China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – China
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available.
There were reports Shanghai police shot and killed Ju Hailiang on April 13, while he was protesting a decision to demolish his home. Police reportedly also injured Ju’s sister and his nephew. Authorities charged Ju’s sister, her husband, and their son with “endangering public safety.” His sister and her husband were also charged with “disorderly behavior” for throwing bricks and rocks at the police.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the expanding internment camps. Some of these deaths occurred before 2018 and were reported only after detainees escaped to other countries.
Abdulreshit Seley Hajim, a Uighur businessperson, died in May or June while being held in an internment camp. According to those interviewed by Radio Free Asia, he died from strikes to the head with a blunt object.
Although legal reforms in recent years decreased the use of the death penalty and improved the review process, authorities executed some defendants in criminal proceedings following convictions that lacked due process and adequate channels for appeal.
There were multiple reports authorities detained individuals and held them at undisclosed locations for extended periods.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang. China Human Rights Defenders reported these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, as families were not given information about the length or location of the detention.
Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who went missing in 2017, remained missing throughout 2018. In September 2017 Radio Free Asia reported Gao’s family said they were told he was in police custody at an undisclosed location, although authorities did not release any details surrounding his detention.
In November award-winning Chinese documentary photographer Lu Guang disappeared after traveling to Xinjiang to lead a photography workshop. Authorities did not respond to requests by Lu’s wife and international advocacy organizations to account for Lu’s status and whereabouts.
Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was reported alive in the Tianjin Detention Center in July after being held in incommunicado detention for more than three years. Wang had a closed court hearing on the charges against him on December 26. Authorities detained Wang in the July 2015 “709” roundup of more than 300 human rights lawyers and legal associates.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment.
The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts.
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. Amendments to the criminal procedure law exclude evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. Enforcement of these legal protections continued to be lax.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
Many human rights advocates expressed concern that lawyers, law associates, and activists detained in the “709” crackdown continued to suffer various forms of torture, abuse, or degrading treatment, similar to the 2017 reports of authorities’ treatment of Wu Gan, Li Chunfu, Xie Yang, and Jiang Tianyong.
In September, according to Radio Free Asia, Huang Qi, founder and director of 64 Tianwang Human Rights Center, sustained injuries from multiple interrogation sessions. Huang was detained in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan Province, in 2016 for “illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” Multiple contacts reported detention officials deprived Huang of sleep and timely access to medical treatment in an attempt to force Huang to confess. In October prosecutors brought more charges against Huang, including “leaking national secrets.” The Mianyang Intermediate People’s Court had not set a new trial date for Huang since its sudden cancellation of his scheduled trial in June. Huang’s mother, Pu Wenqing, petitioned central authorities in October to release him because she believed her son was mistreated. She had not been able to see him in two years. Pu disappeared on December 7 after plainclothes security personnel detained her at the Beijing train station.
Members of the minority Uighur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated authorities subjected individuals in custody to electrocution, waterboarding, beatings, stress positions, injection of unknown substances, and cold cells (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and members of the Church of Almighty God also reported systematic torture in custody.
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the new liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system to investigate corruption, retained many characteristics of the previous shuanggui system, such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports and an NGO report released in August (see section 4).
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
According to the Legal Daily (a state-owned newspaper covering legal affairs), the Ministry of Public Security directly administered 23 high-security psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane. While many of those committed to mental health facilities were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, there were also reports of activists, religious or spiritual adherents, and petitioners involuntarily subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Public security officials may commit individuals to psychiatric facilities and force treatment for “conditions” that have no basis in psychiatry.
In February, according to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a human rights oriented website, local security officers sent Chongqing dissident Liu Gang to a psychiatric hospital for the seventh time. Since 2004 Liu often criticized the Chinese Communist Party, and authorities regularly detained him on the charge of “disturbing public order.”
Some activists and organizations continue to accuse the government of involuntarily harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, especially members of Falun Gong. The government denied the claims, having officially ended the long-standing practice of involuntarily harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants in 2015.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often life threatening or degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives when allowed to receive them. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
Adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities at times withheld medical treatment from political prisoners.
In May Guangdong government officials sent Xu Lin, a songwriter first detained in September 2017 for singing about the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, to Guangzhou Armed Police Hospital with a medical emergency. Detention center authorities told Xu’s wife he was ill due to food he ate in detention. In June Xu Lin was diagnosed with “breast hyperplasia,” an enlargement of breast tissue that often occurs in the early stages of cancer. Authorities denied a request by Xu’s wife and lawyer for his release on medical bail. Xu’s wife maintained Xu Lin did not have any health problems before being detained.
Political prisoners were sometimes held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. In some cases authorities did not allow dissidents to receive supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Deaths from beatings occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
In Xinjiang authorities constructed new internment camps for Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims. In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons. According to Human Rights Watch, these camps focused on “military-style discipline and pervasive political indoctrination of the detainees.” Available information was limited, but some reports described the withholding of food as punishment for those who could not learn Chinese phrases and songs.
Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur woman from Xinjiang, recounted to media in October how Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained her multiple times after she returned to Xinjiang in 2015. Tursun reported nine deaths in her cell, an underground, windowless room that held 68 women, occurred during her detention in 2018.
Administration: The law states letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was implemented. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhumane conditions, their results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Authorities denied many prisoners and detainees reasonable access to visitors and correspondence with family members. Some family members did not know the whereabouts of their relatives in custody. Authorities also prevented many prisoners and detainees from engaging in religious practices or gaining access to religious materials.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities considered information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities to be a state secret, and the government typically did not permit independent monitoring.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Throughout the year lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The main domestic security agencies include the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and the People’s Armed Police. The People’s Armed Police is under the dual authority of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission. The People’s Liberation Army is primarily responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Local jurisdictions also frequently used civilian municipal security forces, known as “urban management” officials, to enforce administrative measures. Oversight of these forces was localized and ad hoc. By law, officials can be criminally prosecuted for abuses of power, but, outside of anticorruption cases, such cases were rarely pursued.
The Ministry of Public Security coordinates the civilian police force, which is organized into specialized agencies and local, county, and provincial jurisdictions. Procuratorate oversight of the public security forces was limited. Corruption at every level was widespread. Public security and urban management officials engaged in extrajudicial detention, extortion, and assault.
By regulation, state officers in prisons face dismissal if found to have beaten, applied corporal punishment to, or abused inmates, or to have instigated such acts, but there were no reports these regulations were enforced.
While civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces, in the absence of reliable data, it was difficult to ascertain the full extent of impunity for the domestic security apparatus. Anecdotal accounts of abuse were common on social media and appeared in state media reports as well. Authorities often announced investigations following cases of reported killings by police. It remained unclear, however, whether these investigations resulted in findings of police malfeasance or disciplinary action. There were few known government actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
On April 28, police in Shanwei, Guangdong, arrested a security official for administering extrajudicial punishment, illegal detention, and illegal use of police equipment. On April 24, the security official caught a teenager who tried to steal money from a nearby Taoist temple, handcuffed him to a flagpole, beat and tortured him with a police electric shock baton, filmed the process, and uploaded it to social media.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate can detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities can detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security officials sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed. The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one; is blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill; is a minor; or faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so. Lawyers reported significant difficulties meeting their clients in detention centers, especially in cases considered politically sensitive.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not appear to operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The revised criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret these provisions.
Under certain circumstances the law allows for residential surveillance in the detainee’s home, rather than detention in a formal facility. With the approval of the next-higher-level authorities, officials also may place a suspect under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases. Human rights organizations and detainees reported the practice of RSDL left detainees at a high risk for torture since being neither at home nor in a monitored detention facility reduced opportunities for oversight of detainee treatment and mechanisms for appeal.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious advocates and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political activists and religious adherents, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including commonly a six-month stay in a detoxification center.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges–including what constitutes a state secret–remained ill defined, and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights advocates. It remained unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, commercial activity, and government activity. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports authorities arrested or detained lawyers, religious leaders or adherents, petitioners, and other rights advocates for lengthy periods, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Authorities subjected many of these citizens to extralegal house arrest, denial of travel rights, or administrative detention in different types of extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials, annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang. Security agents took some of those not placed under house arrest to remote areas on so-called forced vacations.
Swedish bookseller and Hong Kong resident Gui Minhai, who went missing from Thailand in 2015 and was released by Chinese authorities in October 2017, was detained again by Chinese authorities in late January while traveling on a train. The Chinese government issued a statement on February 12 stating Gui had violated Chinese law, and his case would be dealt with in accordance with Chinese law. The press reported Gui remained in detention, although his whereabouts were unclear.
In July authorities released Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, from eight years of home confinement. Authorities had held Liu Xia without a criminal charge or a judicial proceeding against her. Liu Xia suffered deteriorating physical and emotional health, according to those who could communicate with her. Liu Xia’s brother Liu Hui remained in the country on medical parole related to his 11-year sentence for a 2013 fraud conviction. Human rights advocates argued the government was holding Liu Hui as a hostage to restrict Liu Xia from publicly criticizing authorities.
According to media reports, officials had detained Bishop “Peter” Shao Zhumin, the leader of the underground Catholic Church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, five times since he was ordained in 2016. Shao spent more than seven months in custody from May 2017 to January 2018. Authorities sent Shao to Qinghai for “re-education” during some of his previous detentions for refusing to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. Authorities held many of the “709” detainees in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers. Statistics were not published or made publicly available, but lengthy pretrial detentions were especially common in cases of political prisoners.
On June 29, the Tiexi District Court in Shenyang sentenced human rights advocate Lin Mingjie, after two years of pretrial detention, for assembling a group of demonstrators in front of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing to protest Shenyang Public Security Bureau Director Xu Wenyou’s abuse of power in 2016. Lin was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, including time served.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission has the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions, since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation. In March lawyers and others received central government instructions to avoid discussion of the constitutionality of the constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president and vice president.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives in an attempt to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases, these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
Jiang Tianyong remained in prison following his 2017 conviction for inciting state subversion in Changsha, Hunan. A court sentenced him to two years in prison. The case against him was based on his interviews with foreign journalists and his publishing of articles on the internet, actions that, outside the country, were widely seen as normal for someone in his profession. Authorities prevented Jiang from selecting his own attorney to represent him at a trial that multiple analysts viewed as neither impartial nor fair.
“Judicial independence” remained one of the reportedly off-limit subjects the CCP ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the amended criminal procedure law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review; remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or, on the application of a party to the proceedings, commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations state foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending a number of trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
The Open Trial Network (Tingshen Wang), a government-run website, broadcast trials online; the majority were civil trials.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, with the exception of those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted. The Dui Hua Foundation observed a reduction in the number of judgments posted online.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, although the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients effectively or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented attorneys selected by defendants from taking the case and appointed an attorney to the case instead.
On January 18, the Guangdong Provincial Justice Department summoned prominent Guangzhou rights attorney Fu Ailing after visiting her client Zhan Huidong at the Xinhui Detention Center in Jiangmen municipality. Justice department officials repeatedly questioned her about who contacted her for legal assistance and who employed her as Zhan’s defense attorney. Zhan Huidong was a prodemocracy activist who attended a memorial event for Liu Xiaobo.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of some lawyers who took on sensitive cases, such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detentions, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients. In February a number of Chinese lawyers wrote an open letter protesting the government’s harassment of lawyers who took on human rights cases.
In January the Guangdong Provincial Justice Department revoked the law license for high-profile human rights lawyer Sui Muqing. In April he requested administrative review of the department’s decision to revoke his license, but he had not received a response as of August.
Lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases often become targets of harassment and detention themselves. Beijing-based lawyer Li Yuhan, who defended human rights lawyers during the “709” crackdown, remained in custody in Shenyang without formal trial proceedings, other than “pretrial meetings” in July and October. Authorities initially detained Li in October 2017.
In 2015 the National People’s Congress’s Standing Committee amended legislation concerning the legal profession. The amendments criminalize attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The changes also criminalize disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations adopted in 2015 also state detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients and limited time to review evidence, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Sources noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in minority areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
Zhuhai city authorities in Guangdong Province denied permission for prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to meet with his lawyer, Ren Quanniu, on “national security” grounds. In 2017 authorities arrested Zhen, charged him with “incitement to subvert state power,” and held him in residential surveillance at an RSDL. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, was the executive editor of the anticensorship website Across the Great Firewall, an overseas-registered site offering information about censorship and circumvention tools for accessing the internet beyond China’s borders.
Under the law lawyers are assigned to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences. Official figures on executions were classified as a state secret. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, the number of executions stabilized after years of decline following the reform of the capital punishment system initiated in 2007. Dui Hua believed an increase in the number of executions for bosses of criminal gangs and individuals convicted of “terrorism” in Xinjiang likely offset the drop in the number of other executions.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. The Dui Hua Foundation estimated more than 100 prisoners were still serving sentences for counterrevolution and hooliganism, two crimes removed from the criminal code in 1997. Thousands of others were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons jailed for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained in prison or under other forms of detention at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uighur scholars Ilham Tohti and Rahile Dawut; activist Wang Bingzhang; activist Liu Xianbin; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastor Zhang Shaojie; Falun Gong practitioners Bian Lichao and Ma Zhenyu; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Xia Lin, Gao Zhiseng, Tang Jingling, Yu Wensheng, and Jiang Tianyong; blogger Wu Gan; Buddhist monk Xu Zhiqiang (who also went by the name Master Shengguan); and Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent about the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Courts deciding civil matters faced the same limitations on judicial independence as criminal courts. The State Compensation Law provides administrative and judicial remedies for plaintiffs whose rights or interests government agencies or officials have infringed. The law also allows compensation for wrongful detention, mental trauma, or physical injuries inflicted by detention center or prison officials.
Although historically citizens seldom applied for state compensation because of the high cost of bringing lawsuits, low credibility of courts, and citizens’ general lack of awareness of the law, there were instances of courts overturning wrongful convictions. In July Li Jinlian in Jiangxi Province applied for state compensation of 41.4 million yuan ($6.1 million) for his wrongful conviction and subsequent death sentence with reprieve for the 1998 murder of two children with poisoned candy. In June the Jiangxi Provincial Higher People’s Court acquitted Li, ruling the previous conviction was based on unclear facts and insufficient evidence. In September the Jiangxi Higher People’s Court decided to award Li approximately 2.93 million yuan ($431,000) for his wrongful conviction. In October the Supreme People’s Court accepted Li’s request to reconsider the Jiangxi court decision, and on November 19, it heard Li’s claim that the amount of the original award was insufficient, and a final ruling was still pending at year’s end.
The law provides for the right of an individual to petition the government for resolution of grievances. Most petitions address grievances about land, housing, entitlements, the environment, or corruption, and most petitioners sought to present their complaints at local “letters and visits” offices. The government reported approximately six million petitions were submitted every year; however, persons petitioning the government continued to face restrictions on their rights to assemble and raise grievances.
Despite attempts at improving the petitioning system, progress was unsteady. While the central government reiterated prohibitions against blocking or restricting “normal petitioning” and against unlawfully detaining petitioners, official retaliation against petitioners continued. Regulations encourage all litigation-related petitions be handled at the local level through local or provincial courts, reinforcing a system of incentives for local officials to prevent petitioners from raising complaints to higher levels. Local officials sent security personnel to Beijing to force petitioners to return to their home provinces to prevent them from filing complaints against local officials with the central government. Such detentions often went unrecorded and often resulted in brief periods of incarceration in extralegal “black jails.”
On June 3, police in Guangzhou, Guangdong, detained Yang Suyuan, an activist who petitioned for employment severance benefits for staff dismissed from big state-owned banks. The police interrogated Yang, collected her fingerprints, took a DNA blood sample and facial record, and transferred her to a police station in her hometown in Qingyuan, Guangdong, for further questioning.
In June the Beijing Number 2 Intermediate People’s Court tried 12 suspects accused of illegally detaining, tying up, and beating a petitioner from Jiangxi Province in June 2017. The petitioner, Chen Yuxian from Shangyou, died in Beijing eight hours after the suspects took him away. The 12 suspects were reportedly from an illegal crime group under the guise of a car rental company that had close connections to local government officials, who had demanded the petition be intercepted. The Beijing court had not issued a verdict as of year’s end.
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, and other digital communications intended to remain private. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents behind in China.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uighurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the TAR and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to create a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui Province, to help with solving criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system was programmed to understand Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uighur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uighurs applying for passports.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, combined with a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, as well as a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
The government continued implementing a “social credit system,” which collects vast amounts of data to create scores for individuals and companies in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce public corruption. Unlike Western financial credit-rating systems, the social credit system also collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, quality of friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. This system is intended to promote self-censorship, as netizens would be liable for their statements, relationships, and even information others shared within closed social media groups.
An individual’s “social credit score,” among other things, quantifies a person’s loyalty to the government by monitoring citizens’ online activity and relationships. There were indications the system awarded and deducted points based on the “loyalty” of sites visited, as well as the “loyalty” of other netizens with whom a person interacted. The system also created incentives for citizens to police each other. Organizers of chat groups on messaging apps were responsible for policing and reporting any posts with impermissible content, making them liable for violations.
Although the government’s goal is to create a unified government social credit system, there were several disparate social credit systems under several Chinese technology companies, and the specific implementation of the system varied by province and city. In Hangzhou the scoring system, which applies to residents 18 years or older, included information on individuals’ education, employment, compliance with laws and regulations (such as tax payments), payment of medical bills, loan repayment, honoring contracts, participating in volunteer activities, and voluntary blood donations.
There were several cases in which an individual’s credit score resulted in concrete limitations on that person’s activities. Users with low social credit scores faced an increasing series of consequences, including losing the ability to communicate on domestic social media platforms, travel, and buy property. In April state media reported the social credit system “blocked” individuals from taking 11 million flights and four million train trips.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them about their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat, as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government instituted the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also required Uighur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uighurs’ homes and monitored families for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in re-education camps.
The government restricted the rights of men and women to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities limited and did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or in remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures.
In July, in the midst of a national outcry over faulty children’s vaccines, police visited the homes of concerned parents to attempt to stop their online discussion of the issue. Some parents were shown a document that said police intended to charge parents who attended a planned media session with “colluding with foreign media.” The parents subsequently cancelled the press conference.
In April Cui Haoxin, a Muslim poet, was detained in a Xinjiang internment camp for one week, which he attributed to the political views he expressed in his poetry and other writings. On August 16, police in Xinjiang threatened Cui in an attempt to stop him from posting information on Twitter about these camps.
Press and Media Freedom: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all.
During the year state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing the media to engage in “journalism based on Marxism.” The rules also planned for greater political and ideological indoctrination efforts targeting at university students.
The government tightened ideological control over media and public discourse by restructuring its regulatory system. The CCP’s propaganda department has direct control of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). Authorities also restructured SAPPRFT in March, relocating some of its responsibilities and renaming it the State Administration for Radio and Television Agency (SARFT). The new structure greatly expands CCP control of film, news media, newspapers, books, and magazines. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda.
On November 14, the CAC issued a statement saying more than 9,800 internet accounts had been “cleaned up” as part of an ongoing campaign. On November 15, the CAC issued a notice that further restricted what opinions could be posted online and said the CAC would start to require detailed logs on users from internet and media firms as part of its new policy targeting dissenting opinion and social movements online. As of November 30, the CAC said it would require internet platforms that could be used to “socially mobilize” or that could lead to “major changes in public opinion” to submit reports on their activities.
The government took further action to build its propaganda tools. In March it consolidated China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China.” State media explained the restructuring was meant to “strengthen the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the Communist Party does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2017 on the nation’s news media, there were 231,564 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,406 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as XinhuaNet.com and ChinaDaily.com. This did not mean online outlets did not report on important issues. Instead, many used creative means to share content, but limited their tactics and topics since they were acting outside official approval.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. In 2017 authorities detained dozens of relatives of at least six reporters for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service. The reporters, members of the country’s Uighur minority group, were reporting on the Xinjiang internment camps (see section 1).
A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. In particular academics–a traditional source of information–were increasingly unwilling to meet with journalists.
During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 26, a Sichuan province court sentenced political cartoonist Jiang Yefei to six years and six months in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally crossing the border.” Jiang fled to Thailand in 2008 after his cartoons criticizing the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes and lampooning Chinese government officials attracted government attention. In 2015 he was forcibly returned to China and then held incommunicado until his June 2018 trial, which was held in secret.
On August 1, authorities entered the house of retired professor Sun Wenguang in Jinan, Shandong, during an on-air telephone interview with Voice of America (VOA). Listeners heard the police stop the interview as the professor protested their incursion. The government held Sun for approximately two weeks and then released him under “strict supervision.” A pair of VOA journalists, Yibing Feng and Allen Ai, went to Sun’s home after his release on August 13, at which point the police detained them for six hours, destroyed their cell phones, and scanned their equipment.
Authorities in Xinjiang arrested four employees of state-sanctioned Xinjiang newspapers in September and accused them of publishing inappropriate content in the Uighur-language versions of their papers. A representative for the Xinjiang Daily group confirmed the arrests and said the four were accused of being “two-faced,” a euphemism for individuals who outwardly support CCP rule while secretly disagreeing with restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were also subjected to official harassment and intimidation and this remained a major concern for foreign outlets.
Journalists who traveled to Xinjiang reported very high levels of surveillance, monitoring, harassment, and interference in their work.
Foreign ministry officials again subjected a majority of journalists to special interviews as part of their annual visa renewal process. During these interviews the officials pressured journalists to report less on human rights issues, referencing reporting “red lines” journalists should not cross, and in some cases threatened them with nonrenewal of visas. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding or maintaining their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas. Some foreign media companies were increasingly unwilling to publicize such issues due to fear of provoking further backlash by the government.
Authorities continued to enforce tight restrictions on citizens employed by foreign news organizations. The code of conduct for citizen employees of foreign media organizations threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.”
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of postpublication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Chinese-language media outlets outside the country reported intimidation and financial threats from the government. For example, the manager of Australia’s largest independent Chinese-language newspaper, Vision China Times, spoke at a conference in February about the pressure Chinese officials put on the newspaper’s advertising clients in an attempt to silence the media outlet’s views. Some clients were “grilled” by Chinese consulate officials in Australia, while others were visited during trips to China and pressured to stop doing business with Vision China Times.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministry of Defense continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
On February 8, the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Department revoked the position and official title of Duan Gongwei, chief editor of the Southern Weekly, who oversaw two investigative financial reports about Hainan Airlines Group. The reports showed how the airline, which was reportedly linked to senior Chinese leaders, went on “acquisition sprees” despite operating with large debts.
The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by authoritative official departments, especially with respect to sensitive or prominent situations. Directives often warned against reporting on issues related to party and official reputation, health and safety, and foreign affairs.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. A June segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight program on HBO criticizing Xi Jinping resulted in authorities temporarily blocking access to HBO’s online content.
It was extremely difficult for foreign journalists to report from the TAR, other Tibetan areas, or Xinjiang without experiencing serious interference. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, at places of historical significance to the founding of the Communist party, sites of recent natural disasters, and areas–including in Beijing–experiencing social unrest.
Overseas television newscasts, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with a restriction on the total number that keeps annual distribution below 50 films.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
Government rules ban the sale of foreign publications without an import permit. This includes sales on online shopping platforms, which are banned from offering “overseas publications,” including books, movies, and games, that do not already have government approval. The ban also applies to services related to publications.
One year after the death in July of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the government continued to censor a broad array of related words and images across public media and on social media platforms. Besides his name and image, phrases such as “rest in peace,” “grey,” quotes from his writings, images of candles, and even candle emojis were blocked online and from private messages sent on social media. Attempts to access censored search results resulted in a message saying the result could not be displayed “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies.” Government censors also blocked online access to news regarding Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia.
The government tightly controlled and highly censored domestic internet usage. According to an official report released in August by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had more than 802 million internet users, accounting for 57.7 percent of its total population. According to International Telecommunication Union data, 54 percent of the population used the internet in 2017. Major media companies estimated more than 625 million persons obtained their news from social and online media sources.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In April censors temporarily shut down prominent news app Toutiao. It reopened after its owner apologized for failing to promote “core socialist values” through the app and promised to hire 4,000 new in-house censors, bringing the total number to 10,000. Authorities permanently shuttered the company’s other app, Neihan Duanzi, which was used by its 200 million users to share jokes and memes.
On March 19, Guangdong province authorities released environmental activist Lei Ping after the government-linked China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation submitted a letter to Xinyi police, who had detained Lei after she posted online an investigative report uncovering illegal quarry operations and their effects on local water resources.
The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources.” Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “creat[e] or disseminat[e] false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” For example, Guangzhou anesthesiologist Tan Qindong spent three months in jail for “damaging a company’s reputation” after his criticism of a traditional Chinese medicinal tonic began circulating widely on WeChat. Chinese news reports speculated the arrest most likely occurred at the behest of the tonic manufacturer. Authorities released Tan after he wrote an apology admitting he had “not thought clearly.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media–including online and social media–to ensure these sources also adhere to the Communist Party directive.
According to January state media reports, authorities closed 128,000 websites in 2017. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which includes politically sensitive materials, as well as pornography and gambling. The pace continued during the year, with the CAC reporting it shuttered 3,673 websites and 1.2 million social media accounts in just the second and third quarters of the year. In July the CAC reported receiving 6.72 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information in that month alone.
The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register. In April state media announced content on short video sites that violated core socialist values would be removed, and the CAC announced it had “talked” to several short video sites. Shortly thereafter, the live streaming and comment section of a prominent platform, Douyin, ceased to function. Various other platforms faced shutdowns for “illicit” or “illegal” content over the last year.
Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.
The changes in cybersecurity law put in place by the CAC in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, with Baidu and Sina Weibo announcing accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents.
The government continued efforts to limit virtual private network (VPN) service use. A new ban on “unauthorized” VPNs went into effect on March 31. While some users, including international companies, were permitted to use VPNs, smaller businesses, academics, and citizens did not have access to authorized VPNs. However, news reports indicated authorities were not strictly enforcing the ban. Authorities stepped up efforts to block VPN service providers ahead of major events such as November trade and internet shows. A software engineer in Shanghai was sentenced to three years in prison after providing illegal VPNs to hundreds of customers since 2016, reported the government-owned newspaper People’s Court Daily. The man, surnamed Dai, was also ordered to serve three years of probation and fined 10,000 yuan ($1,400).
Many other websites for international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, in addition to those of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, remained perennially blocked. In August censors blocked the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s (ABC) website and phone app. ABC launched a Chinese-language site in 2017, and in 2018 ABC’s stories about Chinese influence in Australia drew strong criticism from official Chinese media.
Government censors continued to block websites or online content related to topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube. While countless news and social media sites remained blocked, a large percentage of censored websites were gambling or pornographic websites.
Early in the year, the government warned airlines not to list Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau as separate countries on their websites, and it published a list of offending airlines. Officials obligated Marriott hotels to shut down its website for a week and publicly apologize for listing Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries. Mercedes Benz was similarly forced to apologize to the government after a posting on its official Instagram account included this quotation, “‘Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.’ — Dalai Lama.” Officials’ response to the posting included the state-run People’s Daily calling Mercedes Benz an “enemy of the people.”
References to same-sex acts/same sex-relations and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following SAPPRFT’s 2017 pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. In January domestic media reported a Beijing court agreed to hear a gay-rights activist’s lawsuit challenging SAPPRFT regarding homosexuality, although by December no ruling had been announced. Meanwhile, in May a nationally popular Hunan-based television broadcaster blacked out parts of Eurovision, a European music performance, that depicted gay relationships and pixelated an image of the gay-pride flag.
Censors shut down a prominent feminist Weibo account on International Women’s Day, March 8. With 180,000 followers, the account was one of the country’s most prominent online feminist advocacy platforms. Officials had similarly shut down the account in 2017 on International Women’s Day, then allowed it to reopen, but this time they shuttered the account permanently.
During the year authorities began manipulating the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In October tens of thousands of postings from human rights advocate Wu Gan were deleted.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On June 27, authorities subjected dissident author Peng Peiyu to a two-week detention. Peng’s critical writing included an essay entitled “On Xi: A Call to Arms,” which he posted online shortly before his arrest. According to his attorney, Peng had been detained “many times before.”
In addition there continued to be reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts, scrutinized the content of cultural events, and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. In July the Ministry of Education announced its intention to strengthen party leadership at all levels of private education, including K-12.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with party thought. In August an economics professor at Guizhou University was expelled from his university after posting online an article critical of the party. In September Xiamen University dismissed an assistant history professor for comments online that the university said “harmed the image of the party and the country.” Similar controls were applied to students. For example, a program in Chongqing required high school students to pass a review of their political ideology in order to take the national university entrance examination.
In June both foreign and domestic media reported a growing incidence of university professors being suspended or fired after their students reported them for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate. In some cases the university assigned the students to act as informants.
In November media outlets reported crackdowns against student labor activists on Peking University and Renmin University campuses. Students and several recent graduates were detained and held incommunicado, one of whom was kidnapped from Peking University’s campus. Students on the scene were beaten, forced to the ground, and prevented from taking photographs or speaking by security forces. Renmin University officials allegedly harassed, threatened, employed surveillance against, and hindered the free movement of student activists (see section 7.a.).
In August the Financial Times reported foreign universities establishing joint venture universities in the country must establish internal CCP committees, granting greater decision-making power to CCP officials and reversing an earlier promise to guarantee academic freedom. In July the Financial Times reported a foreign academic was removed from the management board of the first joint venture university in the country for being critical of CCP-backed initiatives.
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. A survey of more than 500 China scholars outside the PRC found 9 percent of scholars reported having been “taken for tea” by Chinese government authorities in the past 10 years to be interviewed or warned about their research; 26 percent of scholars who conducted archival research reported being denied access; and 5 percent reported difficulties obtaining a visa. According to the survey, 68 percent of foreign scholars said self-censorship was a problem in the field of China studies.
The CCP actively promoted censorship of Chinese students outside the country, with media reporting examples of self-censorship and the use of financial incentives to tamp down anti-Chinese speech on foreign campuses.
Academics and intellectuals in Xinjiang, along with the hundreds of thousands of other Xinjiang residents, disappeared or died, most likely in internment camps. Some officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed to be held in the camps included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; and Yalqun Rozi, writer. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all were disappeared at year’s end. Courts delivered suspended death sentences for “separatism” to Halmurat Ghopur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, and Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University. Religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulnehed Mehsum died in the camps, according to reports from international organizations during the year.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
On March 20-30, more than one thousand residents from Longyan’s Changting County in Fujian province protested outside the local government office against the government’s plan to construct a garbage incinerator one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the town’s residential areas. On March 30, local authorities called in riot police to restore order. Later that day government officials announced they were canceling the planned incinerator project.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were canceled at the last minute or denied government permits, ostensibly to ensure public safety.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.
In 2016 the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates authorities conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
In January 2017 the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law) came into effect. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was difficult for most foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGOs’ conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. After the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors, NGOs reported most government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional Supervisory Units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of December 31, approximately 439 of the officially estimated 7,000 previously operational foreign NGOs had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with most focusing on trade and commerce activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2017, there were more than 800,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported foreign funding continued to drop, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding due to fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country to send funds or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times did not respect these rights.
While seriously restricting its scope of operations, the government occasionally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In some instances the government pressured other countries to return asylum seekers or UNHCR-recognized refugees forcibly. On July 13, Radio Free Asia reported a Chongqing court had secretly sentenced human rights activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping in July 2017 for “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally crossing a national border.” Jiang and Dong had fled to Thailand with their families and received refugee status from UNHCR, but Thailand then forcibly returned them from Bangkok in 2015. During their televised “confessions,” Jiang and Dong appeared to have sustained torture while in detention. The families received no notification from authorities concerning the trial. According to contacts, authorities denied Dong’s former lawyer permission to meet with his client when he visited the Chongqing Number 2 Detention Center in July 2017.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens against their will. In addition, North Koreans detained by government authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. North Korean refugees were either detained in holding facilities or placed under house arrest at undisclosed locations. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Tibet Addendum). Uighurs faced new restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region, as well. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, identification checks remained in place when entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang security officials set up checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uighurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put any baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas. On September 26, the Urumqi Evening News announced Xinjiang railway administrative departments would stop selling tickets on all passenger services leaving Xinjiang starting on October 22. This occurred around the time reports surfaced about authorities criminally sentencing Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims en masse of groups of 200-500 persons from the internment camps to prisons in other parts of the country, such as Heilongjiang Province.
Although the government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2017 National Economic and Social Development published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 291 million persons lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
From April to June, non-Beijing residents could apply for a Beijing hukou under the special municipality’s new points-based system. Under the new policy, nonnatives of the city under the legal retirement age who have held a Beijing temporary residence permit with the city’s social insurance records for seven consecutive years and were without a criminal record were eligible to accumulate points for the hukou. Those with “good employment, stable homes in Beijing, strong educational background, and achievements in innovation and establishing start-ups in Beijing” were reportedly likely to obtain high scores in the point-based competition. The city was to announce the new hukou winners in the fourth quarter of the year.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists and of suspected corrupt officials and businesspersons, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. The passport recall, however, was not limited to Uighur areas. Foreign national family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. During the year the government continued its concerted efforts to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China, often pressuring relatives in Xinjiang to ask their overseas relatives to return. Authorities also refused to renew passports for Uighurs living abroad, leading them to either go home or pursue ways to maintain legal status in those countries. Upon return, many of these Uighurs, or persons connected with the Xinjiang residents, were detained or disappeared.
Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns, it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue or even renew old passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many while they attempted to leave (see Tibet Annex). Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government forcibly returned vulnerable asylum seekers, especially North Korean asylum seekers. The government continued to consider North Koreans as “illegal economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and forcibly returned many of them to North Korea.
Human rights groups reported a relatively large number of North Korean asylum seekers being held in detention in Liaoning Province and Jilin Province who were in danger of imminent refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylee status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers. The government did not officially recognize these individuals as refugees; they remained in the country as illegal immigrants unable to work, with no access to education, and subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women living on the margins of Chinese society, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued to repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers forcibly, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
Numerous NGOs reported the government continued to deny UNHCR access to North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: North Korean asylum seekers in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
Stateless Persons: International media reported as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets published reports indicating that in December local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya had renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the LGBTI community. Local Chechen authorities reportedly illegally detained and tortured at least 40 individuals, including two who reportedly died in custody from torture.
On May 15, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov stated during the country’s UN Universal Periodic Review that the government’s “preliminary investigation” into the 2017 campaign of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of gay men in Chechnya by state agents had been closed after authorities had been unable to find evidence of any human rights violations or evidence of the existence of gay men in Chechnya. In 2017 the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta had reported that, during an “antigay purge” that took place from late 2016 through March 2017, local Chechen security services kidnapped, held prisoner, and tortured more than 100 male residents in Chechnya based on their presumed sexual orientation, resulting in at least three deaths. An independent fact-finding mission launched in November by 16 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as multiple independent human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Russia LGBT Network, and Memorial, subsequently confirmed Novaya Gazeta’s allegations. According to the Russian LGBT Network, as of July 30, at least 125 LGBTI persons had fled Chechnya, the majority of whom had also left the country.
On August 22, a court in Stavropol denied for the fifth time an appeal brought by survivor Maksim Lapunov that sought to compel authorities to open an investigation into his allegations of torture and illegal detention by Chechen officials. Lapunov was the only survivor of the antigay purge in Chechnya willing to be publicly named and cooperate with investigative bodies.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), which in some cases resulted in death. According to press reporting, on July 25, authorities charged prison guard Ivan Marshalko from prison IK-6 in the Bryansk region with murder and abuse of power after he allegedly intentionally asphyxiated an unnamed inmate on July 22. On September 24, Marshalko’s pretrial detention was extended for two months.
Physical abuse and hazing, which in some cases resulted in death, continued to be a problem in the armed forces, but authorities took steps in some cases to hold those responsible to account. For example, on January 5, according to media reports, soldier Rustam Avazov committed suicide at an airbase in Perm after alleged continual physical and psychological hazing by fellow soldier Ramazan Magomedov. Magomedov was subsequently charged with driving Avazov to commit suicide, and his trial began in August. On October 1, the Perm Regional Military Prosecutor announced at least four officials had been discharged from duty or stripped of their commands following Avazov’s death and that at least 11 others had been reprimanded. According to media reports, this was the third recent death of a conscript at the airbase.
In June media outlets citing confidential sources reported that authorities had reopened their investigation into the 2015 murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and had been conducting new interviews with the five men convicted in 2017 for the killing. Authorities made no official announcement to confirm the report. Human rights activists and the Nemtsov family still believed that authorities were intentionally ignoring the question of who ordered and organized the killing and noted that these persons were still at large.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. For example, on March 4, according to British authorities, agents of Russian military intelligence spread the nerve agent Novichok on the front door of the home of former Russian military intelligence offer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in an apparent attempt to kill him. Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were hospitalized in serious condition after coming in contact with the nerve agent, but both ultimately survived. On June 30, Salisbury residents Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were hospitalized after accidentally coming in contact with a bottle of Novichok that the assassins had discarded. Sturgess died from her exposure to the nerve agent on July 8.
The country played a significant military role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths and other abuses to Russian-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s forces have conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that purposefully targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that at least 50 deaths in the North Caucasus resulted from clashes with security forces in the region during the first half of the year. Dagestan was the most affected region in the first half of the year with 25 deaths, followed by Chechnya, where 15 persons were killed, and Ingushetia, where eight persons were killed.
There were reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the 2017 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 808 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country. Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.d.).
On October 6, men who identified themselves as officers with the Ingushetia Center for Combatting Extremism abducted, beat, and subjected Amnesty International researcher Oleg Kozlovskiy to mock executions. Kozlovskiy was in Ingushetia to monitor a series of peaceful protests against a new border agreement signed by the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya. According to Kozlovskiy, a man claiming to be a representative of the protest organizers lured him into a car. The man and several accomplices then beat him, drove him to a field, forced him to remove his clothes, beat him again (breaking his rib), photographed him naked, and twice subjected him to a mock execution. Afterward, they held a gun to his head, demanded information about his contacts, attempted to recruit him as an informant, and threatened to kill his wife and children if he reported the abduction. Amnesty International lodged a formal complaint with authorities.
On January 17, Chechen Republic head Kadyrov, suggested that Chechen singer Zelimkhan Bakayev, who had disappeared in August 2017 after allegedly being detained by Chechen police, may have been killed by family members due to his sexual orientation. This marked the first instance a government official suggested the singer may not be alive. Bakayev’s family denied the allegations, and his whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end.
There were continued reports of abductions related to apparent counterterrorism efforts in the North Caucasus. For example, according to Amnesty International, on September 1, several dozen armed men wearing Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of Interior insignias came to the house where Azamat Bayduyev was staying in the Chechen village of Shalazhi and took him to an unknown location with no explanation. Chechen authorities denied detaining Bayduyev, a Chechen refugee who had been deported to the country from Poland on August 31 after he was suspected, but not charged, by Belgian authorities of involvement in planning a terrorist attack. His whereabouts were unknown.
There were reports Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement personnel engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young anarchist and antifascist activists who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. Multiple defendants, whom authorities alleged were planning terrorist attacks under the auspices of previously unknown supposed organizations called “the Network” and “New Greatness,” alleged they were subjected to torture to coerce confessions, including severe beatings and electric shocks.
In one of many cases with a similar pattern of allegations, on January 23, FSB officers detained software engineer and antifascist activist Viktor Filinkov at St. Petersburg airport, placed him in a minivan, and subjected him to electric shocks for more than five hours while attempting to force him to memorize a confession to planning a terrorist act. On January 25, the Dzerzhinskiy District Court in St. Petersburg authorized Filinkov’s pretrial detention for two months on charges of alleged involvement in a terrorist organization the FSB called “the Network,” which was allegedly comprised of young activists in St. Petersburg and Penza. After visiting him in detention, Filinkov’s lawyer and two members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission noted burns on his right thigh and chest and handcuff marks on both hands that were consistent with his allegations of torture by electric shock. On a later visit the Public Oversight Commission members noted that the Prison Service did not allow Filinkov to take prescribed medications with him to the St. Petersburg pretrial detention center. As of mid-November, Filinkov remained in pretrial detention.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. (see section 1.a. for reports of torture against members of the LGBTI community in the Republic of Chechnya). For example, on January 16, the media outlet Republic published an article describing the mass arrest and torture of at least 70 suspected drug addicts in the Shali District of the Republic of Chechnya. One victim described how in August 2017 Chechen police tortured both him and his brother with electric shocks for a week to coerce confessions of drug possession.
Police and persons who appeared to be operating with the tacit approval of authorities conducted attacks on political and human rights activists, critics of government policies, and persons linked to the opposition (see sections 2.b. and 3).
Observers noted an emerging pattern of poisoning of government critics. For example, on September 11, Pyotr Verzilov, the 30-year-old manager of Pussy Riot and editor of the human rights-focused media outlet Mediazona, fell ill after attending a court hearing in Moscow and later suffered seizures and began losing his sight, speech, and mobility. On September 15, he was transported for treatment to Germany, where doctors stated that it was “highly likely” he had been poisoned by an undetermined substance. Press reports indicated that, on the day he was hospitalized, Verzilov was planning to receive a report from “foreign specialists” investigating the July killings of a team of independent Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Battalion, a private militia linked to the Russian government, in the Central African Republic.
Reports by refugees, NGOs, and the press suggested a pattern of police and prison personnel carrying out beatings, arrests, and extortion of persons whom they believed to be Roma, Central Asian, African, or of a Caucasus nationality.
There were multiple reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations for 30 days or longer to exert pressure on them, or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Beginning July 19, new amendments to the administrative procedure code gave prosecutors the ability to request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis; the law previously only allowed certified medical professionals to make this request, although human rights activists noted that in practice, prosecutors already had this ability.
For example, on August 31, a court in Barnaul ruled to send Andrey Shisherin to a psychiatric clinic for a one-month evaluation. Shisherin was facing blasphemy charges for posting memes on his social network account that ridiculed the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The court ignored independent psychiatric assessments attesting to Shisherin’s good mental health and sided with the prosecutor, who argued that psychiatric incarceration was required because Shisherin had behaved suspiciously by renouncing a confession he alleged he had previously given under duress.
Nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces, although violations related to hazing in the military were fewer than in previous years. Activists reported hazing was often tied to extortion schemes.
There were reports Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the penal code establishes the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicts into separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules.
The NGO Penal Reform International reported conditions were generally better in women’s colonies than in those for men, but they remained substandard.
Physical abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on July 20, Novaya Gazeta published a YouTube video provided by the NGO Public Verdict that showed 17 prison guards from prison IK-1 in Yaroslavl Oblast appearing to torture prison inmate Yevgeniy Makarov in June 2017. At least 11 prison officials, including the deputy head of the prison and an investigator who had refused to act on prior complaints, were arrested for abusing Makarov and at least five other inmates. On July 24, Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, fled the country after receiving death threats, but she later returned. By the time the video was published, Makarov had been transferred to IK-8 in Yaroslavl Oblast, where he reported prison guards severely beat him on several occasions. On September 19, the Investigative Committee announced it had opened a criminal investigation into Makarov’s beatings in IK-8. On October 1, Makarov was released from prison. The Makarov case sparked significant public outcry and led to the public reporting of many other similar cases of inmate torture from prisons across the country, including some instances resulting in the prosecution of prison personnel.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, according to media reports, on July 5, Ukrainian prisoner Pavlo Hryb was admitted to a medical facility with broken legs and severe bruises. His lawyer alleged Hryb had been beaten by his fellow prisoners while being transported to Rostov-on-Don.
There were also reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on August 1 in Vladimir, two inmates and six officials were charged with torture after authorities discovered a torture chamber at a pretrial detention facility. A previous court decision had noted that the pretrial detention center “held inmates that used physical and psychological violence to force other detainees to self-incriminate.”
Overcrowding, nutrition, ventilation, heating, and sanitation standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. The NGO Russia Behind Bars reported minimal opportunities for movement and exercise. Potable water was sometimes rationed and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem.
A 2017 Amnesty International report described the country’s prison transport practices as part of a “Gulag-era legacy” and documented how authorities often transported prisoners for weeks in tiny train compartments with no ventilation, natural light, little water, and infrequent access to toilets and other sanitation.
NGOs reported many prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment.
There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on September 21, Ukrainian prisoner Oleksander Kolchenko was put in solitary confinement for three days in a prison in Chelyabinsk. His attorneys believed the action was in retaliation for his request for a visit from the Ukrainian consul.
Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities can deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case can deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities can also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners.
While prisoners can file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
NGOs reported that some prisoners who alleged torture were later charged with making false accusations, which often resulted in additional prison time. For example, on January 11, the Investigative Committee of Kirov Oblast opened a criminal case against an unidentified inmate for allegedly making false accusations of torture in a complaint alleging he had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks at prison IK-1. According to press reports, this was the second inmate in two years to be prosecuted for filing a torture complaint against the facility.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in 81 regions with a total of 1,154 commission members. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law-enforcement backgrounds.
A law adopted on July 19 gave members of oversight commissions the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples and conduct other environmental inspections, and they may also conduct safety evaluations and access prison psychiatric facilities.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons but continued to withhold permission for it to release any reports, with the exception of one released in 2013 on a visit conducted in 2012.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement at all levels of government. The FSB is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combatting all crime. The National Guard assists the FSB Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the county’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. While mechanisms to investigate abuses existed, the government generally did not investigate and punish abuses by law enforcement officers, and impunity was widespread. National-level civilian authorities had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the Republic head Kadyrov. Authorities investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of corruption by law enforcement officials, but in many instances, corruption investigations appeared to be a means of settling political scores or turf battles among law enforcement entities.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants. After arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
A number of problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. Federal law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but investigators generally did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. In many cases, especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest, often in connection with demonstrations (see section 2.b.). For example, on March 2, a St. Petersburg court sentenced Denis Mikhaylov, the St. Petersburg campaign manager for opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, to 25 days in jail for participating in protests in January. Earlier that day, Mikhaylov had been released from a 30-day jail term for organizing the same protests. On March 7, a St. Petersburg court upheld his second detention. These “immediate rearrest” scenarios occurred in several cases of Navalny supporters during the year as well as with Navalny himself.
There were reports that Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent was not available.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. Given problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. While mechanisms to investigate abuses existed, the government generally did not investigate and punish abuses by law enforcement officers, and impunity was widespread. National-level civilian authorities had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the Republic head Kadyrov. Authorities investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of corruption by law enforcement officials, but in many instances, corruption investigations appeared to be a means of settling political scores or turf battles among law enforcement entities.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. For example, on September 9, police in Krasnodar beat and then charged defense lawyer Mikhail Benyash with disobeying police by “injuring himself.” Police warned Benyash previously he would be arrested if he appeared in downtown Krasnodar on that day to provide legal assistance to individuals who had been illegally detained during protests. Police claimed that injuries visible on Benyash’s head resulted from Benyash’s striking his own head against the glass of a police car contrary to their orders.
On April 24, the Moscow Bar Association disbarred human rights lawyer Mark Feygin, who had represented some of the most high-profile defendants in politically motivated trials in recent years. Observers saw the move as retaliation for his work on behalf of these clients.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. There were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also have the opportunity to review their criminal file following the completion of the criminal investigation. Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation is not always good. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal. Appellate courts reversed approximately 1 percent of sentences where the defendant had been found guilty.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences. On April 5, a court in Petrozavodsk acquitted renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuri Dmitriyev of child pornography charges, a case that many observers believed to be politically motivated and in retaliation for his efforts to expose Stalin-era crimes. On June 14, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia granted the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal and sent the case for retrial. On June 27, Dmitriyev was again arrested and as of November remained in pretrial detention.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in the Republic of Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Republic head Kadyrov. For example, on January 9, police in Grozny arrested human rights activist and Memorial Chechnya office head Oyub Titiyev, known for his work exposing violations of human rights in Chechnya, most recently on the 2017 reports of a summary execution of at least 27 men. Police pulled him over, searched his car, and supposedly found 180 grams of marijuana, which observers believed was planted by police to provide a pretext for his imprisonment. Police held Titiyev incommunicado for almost seven hours and threatened to harm his family if he did not plead guilty. On January 10, prosecutors charged Titiyev with drug possession. His trial began on July 19, and he remained in pretrial detention. Some sessions of his trial were closed to the public on vague “national security” grounds, which observers considered baseless.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually used in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of November the NGO Memorial Human Rights Center’s list of political prisoners included 204 names, including 153 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. The list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Igor Rudnikov and Zhelaudi Geriyev; human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Oyub Titiyev and Yuri Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea, such as Oleh Sentsov and Oleksander Kolchenko, and dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average sentences for the cases on their list continued to grow, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, this year. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as in the case of Aleksey Pichugin, who has been imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often did not work well. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, in practice it was very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights had been violated typically sought redress in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after domestic courts had ruled against them. The law enables the Constitutional Court to review rulings from international human rights bodies and declare them “nonexecutable” if the court finds that the ruling contradicts the constitution, and the court has declared ECHR rulings to be nonexecutable under this law.
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the law’s provisions, claims can only be made by states and not individuals.
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, these legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed since 2016 granting authorities sweeping new powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other active measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities to monitor telephone calls in real time, with a warrant, but this safeguard is largely pro forma in practice. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor information over the internet. The Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, although the FSB is not required to show it upon request.
In its 2017 report Russia under Surveillance, the human rights NGO Agora described the development in recent years of a system of “total oversight targeted at civic activists, independent journalists, and representatives of the political opposition” in the name of national security. According to Agora, since 2007 authorities have greatly increased surveillance of telephone calls and online messages, increased the use of hidden audio and video recording devices, and expanded the use of biometric data gathering.
In March, Agora published a report on politically motivated searches of private homes which analyzed the searches of the residences of 600 political activists that security services had conducted over the previous three years. The report concluded that authorities often used the searches to intimidate and threaten political activists. In 98 cases police used the threat of violence, actual violence, and the display of firearms during the searches; in 47 cases authorities searched the premises of the activists’ relatives and friends; and in 70 cases they broke down the doors or entered the residence through a window.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous issues, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI issues, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism, or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of September 11, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,507 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 200 items from 2017. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,500 extremism cases in 2017, some of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
Several persons were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. For example, on February 11, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
In September the Supreme Court amended its 2011 decree regarding publication of extremist material online to require authorities to have proof of criminal intent in order for them to prosecute. Authorities must now prove in court that publications or reposts were made with the intent “to incite hate or ill will.”
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on August 7, a court in Biysk fined 16-year-old Maxim Neverov 50,000 rubles ($750) for posting images of shirtless men on a social network. The Russia LGBT Network attributed the case against Neverov to his organizing of a May public protest called “Gay or Putin.” On October 26, an appeals court overturned the lower court decision.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” On May 8, authorities raided the home and seized the computers of Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya. Motuznaya was interrogated and shown pictures of her social media posts from 2015 in which she shared memes that satirized the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 23, she was charged with “offending the feelings of religious believers” and “extremism.” On October 9, a judge returned the case to prosecutors for further development.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 6, police in the Tyva Republic detained journalist Oyuuma Dongak because of photographs of Nazi Germany which contained a swastika posted on her Facebook page in 2014. Dongak said that the photos accompanied an article she had shared about the rebirth of fascism. A court fined her 1,000 rubles ($15) on August 8. Observers described the case as retribution for Dongak’s support of opposition politicians.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly “insulted government officials.” For example, on August 3, a court in Magadan fined two men for “insulting” local mayor Yuri Grishan when they demanded his resignation in messages on the platform WhatsApp, using language authorities deemed “unacceptable.”
During the year authorities used a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute the independent press for their coverage of independent political candidates. On June 20, a court in Syktyvkar fined the independent online news outlet 7×7 800,000 rubles ($12,000), and fined its editor 40,000 rubles ($600) for publishing an interview in March with a libertarian politician who noted that synthetic drugs killed people at a higher rate than heroin. Authorities considered this statement an endorsement of heroin.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On February 26, a St. Petersburg court sentenced opposition activist Artem Goncharenko to 25 days in prison for “organizing an unsanctioned meeting” because he displayed a large inflatable rubber duck in the window of his apartment. Yellow rubber ducks have been used to signal support for the anticorruption protests organized by opposition leader Navalny.
Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
A 2017 law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of September 20, there were nine outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents could be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
In some cases courts imposed extremely high fines on independent media outlets, which observers believed were intentionally disproportionate and designed to bankrupt the outlets and force their closure. For example, on October 26, a Moscow court fined independent news outlet The New Times 22.3 million rubles ($338,000) for errors in information it had provided to the government, as required by the “foreign agents” law. Press reports indicated this was the highest fine imposed on a media outlet in the country’s history. Prosecutors alleged that the newspaper had not properly accounted for money it received from a foundation affiliated with the paper, the Press Freedom Support Foundation, which is designated by the government as a “foreign agent.” Observers believed the case against The New Times to be in retaliation for the newspaper publishing an interview with opposition leader Navalny.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Fund, as of September incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included two killings, 42 attacks, 82 detentions by law-enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered forms of government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
On April 14, Maksim Borodin, a Yekaterinburg journalist with the independent newspaper Novyy Den, died in a fall from his fifth-floor apartment balcony in an incident seen by observers as suspicious. Borodin had been reporting on the foreign activities of the Wagner battalion, a private oligarch-sponsored militia aligned with the government.
On April 12, two unknown assailants in Yekaterinburg attacked Dmitriy Polyanin, editor in chief of the regional progovernment newspaper Oblastnaya Gazeta, which had recently published articles about local disputes related to the housing market. Polyanin was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken rib.
On January 31, the FSB raided the apartment of journalist Pavel Nikulin and brought him to their headquarters for several hours of interrogation in response to a 2017 article he wrote about a man who had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS. A regional court named Nikulin as a witness in a criminal investigation into “illegal terrorist training” in connection with the article and had approved a search warrant for his apartment. In July, Nikulin and a colleague were detained by police in Krasnodar on suspicion of extremist activity and attacked by unknown assailants with pepper spray. On September 16, Nikulin and two colleagues were again arrested in Nizhniy Novgorod on suspicion of distributing “extremist materials.”
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media, much of which occurred online (see Press Freedom, Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events sections). Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who published content it disliked. For example, on January 23, the website Russiagate.com was blocked with no formal notification hours after it published evidence of corruption by the head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov. The website’s editor reported that investors in the website immediately informed her that they were ending their financing of the project.
On April 4, the independent Kaliningrad newspaper Novyye Kolesa announced it would cease publication following a campaign of harassment and censorship by authorities. Following an FSB raid in November 2017, authorities arrested the newspaper’s editor, Igor Rudnikov, and charged him with extortion. Human rights organizations believed there to be no legitimate basis for the charges, which could bring 15 years in prison. On March 29, unidentified individuals went to newsstands, seized all copies of the newspaper on sale, and threatened vendors. The lead story in that edition of the newspaper alleged that the FSB had tortured to death a local resident in detention. Distribution network representatives gave orders to hide all remaining copies, and later informed Novyye Kolesa leadership it would no longer be profitable for them to continue to sell the newspaper.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them and to retaliate against them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. For example, on July 23, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Nizhigorodskiy Prison Colony Number 2, which had filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Sobesednik and Pussy Riot-member Maria Alekhina for damaging its reputation in a 2017 article describing forced labor conditions at the prison. The court obliged the newspaper to print a retraction and pay a 3,000-ruble ($45) fine.
On April 23, President Putin signed a law allowing the state to block online information that “offends the honor and dignity” of an individual, if the author of the information has defied a court order to delete it.
On October 3, President Putin signed a law that strengthened penalties for the dissemination of “false” information related to defamation or information that violates privacy restrictions. International and domestic experts believed the introduction of criminal responsibility for noncompliance with court decisions ordering the takedown or retraction of content in civil defamation cases would expand the tools available to officials and public figures to interfere with public access to information detrimental to their interests.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies or officials, or to retaliate against critics.
On May 18, authorities raided the home of independent Omsk journalist Viktor Korb, conducted a 10-hour search, and charged him with incitement to terrorism, justification of terrorism, and terrorist propaganda, which carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The charges stemmed from Korb’s 2015 publication on a news and discussion website of a portion of remarks given by political activist Boris Stomakhin, during Stomakhin’s trial on terrorism charges. Korb did not endorse Stomakhin’s remarks.
Authorities also charged independent journalists with espionage. On June 4, a Moscow court convicted Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for the Ukrinform news agency, was detained in Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information, an allegation human rights groups claimed was politically motivated.
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression online. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 76 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.
The government monitored all internet communications and prohibited online anonymity (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. As of July 1, companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months. As of October 1, companies are required to store electronic correspondence (audio, images and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance.
On April 13, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Roskomnadzor’s 2017 request to block the Telegram messaging service for failing to share with the FSB encryption keys to users’ correspondence. Telegram maintained that the FSB’s request was both unconstitutional and technically impossible, as the messenger uses end-to-end encryption (when the encryption keys are stored only by users). The Supreme Court upheld the FSB’s arguments on August 8. For several months beginning in mid-April, Roskomnadzor actively attempted to block Telegram. Since the messenger was using dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses, however, blocking it proved impossible. Roskomnadzor was forced to block more than 20 million other IP addresses, which resulted in a major loss in accessibility to a wide range of unrelated online services. Despite Roskomnadzor’s efforts, Telegram remained mostly accessible to users. In August press reports indicated that Roskomnadzor and the FSB were testing systems designed to allow more precise blocking of individual sites to enable blocking Telegram.
The law requires commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. Under the law Roskomnadzor can also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In May, Roskomnadzor reported it had blocked 50 VPN services.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law came into force in January. On August 27, Roskomnadzor expanded the list of designated “organizers of information dissemination” to include several new sites, such as the blogging platform Livejournal, the online dating site LovePlanet, and the car sharing app BlaBlaCar. Beginning in July these “organizers of information dissemination” were required to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e‑payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.
On November 6, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree requiring anonymous messenger applications to obtain verification of a user’s phone number from mobile phone network providers within 20 minutes of initial use of the application. If the phone network provider cannot verify the phone number, then messenger services are required to block the user. The government also required network operators to keep track of messenger apps for which users have registered.
The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of October, a total of 3.8 million websites were unjustly blocked in the country.
On November 26, Roskomnadzor filed a civil law suit against Google seeking to fine the company 700,000 rubles ($10,500) for declining to connect its search engine to an automated system that prevents blocked web sites from appearing in search results. On December 11, a court fined Google 500,000 rubles ($7,530).
During the year authorities blocked websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or purportedly violated laws on internet content. For example, on April 28, Roskomnadzor blocked the LGBTI health awareness site Parni Plus. The site’s administrators said they received a notice from Roskomnadzor on April 28 informing them about a January 26 ruling by a district court in the Altai Territory to block Parni Plus for distributing information that “challenges family values” and “propagates nontraditional sexual relations.” The notice did not specify what content broke the law, and the notice came so late that the website missed its opportunity to appeal the verdict.
In some cases authorities coerced sites into taking down content by threatening to block entire platforms. For example, on February 13, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube, Instagram, and several dozen media outlets if, based on a court decision, they did not delete an anticorruption investigation video made by opposition activist Navalny that described a meeting between government-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko on a luxury yacht. All but YouTube complied. On February 20, Roskomnadzor stated it would not seek to block YouTube for its noncompliance.
In 2017 amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal. Dunja Mijatovic, the special representative on freedom of the media of the OSCE, raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, there were several instances of courts ordering that content be removed from search results on these grounds in 2017.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see Freedom of Expression).
There were reports of disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, media reported that, during opposition protests in Moscow on May 7, authorities switched off phone and mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
On June 21, the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), claiming the school violated multiple education standards. Shaninka, a Russian-British higher education institution founded in 1995, continued to operate but will not be not be able to issue state-approved diplomas or provide deferment from military service. Media outlet Meduza speculated the loss of accreditation was due to the school’s extensive international connections, and constituted a move to disable the country’s only remaining private institution of higher education.
On November 7, the trial began of well known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov has been in custody since August 2017.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. Citing a bomb threat, police disrupted a June 13 theater production about imprisoned Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev in Moscow and evacuated the theater.
In November media outlets reported a notable increase in the number of incidents in which authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. Monitoring by Meduza identified 13 such cases across the country during the month of November, compared with 10 during the rest of the year. Of the 13 cases, nine involved the rapper Husky or the electronic music group IC3PEAK, both of whom perform songs containing lyrics critical of the government. In most cases the concerts were canceled after the FSB or other security forces visited and threatened the managers or owners of music venues.
Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, on January 23, the Ministry of Culture recalled the rights to air the comedy film The Death of Stalin after a number of cultural figures sent a complaint to the department. The authors of the collective letter claimed Death of Stalin was a “spit in the face” of veterans that “blackened the memory of our citizens who defeated fascism.” Police disrupted a January 25 screening of the film at the Pioneer cinema in Moscow. On February 22, a Moscow court fined the theater 100,000 rubles ($1,500) for the screening.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly laws–up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizers, and one million rubles ($17,140) for groups or companies. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,000) or imprisoned for up to five years.
On May 10, President Putin signed a decree limiting freedom of assembly in cities hosting the 2018 International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) World Cup in conjunction with enhanced security, although protests in cities that did not host the tournament were allowed to take place.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For instance, on August 25, police arrested opposition leader Navalny for allegedly organizing an unsanctioned “voters’ strike” rally on January 28. His arrest came shortly before planned rallies in opposition to pension reform scheduled nationwide on September 9. Immediately following his release on September 24, police from a different precinct rearrested Navalny for 20 more days for allegedly organizing the unsanctioned September 9 demonstration, which purportedly caused “bodily harm to a government official.”
There was a reported increase in authorities charging individuals with “inciting mass riots” based upon their social media activities. For example, following the May 5 antigovernment protests, 28 organizers and activists with opposition leader Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation were detained and charged with inciting mass riots based on their tweets or retweets. While some were fined and released, others were sentenced to 30-day prison terms.
Activists were at times subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. On May 5, police stood by as unknown persons in Cossack uniforms beat participants in peaceful opposition rallies in Moscow and other cities. More than 1,300 persons were arrested during these protests, 572 in Moscow alone.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on September 9, police throughout the country detained 1,195 persons who were demonstrating against pension reform. Media reports of the Moscow protest described unprovoked and disproportionate police beatings of protesters with rubber batons.
Authorities regularly arrested single-person picketers. For example, on June 14 authorities arrested UK-based activist Peter Tatchell in Moscow for staging a single-person picket against restrictions on LGBTI persons in the country, citing a breach of antiprotest rules put in place for the World Cup. Tatchell was released the same day and departed the country before appearing in court.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. On November 27, the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI issues could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On April 8, police detained approximately 30 gay rights activists who took part in an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg. City authorities had turned down their request to hold a parade, so each participant demonstrated alone, in a bid to avoid the protest being called a gathering, which did not prevent their arrest.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 13th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.
Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of October the Ministry of Justice had added five NGOs to the “foreign agents” registry during the year, and its registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 73 NGOs.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, on August 13, a court in the Mari-El Republic fined the human rights group Man and Law 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for failing to mark its Facebook page as belonging to a “foreign agent.” According to the NGO, the page had previously been marked but the marking disappeared when Facebook had updated its user interface.
The government placed additional restrictions on NGOs designated as “foreign agents.” On October 11, President Putin signed a law prohibiting “foreign agent” NGOs and foreign NGOs from receiving an accreditation from the Ministry of Justice that would allow them to submit anticorruption analysis of legislation. NGOs designated “foreign agents” were already prohibited from participating in election observation.
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press.
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year as the Ministry of Justice added the European Platform for Democratic Elections, the International Elections Study Center, the German Marshall Fund, and Pacific Environment. As of October the total number of “undesirable foreign organizations” was 15. According to the law, a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of October more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses were facing criminal charges for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. As of September the legal NGO Agora had identified more than 80 such attacks during the year. For example, there were multiple reports of physical attacks on the Memorial and its activists in the North Caucasus during the year, which human rights organizations believed to be a coordinated campaign of pressure aimed at silencing Memorial and halting its human rights work. On January 17, two masked men set fire to the Memorial office in Nazran, Ingushetia. On January 23, unknown perpetrators set fire to one of Memorial’s cars in Makhachkala, Dagestan. On March 29, Sirazhutdin Datsiyev, the head of Memorial’s office in the Republic of Dagestan, was hospitalized with a head injury after an attack by unknown assailants.
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases, authorities restricted internal movement, foreign travel, and repatriation.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems. NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. In one case NGOs reported that 102,944 refugees remained in the country, including 101,019 Ukrainians, of whom nearly 2,000 struggled to maintain legal status. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. According to NGOs, two Syrian refugees and 150 Ukrainian refugees received citizenship in during the year. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups.
The law on procedures for departing from and entering the country stipulates that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of a bankrupt citizen’s right to leave the country. Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes. For example, the government temporarily stopped opposition leader Navalny from leaving the country to attend an ECHR hearing on November 13 because he had an outstanding debt from embezzlement charges that most observers considered politically motivated. He was permitted to leave the country the following day.
According to press reports, since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of approximately five million of its employees. This included employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
In 2017 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 19,000 internally displaced persons, down from 22,600 in 2016. Of the 19,000 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 5,900 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of forced migrants decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former USSR republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the first Chechen conflict in 1995-96.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GAMI), did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers could request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution. There were no known statistics on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers during the year, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.
Access to Asylum: The country’s laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($495) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, in particular Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. With the exception of Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Some observers pointed out that GAMI data failed to include asylum seekers who were forcibly deported or extradited before exhausting their legal remedies. Moreover, some individuals who might otherwise have sought international protection, especially those from Central Asia, reportedly chose not to make formal applications for asylum because doing so often led to criminal investigations and other unwanted attention from the security services.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin. Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, receive medical care, and attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who could not be expelled or deported for humanitarian reasons, could receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Laws, policies and procedures allow stateless persons to gain nationality, and for their children born in the country to gain nationality. Some NGOs estimated there were approximately 500,000 stateless persons in the country and reported that authorities urged stateless persons to depart the country, but, in most cases, they failed to provide temporary legal status that would facilitate their departure.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Although the government did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and government-supported colectivos, carried out such killings during the year.
There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.” The NGO Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989 (COFAVIC) continued to report there was no publicly accessible national registry of reported cases of extrajudicial killings.
On January 15, approximately 400 government security forces, including the National Guard (GNB), Special Actions Force (FAES), Venezuelan National Police (PNB), National Antiextortion and Kidnapping Command, and Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), raided a home in El Junquito, a residential community less than an hour from the nation’s capital, and killed seven persons, including Oscar Perez, a former officer in the National Police Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC). Perez, according to government reports, had stolen a military airplane and dropped four hand grenades at a government building in July without causing structural damage or injury. According to information presented in the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) June report on human rights violations in the country, “[a]lthough the group had initiated negotiations with commanders of the GNB to surrender, officers received counterorders from the Strategic Operational Command to use lethal force and execute all members of the group once they had been subdued.” Perez had released a series of videos on social media during the siege in which the group’s negotiations with security forces could be heard. Death certificates revealed all seven individuals were shot in the head and killed. Many local NGOs termed the raid a massacre.
According to investigative journalists, 147 individuals younger than age 20 were killed in the Caracas metropolitan area between January and August. Of those deaths, 65 were committed by police. FAES, a specialized CICPC unit created by President Maduro in 2017 to quash “terrorist gangs” participating in large-scale countrywide protests, continued to be one of the deadliest. Between May and November 2017, FAES committed 31 percent of homicides by security forces. FAES tactics resembled the government’s nationwide anticrime strategy begun in 2015, the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), which was characterized by large-scale raids conducted by hundreds of government security agents in neighborhoods allegedly harboring criminals. NGOs reported that during OLP operations, officials committed grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, blackmail, torture, and destruction of property.
There were no developments in the cases of protesters killed in 2017. Government and NGO sources estimated at least 125 persons were killed in protests from April through July 2017. The Public Ministry reported 65 percent were victims of government repression. The NGO Foro Penal put the number at 75 percent, with colectivos responsible for half the deaths and the remainder divided between PNB and GNB forces. The NGO Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Action and Education (PROVEA) estimated that 83 percent of regime victims died from gunshot wounds. On numerous occasions security forces also used nonlethal ammunition at close range, severely injuring and in some cases killing protesters. Following the four months of antiregime protests, in September 2017 the government appointed a new attorney general, Tarek William Saab, who reopened investigations conducted during his predecessor’s tenure to undo the previous findings that held government security forces and colectivos responsible for widespread, violent repression.
According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were credible reports that security forces tortured and abused detainees. There were no reports of any government officials being charged under the law.
The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups reported the government continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No data was available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal.
Press and NGO reports of beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were reported during the year. Cruel treatment frequently involved authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs also published reports that authorities generally mistreated, sexually abused, and threatened to kill detainees.
NGOs detailed reports from detainees whom authorities allegedly sexually abused, threatened with death, and forced to spend hours on their knees in detention centers. Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in government custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, detainees were interrogated by security officials. The executive director of the Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America, Tamara Suju, and human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Gutierrez denounced 357 cases of physical abuse, alleged torture, and violence by security forces against political prisoners before the International Criminal Court. Among the 357 cases, there were 190 allegations of rape or sexual abuse.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure. Armed gangs effectively controlled some prisons in which they were incarcerated. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails.
Physical Conditions: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 51,693 inmates in the country’s 41 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated 33,000 inmates in police station jails in 2017. NGOs reported records for detainees were not properly maintained and often contained incomplete information. According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), the capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent.
There were two women’s prisons, one in Miranda State and the other in Zulia State. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that in practice male and female prisoners intermingled. Security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, even though separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.
The CICPC and police station jails and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A 2017 UVL study of 89 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 432 percent overcrowding. According to the study, more than 80 percent of facilities provided no medical services, recreational areas, designated visiting areas, or laundry facilities. More than 60 percent did not have potable water, and more than 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms.
The GNB and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The government failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with only one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. The OVP reported 173 prisoner deaths and 268 serious injuries in 2016, the most recent year for which information was available. The OVP assessed that 90 percent of prison deaths were violent, resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner altercations, riots, and fires. The OVP reported some inmates also succumbed to the generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons. During the March 2017 renovation of Guarico State’s central prison, the construction team discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave. The case remained under investigation at year’s end but highlighted uncertainty over the true number of annual prison deaths.
During the year prison and detention center riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. For example, on March 28, a fire erupted in an overcrowded police station in Valencia, Carabobo State, killing 66 male prisoners and two female visitors; more than 100 persons received burns in the fire. Media reported that after an argument with a guard, a group of prisoners lit their bed linens on fire. Many NGOs called the fire a massacre, noting some prisoners died from the fire itself, while others died of physical trauma or gunshot wounds.
A 2016 law limiting cell phone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity remained unimplemented. Minister of Penitentiary Affairs Iris Varela admitted communicating with inmates by cell phone immediately before and during the 2017 Puente Ayala prison riot. There were credible reports that Varela may have had a hand in directing the violence, including her own admission to that effect during a media interview.
The UVL reported authorities required family members to provide food for prisoners at police station jails throughout the country due to inadequate provisioning of food by the prison administration. According to a UVL report, in 2017 at least 28 inmates died from complications associated with malnutrition and preventable disease such as tuberculosis. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates.
On February 24, Vista Hermosa prison inmate Alejandro Manuel Mago Coraspe was admitted into a local Bolivar state hospital after he fell ill, apparently from eating poisoned rodents. Vista Hermosa prisoners customarily ate wild birds and rodents to survive, according to Mago Coraspe. After undergoing surgery, he explained to journalists that he customarily killed and cooked rats but had most recently eaten rats he found in the prison garbage that were potentially poisoned. According to reports from Mago Coraspe’s family, prison guards beat him severely upon his return to the prison, allegedly for having spoken to media members. According to media reports, a judge ordered Mago Coraspe to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. Prison authorities disregarded the order, and Mago Coraspe died in prison on April 24.
The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases or from lack of medical care. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules regarding the classification of inmates resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for their medical attention.
Administration: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes or violent uprisings.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, but in some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. Prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits to political prisoners. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers continued to experience lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. Authorities had not approved requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit penitentiary centers and interview inmates in confidentiality since 2013. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal means to present their petitions. Authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The GNB–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the CICPC, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad, and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. SEBIN maintained its own detention facilities separate from those of the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The PNB reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.
Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force.
Impunity remained a serious problem in the security forces. The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office of Fundamental Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2016 annual report (the most recent one available), the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,343 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 320 with violations. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman provided information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel.
State and municipal governments also investigated their respective police forces. By law the national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council that takes action against security officials who commit abuses. The National Assembly also may investigate security force abuses.
The government at both the local and national levels took few actions to sanction officers involved in abuses. According to the NGO Network of Support for Justice and Peace, the lack of sufficient prosecutors made it difficult to prosecute police and military officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses. In addition NGOs reported the following problems contributed to an ineffective judicial system: long procedural delays, poor court administration and organization, lack of transparency in investigations, and impunity of government officials. In June 2017 Human Rights Watch reported the then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz had opened investigations in more than 600 cases of injury caused during the protests that began in April 2017. In at least 10 cases, her office charged security forces with unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders. After her removal, her successor did not pursue the cases.
NGOs and police noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in the police and that the actual occurrence was likely far higher than what was reported.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals without a warrant. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. Authorities routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, it is not available for certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 498 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and November 15, compared with 5,462 protest-related cases of arbitrary detention from April through December 2017. Opposition politicians and human rights NGOs attributed the reduction largely to a significant decrease in large-scale protests following National Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections in July 2017.
Caracas municipal councilmember Fernando Alban died on October 8 while in SEBIN custody. SEBIN officials had arrested Alban upon his return from a foreign trip on October 5 and held him in detention as a suspect in the August 4 drone attack believed to have been a presidential assassination attempt. Attorney General Tarek William Saab reported via social media and press statements that Alban jumped from a 10th-floor bathroom window, while Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol stated Alban jumped from a 10th-floor waiting room. NGOs and members of the opposition denounced these conflicting stories and alleged Alban was murdered.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Public Ministry, in 2016 only 21 percent of trials concluded or reached sentencing. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges (4.7 penal judges per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the latest date for which information was available).
Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events giving rise to the cause of action. An automated scheduling system was ineffective at streamlining case logistics. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report (the most recent available), the ministry pressed charges in 9.7 percent of the 556,000 cases involving common crimes. The ministry reported the closure of the remainder of the complaints but did not indicate final outcomes. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed and hearings postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the government at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the International Commission of Jurists, 66 to 80 percent of all judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the TSJ Judicial Committee. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence from various ministries and the newly appointed attorney general to make progovernment determinations. There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent rate of impunity for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights violations.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them, but the requirement was often ignored and, even when respected, involved dubious allegations, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,500 public defenders in 2017, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected because of attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.
Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal.
Trial delays were common. Trials “in absentia” are permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender that the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”
At the January 31 hearing of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, the judge did not set a date for the next phase of her trial, when it was expected a verdict would be announced. Afiuni was accused of corruption and abuse of authority for her 2009 decision conditionally to release a businessman who had been held in pretrial detention beyond the maximum time prescribed by law. Afiuni continued to be subjected to protective measures in place since her release to house arrest in 2011 that mandate she may not leave the country, talk to media, or use social media, although the law states such measures may not last more than two years.
The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of less than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” community service, or any other condition imposed by the court.
The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the Organic Code of Military Justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern with the government’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, military courts processed at least 35 civilians between January 1 and August 1.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
The government used the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute individuals critical of government policies or actions. The regime reportedly continued the policy it began in 2012 of denying the ICRC access to prisons. Foro Penal reported 286 political prisoners in government custody as of November 18, down from 676 political prisoners reported at the height of 2017’s wave of political protests but well above averages recorded in 2015 and 2016. The government routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.
On June 2, the government provisionally released opposition coalition leader Roberto Picon and former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos. The two, like many others released immediately following the May 20 elections, were prohibited from leaving the country or speaking to media, and they were required to appear before a judge on a monthly basis. Ceballos was released from the Ramo Verde military detention facility, where prison authorities routinely held him in solitary confinement and denied him visitation. Picon was released from house arrest, which the government granted in December 2017, as part of a larger “good will” pardon. According to media reports and NGO representatives, SEBIN arrested Picon in June 2017 without an arrest warrant. At a military hearing on charges of rebellion and theft of items belonging to the military, NGO representatives claimed the prosecution entered evidence that included a paperweight and a reference to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The government increased its attack against civil liberties after an alleged failed presidential assassination attempt on August 4. On August 7, masked men abducted National Assembly Deputy Juan Requesens from his home during a nationally televised presidential address in which Maduro accused Requesens of involvement in the alleged August 4 attack. On August 9, the government released a video of a disheveled Requesens admitting he had information on one of the assassination plotters. On August 10, a second video appeared on social media showing Requesens, visibly weak and naked aside from his notably soiled underwear. Despite daily requests from his lawyer and family members, government authorities granted Requesens only two visits–September 21 and October 7–following his detention on August 7. According to reports, Requesens was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. As of December 6, his detention conditions had improved slightly under new SEBIN leadership. Nevertheless, Requesens was not receiving medical attention in a timely fashion, and due process had yet to be afforded in his case.
As of October 1, jailed opposition party leader and former Chacao municipality mayor Leopoldo Lopez remained under house arrest and barred from communicating with individuals outside his home.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to bring lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations.
The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the government generally did not respect these prohibitions. In some cases government authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, or interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted indiscriminate household raids.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned government efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In November 2017, however, the ANC gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the government stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines.
On September 16, DGCIM officers detained Merida state firefighters Ricardo Prieto Parra and Carlos Varon Garcia on charges of “instigating hate” after a satirical video they produced of a donkey depicted as President Maduro received wide publicity on social media. Prieto Parra and Varon Garcia faced up to 20 years in prison for the alleged crime.
Hospital worker Lenny Josefina Martinez Gonzalez remained in prison as of October 8, awaiting trial after SEBIN arrested her in October 2017 for photographing women giving birth in a hospital waiting room. The photographs, captured in Lara State, illustrated the country’s medical crisis and were widely viewed on social media.
Press and Media Freedom: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation. Human Rights NGO Espacio Publico counted 92 acts of censorship between January and June, as well as 73 attacks on journalists and reporters. Meanwhile, the local journalists’ union (SNTP) counted 26 “closures, sanctions, and blockings” of outlets and 87 attacks on journalists during the same period.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience to the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws President Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 government-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets, according to observers.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of the radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The government continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In May a court found El Nacional, the nation’s largest independent daily newspaper, guilty of “moral damage” against Cabello for republishing a critical article from the Spanish newspaper ABC and ordered the newspaper to pay a fine of one billion bolivares fuertes ($10,400).
The NGO Espacio Publico reported 219 violations of freedom of expression between January and June. This represented a 72 percent decline from the historically high numbers of 2017, but an 11 percent increase over the 2013-16 averages. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. State-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous progovernment programming. In addition private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (cadenas) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of government achievements. Both Maduro and other ruling-party officials utilized mandatory broadcast time to campaign for progovernment candidates. Opposition candidates generally did not have access to media broadcast time.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state government leaders continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. Government officials, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts.
Government officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country. No charges were filed against GNB officers who allegedly attacked Elyangelica Gonzalez, a reporter for Univision Noticias and the Colombian-based station Caracol Radio, while she reported outside the Supreme Court in March 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its 2016 report, the Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) noted the government’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The government also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the SNTP, during the year 25 print news outlets closed due to the government’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. During the first half of the year, five regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint: Diario El Tiempo in Anzoategui State, El Impulso in Lara, El Oriental in Monagas, La Prensa de Barinas in Barinas, and La Region del Oriente in Sucre.
The government controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with government-owned or government-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Government officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. As of October 1, President Maduro had not acted on his June 2017 announcement that he would use slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The government exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both government-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year President Maduro renewed three times the “state of exception” he first invoked in 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires National Assembly endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The National Assembly continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the rights to freedom of association and expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The executive branch exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted authorities in locating the users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions them with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that from 2017 to November, local internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to eight online outlets, including El Nacional, La Patilla, Runrunes, Cronica Uno, Armando.Info, and El Pitazo.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the government continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the government’s official rate. The government-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages.
Intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the government, and senior government officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate government critics and human rights defenders.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 64 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no substantive reports of government restrictions on cultural events, but there were some government restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedoms, reported the government retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to some university leaders, the 2018 budget allocation would not take them through the first semester. In September 2017 the National University Council, the government regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy. The government continued gradually increasing its control over local universities, including the admissions process. In 2015 the Ministry of Education began selecting at least 70 percent of those offered university seats using criteria based 50 percent on academic achievement, 30 percent on socioeconomic conditions, 15 percent on residency, and 5 percent on involvement in social service activities. University leaders complained the student selection process unfairly advantaged ruling-party supporters and usurped authority from the universities.
In May the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology announced a nationwide university scholarship program that would reportedly benefit more than 50,000 university students. According to the ministry, students must have a carnet de la patria (homeland card, a government-issued social benefits card provided primarily to government supporters; see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation) to qualify. In June the government similarly announced a financial incentive called the “student bonus” for cardholders with school-age children.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for this right, but the government generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the government to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the government to criminalize organizations that were critical of the government. Protests and marches require government authorization in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.”
Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic services such as water and electricity. The government generally refrained from using the widespread, violent, and in some cases fatal responses they used to quash the 2017 protests, but NGOs reported cases of arbitrary detention and heavy-handed police tactics to quell protests.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the government did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
A 2016 presidential decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.” There were no reports the government implemented the decree during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government did not respect these rights.
On October 5, the government announced the creation of a special migration police unit. Although some NGOs expressed concern the government would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the government asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The government declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed Venezuelan migratory crisis.
The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
On September 24, CONARE announced it would approve refugee applications for 54 Colombians who were awaiting approval. CONARE president Juan Carlos Aleman remarked the commission had more than 1,100 active requests for refugee status and that CONARE would respond to all of the requests in the next few months.
Arbitrary detentions continued but were reduced during the year. Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia.
While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
In-country Movement: The government restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on government-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports even after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The government repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and National Assembly deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
Exile: There were new cases of citizens denied the right to return during the year. For example, the government released jailed University of Los Andes student leader Villca Fernandez on June 14, requiring that he leave the country as a condition of his release. SEBIN officials had arrested Fernandez in 2016 after he sent a tweet defending himself after then PSUV first vice president Diosdado Cabello threatened Fernandez on his weekly televised show. SEBIN officials reportedly tortured Fernandez, refused him medical attention, and kept him in solitary confinement, releasing him for less than 15 minutes at a time to use the bathroom.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. UNHCR estimated there were 7,860 recognized refugees and 173,000 persons in need of international protection in the country in 2017. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Despite the increased migration of Venezuelans to neighboring countries, NGOs supporting displaced Colombians noted many chose to remain in Venezuela despite the economic crisis, citing a cost of living comparatively lower than in Colombia, fear of violence, or the ease with which they could travel between the two nations without relocating. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant challenges to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children.