteen other complaints submitted in 2019 were still pending as of August 20. The commission received additional complaints from citizens, political parties, and other entities during the campaign season prior to the year’s early parliamentary elections.

As of August 20, the commission reviewed a total of 123 cases and adopted and published 128 related decisions. In one case the commission recommended the PPO open a criminal investigation, and in another four cases it filed inquiries with government institutions to determine the culpability of public officials in management or working-level positions. As of August 20, the commission filed 10 misdemeanor cases for conflict of interest and recommended removal of a management board member for conflict of interest. The number of cases the commission received and reviewed as of August 20 was notably smaller than the number reviewed in the same period in 2019. This was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to anticorruption civil society organizations (CSOs), there were indications of corrupt practices and lax due diligence in public procurement, both at the central and local levels. They noted this was especially true with respect to procurement of service vehicles, where there was a lack of effective control and oversight mechanisms. Anticorruption CSO Center for Civic Engagement’s September 30 report on COVID-19-related emergency public procurement covering the first six months of the pandemic indicated lax compliance with the public procurement laws and significant price differences for procurement of similar protective gear.

On June 18, the Skopje Criminal Court sentenced former special public prosecutor Katica Janeva to seven years in prison, and codefendant Bojan Jovanovski (aka Boki 13) to nine years in prison in the OCCPO “Racketeering” case. The court found Janeva guilty of misuse of official authority by accepting bribes and abusing her official position while handling the “Empire” case, a multimillion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering case involving a former government official and a number of businessmen. Jovanovski was found guilty of accepting bribes to exert illegal influence and money laundering. The court issued a three million MKD (approximately $58,000) forfeiture order against Janeva and a separate forfeiture order of 735,000 MKD (approximately $14,300) against Jovanovski’s luxury-brand clothes, art, and furniture. As of November 3, Jovanovski and Janeva remained under house arrest, pending appeal before the Skopje Appeals Court.

On July 1, the OCCPO’s “Racketeering 2” trial against Jovanovski, SDSM Member of Parliament Frosina Remenski, and three other defendants, as well as the NGO International Alliance began in the Skopje Criminal Court. According to the indictment, Remenski was charged with accessory to fraud for using her authority in a manner that augmented defendant Boki 13’s ability to defraud victims. The trial continued as of November 3.

Former SPO-initiated trials, including several high-profile cases, continued before the Skopje Criminal Court. In the “Titanic” trial, which deals with election irregularities during the 2013 local elections, witnesses testified that they neither donated nor authorized anyone to make bank transfers to VMRO-DPMNE in their names and only learned of the donations when shown evidence by the SPO. As part of the “Titanic” indictment, 21 former government and party officials from VMRO-DPMNE, including former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, were charged with criminal conspiracy, electoral fraud, and violating campaign finance rules.

As of June 30, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector for Internal Control, Criminal Investigations, and Professional Standards (ICCIPS) filed six criminal complaints against a total of 10 police officers for abuse of official position and authority, receiving a bribe, and unscrupulous conduct in the service.

On July 28, the OCCPO opened an investigation into the SEC’s procurement of software to tabulate the results of the July 15 parliamentary elections. According to official sources, the Ministry of Interior was conducting a separate investigation into an election-day cyberattack on the SEC’s website. On November 4, the OCCPO requested the court issue precautionary measures against four SEC members and one other individual to prevent their fleeing or tampering with evidence during a continuing investigation of public procurement misuse charges.

On August 24, the Skopje Basic Prosecutor’s Office indicted VMRO-DPMNE Member of Parliament Antonio Miloshoski and another 12 persons in former SPO case “Strongman.” The indictment charged Miloshoski with fraud and abuse of official position in relation to 2.97 million MKD (approximately $58,000) worth of real estate and construction fraud. The case was pending before the Skopje Criminal Court as of November 3.

Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family members to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public may view disclosure declarations on the SCPC’s website. The commission routinely received and checked conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials.

On April 10, the SCPC announced an inquiry into former SPO chief Janeva and her assistant prosecutors for allegedly failing to report their bonuses on their financial disclosure statements. The inquiry was pending as of November 3. On September 29, the State Audit Office released a preliminary report of the audit on SPO’s financials stating the payment of extra bonuses did not entirely conform to the law.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often willing to listen to these groups but were also sometimes unresponsive to their views. During the year several ministries hosted working group meetings that included members of civil society.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman worked to protect citizens from infringement of their rights by public institutions, reduce discrimination against minority communities and persons with disabilities, promote equitable representation in public life, and address abuses of children’s rights.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is illegal. Penalties for rape range from one to 15 years’ imprisonment, but those laws were poorly enforced. Domestic violence is illegal but was a persistent and common problem. Penalties range from six months to five years imprisonment for lower-level offenses and one to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes resulting in grave or permanent bodily injury. Offenders can receive up to life imprisonment if their actions resulted in the death of their victim. Additionally, courts can impose fines of 500 to 5,000 euros ($600 to $6,000). The law is enforced in cases where victims press charges, but many do not.

From January to June, the Ministry of Labor registered ‎824 victims of domestic violence: 611 women, 140 men, and 73 children. Three were victims of sexual abuse.

The government ran four regional centers for victims of domestic violence that accommodated 67 victims in the first six months of the year. In cooperation with the civil society sector, the government funds one venter for victims of domestic violence and one crisis center, which cares for victims for 24 to 48 hours after an assault. A national NGO operated a hotline in both the Macedonian and Albanian languages and ran two crisis centers to provide temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

The ombudsman conducted several inquiries concerning child abuse on his own initiative and received four complaints requesting protection from domestic abusers. In each case the ombudsman pursued all legal measures to protect the victim, to secure appropriate treatment for them, and to sanction the perpetrators.

According to the CSO National Network to End Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the government measures introduced in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic deepened existing gender differences and pushed the burden of the crisis primarily onto women. Violence against women increased during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and access to support services decreased as a result of government-issued quarantine measures. According to the National Network, women and children who were stuck at home with abusers during the state of emergency had little recourse. A set of guidelines supporting female victims of assault during the pandemic, produced in part by the National Network, called on the government to designate support services provided by women’s NGOs as essential services during any further periods of lockdown, to materially support the work of these organizations, to provide them with personal protective equipment, and to prioritize women seeking refuge in shelters for COVID-19 testing. CSOs opened hotlines in March to field calls from victims who were otherwise unable to access resources and reported receiving calls every day. As of August 20, authorities received 920 domestic violence complaints, involving 934 victims, of whom 592 were female. A plurality of the complaints, 307, were submitted by women alleging spousal abuse.

In contrast to the experience of other CSOs, the First Family Center in the City of Skopje, a specialized counseling and assistance center for victims directly or indirectly affected by violence, reported a rapid decrease in calls during the COVID-19 quarantine periods. Between March 22 when a police curfew was introduced and mid-April, the center only received two calls for assistance.

The Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the OSCE Mission to Skopje, opened the National Free Mobile SOS Line for Victims of Domestic Violence and launched a campaign for the prevention of and protection from domestic violence during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The SOS Line and the campaign provided round-the-clock, accurate, timely, and confidential assistance, including information on victim protection, available services, and telephone counseling to victims of gender-based and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace of both men and women and provides a sentencing guideline of three months to three years in prison for violations. When victims pursued legal remedies, the government effectively enforced the law. Nonetheless, sexual harassment of women in the workplace remained a problem, and victims generally did not bring cases forward due to fear of publicity and possible loss of employment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Most individuals had access to information and the means to do so, but accessibility to reproductive health services varied across geographic areas and populations.

Women from rural areas had limited access to family planning counseling and gynecological services. Romani women faced barriers to accessing family planning counseling and gynecological services due to discrimination, high poverty levels, and the lack of sufficient numbers of family doctors and gynecologists in their communities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. Three centers for survivors of sexual violence in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Tetovo were funded by the government and the NGO Open Gate/La Strada. In addition a shelter in Skopje for trafficking victims provided reproductive health care.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status as men under family, religious, personal status and nationality laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, nationality, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing businesses or property. The laws were effectively enforced. In some communities the practice of men directing the voting or voting on behalf of female family members disenfranchised women.

President Pendarovski signed the comprehensive Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on May 22, 2019, codifying protections for vulnerable groups under one piece of legislation. On May 14, the Constitutional Court repealed the law, due to an inadvertent procedural error in parliament during the law’s 2019 adoption. Parliament readopted the Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on October 27. Appointments to the new Antidiscrimination Commission it creates were pending as of November 3. According to the law, members of the commission will be appointed by a parliamentary select committee made up of two members of the majority, two members of the opposition, and three representatives from civil society.

Nondiscrimination provisions were previously included in a number of separate laws and regulations applicable to various sectors. Those laws remained operable while the Antidiscrimination Law was pending.

No complaints were pending before the ombudsman or Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) for unequal treatment of women in political life as of August 31.

Children

Birth Registration: The law determines citizenship primarily by the citizenship of the parents. It also allows orphans found in the country to obtain citizenship, unless authorities discover before the orphan reaches the age of 18 that his or her parents were foreigners. The government automatically registers the births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions, and the law requires that parents register the births of all children born in other places, including those born at home, with magistrate offices within 15 days of birth. Some Romani families delayed the registration of newborns, making it difficult for them to access educational, medical, and other benefits later in life due to lack of proper identity documents.

Child Abuse: There are laws against child abuse, and penalties for conviction include fines, imprisonment, and closure of businesses. Child abuse was a problem in some areas. The government operated a hotline for domestic violence, including child abuse. At its own initiative, the Ombudsman’s Department for the Protection of Children’s Rights opened a case for the protection of the rights of two persons, of whom one was an 11-year-old child with disabilities, based on media stories of an alleged rape. The review of both complaints continued as of August 20. The ombudsman found evidence indicating domestic violence against children had occurred in five additional cases he reviewed.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. A court may issue a marriage license to persons between the ages of 16 and 18 if it finds them mentally and physically fit for marriage. Early and forced marriage occurred occasionally in the Romani community and, to a much lesser extent, in some Albanian communities. There are no official statistics on minor mothers.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including the offer, sale, or procurement of children for prostitution. The penalty for the commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison. The law prohibits child pornography and provides penalties of five to 15 years in prison for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The country follows the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which any person younger than age 18 is considered a child.

Authorities considered child commercial sexual exploitation a problem but did not know its extent. As of August 17, the Center for Social Work and the Ministry of Interior identified four victims of human trafficking, all of them minors and domestic citizens. Three of them were sexually exploited and one was forced to beg. The country had an online registry, searchable by name and address, of convicted child traffickers and sex offenders that listed photographs, conviction records, and residential addresses. Offenders could ask authorities to remove them from the register 10 years after they completed their sentence, provided they did not commit a new offense. According to the registry, during the year there were six pedophiles serving prison sentences of two to 20 years.

According to the Ministry of Labor, as of the end of August, there were 37 newly registered displaced children of different ethnicities. The ministry funded two day centers for street children, one operated by the Center for Social Work and the other by the NGO Association for Protection of the Rights of the Child in Suto Orizari.

Institutionalized Children: As of August 25, children were housed in small group homes with five to six children per home and 24-hour oversight by social workers and childcare providers. All orphans younger than age three were in foster homes. The Ministry of Labor also took steps to shorten the time required to adopt orphaned or abandoned children. There were no reports of child abuse in these household accommodations.

The ombudsman took the initiative to inspect small group homes and registered cases of rejection and discriminatory treatment of the children living in them by classmates, classmates’ parents, and teaching staff. Schools were receptive to the ombudsman’s recommendations and took corrective action. The ombudsman opened a case related to hospital conditions for treatment of children with severe disabilities, followed by an intervention with the Ministry of Labor, which was fully endorsed and implemented. In another case arising from the inspection, the ombudsman successfully intervened with the ministry to protect the rights of children who were victims or suspected victims of human trafficking.

The ombudsman noted the educational-correctional facility for juveniles in Volkovija-Tetovo, completed in 2016, was still not operational. Juveniles continued to be housed in the penitentiary in Ohrid, which did not fully meet the established criteria for accommodating juveniles and did not provide adequate rehabilitation and medical services.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the Jewish community, approximately 200 Jewish persons resided in the country. The community reported no violent acts against them but submitted a complaint to the authorities over extreme anti-Semitic content and comments in a Facebook group. This case remained pending in September.

Anti-Semitic speech and incidents in the country occurred rarely and sporadically, usually on social media.

On January 6, political party leaders and academics condemned anti-Semitic comments on social media by supporters of the governing SDSM Party against interim Minister of Labor and Social Policy Rashela Mizrahi. Mizrahi was ultimately dismissed by a majority vote in parliament on February 15 for failure to observe the country’s new constitutional name in her public appearances. Mizrahi stated she had been the target of a “witch hunt that started with anti-Semitic attacks.”

In March the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion, following IHRA’s December 2019 unanimous decision to accept the country’s request to elevate its observer status to a liaison country.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination readopted on October 27 protects the rights of persons with disabilities (physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities), including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

A separate law regulates a special government fund to stimulate employment of persons with disabilities. The Employment Agency managed the fund with oversight by the Ministry of Labor. The fund provided grants for office reconstruction or procurement of equipment for workstations to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The law requires persons with physical or mental disabilities to obtain approval from a government medical commission to serve in supervisory positions in the private and public sectors. The law establishes accessibility standards for new buildings; existing public structures were to be made accessible for persons with disabilities by the end of 2015. NGOs reported many public buildings did not comply with the law. Although all buses purchased since 2013 by the government for Skopje were accessible to persons with physical disabilities, public transportation remained largely inaccessible in other regions.

The Ministry of Education and Science made efforts to provide suitable support to enable children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools. It employed specially trained educators, assigned either to individual selected schools or as “mobile” municipal special educators covering all schools in their municipality, to support teachers who had children with disabilities in their regular classes. Despite these efforts, a large number of students with disabilities continued to attend separate schools. Many of the polling stations in the parliamentary elections, particularly in the rural areas, were inaccessible for persons with disabilities.

As of August 17, the ombudsman received and successfully helped address complaints concerning discrimination against persons with disabilities. For example, he assisted complainants in obtaining due compensation to enroll an autistic child in kindergarten and receive educational support while changing schools.

On January 23, the ECHR delivered a judgment against the country for substantive and procedural violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment) involving inappropriate placement, lack of requisite care, and inadequate diagnosis of an institutionalized minor, as well as an inadequate response in investigating the case. The child had been moved to a small group home with 24-hour care prior to the court’s ruling.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care, and the government enforced such laws. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are legal.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community remained marginalized, and activists supporting LGBTI rights reported incidents of societal prejudice, including hate speech. In January 2019 the ECHR found the country violated the privacy rights, as well as the right to appeal, of a transgender person related to their gender change procedure. The court required the government to pay 9,000 euros ($10,800) in damages to the unnamed applicant. Despite the court ruling, the Civil Status Registry rejected the request, underscoring NGOs’ complaints the government failed to recognize gender identity changes in identification documents. On February 10, the second-instance State Commission quashed the Civil Status Registry decision by expressly invoking the binding nature of ECHR judgments. In October the Civil Status Registry enforced the judgement and entered the gender identity change in the official books as requested by the plaintiff.

The Ministry of Labor and the CSO Sexual and Gender Minorities Association Subversive Front trained 325 civil servants from 82 public institutions on addressing discrimination and hate speech. The training survey results report showed better knowledge and skills among the civil servants in tackling discrimination and hate speech based on ethnic origin, religious affiliation, and political beliefs than on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and health status.

On June 27 and 28, the Ministry of Labor, in partnership with the Council of Europe and CSO Subversive Front, organized the first-ever state-organized national conference on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons in the country. The conference gathered national, regional, and European institutional actors and civil society organizations and aimed to increase the state’s commitment to improving LGBTI rights. This resulted in the development and adoption of a national action plan on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons.

The ombudsman received one complaint from an NGO referring to discrimination based on gender identity in the education process regarding a textbook used in high schools. The Ministry of Education acted upon the recommendation of the ombudsman.

Violence against members of the LGBTI community remained an issue. Prominent LGBTI activist Beqim Asani was attacked August 5 in downtown Tetovo, while in his car with four other members of his organization. When his and another car got into each other’s way, Asani took off his mask to speak and upon recognizing him, the passenger in the other car referred to him with an epithet, got out of the car, and punched Asani through the open car window. This was the second physical attack against Asani that he reported to the authorities. A criminal investigation into a June 2019 attack on Asani was still pending as of August.

In June the second Skopje Pride parade was held virtually. State representatives participated in online discussions, addressing the issues relevant to LGBTI rights and status, including the repealed antidiscrimination law and the ways in which the 2020 health crisis affected the lives of LGBTI persons. Skopje Pride 2020 garnered significant hate speech based on sexual orientation and gender identity. CSO Subversive Front filed five criminal complaints about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)-based hate speech with the PPO in July 2020.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

CSO Subversive Front reported two cases of intersectional discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status in access to health care, and one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status at the workplace. The victim in the latter case was fired when his employer stated his HIV diagnosis was a threat to the health of his colleagues and that he was endangering their working conditions. Subversive Front chose not to report these cases to the authorities due to prior negative experiences. Staff feared victims’ privacy would be violated and their HIV status disclosed and cited the poor implementation of the few laws and policies protecting LGBTI persons as contributing to their decisions.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Trade unions are based on voluntary membership, and activities are financed by membership dues. Approximately 22 percent of employees are union members.

Union representatives, with the exception of a few branch unions, claimed they were generally not free from the influence of government officials, political parties, and employers.

The law requires federated unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and with the State Central Registry.

A court of general jurisdiction may terminate trade union activities at the request of the registrar or competent court when those activities are deemed to be “against the constitution and law.” There are no nationality restrictions on membership in trade unions, although foreign nationals must have a valid work permit and be employed by the company or government body listed on the permit. Although legally permitted, no unions operate in the free economic zones.

The government and employers did not always respect freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to collective bargaining. Unions cited as evidence the law’s “exclusionary” provision, which allowed employers to terminate up to 2 percent of workers from collective bargaining negotiations during a strike. Collective bargaining is restricted to trade unions that represent at least 20 percent of the employees and employers’ associations that represent at least 10 percent of the employers at the level at which the agreement is concluded (company, sector, or country). Government enforcement resources and remediation were inadequate. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other laws involving the denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were generally subject to lengthy delays.

During the year the Ministry of Labor did not receive any complaints regarding violations of the right to union organization and freedom of association. Workers often feared reprisal and refrained from filing complaints directly with the Ministry of Labor. Where applicable, workers would sometimes have unions file complaints on their behalf.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government largely enforced applicable laws. The law prescribes imprisonment, which applies to violations of forced labor laws or for the destruction or removal of identification documents, passports, or other travel documents. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes. There were instances in which women and children were subjected to forced labor, such as peddling small items in restaurants and bars, and sexual exploitation. Some Romani children were subject to forced begging, often by relatives (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The government has established laws and regulations related to child labor, including prohibiting the worst forms of child labor. The government made efforts to enforce the law in the formal economy but did not do so effectively in the informal economy. Gaps exist in the country’s legal framework to protect children adequately from labor abuses, including the worst forms of child labor, and the minimum age for work. The minimum age for employment is 15. Children may begin work at 14 as apprentices or as participants in official vocational education programs, cultural, artistic, sports, and advertising events. The law prohibits employing minors younger than age 18 in work that is detrimental to their physical or psychological health, safety, or morality. It also prohibits minors from working at night or more than 40 hours per week.

The Ministry of Labor’s Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing laws regulating the employment of children. Police and the ministry, through centers for social work, shared responsibility for enforcing laws on child trafficking, including forced begging. The government did not effectively enforce the law, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

There were no reports of children younger than age 18 unlawfully engaged in the formal economy. During inspections at some family-run businesses, the State Labor Inspectorate noted minor children assisting in the work, most commonly in family run handicrafts and retail businesses, as well as on farms.

Child labor occurred in agriculture, domestic work, and in bars and nightclubs. Some children in the country engaged in forced begging, cleaning windshields, scavenging, or selling cigarettes or other small items in open markets, on the street, or in bars and restaurants at night. Although the necessary laws were in place, government efforts to eliminate forced begging by children were largely ineffective. Children involved in these activities were primarily Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian and most often worked for their parents or other family members. Despite enforcing legal remedies, such as temporary removal of parental rights, criminal charges, and revoking parental rights of repetitive offenders, officials were largely ineffective in preventing this continuous practice, and Romani children remained vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor.

The Ministry of Labor runs a call center where child abuse can be reported, and most reports referred to cases of street begging. The ministry also funded two day centers that provided education, medical, and psychological services for children who were forced to beg on the street.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations generally prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, health status, political opinion, religion, age, national origin, language, or social status. The law does not specifically address discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status but does refer to the health status of employees. The government did not always enforce the laws effectively, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other laws related to civil rights.

Despite government efforts and legal changes for mandatory inclusion in primary and high school education, Roma continued to live in segregated groups without proper health and social protection, mostly due to lack of registration documents. Data from the national employment agency showed that due to low participation in the education system, particularly higher education, Roma generally had difficulties finding jobs in the formal economy. Women’s wages lagged behind those of men, and few women occupied management positions. Per Articles 131 and 160 of the Labor Relations Law, women are prohibited from working in certain “high risk” and “physically demanding” positions in the mining and construction industries. The government made efforts to prevent discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace for persons with disabilities.

The Office of the Ombudsman reported some progress in improving the representation of smaller nonmajority communities in public administration working-level ranks, but not at the managerial level.

During the year the ombudsman received two complaints regarding employment discrimination on ethnic grounds and determined that one of the two cases represented a bona fide case of discrimination.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law does set a minimum wage in all sectors, which is below the poverty income level.

Although the government set occupational safety and health standards for employers, those standards were not enforced in the informal sector.

The total number of labor inspectors was considered adequate to investigate violations of labor law. Labor inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Inspections, however, were not adequate to ensure compliance, due, in part, to an inadequate regional distribution of inspectors.

The law establishes a 40-hour workweek with a minimum 24-hour rest period, paid vacation of 20 to 26 workdays, and sick-leave benefits. Employees may not legally work more than an average of eight hours of overtime per week over a three-month period or 190 hours per year. According to the collective agreement for the private sector between employers and unions, employees in the private sector have a right to overtime pay at 135 percent of their regular rate. In addition the law entitles employees who work more than 150 hours of overtime per year to a bonus of one month’s salary.

During the year the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Inspectorate filed complaints against several businesses for forcing employees to work long hours without the rest breaks required by law; nonpayment of salaries, benefits, and overtime; and cutting employees’ vacation. Violations in wage and overtime were most common in the textile, construction, railroad, and retail sectors.

Minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards were not effectively enforced. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other similar crimes. Many employers hired workers without complying with the law, and small retail businesses often required employees to work well beyond legal hourly limits. During the year the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health was not fully functional and played only an advisory role. While workers have the legal right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their future employment, employers did not always respect this right, reportedly due to the high unemployment rate.

In a whole-of-government response to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the government adopted a series of economic and social measures to help both businesses and employees. The measures were wide ranging and included instituting physical distancing measures in workplaces, providing subsidies to private-sector businesses to retain their employees, and allowing one parent of children up to age 10 to stay home without financial penalty.

As of June 30, the State Market Inspectorate received more than 7,000 complaints alleging violations of workers’ rights in relation to the government’s COVID-19 relief measures and other workplace violations and conditions, most of which came from the textile and food-processing sectors. The largest number of complaints, (28 percent) alleged employers violated the government’s order to excuse parents with children up to age 10 from work while schools and childcare facilities were closed.

Civil society organizations, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Reactor Research in Action, reported on business noncompliance with the government’s pandemic measures. Examples included businesses forcing employees to use sick leave while they were entitled to administrative leave, failing to pay salaries, and threatening employees with termination if they failed to return to work. In cases of termination during the pandemic, Reactor Research documented different treatment of male and female workers. Men were usually fired, while women were often forced to sign documents terminating their contracts. In these cases these women were then ineligible for state benefits because the record indicated they had left their employment of their own free will.

In July the Public Revenue Office (PRO) disclosed that hundreds of employers who received financial support from the state to pay salaries during the COVID-19 state of emergency failed to transfer the money to their employees. PRO Director Lukarevska said 281 employers were cited in April and 427 in May. The government published a list of the companies that abused the financial assistance and updated it as employers fulfilled their obligations to their employees.

According to data from the Macedonian Occupational Safety Association, there were 25 workplace fatalities and 153 workplace injuries in 2019. Most of the accidents resulting in casualties occurred in the category of household activities, which included farming and use of agricultural equipment, followed by the construction sector.