Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns over noncombat deaths in the army and the failure of law enforcement bodies to conduct credible investigations into those deaths. During the year there were major personnel changes in the army, and some observers noted a drastic decrease of suicides in the army following the appointments as well as increased public attention to the problem.
According to civil society organizations and families of the victims, the practice of qualifying many noncombat deaths as suicides at the onset of investigations made it less likely that abuses would be uncovered and investigated. According to human rights lawyers, the biggest obstacle to investigation of military deaths was the destruction or nonpreservation of key evidence, both by the military command (in cases of internal investigations) and by the specific investigation body working on a case. In addition, human rights NGOs disagreed with the statistics on military deaths presented by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense, citing arbitrary decision making as to whether the deaths were classified as related or not related to military service. They also decried the government’s failure to provide the public with prompt and complete information on nonmilitary deaths. The NGO Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor reported a doubling in the number of reported suicides in the army in the first half of the year, as compared with 2019.
On February 2, the family and community members of military conscript Vahram Avagyan, who allegedly committed suicide on January 30, attempted to bring his body to Yerevan and blocked the Armavir-Yerevan road in protest against the investigative body’s declaration that Avagyan’s death was a suicide. Following then minister of defense Davit Tonoyan’s personal assurance that a proper investigation would be conducted and any culprits punished, the family returned to their village to hold the funeral. On the same day, the Investigative Committee reported the arrest of three of Avagyan’s fellow conscripts–Davit Movsisyan, Khachik Gasparyan, and Spartak Avetisyan–on charges of violating statutory relations leading to grave consequences.
Responding to a question during a February 12 National Assembly session, Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that noncombat military deaths were caused by the continued existence of a criminal subculture throughout society. Human rights activists asserted, however, that the criminal subculture, which they agreed was prevalent in the military, was not created by conscripts but instead created and maintained by officers and commanders. Human rights NGOs reported that improvements to material conditions, food quality, and safety at duty locations were carried out prior to the September 27 to November 10 fighting but called on authorities to take concrete measures to punish those maintaining the criminal subculture.
On February 28, then deputy minister of defense Gabriel Balayan stated that human rights defenders’ call on authorities to seek out elements of a criminal subculture among the command staff was destructive, averred that they revel at each new unfortunate event, and stated that law enforcement bodies would soon look into the organizations and their funding. On February 29, the NGO Human Rights House condemned Balayan’s statements, called upon authorities to refrain from attempts to discredit human rights defenders and threaten them with legal action, to examine if there were grounds to discipline Balayan and have him issue an apology, and for the Defense Ministry to take measures to strengthen public oversight over the armed forces.
In response to continued demands from families whose sons died in the army under noncombat conditions, on August 3, Prime Minister Pashinyan signed a decree to form a working group to look into eight outstanding criminal cases. Consisting of three independent attorneys and three experts from the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister’s Office, the group was reportedly granted full access to case materials without having to go through law enforcement structures that the families stated they do not trust. In October 2019 the government approved the Judicial and Legal Reform Strategy for 2019-2023 and action plan for its implementation that envisage the creation of a fact-finding group to examine noncombat deaths, among other human rights problems. The action plan’s deadline, however, for adopting relevant legislation and establishing the commission was not met.
During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (also see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.
On December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the cutting of an Azerbaijani border guard’s throat while the guard was gagged and bound, and it assessed that the guard received a wound that led to his death. According to Amnesty, Azerbaijani media named the border guard as Ismail Irapov. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”
For example, on October 4, Human Rights Watch reported “Armenian forces” struck Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city located about 28 miles from the areas involved in active fighting at the time. Azerbaijani government officials reported one civilian was killed and 32 injured as a result of the missile strike. On October 17, another Armenian missile struck Ganja, killing 14 civilians.
On October 30, Human Rights Watch reported that on October 28, Armenian or separatist forces fired cluster munitions from a Smerch installation, striking the Azerbaijani town of Barda, located approximately 10 miles east of the front. The Armenian Ministry of Defense denied allegations that Armenian forces had conducted the attack. It later published a list of military targets it claimed were located in Barda. The Azerbaijani government reported that 26 civilians were killed on October 27 and 28 in attacks on the city, including a humanitarian aid worker from Azerbaijan’s Red Crescent Society, confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”
On December 11, Human Rights Watch documented 11 incidents in which “Armenian forces” used ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and large-caliber artillery projectiles, which Human Rights Watch reported resulted in the deaths and injuries of dozens of civilians.
Authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting. The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the conflict.
There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.
There was no progress in the investigation into the 2018 death of Armen Aghajanyan, who was found hanged in the Nubarashen National Center for Mental Health where he had been transferred from Nubarashen Penitentiary for a psychological assessment. His family believed Aghajanyan was killed to prevent his identification of penitentiary guards who beat him prior to his transfer to the hospital. One of the alleged attackers, Major Armen Hovhannisyan, was initially charged with torture and falsification of documents, but the trial court requalified his actions as exceeding official authority and released him on the basis of a 2018 amnesty. During the year the family appealed the decision to the court of appeal with no success. The investigation into the death continued.
During the year hearings continued into a high-profile case against former officials for their alleged involvement in sending the military to break up protests following the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. Charges filed in this and associated criminal cases included allegations of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in bribery, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 postelection events.
High-profile suspects in the cases included former president Robert Kocharyan, former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, former police chief Alik Sargsyan, former prosecutor general Gevorg Kostanyan, and others. In July 2019 Kocharyan was charged with overthrowing the constitutional order in connection with the violent suppression of protests in 2008. On June 19, Kocharyan, who also faced corruption charges, was released after paying two billion drams bail (approximately four million dollars). As of May 19, the case against Gegham Petrosyan, a former deputy police commander charged in June 2019 with the murder of Zakar Hovhannisyan during suppression of the protests remained under investigation.
In September family members of victims of the postelection violence in 2008 announced they would refuse to attend further court hearings, given that two years into the trial, the court had not yet started discussing the merits of the case, following countless motions and appeals, often similar, by the defense. The families accused the defense of purposely dragging out the process and blamed the Prosecutor General’s Office for turning the trial into a farce and not taking effective measures to move the case forward.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Armenians and Azerbaijanis remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. According to police, as of 2019 a total of 867 Armenians were missing from the conflict in the 1990s. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting. At year’s end the government was working to clarify the number missing.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces continued to torture or otherwise abuse individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, it does not criminalize other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials for torture since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code.
According to human rights activists, impunity for past instances of law enforcement abuse continued to contribute to the persistence of the problem. Furthermore, observers contended that the failure to prosecute past cases was linked to the lack of change in the composition of law enforcement bodies since the 2018 political transition, other than at the top leadership level.
On May 22, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor published a report on torture and degrading treatment, the third of a series of reports on the human rights situation in the country under the state of emergency to combat COVID-19. In the period covered by the report (March 16 to May 16), the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor received eight complaints from citizens alleging police had subjected them to degrading treatment, torture, or physical and psychological violence. According to the report, these numbers exceeded the number of similar cases registered under normal circumstances and indicated that some police officers took advantage of their broadened authorities under the state of emergency. There were no reports of police officers being held responsible for these wrongdoings.
On September 13, weight-lifting champion Armen Ghazaryan filed a police report stating that police officers from Yerevan’s Nor Nork district had kidnapped and tortured him. According to the report, which he provided to the media, on September 6, Ghazaryan was outside an acquaintance’s home in Yerevan when he witnessed plainclothes police officers apprehending a person. When he asked the officers what they were doing, he was “kidnapped” by the officers in their personal car. According to Ghazaryan, they told him they would “break him too, fold him up,” while beating him and cursing. Ghazaryan said that he later discovered the officers had detained the other man due to a personal dispute involving one of the officers. While in the police station, Ghazaryan was beaten by a group of officers, heard sounds of beatings coming from another room, and was subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment. He said the beating made it hard for him to breathe and that he was not sure he would make it out of the station alive. He was released after three hours, after being forced to sign papers he was not permitted to read. A medical examination indicated chest and lung injuries. Ghazaryan reported that after he filed a police report, employees of the Nor Nork police department began pressuring him to recant his testimony, threatening to frame him if he did not. Ghazaryan said that he was more shocked by the level of impunity the officers believed they enjoyed than by the violence done to him. On September 17, the SIS announced that it had opened a criminal case on charges of torture and, on September 25, announced it had arrested three officers on torture charges and the department chief on charges of abuse of authority for trying to interfere with the internal investigation following Ghazaryan’s complaint. On December 15, SIS forwarded the case against the three officers, who remained under pretrial detention, to the trial court on charges of torture. On November 30, authorities dropped the charges against the chief of the department, citing his repentance.
There were reports of abuse in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. Criminal justice bodies continued to rely on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient. According to human rights lawyers, the videotaping in police stations was not effective in providing safeguards against abuse, given that the same police stations had control over the servers storing the recordings and were able to manipulate them.
There was no progress in the investigation of the April 2019 death of Edgar Tsatinyan, who died in a hospital after having been transferred from Yerevan’s Nor Nork Police Department, where he had been in custody. Tsatinyan died of a drug overdose after swallowing three grams of methamphetamine, with which police reportedly intended to frame him after he refused to confess to a murder. The investigation of the torture charges launched by SIS in April 2019 remained underway; no suspects had been identified as of year’s end.
The trial of the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, on charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences during the 2018 postelection violence against protesters continued at year’s end.
There were no reports regarding the scale of military hazing in the army and whether it constituted torture. According to the NGO Peace Dialogue, the lack of legislative clarity concerning the functions and powers of military police as well as a lack of civilian oversight mechanisms, made it possible for military police to employ torture and other forms of mistreatment against both witnesses and suspects in criminal cases.
On September 9, Syunik regional trial court judge Gnel Gasparyan made an unprecedented decision, ruling in the case of Artur Hakobyan that investigators had failed to carry out a proper investigation into Hakobyan’s torture claims. The judge ruled that investigators should undertake a psychological assessment of the victims that adhered to provisions in the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol. In 2015 Hakobyan had been released from the army early due to a mental disorder. According to his family and lawyer, Hakobyan was in good mental health before joining the army but experienced deep psychological trauma as a result of torture and abuse. In January 2019 the Court of Cassation recognized there had been a violation of Hakobyan’s right to freedom from torture, but, up to the September 9 trial court decision, the case had been stalled due to continuing appeals and counterappeals.
As of year’s end, authorities had not reported any arrests linked to alleged abuses.
Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and predation by hierarchical criminal structures (“thieves-in-law”), and in some cases they were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level but still existed at the cell level in Nubarashen Prison.
Physical Conditions: According to the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, prison renovations underway since 2019 had not resulted in major improvements for inmates. Conditions in Nubarashen Prison, one of the country’s 12 penitentiaries, in some cases were harsh and potentially life threatening. Human rights observers and the PMG also continued to express concern regarding the physical conditions of Armavir Penitentiary, which did not have an air ventilation or cooling system, which allowed recorded cell temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit in past summers. Some efforts were made to improve ventilation during the year, but they were piecemeal. On June 18, the minister of justice announced there was a criminal case in progress to investigate why a ventilation system had not been built, despite inclusion in the original Armavir construction plan.
According to the ombudsman and the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates and the lack of a systemic approach to their prevention continued to be one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. There were no investigations into the circumstances of deaths due to illness, such as whether an illness was acquired due to incarceration or if the illness had been preventable or treatable. Nonetheless, the government reported improvements in medical treatment during the year, including more rapid access to treatment, and stated that despite COVID-19 risks, there were only five prison deaths (none due to COVID-19), in contrast to 21 deaths in 2019.
There was no progress in the government’s investigation into the January 2019 death of Mher Yeghiazaryan, the deputy chairman of the Armenian Eagles: United Armenia Party, nine days after he ended a hunger strike at Nubareshen Prison.
The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG continued to note the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to the PMG, there was a shortage of psychologists on staff and hundreds of inmates in need of care. The PMG linked the absence of psychological care to numerous instances of self-mutilation and suicide. According to research published by the PMG on April 15, the number of patients per psychologist, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, and inappropriate working conditions, as well as the ambiguous role of prison psychologists, contributed to the failure of psychological services and led to burn out among the few existing specialists. The ombudsman criticized the practice of punishing inmates who self-mutilated instead of providing them with appropriate medical and psychological care.
The government reiterated its zero-tolerance policy towards corruption in prisons and expressed its determination to root out the organized hierarchical criminal structure dominating prison life, in which select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy controlled the inmate population and prison life. Serious gaps in prison staffing both led to and exacerbated the situation, as prison officials relied on the watchers to keep order.
According to some reports, the government’s efforts to combat the criminal hierarchy at times led to the violation of prisoners’ human rights. On August 24, the president of the NGO Journalists for Human Rights, Zhanna Alexanyan, reported that masked men had abused three inmates located in a cell at the Nubarashen Penitentiary. In later reports, the wife of one of those beaten said that approximately 10 to 12 masked persons used their hands, feet, batons, and a Taser to abuse the three inmates.
The Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated on August 24 that unplanned searches were occasionally carried out in the penitentiaries to find prohibited items and that penitentiaries had the right to use proportionate physical force in cases of noncompliance or obstruction of official legal demands. In response the Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG visited inmates and reported violations of their rights, including numerous bodily injuries, which were initially recorded as resulting from falling from a bed. In a special report to the Ministry of Justice, the PMG noted this was one of the worst cases of inmate abuse it had witnessed in several years. The PMG also reported what it believed was a crime to the Prosecutor General’s Office. On September 4, the PMG received information that SIS had open a criminal case into an incident of exceeding official authority with violence.
On August 31, SIS reported the arrest of former Nubarashen Penitentiary chief Samvel Mkrtchyan for his role in arranging and covering up the February attack on inmate Vahagn Abgaryan. Mkrtchyan was released on September 2 after a trial court refused to satisfy the SIS motion for pretrial detention. Mkrtchyan was charged with fraud and abuse of power for the February 24 beating of Abgaryan (reportedly a member of the criminal hierarchical system) by other inmates. To hide the circumstances of the attack, which according to earlier official reports was instigated by orders from “criminal authorities” from abroad, Mkrtchyan instructed employees to report that Abgaryan had slipped exiting the bathroom. Other penitentiary employees were also arrested in the case.
According to observers, political will at the highest level to eradicate corruption in the penitentiaries had not yet been translated into institutional change, despite the punishment of individual staff for corruption. Experts assessed that corruption was likely to continue as long as the criminal subculture continued to exist.
Since September 2019 the Penitentiary Medicine Center, a state noncommercial organization reporting to the Ministry of Justice, provided medical care in penitentiaries. Nevertheless, health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care. There was also a shortage of specialized medication despite a threefold increase in the budget for medication in prisons since 2018. In some cases inmates had to rely on family members to bring them specific medications or medications that were more effective than ones provided by the penitentiaries.
Most prisons continued to lack accommodations for inmates with disabilities.
According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals continued to experience the worst prison conditions. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned abusive treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual men or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten prison rules,” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. Food preparation and cutlery for these prisoners was kept separate, they had a separate laundry machine, and even a separate solitary confinement cell.
On April 3, an advisor to the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that the prosecution would apply to the courts to change the detention measures of 20 defendants who were in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications.
Administration: Authorities did not conduct prompt investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.
Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visits. Visits during the year were also limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the ICRC to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers.
There were limits, however, to independent monitoring by domestic groups. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose cases the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision should not apply to the PMG. Furthermore, on November 19, the PMG criticized the Ministry of Justice for the March 20 adoption of a new decree regulating PMG activities, which contradicted prior agreements. According to a PMG statement, the decree added further restrictions to their activities, such as a new requirement to obtain permission from the prison administration before visits during nonworking hours.
During the 2019-20 academic year, the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs (CLERP) provided secondary education to 11 students at Abovyan and Armavir Prisons. After COVID-19 pandemic restrictions led authorities to stop providing in-person education, CLERP was retasked with providing online secondary education to inmates younger than 19.
The government made some progress in tackling corruption during the year and improved food provision in all penitentiaries. In January, to address corruption as well as staff shortages in prisons, the government increased the salaries of penitentiary officers by 30 percent. On January 22, the National Assembly adopted amendments to criminalize criminal subculture, also known as “thieves-in-law,” a set of hierarchical criminal groups. Under the new law, “creating or leading a criminal subculture group” is punishable by five to 10 years in prison and confiscation of assets. “Membership” or “participation” in a group is punishable by four to eight years of imprisonment and possible confiscation of property. The definition of what constitutes a group is broad, allowing members to be arrested, even if they have not committed a crime.
During the year the prison food pilot program that was initially launched at two penitentiaries was expanded to cover all 12 penitentiaries in the country. According to the PMG, the quality of food provided to prisoners improved, with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners prepared daily on the premises of the penitentiaries by specialized chefs. To ensure variety, the contracted company offered a new menu every week, while maintaining the dietary quality, caloric value, and other criteria approved by prison wardens.
Observers reported significant improvements during the year in the early release and release on parole of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment: 13 prisoners with life sentences were moved from high-security isolation wards to lower security wards (from closed to semiclosed type); eight were moved from semiclosed to semiopen facilities; and two were released on parole based on their good behavior while in prison.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were reports of arbitrary arrest during the year.
By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, to legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option. According to human rights lawyers, following the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” courts were initially less likely to apply pretrial detention, opting for other preventive measures such as bail and signed undertakings not to leave the country.
Since 2019, however, observers noted courts’ increasing tendency to fall back into the previous practice of applying pretrial detention, with suspects bearing the burden of proof to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation. Trial courts were more likely to deny bail and apply pretrial detention in ordinary criminal cases, while more frequently rejecting prosecution requests for pretrial detention in high-profile corruption cases involving former government officials, causing some observers to question the judges’ impartiality. Experts also noted that in high-profile cases, the prosecution often failed to present compelling cases for detention to the courts.
Defendants were entitled to representation by an attorney from the moment of arrest, and the law provides for a public defender if the accused is indigent. According to human rights observers, few detainees were aware of their right to legal representation. Observers indicated police at times avoided granting individuals their due process rights by summoning and holding, rather than formally arresting, them under the pretext that they were material witnesses rather than suspects. Police were thereby able to question individuals without giving them the benefit of a defense attorney. This practice was particularly evident in the regions.
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (also see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of remaining detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were several reports of arbitrary arrest during the year. For example, on August 6, media outlets reported the detention and subsequent release of Helsinki Association for Human Rights chair Nina Karapetyants after she conducted a solo picket against the development of a gold mine, even though the state of emergency provisions did not prohibit solo actions. On the same day, police detained and later released a number of other human rights defenders and environmental activists, including the Helsinki Association’s lawyer, Ara Gharagyozyan, and Coalition to Stop Violence against Women coordinator Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, for demonstrating against the mine. According to police, those detained failed to obey legal demands made by police. In its annual report, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia noted an increase in arrests at public assemblies in the July 2019-June 2020 period and criticized the authorities’ decision to permit gatherings of up to five persons for cultural, entertainment, holiday, or commemorative events under COVID-19 emergency rules while not permitting groups of five for public protest.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Some observers saw investigators’ use of excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.
Although the law requires prosecutors to present a well reasoned justification every two months for extending pretrial custody, judges routinely extended detention on unclear grounds. Authorities generally complied with the six-month limit in ordinary cases and a 12-month limit for serious crimes as the total time in pretrial detention. Once prosecutors forward their cases to court for trial, the law does not provide time limits on further detention but indicates only that a trial must be of “reasonable length.” Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Prosecutors tended to blame trial delays on defense lawyers and their requests for more time to prepare a defense. Severely overburdened judicial dockets at all court levels also contributed to lengthy trials.
On January 21, the Ombudsman’s Office released a special report on the lack of mechanisms to ensure court system accountability for compliance with time standards or to obtain redress if a trial has not met the reasonable timeframe requirement. According to the report, 2019 data from the Supreme Judicial Council indicated 155 criminal and 1,628 civil cases in Yerevan alone had continued for more than two years, some for more than 10 years. A total of 1,123 such cases were handled by just seven judges.
On June 1, media outlets reported Armen Ghazaryan was acquitted by the court of appeals after spending six years and three months in detention on charges of robbery, kidnapping, and battery. After six years in pretrial detention, trial court judge Gagik Petrosyan had convicted him and sentenced him to 6.5 years in prison.
Although on March 24 the Supreme Judicial Council ruled that measures such as the use of online communications tools must be adopted to ensure that trials continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, trial delays continued. According to the joint monitoring report of the NGOs Helsinki Association for Human Rights and Human Rights Power, a number of courts faced significant delays, apparently due to a lack of technical preparedness; the sessions that were delayed included those devoted to the discussion of urgent matters such as detention measures. The law does not allow for telecommunication measures in criminal cases, and according to observers, delays in such cases were mostly due to the failure of the judges and the prosecutors to appear in court.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to legal experts, suspects had no practical opportunities to appeal the legality of their arrests. In cases where the courts ruled on a pretrial detention, another court was unlikely to challenge its ruling.
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Popular trust in the impartiality of judges continued to plummet, while civil society organizations highlighted that the justice sector retained many officials who served the previous authorities and issued rulings consistently favorable to them. Corruption of judges remained a concern. During the year NGOs continued to report on judges who had acquired significant amounts of property and assets that were disproportionate to their salaries, and they noted that the absence of vetting of all standing judges based on objective criteria–particularly of those in the Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court–undermined the integrity of the judiciary.
According to human rights lawyers and other observers, after the 2018 political transition, and on numerous occasions during the year, courts released from detention or refused to issue detention orders for former officials standing trial for major corruption, embezzlement, and other charges. These lawyers noted former president Robert Kocharyan was released on bail in June and that the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, was released with a promise not to leave the country when they charged him with exceeding official authority. By contrast, less famous individuals have been held for lengthy periods in pretrial detention.
On April 20, a group of civil society organizations criticized the mechanisms to check the integrity of judicial candidates that were adopted by the National Assembly on March 25. According to the statement, the extremely limited scope of the integrity review was fundamentally disappointing, as it will be conducted only for candidates for Constitutional Court judgeships, prosecutors, or investigators, but not for serving judges, prosecutors, or investigators. The government responded that the mechanisms would enable a gradual transition.
Following widespread concerns about the impartiality of Constitutional Court judges appointed under the former regime, the National Assembly in June approved constitutional amendments requiring all Constitutional Court judges who had served 12 years or more to retire, while those who had not yet met the 12-year tenure limit would continue to serve on the court. Under the amendments, court chair Hrayr Tovmasyan–who was widely viewed as beholden to political interests–was forced to step down although he continued to serve as a judge on the court, not yet having reached the 12-year limit. Parliament adopted the constitutional amendments the day before receiving Venice Commission recommendations. The amendments were mostly in compliance with Venice Commission recommendations but lacked a transitional period for the dismissal of judges. On September 15, the National Assembly approved three new Constitutional Court members, despite civil society concerns, especially regarding Yervand Khundkaryan and the Corruption Prevention Commission’s reported negative advisory opinion on him.
According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed and faced a long backlog.
Authorities enforced court orders.
NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns regarding the courts’ reliance on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.
The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right.
The law provides for presumption of innocence, but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities informed defendants in detail of the charges against them, and the law requires the provision of free language interpretation when necessary. The law requires that most trials be public but permits exceptions, including in the interest of “morals,” national security, and the “protection of the private lives of the participants.” Defendants have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and the law requires the government to provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside Yerevan.
According to human rights lawyers, in an illustrative example of a flawed trial, on September 23, Forrights.am reported that Tigran Badalyan, who had been in pretrial detention in Armavir Penitentiary for approximately a year, nailed his feet to the ground on the 29th day of a hunger strike he had undertaken to protest the charges against him. According to another media report, Badalyan allegedly found and sold five aluminum sheets in his village. He was later arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum and selling it for 15,000 drams ($30) and stealing 10,000 drams ($20) in cash from a neighbor. According to Badalyan’s lawyer, there was no evidence against Badalyan, no witnesses, and even the owner of the stolen cash and aluminum did not believe Badalyan was the culprit. According to the lawyer, police suspected him due to a prior conviction (unrelated to theft), for which he served a conditional sentence. On September 25, trial court judge Tatul Janibekyan found Badalyan guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison.
The law provides that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system. Human rights organizations reported there were insufficient provisions for prosecutorial impartiality and accountability and no objective criteria for the nomination and selection of candidates for general prosecutor.
Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it. In an example of a trial that even the victim’s family deemed unjust to the accused, criminal proceedings–originally opened in 2013–against Karen Kungurtsev for the alleged killing of Davit Hovakimyan, continued during the year. A 2018 Court of Cassation order returned the case to trial court and released Kungurtsev on bail. Kungurtsev was originally acquitted in 2015, but in 2017 the criminal court of appeal reversed the acquittal and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of a National Security Service (NSS) official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to investigate Kungurtsev. Since the resumption of the trial in 2018, two key witnesses in the case apologized to Kungurtsev and the victim’s father for providing false testimony six years earlier under pressure from law enforcement officers and gave potentially exonerating testimony in support of Kungurtsev.
The prosecutor in charge of the current trial insisted on hearing all the witnesses in the case, which led to further delays as most of them were outside the country. According to Kungurtsev’s lawyer, the two prosecutors in charge of the initial (preliminary) examination of the case failed to manage the investigation and trial correctly but were subsequently promoted to high positions within the prosecutorial system. He assessed the prosecutors were personally interested in pushing the case forward to avoid facing responsibility for their actions.
There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Although citizens had access to courts to file lawsuits seeking damages for alleged human rights violations, the courts were widely perceived as corrupt. Citizens also had the option of challenging in Constitutional Court the constitutionality of laws and legal acts that violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. According to lawyers, lower courts did not adhere to precedents set by the Court of Cassation, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.
Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation but did not meaningfully review cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts often did not follow the applicable ECHR precedent.
The constitution prohibits unauthorized searches and provides for the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications. Law enforcement organizations did not always abide by these prohibitions.
Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, observers claimed that certain judges authorized wiretaps and other surveillance requests from the NSS and police without the compelling evidence required by law. By contrast there were no reports that courts violated legal procedures when responding to such authorization requests from the SIS, the Investigative Committee, and the State Revenue Committee.
On March 31, the National Assembly amended the law on the Legal Regime of State of Emergencies permitting the use of cell-phone data to track COVID-19 cases and requiring telecommunications companies to provide authorities with telephone records. Authorities may use the data to identify, isolate, require self-isolation, or monitor anyone infected with COVID-19 or those who have been in close contact with infected persons. Health-care providers are obliged to report data to authorities on “people tested, infected, persons having disease symptoms, persons treated in hospitals, or persons who had contacts with the patient.”
The amendments raised societal and international concerns about privacy as well as the security of collected data and questions about the identity of the software developers. According to a September 23 report on Civilnet.am, data tracking was suspended with the end of the state of emergency on September 11 and parliamentarians were notified to be present at the destruction of the digital data collected, scheduled by law to take place within two weeks after the end of the state of emergency.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and pursue prosecutions.
Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on November 9, Talysh historian and activist Fakhraddin Abbasov reportedly died in Gobustan prison under suspicious circumstances. Prison authorities stated he committed suicide. On October 13, he reportedly announced that his life was in danger and warned family and supporters not to believe future claims he had died by suicide. Some human rights activists also noted suicide was against Abbasov’s religious views.
During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 2.a., 5, and 6, and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.
In early October, two videos surfaced on social media of Azerbaijani soldiers humiliating and executing two Armenian detainees in the town of Hadrut. On October 15, the videos were assessed as genuine by independent experts from Bellingcat, the BBC, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL). Armenian authorities identified the victims as civilian residents Benik Hakobyan (age 73) and Yuriy Adamyan (age 25). Digital forensic analysis by the DFRL and Bellingcat concluded the video footage was authentic, noting it was filmed in Hadrut, Nagorno-Karabakh, and showed the captives being taken by men speaking Russian and Azerbaijani and wearing Azerbaijani uniforms. One of the captors in the video was wearing a helmet typically worn by members of the Azerbaijani special forces, according to the Atlantic Council and Bellingcat analyses. The government stated the videos were staged.
In another high-profile example, on December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the execution by decapitation of two ethnic Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani forces, one of whom wore a helmet that Amnesty reported was associated with special operations forces. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”
There were credible reports of Azerbaijani forces and Armenian or ethnic Armenian separatist forces firing weapons on residential areas and damaging civilian infrastructure with artillery, missiles, and cluster munitions. Such attacks resulted in significant civilian casualties.
Azerbaijani armed forces allegedly used heavy artillery missiles, combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and aerial bombs, as well as cluster munitions, hitting civilians and civilian facilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani government denied the accusations that the military shelled civilian structures. For example, on October 3 and December 11, Human Rights Watch criticized Azerbaijan’s armed forces for repeatedly using weapons on residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 5, Amnesty International crisis response experts corroborated the authenticity of video footage–consistent with the use of cluster munitions–from the city of Stepanakert that was published in early October and identified Israeli-made cluster munitions that appeared to have been fired by Azerbaijani armed forces. The Hazardous Area Life-support Organization (HALO) Trust, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in Nagorno-Karabakh to clear unexploded ordnance, confirmed the use of cluster munitions in operations striking civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh during intensive fighting in the fall.
On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”
The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the fighting. Armenian authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting.
There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Azerbaijanis and Armenians remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that, as of December 1, there were 3,890 citizens registered as missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting in the 1990s. Of these, 719 were civilians. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting.
While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions and denied detainees access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There also were credible reports that Azerbaijani and Armenian forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody.
During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits it conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports the CPT stated that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic.
There were several credible reports of torture during the year.
For example, human right defenders reported that on April 28, Popular Front Party member Niyamaddin Ahmadov was taken from the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees and driven to an unknown location with a bag over his head, where he was beaten and physically tortured in an effort to obtain an allegedly false confession concerning illegal financing of the party. There were also reports that he was subsequently beaten in Baku Detention Center No.1, where he was moved after the government opened a criminal case against him.
Human rights defenders reported the alleged torture of Popular Front Party members Fuad Gahramanli, Seymur Ahmadov, Ayaz Maharramli, Ramid Naghiyev, and Baba Suleyman, who were arrested after a major rally the night of July 14-15 in support of the army following intensive fighting on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border (also see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). The detainees’ location remained unknown for days, and they were deprived of access to lawyers and family members. Throughout their detention, friends, relatives, and lawyers were not allowed to visit for an extended period. The independent Turan News Agency reported that Gahramanli was “severely tortured” in Baku Detention Center No.1 after his arrest. Gahramanli reportedly refused the services of his independent lawyer after being forced to do so by government authorities. He was deprived of the right to call or meet with his family for months with the exception of one short call to his brother 10 days after his detention, when he informed him that he was alive. The call followed social media allegations that Gahramanli had died after being tortured in custody.
There were developments in the 2017 government arrest of more than 100 citizens in Terter who were alleged to have committed treason by engaging in espionage for Armenia. Family members and civil society activists reported that the government had tortured the accused in an effort to coerce their confessions, as a result of which up to nine detainees reportedly died. According to the independent Turan News Agency, four of the deceased were acquitted posthumously and investigators who had fabricated the charges against them were prosecuted, convicted, and received prison sentences of up to seven years. Following a closed trial of 25 individuals, at least nine remained in prison, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. On September 14, relatives of those killed or imprisoned in the case attempted to hold a protest at the Presidential Administration. They called for the release of those incarcerated, posthumous rehabilitation of those who died after being tortured, and accountability for those responsible.
There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, activist Fuad Ismayilov reported that on March 7, he was beaten in Police Department No. 32 of Surakhani District. Relatives reported that on June 21, he was also beaten by police officers in the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees.
Media outlets reported the mistreatment of imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov. Huseynov conducted a hunger strike of approximately three weeks to protest the ban on family-provided food parcels because of quarantine rules, as well as the high prices for food in the prison market. In response prison officials barred Huseynov from bathing or communicating with family. The prison administration also placed him in solitary confinement.
On June 8, police used excessive force while conducting an early morning raid in a residential building in Baku. A day earlier, building residents had thrown garbage at police officers while they were detaining a neighbor for violating the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine regime. During the operation police also treated some detainees in a humiliating manner by not allowing them to dress properly before removing them from their homes. On June 9, Karim Suleymanli, one of those detained, stated that police had beaten him for five hours while he was in custody. On June 10, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Suleymanli’s lawyer stated Suleymanli had obtained a medical report declaring that he had been severely beaten. According to Suleymanli, all 11 detained individuals were beaten in Police Department No. 29. Courts later sentenced them to administrative detention for periods of from 10 to 30 days. On June 9, Suleymanli’s sentence was postponed, and he was released because of his health condition. On June 16, the Baku Court of Appeal replaced his previous 15-day administrative detention with a fine. Following the event the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed one police officer for publicly insulting a local resident.
Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse and delayed access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity.
There were credible allegations that authorities forcibly committed opposition Popular Front Party member Agil Humbatov to a psychiatric hospital in Baku twice after he criticized the government. Human rights NGOs reported he was institutionalized on March 31 after posting a social media message criticizing the country’s leadership on March 30. On April 1, he reportedly was released; however, on April 2, he was reinstitutionalized after posting a message complaining authorities had forcibly placed him in the psychiatric hospital due to his political views. On July 1, he was released.
There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians in their custody (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). For example, on December 2, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijani forces inhumanly treated numerous ethnic Armenian soldiers captured in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to the report, Azerbaijani forces subjected the detainees to physical abuse and humiliation in actions that were captured on videos and widely circulated on social media. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the locations and times but was confident that none of the videos was posted before October-November.
Human Rights Watch closely examined 14 such cases and spoke with the families of five detainees whose abuse was depicted. According to one family’s account, on October 2, the parents of a youth named Areg (age 19) lost contact with him. On October 8, a relative alerted the family to two videos that showed Areg lying on top of an Azerbaijani tank and then sitting on the same tank and, on his captor’s orders, shouting, “Azerbaijan” and calling the Armenian prime minister insulting names. In mid-October according to the Human Rights Watch report, three more videos with the same person appeared on social media. One showed Areg, apparently in the back seat of a vehicle wearing a flowery smock and a thick black blindfold, repeating on his captors’ orders, “long live President Aliyev” and “Karabakh is Azerbaijan” and also cursing Armenia’s leader.
On December 10, an Amnesty International report authenticated 22 of the dozens of videos circulating on social media, which included–among other abuses–the mistreatment of Armenian prisoners and other captives (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). According to Amnesty International, seven of the videos showed what it termed “violations” by “Azerbaijani forces.” According to the report, in some videos, Azerbaijani soldiers kicked and beat bound and blindfolded ethnic Armenian prisoners and forced them to make statements opposing their government.
As of year’s end, authorities had arrested four soldiers for desecrating bodies and grave sites.
According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly used artillery missiles, aerial bombs, and cluster munitions, against Stepanakert and struck civilian infrastructure. According to the Armenian government and Armenian media reports, a diverse range of nonmilitary sites was hit, including medical emergency service centers and ambulances, food stocks, crops, livestock, electricity and gas plants, and drinking-water installations and supplies, as well as schools and preschools. According to the BBC, many homes in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, were left without electricity or water. The Azerbaijani government denied these accusations.
According to various international observers, Azerbaijani armed forces on multiple occasions struck near humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC and HALO Trust, located in Stepanakert. On October 2, the Azerbaijani armed forces struck the emergency service administrative building in Stepanakert, wounding nine personnel and killing one. On October 14, three aircraft reportedly dropped bombs on the military hospital in Martakert, damaging the hospital and destroying nearby medical vehicles, all clearly marked as medical. On October 28, more than 15 strikes hit various areas of Stepanakert and Shusha. An Azerbaijani missile hit rescue personnel conducting humanitarian functions in Shusha, killing one person and seriously injuring five. Another missile, reportedly a high-precision, Long Range Attack (LORA) missile struck a Stepanakert hospital maternity ward. Unexploded missiles were later found inside the hospital. On November 2, an Azerbaijani UAV destroyed a fire truck transporting fresh water to civilians in the Askeran region.
According to prison monitoring conducted by a reputable organization prior to the onset of COVID-19, prison conditions reportedly were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding; inadequate nutrition; deficient heating, ventilation, and sanitation; and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they were held while awaiting their hearings. There was no reporting or evidence that conditions improved during the year.
Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks, and held women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities. The same NGOs noted, however, that women’s prisons suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The law allows convicted juvenile offenders to be held in juvenile institutions until they reach age 20.
While the government continued to construct prison facilities, some operating Soviet-era facilities continued to fail to meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.
Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by placing them in solitary confinement. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.
Prisoners claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement officially provided food, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.
Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from taking documents into and out of detention facilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that it conducted systematic visits and investigations into complaints, but activists claimed the office regularly dismissed prisoner complaints in politically sensitive cases.
Authorities limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons. For example, family members of political activists detained after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for the first several weeks of their detention.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC and CPT.
Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between prisoners and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.
A human rights community prison-monitoring group, known as the Public Committee, was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service.
Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported that more than 2500 Azerbaijanis avoided incarceration during the year with the use of GPS-enabled electronic bracelets.
Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.
NGOs reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms. Several citizens reported they had been summoned to police departments for their posts on social media critical of the government’s response to COVID-19, and many were forced to delete their posts. For example, media outlets reported that Facebook-user Rahim Khoyski was called to a police department for making recommendations to the government on his social media account to freeze debts and loans, to stop collecting taxes from entrepreneurs, and to provide monetary assistance to citizens who had lost their income. Police warned him not to make such recommendations and ordered him to delete his post.
The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In all cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.
According to the law, detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant either placing the detainee in pretrial detention or under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. At times, however, authorities detained individuals for longer than 48 hours without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office must complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them during the year.
A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year.
The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. Human rights defenders stated that many of the political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally were denied access to effective legal representation and were forced to rely on state-appointed lawyers who did not adequately defend their clients due to fear of government reprisal.
Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access. The Collegium of Advocates, however, undertook several initiatives to expand legal representation outside the capital, including the establishment of offices in regional Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network centers to provide legal services to local citizens.
By law detained individuals have the right to contact relatives and have a confidential meeting with their lawyers immediately following detention. Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information regarding detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information regarding detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on selected individuals to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of some political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for several weeks to limit the dissemination of information and to hide traces of torture.
Azerbaijani and Armenian officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of any remaining detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.
For example, police regularly detained opposition and other activists mainly on the charges of “violating the quarantine regime,” “resisting police,” or “petty hooliganism,” and subsequently took them to local courts where judges sentenced them to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days. Those charged with criminal offenses were sentenced to lengthier periods of incarceration (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Human rights defenders asserted these arrests were one method authorities used to intimidate activists and dissuade others from engaging in activism. For example, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention under such charges from mid-March to mid-May. More than 15 Popular Front Party members were sentenced to administrative detention after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku.
Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months, the maximum allowed by law. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides that persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary, however, did not rule independently in such cases, and while sentences were occasionally reduced, the outcomes often appeared predetermined.
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges were not functionally independent of the executive branch. While the government made a number of judicial reforms in 2019, the reforms did not foster judicial independence. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally unsupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during a trial, with outcomes frequently appearing predetermined. For example, following the July 14-15 proarmy rally, judges sentenced Popular Front Party board members Fuad Gahramanli, Mammad Ibrahim, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli from three to four months of pretrial detention, although these political activists did not take part in the rally (see section 1.c.). Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.
The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council, which appoints the judicial selection committee that administers the judicial selection process and examination and oversees long-term judicial training. The council consists of six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar.
Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in politically sensitive cases. There were also credible allegations that judges routinely accepted bribes.
In April 2019 President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree promulgating limited judicial sector reforms. The decree called for an increase in the salary of judges, an increase in the number of judicial positions (from 600 to 800), audio recordings of all court proceedings, and establishment of specialized commercial courts for entrepreneurship disputes. The decree also ordered increased funding for pro bono legal aid. Some measures called for in the decree, such as the establishment of commercial courts and a raise in judicial salaries, were implemented, while others remained pending at year’s end.
The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for most of the year, courts allowed only a small number of individuals to attend hearings, limiting public access to trials.
Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Members of opposition parties and civil society activists were consistently denied counsel of their choice for days, while government-appointed lawyers represented them, but not in their interest. For example, during the trial of opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, which continued from July 24 until September 3, the judge reportedly did not conduct an unbiased review of the case and repeatedly denied the motions of Yagublu’s lawyers. The judge denied the defendant’s requests for additional information relevant to the case and declined to consider misconduct by law enforcement authorities. For example, the judge did not satisfy a motion by Yagublu’s lawyers to allow data from telecommunications companies. Additionally, police confiscated Yagublu’s cell phone and deleted video footage he had taken during the alleged incident. The judge refused Yagublu’s lawyers’ motions to restore those videos. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings, judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or upon a defendant’s request for a change of counsel.
By law only members of the Collegium of Advocates (bar association) are able to represent citizens in any legal process, whether criminal, civil, or administrative. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the law, asserting it restricted citizens’ access to legal representation and empowered the government-dominated bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of lawyers in good standing who were willing to represent such individuals.
In February, three NGOs reported that, as a result of various punitive measures, more than 24 attorneys had been deprived of the opportunity to practice their profession since 2005. The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases remained small due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the Collegium of Advocates. Such measures included disciplinary proceedings resulting in the censure, suspension, and in some cases disbarment of human rights lawyers. In November 2019 the Collegium suspended the license and initiated disbarment proceedings against lawyer Shahla Humbatova for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated.
In some cases the Collegium of Advocates dropped politically motivated proceedings against lawyers, such as in August those against Zibeyda Sadigova and Bahruz Bayramov. In other cases, however, after dropping proceedings against a lawyer, the Collegium engaged in other punitive measures against the same lawyer. For example, after dropping administrative proceedings against Elchin Sadigov in January, the Collegium issued him a warning and, on September 25, deprived him of the right to continue working as an independent lawyer. Only independent lawyers may represent a client immediately. Those such as Sadigov, deprived of this independent status, are required first to obtain permission to represent a client through a government-approved law firm, which often took days. During this time government-appointed lawyers represented clients and could take action without the approval of or consultation with their clients.
The Collegium issued two other warnings to lawyers during the year: on June 11, to Javad Javadov for sharing information concerning the alleged mistreatment of his client, Kerim Suleymanli, by police (see section 1.c.), and on July 13, to Nemat Karimli for publicly sharing information concerning the alleged October 2019 torture of Tofig Yagublu without waiting for the results of the official investigation.
The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku. This continued to make it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal services, since local lawyers were unwilling or unable to take on such cases.
During the year the Collegium increased its membership from 1,708 to 1,791. Human rights defenders asserted the new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases due to fear they would be sanctioned by the Collegium. Some activists and candidate lawyers stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.
In some instances courts rejected the admission of legal evidence. For example, on February 21, the Baku Court of Appeal ruled that video recordings presented by National Assembly candidate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev in support of his election complaint were inadmissible because they were recorded without the permission of the precinct election commissions responsible for conducting the elections in his district. On February 26, the Supreme Court upheld this verdict.
Although the constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence, some defendants claimed that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse. Human rights monitors also reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.
Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts frequently ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.
Human rights advocates reported courts sometimes failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Defendants are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.
There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse. A provision of an April 2019 presidential decree addressed the problem but had not been implemented by year’s end.
The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.
NGO estimates of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end ranged from at least 90 to 146. Political prisoners and detainees included journalists and bloggers (see section 2.a.), political and social activists (see section 3), religious activists (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report), individuals arrested in connection with the Ganja and Terter cases (see section 1.c.), and the relative of a journalist/activist in exile (see section 1.f.).
In a particularly high profile case, on March 22, a member of the Coordination Center of National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested and ordered held for three months in pretrial detention for “hooliganism” in connection with a car accident. Human rights defenders considered the arrest a staged provocation against Yagublu. On September 3, the Nizami District Court convicted Yagublu and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. On September 18, the Baku Court of Appeal released Yagublu to house arrest after he was on a hunger strike for 17 days. At year’s end Yagublu was awaiting a ruling on his appeal.
In another case, on April 16, Popular Front Party activist Niyamaddin Ahmadov was detained and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention. After serving his administrative sentence, on May 18, he was sentenced to four months’ pretrial detention, allegedly on the criminal charge of funding terrorism. Human rights defenders considered the case politically motivated. He remained under pretrial detention at year’s end.
From July 14-15, during a spontaneous rally of more than 20,000 persons supporting the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, a group entered the National Assembly and reportedly caused minor damage before being removed. Some protesters allegedly clashed with police and damaged police cars. On July 16, President Aliyev accused the Popular Front Party of instigating protesters to enter the National Assembly and stated law enforcement bodies would investigate the party.
Human rights defenders reported that authorities used these events to justify the arrest of political activists, including those who did not attend the rally. Law enforcement officials opened criminal cases against at least 16 members of the Popular Front Party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. The formal charges against the remaining individuals included damaging property, violating public order, and using force against a government official. In addition Popular Front Party activists Fuad Gahramanli and Mammad Ibrahim were accused of trying to seize power by force in an alleged attempted coup. Popular Front Party member Mahammad Imanli, along with Mammad Ibrahim’s son and ruling party member Mehdi Ibrahimov, were also accused of spreading COVID-19 during the demonstration, which included thousands of demonstrators who were not wearing masks.
On August 19, the Khatai District Court released Mehdi Ibrahimov, placing him under house arrest. On November 16, the Sabayil District Court released 21 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, placing them under house arrest. These individuals included 12 members of the Popular Front Party and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. On December 7, the remaining 15 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, including three Popular Front Party activists and a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, were released and placed under house arrest. On December 1, the Sabunchu District Court convicted and sentenced Mahammad Imanli to one year in prison.
There were developments during the year in long-standing cases of persons considered to have been incarcerated on politically motivated grounds. On April 23, the Plenum of the Supreme Court acquitted opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party chairperson Ilgar Mammadov and human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. As a result Mammadov and Jafarov no longer faced restrictions based on their criminal records, including restrictions on seeking political office. The court ruled the government must pay 234,000 manat ($138,000) in compensation to Mammadov and 57,400 manat ($33,900) to Jafarov for moral damages, and both could seek additional compensation in civil court. The government paid these compensations to Mammadov and Jafarov. In 2014 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated. In 2017 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov had been denied a fair trial. Six others considered to be former political prisoners whose acquittal was ordered by the ECHR were waiting court decisions at year’s end.
On March 17, after serving three years of his six-year prison term, authorities released investigative journalist Afghan Mukhtarli under the condition that he leave the country and relocate to Germany immediately after his release. He remained in Germany at year’s end (also see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Georgia).
Political prisoners and detainees faced varied restrictions. Former political prisoners stated prison officials limited access to reading materials and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.
There were reports of government abuse of international law enforcement tools, such as those of Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), in attempts to detain foreign residents who were activists. There also were reports that the government targeted dissidents and journalists who lived outside of the country through kidnappings, digital harassment, and intimidation of family members who remained in the country.
In January authorities in Gdansk, Poland, detained Dashgyn Agalarli, an Azerbaijani national with refugee status in Norway, reportedly due to an Interpol notice submitted by the Azerbaijan government. He was held for three days and then released on bail. According to news reports in September, however, he remained in Poland and was unable to leave the country.
In December 2019 the State Migration Service reported that political emigrant and government critic Elvin Isayev was deported to Azerbaijan from Ukraine and arrested upon arrival. According to RFE/RL, Ukraine’s State Migration Service and Prosecutor General’s Office denied having ordered his deportation. Isayev was charged with incitement to riot and for open calls for action against the state. On September 8, the Prosecutor General’s Office alleged that seven other political emigrants residing in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland participated in these criminal acts, together with Isayev. On the basis of the Prosecutor General’s Office’s petition, the Nasimi District Court ordered the arrest of all seven emigrants. The emigrants subject to this order included Ordukhan Babirov, Tural Sadigli, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafael Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, and Suleyman Suleymanli. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it requested an international search for these individuals from Interpol. On October 30, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes convicted and sentenced Elvin Isayev to eight years in prison.
Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.
Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions. In some cases considered to be politically motivated, the government withheld compensation ordered by the ECHR. For example, on May 7, journalist and former political prisoner Khadija Ismayilova told media that the government owed her 44,500 euros ($53,400) in total based on decisions of the ECHR (see section 4).
NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were therefore reluctant to pursue compensation claims.
The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.
While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom), particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. Human rights lawyers asserted that the postal service purposely lost or misplaced communications with the ECHR to inhibit proceedings against the government.
Throughout the year some websites and social media sources leaked videos of virtual meetings and recorded conversations of opposition figures. It was widely believed that government law enforcement or intelligence services were the source of the leaked videos.
In an effort to intimidate and embarrass an activist and member of the local municipal council who advocated more transparent governance, local authorities hung photographs of Vafa Nagi in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout her village (see section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups).
Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes incarcerate family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, activists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, human rights defenders considered Emin Sagiyev to have been incarcerated due to the activities of his brother-in-law, exiled journalist Turkel Azerturk.
There were reports authorities fired individuals from jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The State Inspector’s Service investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions. There was at least one report that de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of the country committed an arbitrary or unlawful killing.
On July 7, Rustavi City Court convicted three Internal Affairs Ministry police officers, Mikheil Ghubianuri, Dimitri Dughashvili, and Davit Mirotadze, for deprivation of liberty and sentenced Dughashvili to nine years in prison and Mirotadze and Ghubianuri to a maximum of 10 years in prison. The convictions followed the October 2019 discovery of the body of David Mumladze, who disappeared earlier that month. Authorities arrested the three officers and charged them with illegally detaining Mumladze. The officers allegedly delivered Mumladze to members of a criminal group, who stabbed him and threw his body into a river.
On January 25, the Prosecutor General’s Office terminated its investigation into the 2018 death of 18-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili from gunshot wounds inflicted by security forces during a 2017 counterterrorism raid in the Pankisi Gorge. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the investigation was terminated due to the absence of a crime. In her annual report covering 2019, released on April 2, the public defender stated that after reviewing the case file in February, she had asked the prosecutor general to reopen the investigation. She considered it “imperative” to reopen the investigation as “several important investigative actions” had not been conducted. Machalikashvili’s father, Malkhaz, alleged the killing was unjustified. The Public Defender’s Office emphasized the importance of a transparent, objective, and timely investigation; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the subsequent investigation as lacking integrity. In August 2019 Malkhaz Machalikashvili began a nationwide campaign to collect signatures to force parliament to establish a fact-finding commission. In 2019 the public defender asked parliament to question the Prosecutor General’s Office regarding the investigation, stating this would “demonstrate systemic problems” in the office. In October 2019 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) opened discussion of the case.
The trial for the 2008 death of Badri Patarkatsishvili continued as of August. The trial began in March 2019, following an investigation begun in 2018 by the Prosecutor General’s Office (then known as the Chief Prosecutor’s Office) after releasing audio tapes dating back to 2007 in which former government officials were heard discussing methods of killing Patarkatsishvili that would make death appear natural. A former official of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Constitutional Security Department, Giorgi Merebashvili, was charged with participating in planning the killing. In November 2019 authorities charged four former officials of the department–Gia Dgebuadze, David Kokiashvili, Ilia Gamgebeli, and Levan Kargadava–with abuse of power and illegal detention for allegedly arranging the arrest of Jemal Shamatava, an Ureki police chief, after Shamatava warned Patarkatsishvili of a potential attack in 2006. On July 27, the Tbilisi City Court found the four defendants guilty. Levan Kargadava and Gia Dgebuadze each received seven years and six months’ imprisonment, and David Kokiashvili and Ilia Gamgebeli entered a plea agreement and received 18 months’ imprisonment.
In November 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili and the leader of opposition party Victorious Georgia, Irakli Okruashvili, with abuse of power in connection with the 2004 killing of Amiran (Buta) Robakidze. The trial at Tbilisi City Court–which began later that month–continued as of December. On December 2, hearings in the cases of Okruashvili and several other high-profile defendants were postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 safety concerns.
There was at least one report that de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of the country committed an unlawful killing. On August 28, Inal Jabiev, age 28, reportedly died in the custody of de facto South Ossetian police and was allegedly tortured to death. He was detained on August 26 on charges of attempting to assault de facto “minister of internal affairs” Igor Naniev on August 17. No one was injured during the incident. Jabiev’s reported death sparked widespread protests in occupied South Ossetia leading to the removal of Naniev, the resignation of the de facto “prime minister,” and the dissolution of the “government” by the de facto “president.”
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The government’s investigation into the reported abduction and forced rendition of Azerbaijani freelance journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia to Azerbaijan by government officials, begun in 2017, remained stalled. During the year the Public Defender’s Office, local and international NGOs, and the international community continued to express concerns regarding impunity for government officials in connection with the Mukhtarli case. Following Mukhtarli’s March 17 release from Azerbaijani prison and arrival in Germany where his family resided in exile, the Prosecutor General’s Office sought German approval to interview Mukhtarli. On October 1, the Prosecutor General’s Office received the results of a July 27 German police interview, and the investigation continued as of December. In her April report, the public defender noted that after Mukhtarli’s release from prison, he attributed his abduction to an agreement between senior Azerbaijani and Georgian government officials. Concerns of government involvement in Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Tbilisi and arrest on the Azerbaijan-Georgia border therefore continued.
More than 2,300 individuals remained missing following the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia and the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). During the year the government did not make significant progress on investigating the disappearances of ethnic Ossetians Alan Khachirov, Alan Khugaev, and Soltan Pliev, who disappeared in 2008.
In October 2019 the government created the Interagency Commission on Missing Persons in line with ICRC recommendations. The government convened the first meeting of the commission but suspended subsequent sessions due to COVID-19.
While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. In her July 9 report to the United Nations in advance of Georgia’s Universal Periodic Review, the public defender described effective investigation into alleged mistreatment as “a systemic problem.” She reported that of 107 requests for investigation her office sent to the Prosecutor’s Office between 2013 and 2019, the responsible person was not identified in any of the cases.
As of December the Public Defender’s Office asked the State Inspector’s Service to investigate 40 alleged cases of human rights violations in government institutions, 19 of which concerned violations allegedly committed by Internal Affairs Ministry personnel, 18 involved alleged crimes committed by penitentiary department staff, and one allegedly involved Justice Ministry staff. In two of the 40 requests, the responsible agency was not clear. The State Inspector’s Service opened investigations into 256 cases. Eleven investigations were in response to the Public Defenders Office’s request. The State Inspector’s Service directed five investigations to other investigative agencies and did not identify elements of a crime in four cases. An investigation of one case continued at year’s end.
As of October the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) reported it consulted on six allegations and submitted one complaint of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in prisons or by law enforcement agencies to the Prosecutor General’s Office for investigation, compared with 25 for 2019.
Trials against three police officers stemming from the June 2019 protests were underway at year’s end. The officers were charged with exceeding authority by using violence or weapons, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and deprivation of the right to hold public office for up to three years (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).
The trial of Detective Investigator Konstantine Kochishvili for allegedly physically assaulting a minor by spitting in his face and beating him in February 2019 continued as of December. During the course of the beating, Kochishvili reportedly broke the minor’s arm. In May 2019 authorities arrested Kochishvili and charged him with degrading and inhuman treatment. On February 26, the Rustavi City Court released the defendant on bail of 5,000 lari ($1,500).
As of year’s end, several former officials remained on trial at Tbilisi City Court in various cases of torture and other crimes allegedly committed under the former government. The officials included the former deputy chief of the general staff, Giorgi Kalandadze; the former deputy culture minister, Giorgi Udesiani; and the former director of Gldani No. 8 prison, Aleksandre Mukhadze (see section 1.d.).
On September 7, police officer Mariana Choloiani was convicted in the Tbilisi City Court of obtaining testimony under duress during a December 2019 interrogation and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Choloiani used threats and intimidation to extract self-incriminating testimony from 15-year-old Luka Siradze regarding vandalism of a school. After his interrogation, Siradze committed suicide.
While overall prison and detention facility conditions were adequate, conditions in some older facilities lacked sufficient ventilation, natural light, minimum living space, and adequate health care. Prison conditions in Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia were reported to be chronically substandard.
Physical Conditions: The public defender’s 2019 report, released in April, noted overcrowding remained a problem in some prison facilities, especially prisons 2, 8, 14, 15, and 17.
In previous years’ reports, NGOs expressed serious concern regarding a tendency of prisons visited to place prisoners in “de-escalation rooms” for up to 72 hours or shorter time intervals over a number of days. The same problem was highlighted in multiple “prison visit” reports and an annual report of the public defender’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). According to the Public Defender’s Office, “de-escalation rooms” were used as punishment, and their use was considered mistreatment of inmates.
While physical conditions in temporary detention isolators were “on the whole acceptable,” the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its 2018 visit to the country also highlighted several other deficiencies, including minimum living space, and the placement of remand prisoners with inmates at large facilities (prisons 2 and 8). Inmate-on-inmate violence, criminal subcultures, and informal management by selected prisoners remained persistent problems.
The Public Defender’s Office reported an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence, which in most cases was underreported and never investigated.
The NPM’s annual report identified informal management by “strong inmates” (“watchers”), as one of the most concerning issues. Some members of prison management acknowledged the problem. The Public Defender’s Office raised the issue and requested assistance from the administration at public hearings. Subsequently, the Special Penitentiary Service began restricting the public defender’s staff’s access to prisons. According to the public defender and NGOs, the Ministry of Justice refused to acknowledge the “watchers” and the danger they represented to inmates and the outside world upon release. The Public Defender’s Office reported such informal control “often leads to interprisoner violence and bullying,” and “watchers” controlled prisoners’ access to clothing, food, medicine, and packages sent from their families. Some prisoner victims of “watchers” requested transfer to high-risk prisons or self-isolation to escape, increasing risks of mental health issues among the prison population. In December members of the Public Defender’s Office reported being verbally and physically harassed by a “watcher” in prison number 8. Although number 8 was a “closed” prison, “watchers” roamed freely outside their cells.
The Public Defender’s Office 2019 annual report, released in April, stated cell toilets for detainees generally were only partially screened, and criminal suspects had limited access to a shower, outdoor exercise, as well as no family contacts or telephone calls. Lack of fresh air and activities were problematic at closed institutions. Inmates in “closed” prisons (2 and 8) were locked up for 23 hours a day with limited or no access to rehabilitation and resocialization services; this was especially problematic for inmates with mental health issues.
While the Ministry of Justice maintained a special medical unit for prisoners with disabilities, the Public Defender’s Office reported prisons and temporary detention centers did not take into account the needs of persons with disabilities, including for medical services. The office also noted the majority of institutions failed to compile data on and register the needs of persons with disabilities. According to the Special Penitentiary Service, some facilities began to adapt their infrastructure to accommodate persons with disabilities (see section 6, Persons with Disabilities).
Mental health care remained inadequate within the penitentiary system. There was no national strategy for treating prisoners with mental disabilities. Initial screening of prisoners’ mental health using a specialized instrument occurred only at prisons 2 and 8; multiple screenings did not happen at any institution. The system lacked qualified social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and ward-based staff.
In its 2018 visit to three psychiatric hospitals, the CPT found many patients lived in “woefully dilapidated and sometimes overcrowded dormitories, which lacked privacy and failed to ensure patients’ dignity.” The CPT also reported a shortage of psychiatrists and ward-based staff. There were no significant changes or improvements reported since this assessment.
Administration: The Public Defender’s Office noted there was only one ombudsperson authorized to respond to complaints by prisoners and reported that obstacles, such as a lack of information on their rights, fear of intimidation, distrust of the outcome, and lack of confidentiality, could deter prisoners from filing complaints with judicial authorities. According to the NPM’s 2019 annual report, the number of complaints from semiopen prisons decreased, which may be explained by the informal “watcher” system. Staffing levels of one security officer to more than 100 inmates were inadequate at semiopen facilities and created an insecure environment for both inmates and administration. According to the office, records on registering and distributing detainees in temporary detention centers were often incomplete or erroneous.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by international prison monitoring organizations, including the CPT, the International Corrections Management Training Center, and some local and international human rights groups. The NPM had access to penitentiaries, conducted planned and unscheduled visits, and was allowed to take photographs during monitoring visits. NPM members, however, did not have unimpeded access to video recordings of developments in penitentiaries and inmate medical files, as well as some disciplinary proceedings for inmates.
The law prohibits video or audio surveillance of meetings between the Public Defender’s Office and prison inmates. Within hours of Public Defender Nino Lomjaria’s January 21 special report on prisons, however, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani released a video recording of a Public Defender’s Office representative’s prison visit. The public defender and NGOs questioned how the Justice Ministry acquired the recording, given the prohibition on surveillance of the office’s representatives’ meetings with inmates. The Justice Ministry’s Special Penitentiary Service also informed journalists the public defender met with three named prisoners, including two former senior opposition figures, on January 23. The public defender asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate, but the office refused to do so.
The ICRC had full access to prisons and detention facilities in undisputed Georgian territory and some access to facilities in South Ossetia. The ICRC originally did not have access to Zaza Gakheladze, who was detained July 11 by Russian “border guards” along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, but the ICRC reported access multiple times as of year’s end. Gakheladze suffered a leg wound during detention and was hospitalized. On July 27, de facto authorities transferred him to a pretrial detention facility in occupied South Ossetia. The ICRC generally did not have access to prisons and detention facilities in Abkhazia. The ICRC reported it had an ad hoc visit to one detainee in Abkhazia during the year.
Improvements: An October 2019 report supported by the UN Development Program on Georgia’s implementation of the National Strategy for the Protection of Human Rights 2014-2020 noted there was “significant improvement” in resolving prison overcrowding during this period.
The role of social work significantly increased following the July 2018 merger of the penitentiary system into the Ministry of Justice. Recent reforms clearly defined the terms of reference for case managers (professional social workers responsible for risks and needs assessment of inmates and provision of relevant interventions/services) and case administrators (responsible for technical assistance and coordination of low-risk cases). The goal of separating the two functions was to promote professional social work and stop employing representatives of other professions as “social workers” with multiple job functions.
The penitentiary system revised its risk and needs assessment with the support of the EU-funded Penitentiary and Probation Support Project. The assessment was piloted in penitentiary establishments and probation bureaus and was fully implemented in prisons 5, 11, and 16 by mid-December.
During the year the Ministry of Justice replaced its Prison and Probation Training Center with the new Vocational and Educational Center for Offenders, which focused on creating “out of cell” activities for inmates, helping inmates develop necessary skills to find jobs in prisons and outside, and working with the private sector to introduce prison industries into the penitentiary system. The penitentiary service also established a new escort unit to provide safe and secure transportation of inmates within the country.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government’s observance of these prohibitions was uneven, and reports of arbitrary arrests continued.
Law enforcement officers must have a warrant to make an arrest except in limited cases. The criminal procedure code provides that an arrest warrant may be obtained only where probable cause is shown that a person committed a crime for which conviction is punishable by imprisonment and that the individual may abscond or fail to appear in court, destroy evidence, or commit another crime. GYLA noted the law did not explicitly specify the role and powers of a judge in reviewing the lawfulness of arrests and that courts often failed to examine the factual circumstances of the detention.
Upon arrest a detainee must be advised of his or her legal rights. Any statement made after arrest but before a detainee is advised of his or her rights is inadmissible in court. The arresting officer must immediately take a detainee to the nearest police station and record the arrest, providing a copy to the detainee and his or her attorney. The Public Defender’s Office reported, however, maintenance of police station logbooks was haphazard and that in a number of cases the logbooks did not establish the date and time of an arrest.
Detainees must be indicted within 48 hours and taken to court within 72 hours. Anyone taken into custody on administrative grounds has the right to be heard in court within 12 hours after detention. Violating these time limits results in the immediate release of the person.
The law permits alternatives to detention. NGOs and court observers reported the judiciary failed to use alternative measures adequately. The government also lacked a monitoring mechanism for defendants not in custody.
Detainees have the right to request immediate access to a lawyer of their choice and the right to refuse to make a statement in the absence of counsel. An indigent defendant charged with a crime has the right to counsel appointed at public expense. As a result of government income requirements, however, many low-income defendants were ineligible for government aid but could not afford counsel during critical stages of criminal proceedings.
Detainees facing possible criminal charges have the right to have their families notified by the prosecutor or the investigator within three hours of arrest; persons charged with administrative offenses have the right to notify family upon request. The public defender’s 2018 report noted improvement in the observance of this right: families were notified within three hours of arrest in 82 percent of cases examined in 2018, compared with 71 percent of cases in 2017. The law requires the case prosecutor to approve requests by persons in pretrial detention to contact their family.
Witnesses have the right to refuse to be interviewed by law enforcement officials for certain criminal offenses. In such instances prosecutors and investigators may petition the court to compel a witness to be interviewed if they have proof that the witness has “necessary information.” The Public Defender’s Office reported that police continued to summon individuals as “witnesses” and later arrested them. According to the defender’s office, police used “involuntary interviews” of subjects, often in police cars or at police stations. The public defender’s annual report for 2019 noted that police regularly failed to advise interviewees of their rights prior to initiating interviews and failed to maintain records of individuals interviewed in police stations or vehicles.
Concerns persisted regarding authorities’ use of administrative detention to detain individuals for up to 15 days without the right to an effective defense, defined standards of proof, and the right to a meaningful appeal.
Arbitrary Arrest: Reports of arbitrary detentions continued. In one example, on October 7, authorities arrested two former members of the government Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation, Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova. The Prosecutor General’s Office charged them with attempting to violate the country’s territorial integrity during the commission’s work in 2005-07 on the state border with Azerbaijan. On October 8, they were remanded to two months of pretrial detention. Georgian NGOs and political opposition contacts described the “cartographers’ case” as politically motivated, highlighting the timing of the investigation in the pretrial period. Partisan statements by senior ruling party officials linking the case to the elections reinforced these concerns. On November 30, the Tbilisi City Court upheld the pretrial detention sentence, which the defendants’ attorneys said they would appeal. The case occurred during the violent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, increasing tension in the country’s already destabilized border region.
The Public Defender’s Office and local NGOs issued reports describing unsubstantiated detentions of demonstrators in connection with the June 2019 protests (see section 2.b.). For example, in the annual report covering 2019 released in April, the public defender stated the majority of protesters who were arrested were charged with violations of the code of administrative offenses; the public defender described the contents of the violations and arrest reports as “mostly identical and…formulaic.” On June 24, the Human Rights Center reported the court agreed to the pretrial detention of “all accused protesters based on banal, abstract, and often identical solicitations of the prosecutors.”
As of year’s end, the trial of former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili continued in the Tbilisi City Court. In 2016 the Chief Prosecutor’s Office charged Adeishvili in absentia in connection with the alleged illegal detention and kidnapping of a former opposition leader, Koba Davitashvili, in 2007.
There were frequent reports of detentions of Georgians along the administrative boundary lines of both the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For example, de facto South Ossetian authorities unlawfully detained Genadi Bestaev in November 2019, Khvicha Mghebrishvili on July 3, and Zaza Gakheladze on July 11. Khvicha Mghebrishvili was released on September 25, but Bestaev and Gakheladze remained in custody as of December 31.
Pretrial Detention: According to Supreme Court statistics, during the first nine months of the year, of 7,507 defendants presented to the court for pretrial detention, trial courts applied pretrial detention in 47.9 percent of cases, compared with 48.3 percent for the same period in 2019.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There is no meaningful judicial review provided by the code of administrative violations for an administrative detention.
Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary.
The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to raise concerns regarding a lack of judicial independence. During the year they highlighted problems, including the influence of a group of judges primarily consisting of High Council of Justice members and court chairs that allegedly stifled critical opinions within the judiciary and obstructed proposals to strengthen judicial independence. NGOs referred to this group of influential and nonreformist judges as the “clan.” Other problems they highlighted included the impact of the High Council’s powers on the independence of individual judges, manipulation of the case distribution system, a lack of transparency in the High Council’s activities, and shortcomings in the High Council’s appointments of judges and court chairpersons.
The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to highlight shortcomings in the 2017 legislative package informally known as the “third wave of judicial reform.” They pointed to problems in the laws’ implementation and highlighted challenges to judicial independence, including flawed processes for selecting judges at all court levels, many to lifetime appointments, which left the judiciary vulnerable to political influence.
In December 2019 parliament passed a “fourth wave” of judicial reform. The legislation incorporated several key provisions, based on best international practices, that aim to create greater transparency, accountability, and independence in the judiciary, in areas such as judicial discipline, appointment, and caseload management. The package, however, left the authority to select individual court chairs with the High Council of Justice; NGOs warned this power would allow the High Council to continue to influence individual judges. NGOs reported one of the levers court chairs used to influence the outcomes of cases was creating narrowly specialized chambers in larger courts to manipulate the randomized case assignment process. At their sole discretion, court chairpersons assigned judges to narrowly specialized chambers without any clear rules or pre-established criteria. A court chairperson could at any time reshuffle the composition of narrowly specialized chambers and change the specialization of a judge. Chairpersons were not legally required to substantiate such a decision.
The long-standing practice of transferring judges from one court to another also remained a problem. The decisions regarding transfers were made by the High Council of Justice; however, these decisions were unsubstantiated. NGOs warned of transfers of judges without competition to the administrative chambers and boards two months prior to the October 31 parliamentary elections in the three most strategic and overcrowded courts, the Tbilisi and Kutaisi Courts of Appeal and the Tbilisi City Court.
Administrative chambers adjudicate election disputes. Most of the judges transferred to administrative chambers panels were affiliated with the “clan,” and almost all of them were associated with high-profile cases.
NGOs reported the courts did not serve as an effective check over election administration bodies following the October 31 parliamentary elections while reviewing appeals against decisions made by the Precinct and District Election Commission. According to statistics published on November 12 by the High Court of Justice, 96 election disputes reached the court system. The courts sustained only 16 percent of them.
In one case, Bolnisi Court, followed by the Tbilisi Court of Appeals, declined to annul the votes in a precinct or order a repeat vote after video evidence showed that one person illegally voted in the same precinct several times in Bolnisi.
NGOs alleged the High Council of Justice purposefully failed to address the problematic caseload backlog in courts in order to maintain a powerful lever for influencing judges. Because of the backlog, the vast majority of judges failed to comply with statutory terms for case review, which can be subject to judicial discipline. According to the Office of the Inspector for Judicial Discipline under the High Council of Justice, 40 of 60 complaints reported in the first quarter of the year concerned case delays.
Despite these “waves” of reforms, on June 23, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary stated, “During almost 30 years since the declaration of Georgia’s independence, the country still has not managed to build an independent judiciary. Regrettably, we are still talking about political influences and corruption in the courts. The latter still do not manage to restrain and control the other branches of government, while judicial decisions do not essentially comply with human rights standards and fairness.” The coalition blamed what it described as “clan-based governance” within the judiciary for the failure of the “waves” of reforms to alter the court system significantly.
According to the law, the Conference of Judges is a judicial self-governing body composed of all judges in the country’s courts. During a convocation of the body that convened on October 30, participants elected two new judge-members and a secretary of the High Court of Justice. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary criticized the decision to hold the session a day before the parliamentary elections and select two new members and a secretary, stating the timing raised concerns regarding “the judicial clan’s” intention to occupy strategically important and influential positions in the court system with an aim to ensure the four-year presence of members loyal and acceptable to the clan in the High Council of Justice.
In May 2019 parliament adopted amendments regulating the selection of Supreme Court judges. In September 2019 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released a report critical of the amendments and the High Council’s Supreme Court judge selection process. The ODIHR concluded the amendments fell short of providing for an open, transparent, and merit-based selection system and were not fully in line with international standards. The ODIHR identified several shortcomings in the High Council of Justice’s selection process and criticized its interviews of Supreme Court nominees as “highly dysfunctional and unprofessional.” It also noted the lack of transparency in the process could violate Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides basic provisions for an independent and impartial tribunal.
Following a lengthy process of public hearings, during which a number of candidates had difficulty demonstrating expertise or independence, in December 2019 parliament appointed 14 of the High Council’s 20 nominees to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary described the 14 appointed judges as “loyal to the clan.”
In a case submitted to the Constitutional Court in November 2019, the Public Defender’s Office challenged the constitutionality of the amendments regulating the Supreme Court selection process, arguing they violated the right to a fair trial. On July 30, by a split vote of four to four, the Constitutional Court Plenum rejected the office’s claim and ruled the High Council’s selection process was constitutional. The Public Defender’s Office responded that the decision violated the principle of transparency and further eroded trust in the judiciary. On September 16, the independent media outlet Civil.ge reported, “The July 30 ruling confirmed yet again the nearly complete takeover of all instances and branches of the Georgian judicial system by the ruling Georgian Dream party.” On October 23, Transparency International (TI) Georgia reported the judiciary had become fully controlled by a group of judges referred to as the “clan.”
During the period from April to May, the Supreme Court Plenum appointed two controversial judges to the Constitutional Court. NGOs criticized the opaque process and noted the selection decisions took place behind closed doors, candidate information was not shared prior to appointment, and the public did not have a chance to comment about candidates’ fitness for the job.
Several NGOs noted public confidence in the appointments required open processes that allowed for public comment. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary expressed “serious concerns” about the qualifications and integrity of the two judges and attributed their appointment to their “loyalty to the clan.”
In June the High Council of Justice announced an open competition for 99 vacant judicial positions. The High Council had not used open competition to fill trial court and Court of Appeals vacancies since 2018. On November 18, the High Council of Justice concluded the competition by filling only 36 judicial vacancies. As a result of the competition, 24 new judges, who were High School of Justice graduates, entered the system. Moreover, the High Council of Justice reappointed four sitting and eight former judges. Three candidates were appointed in appellate courts, leaving 10 positions vacant, and 33 candidates were appointed in the courts of the first instance, leaving 53 vacancies. Under the “fourth wave” of judicial reform legislation, the High Council of Justice is required to provide reasoning for the appointment or rejection of judicial candidates. By year’s end it had not done so.
On September 30, parliament amended the Law on Common Courts to improve the controversial selection process for Supreme Court judges by requiring the High Council of Justice to provide justification at several stages of the selection process, while also providing the right to appeal High Council decisions. Parliament’s Georgian Dream ruling party had requested a Venice Commission opinion on the amendments but approved the amendments rather than wait for the commission’s opinion. An EU representative described the parliament’s vote as a missed opportunity to foster public confidence in the selection process. The amended law went into effect on October 5.
Access to court decisions was restricted. Despite a June 2019 constitutional ruling that obliged parliament to provide public access to court decisions by the standards established by the Constitutional Court, parliament failed to comply with the obligation. Courts stopped publishing decisions on May 1.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial. The Public Defender’s Office reported numerous violations of the right to a fair trial, and NGOs noted this right was not enforced in some high-profile, politically sensitive cases (see Political Prisoners and Detainees below). NGOs reported courts were inconsistent in their approaches to closing hearings to the public and at times did not provide an explanation for holding a closed hearing.
Defendants are presumed innocent and must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have a right to be present at their trial and to have a public trial except where national security, privacy, or protection of a juvenile is involved.
The law allows for trial in absentia in certain cases where the defendant has left the country. The code on administrative offenses does not provide the necessary due process provisions, especially when dealing with violations that could result in a defendant’s loss of liberty.
On March 21, the president declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the state of emergency, remote court hearings via electronic means of communication were possible. In May parliament amended the criminal procedure code (CPC) to permit remote criminal court hearings until July 15. In July amendments were made to permit remote criminal hearings until January 2021. December amendments permitted remote criminal hearings until July 1, 2021. The use of remote litigation was not consistently applied. Some judges and court users opposed any form of video conferencing in court proceedings. The low quality of voice and image transmission during video conferences, an insufficient number of properly equipped courtrooms, and the small number of video rooms in places of detention made remote proceedings difficult. During this time NGO representatives, who were largely barred from monitoring court proceedings, and legal professionals expressed concerns that remote litigation posed challenges for the right of the accused to a public hearing and impeded secure, confidential communication with defendants and access to evidence. They also noted remote litigation caused delays due to technical difficulties and witness intimidation when witnesses were physically present in a police station.
The law does not prescribe a maximum period for investigation of cases but stipulates a maximum period, nine months, for pretrial detention. If courts do not complete a case within this period, defendants must be released from pretrial detention pending completion of the trial. The criminal procedure code requires trial courts to issue a verdict within 24 months of completing a pretrial hearing.
In its report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA noted unreasonable delays in cases and court hearings were a serious factor in limiting the right to timely justice. The requirement of a continuous trial was met only in jury trial cases. GYLA also reported weak reasoning in court judgments and judges’ inability to maintain order in many cases. In its annual report for 2019 released in April, the Public Defender’s Office highlighted consideration of criminal cases was often delayed, going unreasonably beyond the terms determined by legislation, particularly in appeals courts and in administrative cases appealed by prisoners. The office also highlighted unreasonable delays–sometimes for five months–in courts’ handing decisions to parties and shortcomings in the examination of civil and administrative cases by appellate courts within the statutory time limit.
Examples of delayed proceedings included the cases of Temur Barabadze and founding Millennium Challenge Fund Georgia CEO Lasha Shanidze and his father, Shalva. The Shanidzes were convicted of embezzlement in 2011 after Barabadze testified against them. Barabadze later recanted his testimony, but a judicial review of the Shanidzes’ case continued to await the resolution of Barabadze’s case, also on charges of embezzlement. Hearings for Barabadze, however, did not begin until 2017. The trial court acquitted him in 2018, but the appellate court convicted him on the less serious charge of abuse of power following an appeal. In April 2019 prosecutors appealed the Tbilisi Appellate Court decision convicting Barabadze on lesser charges to the Supreme Court. The case was awaiting a Supreme Court decision as of year’s end.
Defendants have the right to meet with an attorney of their choice without hindrance, supervision, or undue restriction. Defendants enjoy the right to have an attorney provided at public expense if they are indigent, but many defendants and their attorneys did not always have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. In April the Public Defender’s Office reported positive changes made by the state in 2019 resulted in more frequent involvement of a lawyer in a case within the first 24 hours.
GYLA monitored online criminal trials during the March-June period. According to GYLA’s report, plea agreement court hearings, as well as pretrial and merits hearings, showed the defense was unable to establish effective communication with defendants remanded in penitentiary institutions due to emergency state restrictions. During virtual court hearings, several lawyers requested permission to have a conversation with the accused privately, yet the secretary of the session explained he or she would not be able to ensure the confidentiality of the conversation with the accused.
In criminal proceedings defendants and their attorneys have the right of access to prosecution evidence relevant to their cases no later than five days before the pretrial hearing and may make copies. Defendants have the right to question and confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf at trial. Defendants have the right to refuse to testify or incriminate themselves.
The Public Defender’s Office, civil society, and the international community recognized the administrative code lacked some due process provisions, since the law allows for those found guilty of administrative offenses to be punished with imprisonment without the due process provisions afforded to defendants charged under the criminal code.
Although a defendant generally has the right to appeal a conviction, making an effective appeal under the administrative code is difficult. By law defendants have 30 days to file an appeal once they receive the court’s written and reasoned judgment. Administrative sentences that entail incarceration must be appealed within 48 hours and other sentences within 10 days.
On May 22, parliament amended the code of administrative offenses to conform with standards set by the Constitutional Court. The amendments made it easier to appeal administrative penalties, including appeals of 15-day administrative detentions. These amendments followed a previous round of November 2019 administrative code amendments in response to an April 2019 Constitutional Court ruling which stated that requiring a defendant to appeal a court decision within 10 days after the issuance of that decision was unconstitutional. Parliament accordingly amended the code of administrative offenses by permitting an appeal within 10 days of the defendant’s receipt of the court’s decision containing the reasoning for the ruling. The amendments also introduced a new rule that if the circumstances do not allow the court decision to be handed to the defendant, it will be made public and will be considered to have been submitted to the defendant on the third day of its publication.
By law a court must certify that a plea bargain was reached without violence, intimidation, deception, or illegal promise and that the accused had the opportunity to obtain legal assistance. Plea bargaining provisions in the criminal procedure code provide safeguards for due process. The evidentiary standard for plea agreements stipulates that evidence must be sufficient to find a defendant guilty without a full trial of a case and must satisfy an objective person that the defendant committed the crime. In a report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA stated its monitors attended 527 plea agreement court hearings against 558 defendants. In four cases only, the court did not grant the motion submitted by the Prosecutor General’s Office on a plea agreement. In 190 (34 percent) of the observed court hearings, judges did not fully inform the defendants of their rights relating to the plea agreement. In 52 (10 percent) of the cases, the judge did not ask the accused whether he had been subjected to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment by law enforcement officials.
Based on the monitoring of criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests outside parliament, on June 24, the Human Rights Center reported defendants accepted unfair plea deals and often admitted guilt only to avoid a lengthy and delayed criminal process against them. This often happened when defendants were placed in pretrial detention. When making a decision on the plea agreement, the court is required to examine whether the accusation is substantiated, whether the requested punishment is just, and whether there is valid evidence to prove the guilt of the defendant. According to the Human Rights Center, however, these requirements were not met in the criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests.
In a joint September 2019 statement, 16 local NGOs expressed alarm concerning what they termed an “increased number of politically motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions.” They cited as examples the criminal case against the two founders of TBC Bank (see section 4), the criminal cases against the former director of the television station Rustavi 2 and against the father of the owner of TV Pirveli (see section 2.a.), and some cases of incarceration of those who in June 2019 protested Russia’s occupation of parts of the country’s territory, including opposition party leader Irakli Okruashvili (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).
Opposition party members and family members of prisoners stated the government held political prisoners. On May 15, President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned and released from incarceration European Georgia leader Gigi Ugulava and Victorious Georgia founder Irakli Okruashvili. Opposition parties had demanded their release based on a March 8 pre-election agreement with the ruling Georgian Dream party. Opposition parties and the international community welcomed the pardons.
The opposition continued to urge the release of opposition figure Giorgi Rurua, characterizing him as a political prisoner whose release was envisioned under the March 8 political agreement between ruling and opposition parties. In addition to election system changes, the agreement contained a provision that the government would address the appearance of political interference in the judicial system. On July 30, Rurua was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on two charges. On August 4, nine NGOs expressed concerns the case against Rurua was politically motivated and stated, “Prosecution on political grounds has recently become a weapon to influence political opponents or critical media outlets.”
The government permitted international and domestic organizations to visit persons claiming to be political prisoners or detainees, and several international organizations did so.
The constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, but there were concerns regarding the process of assigning civil judges to narrow specializations, based on their loyalty to certain influential judges or others, and transparency of rulings. The constitution and law stipulate that a person who suffers damages resulting from arbitrary detention or other unlawful or arbitrary acts, including human rights violations, is entitled to submit a civil action. Individuals have the right to appeal court decisions involving alleged violation of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the ECHR after they have exhausted domestic avenues of appeal.
There were reports of lack of due process and respect for rule of law in a number of property rights cases. NGOs also reported several cases in which groups claimed the government improperly used tax liens to pressure organizations. For example, prior to its July 2019 change in ownership, the then opposition-oriented Rustavi 2 television station claimed it was unfairly targeted for its failure to pay taxes, while progovernment media did not experience similar scrutiny.
Since 2012 the government made it a priority to reduce the national caseload in the docket of the ECHR. The Justice Ministry reported that as of July, 52 cases were filed against Georgia at the ECHR, compared with 131 cases in all of 2019. According to the ministry, since 2012 a total of 86 cases were resolved with a settlement between parties, and 43 were resolved with the government’s acknowledgement of a violation.
Courts continued to suffer from excessive caseload and failed to dispose of civil cases within the fixed statutory terms. According to the civil procedure code, courts are required to hear civil cases within two months after receiving an application. A court that hears a particularly complex case may extend this term by up to five months, except for claims involving maintenance payments, compensation of damages incurred as a result of injury or other bodily harm or the death of a breadwinner, labor relations, and use of residences, which must be reviewed within one month.
The backlogs worsened during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courts heard a small number of civil cases remotely. According to NGOs monitoring the courts, the fact that the respondent rarely agreed to electronic proceedings prevented systematic use of remote hearings in civil cases.
In Russian-occupied Abkhazia, the de facto legal system prohibits property claims by ethnic Georgians who left Abkhazia before, during, or after the 1992-93 war, thereby depriving internally displaced persons of their property rights. In April 2019 the de facto parliament of Abkhazia passed “legislation” that also deprived family members of those “who fought against the sovereignty of Abkhazia, participated in the hostilities against Abkhazia, or assisted occupational forces” of the right of inheritance.
In a June 29 report on human rights, Abkhaz “ombudsperson” Asida Shakryl addressed rights violations of the ethnic Georgian population residing in occupied Abkhazia. She particularly highlighted that the law neglects the rights of the “indigenous” population. For example, persons permanently residing in the Gali district, whose ancestors were born in Abkhazia and own property, have no right to elect members of, or be elected to “local government” bodies. They also have no right to sell or buy real estate.
In a 2010 decree, de facto South Ossetian authorities invalidated all real estate documents issued by the Georgian government between 1991 and 2008 relating to property in the Akhalgori Region. The decree also declared all property in Akhalgori belongs to the de facto authorities until a “citizen’s” right to that property is established in accordance with the de facto “law,” effectively stripping ethnic Georgians displaced in 2008 of their right to regain property in the region.
On November 27, the Georgian Democracy Research Institute (DRI) reported de facto South Ossetian authorities were using a “family reunification program” to relocate residents of South Ossetia to live with family members in Tbilisi-administered territory. Persons accepted to the “program” reportedly received “exit documents” from the de facto authorities, according to which they would not be allowed to return and reclaim property in South Ossetia. DRI raised particular concerns about the long-term effects of this program on residents of Akhalgori.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions without court approval or legal necessity and prohibit police from searching a residence or conducting nonconsensual electronic surveillance or monitoring operations without a warrant. NGOs, media, and others asserted the government did not respect these prohibitions. For example, there were widespread reports that the government monitored the political opposition. Local and international NGOs also reported government officials monitored independent Azerbaijani journalists and activists residing in the country. TI Georgia and the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center continued to raise concerns regarding the State Security Service of Georgia’s secret surveillance system and its lack of political neutrality and weak oversight.
During the year the Constitutional Court continued to review a case submitted by Member of Parliament Eka Beselia regarding the January 2019 release of a secretly recorded videotape of her private life. At the time of the videotape’s release, Beselia had been a Georgian Dream member of parliament advocating the strengthening of judicial independence. The president, the Public Defender’s Office, NGOs, and others urged law enforcement officials to prevent illegal surveillance and hold accountable those responsible for circulating such recordings. In January 2019 the Public Defender’s Office and the nongovernmental “This Affects You Too” campaign separately noted such recordings had been previously released with impunity and emphasized the practice mainly targeted politically active women. The campaign stated in part, “It is very alarming that the timing of the circulation of illegal recordings coincides with the critical statements of Eka Beselia in relation to the processes in the judiciary. It is of deep concern if certain individuals used the illegal recordings as a means to stall reforms in the judiciary and protect the interests of the clan of judges that wield significant power within the judiciary.” The videotape’s release occurred in the context of contentious parliamentary debate concerning draft legislation regulating the process for selecting Supreme Court justices. As of year’s end, two new Constitutional Court judges were studying the case file.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several well-publicized reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings or beatings that led to deaths. Activists noted that deadly abuse in prisons, particularly abuse carried out by so-called voluntary assistants–prisoners who receive special privileges in exchange for carrying out orders of prison staff, remained frequent.
On October 17, police detained local herdsman Azamat Orazaly and took him to the police station in Makanchi village on suspicion of cattle theft. Later that same day, Orazaly died, allegedly while police tried to beat out a confession of the theft. On October 19, police confirmed that Azamat died in the police office in Makanchi. The investigation led to charges of torture, and three police officers were arrested.
Some human rights organizations also considered the February 24 death of civil society activist Dulat Agadil, while in police custody, an unlawful killing. Police had arrested Agadil in his house near Nur-Sultan on February 24 and placed him in the capital’s pretrial detention facility following a contempt of court decision related to insults directed at a judge in a separate case. Early the next morning, police reported Agadil had died from a heart attack. After human rights activists demanded an impartial investigation, medical authorities examined Agadil’s body the following day with the participation of two independent doctors, who did not find evidence of forced death, although they did find signs of bruising. On February 29, President Tokayev stated that he had studied the case materials and was confident Agadil died of a heart attack. On May 28, the Nur-Sultan Prosecutor’s Office announced it had dropped its investigation into Agadil’s death after finding no signs of criminal acts, as Agadil’s arrest and detention were in full compliance with the law.
The legal process continued in the killing of a human rights defender from 2019. In May 2019 the body of activist Galy Baktybayev, who was shot with a rifle, was found in the Karaganda region’s Atasu village. Baktybayev was a civil activist who raised problems of corruption, embezzlement, and other violations by local government. A special investigation group created by the Minister of Internal Affairs detained four suspects, including one former police officer. The investigation was completed and submitted to court in May, and an ongoing jury trial began on August 17.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, there were reports that police and prison officials tortured and abused detainees. Human rights activists asserted the domestic legal definition of torture was noncompliant with the definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture.
The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPM) was established by law as part of the government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. According to public statements by Ombudsman Azimova in September, the number of prisoner complaints about torture and other abuse increased in comparison to 2019. During the first 10 months of the year, her office received 125 complaints about torture and cruel treatment, compared to 84 throughout 2019. The NPM reported that 121 criminal cases were registered from those complaints and 23 individuals were convicted of torture. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported 136 complaints of torture in the first six months of the year, of which five were forwarded to courts following investigation.
The ombudsman also criticized what she termed “the widely practiced GULAG-style treatment” of prisoners and suggested that the lack of education and monitoring were the reasons for that lingering problem. She called for regular training of the staff of penitentiary institutions and an update of the penitentiary system’s rules to provide for more effective interaction with the NPM to make it impossible for prison staff to conceal incidents of torture.
Cases of prison officers being brought to justice for torture were rare, and officers often received light punishment.
On February 3, the Kapshagay district court convicted seven officers of Zarechniy prison of torture. The court sentenced Deputy Director for Behavioral Correction Arman Shabdenov and Deputy Director for Operations Jexenov to seven years in jail, and the others received sentences ranging from five to six years in jail.
On April 1, Yerbolat Askarov, director of the operations unit of a prison in Shakhtinsk near Karaganda, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ probation for torturing prisoners in addition to a three-year ban on work in penitentiary institutions. On January 23, more than 200 prisoners in Uralsk prison RU-170/3 were severely beaten by National Guard soldiers brought in by prison administrators to search for contraband. A prisoner’s relative contacted human rights activists about the incident, and the next day NPM representatives led by a local human rights activist visited the prison and listened to prisoners describe their treatment. Prisoners stated that the soldiers beat prisoners, kept them outdoors in frigid temperatures for three hours with inadequate clothing, destroyed personal items, and verbally abused them. After the raid prison officials did not let prisoners visit the infirmary. NPM representatives collected 99 written complaints, and the Penitentiary Committee and prosecutors promised to investigate all allegations. A similar incident occurred in that same prison a year prior, but no one was held responsible for either incident.
Prison conditions were generally harsh and sometimes life threatening, and facilities did not meet international health standards. Health problems among prisoners went untreated in many cases, or prison conditions exacerbated them. Prisons faced serious shortages of medical staff.
Physical Conditions: The NPM reported many concerns including poor health and sanitary conditions; poor medical services, including for prisoners suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes; high risk of torture during search, investigation, and transit to other facilities; lack of feedback from prosecutors on investigation of torture complaints; lack of communication with families; discrimination against prisoners in vulnerable groups, including prisoners with disabilities and prisoners with HIV/AIDS; censorship; and a lack of secure channels for submission of complaints.
The COVID-19 pandemic compounded prisons’ poor health and sanitary conditions, particularly in cases where prisoners had added vulnerability to infection. On August 1, Human Rights Ombudsman Azimova reported on social media that the number of complaints about insufficient health care for individuals in police custody and prisoners increased during the country’s public-health lockdown.
Activists continued during the lockdown to raise alarm about health conditions in prisons and detention facilities. Human rights defenders and observers criticized authorities for ignoring recommendations of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which reiterated the state’s responsibility for ensuring those in custody enjoy the same standards of health that are available in the community, and urged all states to reduce prison populations through early, provisional, or temporary release when possible.
On June 1, three men died, and two required intensive care as a result of an alleged poisoning in a Kokshetau detention facility, according to press accounts. Most of those affected were detained for traffic violations. Activists criticized authorities for failure to apply alternatives to incarceration for such minor offenses.
There were multiple complaints from prisoners’ relatives that prison administrators ignored prisoners’ complaints about symptoms clearly consistent with COVID-19. When such complaints reached the public, prison officials denied there were COVID-19 cases among prisoners and reported that prisoners had tested negative for the virus.
Prisoner rights activists expressed concern that authorities used COVID-19 restrictions to block access to information about treatment in prisons. After an order from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all administrators banned in-person meetings between prisoners and relatives. In order to compensate for the lack of visits, however, administrators of some prisons increased the number of prisoners’ telephone calls and allowed prisoners to have online meetings with relatives.
According to Prison Reform International (PRI), although men and women were held separately, and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners, during transitions between temporary detention centers, pretrial detention, and prisons, youth often were held with adults.
Abuse occurred in police cells, pretrial detention facilities, and prisons. Observers cited the lack of professional training programs for administrators as the primary cause of mistreatment.
The NPM and members of public monitoring commissions (PMCs) (quasi-independent bodies that also carry out monitoring) reported continuing infrastructure problems in prisons, including unsatisfactory hygiene conditions such as poor plumbing and sewage systems and unsanitary bedding. PMC members reported that some prisoners with disabilities did not have access to showers for months. They also reported shortages of medical staff and insufficient medicine, as well as mobility problems for prisoners with disabilities. In many places the NPM noted restricted connectivity with the outside world and limited access to information regarding prisoner rights. The PRI and NPM reported that there was widespread concern about food and nutrition quality in prisons. Prisoners and former prisoners complained about their provisions and reported that they were served food past its expiration date.
The government did not publish statistics on the number of deaths, suicides, or attempted suicides in pretrial detention centers or prisons during the year. PRI and PMC members reported that many suicides and deaths occurred in prisons.
Administration: Authorities typically did not conduct proper investigations into allegations of mistreatment. Human rights observers noted that in many cases authorities did not investigate prisoners’ allegations of torture or did not hold prison administrators or staff accountable. The NPM’s 2018 report emphasized the problem of voluntary assistants who are used to control other prisoners and carry out additional duties.
The law does not allow unapproved religious services, rites, ceremonies, meetings, or missionary activity in prisons. By law a prisoner in need of “religious rituals” may ask his relatives to invite a representative of a registered religious organization to carry them out, provided they do not obstruct prison activity or violate the rights and legal interests of other individuals. PMC members reported that some prisons prohibited Muslim prisoners from fasting during Ramadan. According to the NPM, prayer is permitted so long as it does not interfere with internal rules. Prayers are not allowed at nighttime or during inspections.
Independent Monitoring: There were no independent international monitors of prisons. The PMCs, which include members of civil society, may undertake monitoring visits to prisons. Human rights advocates noted that some prisons created administrative barriers to prevent the PMCs from successfully carrying out their mandate, including creating bureaucratic delays, forcing the PMCs to wait for hours to gain access to the facilities, or allowing the PMCs to visit for only a short time. Some advocates said that the PMCs are not effective because the PMCs do not have any enforcement powers, and justice-sector institutions, including prisons, are not truly interested in reform.
Authorities continued pressure on activist Elena Semyonova, the chair of the PMC in Pavlodar. Prison authorities in Almaty region, Taraz, and Kostanay filed seven lawsuits against her on charges of damaging their dignity and honor through dissemination of false information. In July courts issued rulings in favor of authorities and ordered Semyenova to refute her claims publicly on social media and also pay litigation costs. As of September complainants withdrew three lawsuits, and Semyenova lost four litigations.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but such incidents nevertheless occurred. In August the prosecutor general reported to media outlets that prosecutors released 500 unlawfully detained individuals.
Human rights observers reported arbitrary detentions during the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law reported that Almaty authorities built a tent facility and involuntarily confined all homeless citizens picked up in the city during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in March. Some individuals who live near the facility alleged that, in addition to homeless citizens, others who happened to be on site during police raids were also among those locked up in the facility. The few individuals who managed to escape the police-controlled facility complained about hunger, cold, and brutal beatings. Journalists and human rights observers who tried to verify allegations were denied access to the facility.
A person apprehended as a suspect in a crime is taken to a police office for interrogation. Prior to interrogation, the accused should have the opportunity to meet with an attorney. Upon arrest the investigator may do an immediate body search if there is reason to believe the detainee has a gun or may try to discard or destroy evidence. Within three hours of arrest, the investigator is required to write a statement declaring the reason for the arrest, the place and time of the arrest, the results of the body search, and the time of writing the statement, which is then signed by the investigator and the detained suspect. The investigator should also submit a written report to the prosecutor’s office within 12 hours of the signature of the statement.
The arrest must be approved by the court. It is a three-step procedure: (1) the investigator collects all evidence to justify the arrest and takes all materials of the case to the prosecutor; (2) the prosecutor studies the evidence and takes it to court within 12 hours; and (3) the court proceeding is held with the participation of the criminal suspect, the suspect’s lawyer, and the prosecutor. If within 48 hours of the arrest the administration of the detention facility has not received a court decision approving the arrest, the administration should immediately release him or her and notify the officer who handles the case and the prosecutor. The duration of preliminary detention may be extended to 72 hours in a variety of cases, including grave or terrorist crimes, crimes committed by criminal groups, drug trafficking, sexual crimes against a minor, and others. The court may choose other forms of restraint, including house arrest or restricted movement. According to human rights activists, these procedures were frequently ignored.
Although the judiciary has the authority to deny or grant arrest warrants, judges authorized prosecutorial warrant requests in the vast majority of cases.
The law allows conditional release on bail, although use of bail procedures is limited. Prolonged pretrial detentions remain commonplace. The bail system is designed for persons who commit a criminal offense for the first time or a crime of minor or moderate severity, provided that the penalties for conviction of committing such a crime contain a fine as an alternative penalty. Bail is not available to suspects of grave crimes, crimes that led to death, organized crime, and terrorist or extremist crimes, or to situations in which there is reason to believe the suspect would hinder investigation of the case or would escape if released.
Persons detained, arrested, or accused of committing a crime have the right to the assistance of a defense lawyer from the moment of detention, arrest, or accusation. The law obliges police to inform detainees concerning their rights, including the right to an attorney. Human rights observers stated that prisoners were constrained in their ability to communicate with their attorneys, that penitentiary staff secretly recorded conversations, and that staff often remained present during the meetings between defendants and attorneys.
Human rights defenders reported that authorities dissuaded detainees from seeing an attorney, gathered evidence through preliminary questioning before a detainee’s attorney arrived, and in some cases used defense attorneys to gather evidence. The law states that the government must provide an attorney for an indigent suspect or defendant when the suspect is a minor, has physical or mental disabilities, or faces serious criminal charges, but public defenders often lacked the necessary experience and training to assist defendants. Defendants are barred from freely choosing their defense counsel if the cases against them involve state secrets. The law allows only lawyers who have special clearance to work on such cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: The government frequently arrested and detained political opponents and critics, sometimes for minor infractions, such as unsanctioned assembly, that led to fines or up to 10 days’ administrative arrest. During the year authorities detained many who participated in unsanctioned antigovernment rallies, including some who happened to be passing by.
Pretrial Detention: The law allows police to hold a detainee for 48 hours before bringing charges.
Once charged, detainees may be held in pretrial detention for up to two months. Depending on the complexity and severity of the alleged offense, authorities may extend the term for up to 18 months while the investigation takes place. The pretrial detention term may not be longer than the potential sentence for the offense. Upon the completion of the investigation, the investigator puts together an official indictment. The materials of the case are shared with the defendant and then sent to the prosecutor, who has five days to check the materials and forward them to the court.
On June 10, Almaty police arrested the activist Asiya Tulesova for assaulting a policeman during a protest gathering after she knocked the police officer’s hat off. The court authorized a two-month arrest, despite the legal stipulation that an individual shall only be placed in police custody if he or she is suspected of a criminal offense punishable by five or more years of imprisonment. (The maximum potential sentence for Tulesova’s actions was three years.) The court also denied her bail, despite the risk of increasing her potential exposure to COVID-19.
The law grants prisoners prompt access to family members, although authorities occasionally sent prisoners to facilities located far from their homes and relatives, thus preventing access for relatives unable to travel.
Human rights observers stated that authorities occasionally used pretrial detention to torture, beat, and abuse inmates to extract confessions.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law spells out a detainee’s right to submit a complaint, challenge the justification for detention, or seek pretrial probation as an alternative to arrest. Detainees have 15 days to submit complaints to the administration of the pretrial detention facility or a local court. An investigative judge has 10 days to overturn or uphold the challenged decision.
The law does not provide for an independent judiciary. The executive branch has sharply limited judicial independence. According to the NGO Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2020 report, the country’s judiciary remained heavily dependent upon the executive branch, judges were subject to political influence, and corruption was a problem throughout the judicial system. Prosecutors enjoyed a quasi-judicial role and had the authority to suspend court decisions.
On July 15, the Medeu district court in Almaty sentenced activist Sanavar Zakirova to one year of imprisonment for inflicting harm to another person’s health. Zakirova had been ordered by a court to pay restitution to a Nur Otan Party member stemming from a case in November 2019, after she and two other activists had posted criticisms of the party member online. Human rights observers stated that the investigation and court trial of the case were marred with numerous serious irregularities. They also criticized the harsh sentence given to Zakirova, a vocal opponent of the government who had tried to form an opposition political party in March 2019, as an attempt to silence her.
According to Freedom House, corruption was evident at every stage of the judicial process. Although judges were among the most highly paid government employees, lawyers and human rights monitors stated that judges, prosecutors, and other officials solicited bribes in exchange for favorable rulings in many criminal and civil cases.
According to Freedom House, court decisions were often driven by political motives. On May 21, Prosecutor General Gizat Nurdauletov submitted a petition to the Supreme Court claiming that the January 2019 guilty verdict handed down by the Atyrau regional court in the case of former governor Bergey Ryskaliyev and his accomplices should be overturned because of procedural irregularities. Nurdauletov demanded that a portion of confiscated property be returned to Ryskaliyev and his alleged accomplices. The Supreme Court approved the Prosecutor General’s petition. A long list of property and large sums of money in foreign accounts were returned to Ryskaliyev, who had been convicted in absentia in 2019 to 17 years in prison for leading an organized criminal group. Freedom House stated the ruling marred the judiciary’s image.
During a January 13 meeting with President Tokayev, Chairman of the Supreme Court Zhakip Asanov reported that 37 judges were dismissed in 2019 for issuance of unlawful decisions, violation of judicial ethics, and failed tests of professional aptitude.
According to the 2019 report of the Supreme Judicial Council, an additional 83 judges were disciplined for violating the law and judicial ethics and for poor performance of official duties, a 40 percent increase from 2018. Three judges were convicted for corruption, and four were under investigation at the time of the report.
Supreme Court Judge Yelena Maxuta told journalists on August 5 that the number of judges dismissed for ineptitude in 2019 was close to the number dismissed during the previous 10 years. She further stated that 10 percent of judgeships were vacant, and one of five district courts (the lowest level of trial courts) lacked a chairperson due to lack of qualified candidates.
On July 29, the Auezov district court in Almaty convicted a former judge of the Bostandyk district court, Elvira Ospanova, for taking an approximately 1.2 million tenge ($3,000) bribe. Ospanova received four years in prison and a life ban on state service.
Military courts have jurisdiction over civilian criminal defendants in cases allegedly connected to military personnel. Military courts use the same criminal law as civilian courts.
The law provides for the right to a fair trial.
All defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and by law are protected from self-incrimination. Trials are public except in instances that could compromise state secrets or when necessary to protect the private life or personal family concerns of a citizen.
Jury trials are held by a panel of 10 jurors and one judge and have jurisdiction over crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment, as well as grave crimes such as trafficking and engagement of minors in criminal activity. Activists criticized juries for a bias towards the prosecution as a result of the pressure that judges applied on jurors, experts, and witnesses.
Observers noted the juror selection process was inconsistent. Judges exerted pressure on jurors and could easily dissolve a panel of jurors for perceived disobedience. The law has no mechanism for holding judges liable for such actions.
Indigent defendants in criminal cases have the right to counsel and a government-provided attorney. By law a defendant must be represented by an attorney when the defendant is a minor, has mental or physical disabilities, does not speak the language of the court, or faces 10 or more years of imprisonment. The law also provides defendants the rights to be present at their trials, to be heard in court, to be provided with an interpreter if needed, to confront witnesses against them, and to call witnesses for the defense. They have the right to appeal a decision to a higher court. According to observers, prosecutors dominated trials, and defense attorneys played a minor role. Defense attorneys in human rights-related cases said that they experienced harassment from authorities. Attorneys also sometimes complain they and the defendants do not always have adequate time or facilities to prepare.
On the night of July 1, officers of the Anticorruption Agency in Aktau (Mangystau region) detained attorney Karshiga Kushkinov and held him for 14 hours. Investigator Aset Izbasar forced the attorney to give a confession and threatened to place him under arrest. The investigator also tried to force Kushkinov to bribe a judge of the Aktau city court. Izbasar’s supervisor then threatened Kushkinov with arrest if he went public about their actions. Kushkinov contacted human rights defenders and posted messages about the incident on social media, alleging that he was targeted for defending victims of police abuse (specifically in the case of a young man who had to have his kidney removed after being beaten by police).
Domestic and international human rights organizations reported numerous problems in the judicial system, including lack of access to court proceedings, lack of access to government-held evidence, frequent procedural violations, denial of defense counsel motions, and failure of judges to investigate allegations that authorities extracted confessions through torture or duress.
During COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, courts worked remotely. Attorneys complained that during this time, courts made more mistakes and arbitrary decisions than usual and failed to follow procedures and deadlines.
In its September 6 amicus brief in activist Ilyashev’s court trial, the Clooney Foundation for Justice stated that Ilyashev’s court proceedings, held entirely online through video-conferencing software, violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial defense. The amicus brief stated that the defendant and his counsel were “periodically either unable or limited in their ability to participate in the proceedings,” were continuously prevented “from making motions, presenting arguments, and questioning witnesses,” and that the defendant’s right to communicate with counsel was breached. Ilyashev “was only able to speak to his lawyers in a handful of instances, during short breaks in the trial…[and] almost never confidentially,” according to the amicus brief.
Lack of due process remained a problem, particularly for cases arising from civil protests.
Human rights activists and international observers noted investigative and prosecutorial practices that emphasized a confession of guilt over collection of other evidence in building a criminal case against defendants. Courts generally ignored allegations by defendants that officials obtained confessions through torture or duress.
The civil society alliance Tirek maintained a list of approximately 23 individuals it considered detained or imprisoned based on politically motivated charges. These included activist Aron Atabek, land law activist Maks Bokayev, and individuals connected to the banned political party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), which is led by fugitive banker and opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov. Additionally, more prisoners were connected to the Koshe Party, also banned and labeled by the government as the successor of the DCK, as well as others connected to Mukhtar Ablyazov. Convicted labor union leader Larisa Kharkova remained subject to restricted movement, unable to leave her home city without permission of authorities. Human rights organizations have access to prisoners through the NPM framework.
Bokayev was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison for his role in organizing peaceful land reform protests. He was convicted of “instituting social discord,” “disseminating knowingly false information,” and “violating the procedure of organization and holding of meetings, rallies, pickets, street processions and demonstrations.” Although the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his imprisonment was arbitrary, he remained in jail at year’s end.
In March Rustam Ibragimov, the former managing director of BTA Bank, was extradited to the country from the United Arab Emirates. As an alleged associate of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading opposition figure residing in France, Ibragimov was allegedly suspected of helping Ablyazov illegally transfer money from BTA Bank to foreign financial institutions. His extradition occurred after joint efforts from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Emirati authorities found a passport he had used to be illegal.
On September 29, France’s National Court of Asylum Issues granted political asylum to Mukhtar Ablyazov. In its ruling the court deplored direct pressure from the government of Kazakhstan and “the obvious attempts by outside agents to exert influence on the asylum authorities.”
On October 12, an Italian court sentenced six Italian law enforcement officers on abduction charges and one justice of the peace for forgery. According to the Italian authorities, Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of Kazakhstani opposition leader and political refugee Mukhtar Ablyazov, and her six-year-old daughter Alua were abducted by certain Italian officers and officials in the framework of interstate cooperation in criminal matters. After a meeting between Giuseppe Procaccini, then head of cabinet of the Ministry of the Interior, and Andrian Yelemesov, the Kazakhstani ambassador to Italy, Alma and Alua were detained by Italian police in 2013 during a raid on Ablyazov’s residence in Rome. While Ablyazov was not home, two days after the raid, Alma and Alua were forced onto a private plane provided by Kazakhstani authorities and flown to Kazakhstan after being charged with alleged passport fraud. Due to mounting international criticism, Alma and Alua were returned to Italy at the end of 2013. The court did not provide a full explanation of the verdict but announced that all the accused received higher sentences than those requested by prosecutors. The head of Rome’s Immigration Office, Maurizio Improta, and the head of the police flying squad, Renato Cortese, were convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and disqualification from holding any public office. Similarly, Francesco Stampacchia and Luca Armeni, the officers of Rome’s flying squad, were sentenced to five years in prison. Stefano Leoni and Vincenzo Tramma, the officers of Rome’s Immigration Office, were given three years and six months and four years, respectively.
Activists and media regularly noted the government targets political opponents, in particular those with business or family connections to Ablyazov, using INTERPOL red notices. On May 14, Ukraine’s Supreme Court revoked a lower court’s ruling in favor of Kazakhstani journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmet’s asylum request. The Supreme Court’s decision made possible the extradition to Kazakhstan of Akhmet, who was wanted there for fraud and was an active supporter of Ablyazov, because Ukraine had ratified an extradition agreement with Kazakhstan. The journalist’s supporters alleged that Ukraine’s Supreme Court decision was a result of cooperation between Ukrainian and Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies. The Open Dialogue Foundation, Freedom House, and Ukrainian and Kazakhstani human rights NGOs called on Ukraine’s authorities not to extradite Akhmet.
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Economic and administrative court judges handle civil cases under a court structure that largely mirrors the criminal court structure. Although the law and constitution provide for judicial resolution of civil disputes, observers viewed civil courts as corrupt and unreliable. During COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, these courts worked remotely, leading to complaints of increased disregard for procedures and deadlines.
The constitution and law prohibit violations of privacy, but the government at times infringed on these rights.
The law provides prosecutors with extensive authority to limit citizens’ constitutional rights. The National Security Committee (KNB), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other agencies, with the concurrence of the Prosecutor General’s Office, may infringe on the secrecy of private communications and financial records, as well as on the inviolability of the home. Consistent with previous years, human rights activists reported incidents of alleged surveillance, including KNB officers visiting activists’ and their families’ homes for “unofficial” conversations regarding suspect activities, wiretapping and recording of telephone conversations, and videos of private meetings being posted on social media.
Courts may hear an appeal of a prosecutor’s decision but may not issue an immediate injunction to cease an infringement. The law allows wiretapping in medium, urgent, and grave cases.
Human rights defenders, activists, and their family members continued to report the government occasionally monitored their movements.
On June 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on the regulation of digital technologies. Human rights defenders expressed concern the amendments were adopted without any public dialogue or explanation on the part of the government and that some portions of the amendments were too broad and could be used to infringe on privacy rights and freedom of speech. According to critics, the law did not firmly provide for protection of personally identifiable data or access to such data, and lacked sufficient mechanisms for oversight of the national system. Additionally, it was unclear what the limits and purposes were for the use of biometric data and video monitoring. Under the law the agency authorized to protect personal data is a part of the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry. Those who saw the amendments as insufficient pointed to the data breach in June 2019, when the personal data of 11 million citizens were leaked by the Central Election Commission. Critics said that the lack of proper oversight was highlighted when the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced in January that it had dropped its investigation into the incident, citing a lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.
On December 5, the government announced a cybersecurity drill in which local internet service providers would block residents from accessing foreign sites unless they had a certificate of authority (CA) issued by the government and installed on their devices. The CA allowed a “man-in-the-middle” function that intercepted and decrypted hypertext transfer protocol secure traffic and allowed security forces full access to online activity. While users were able to access most foreign-hosted sites, access was blocked to sites like Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, unless they had the certificate installed. The government-mandated CA was rejected by foreign-hosted sites due to security and privacy concerns. Officials claimed the exercise was being carried out to protect government agencies, telecoms, and private companies, and that increased use of the internet during COVID-19 and the threat of cyberattacks necessitated the actions. Previously, officials had urged adoption of a similar CA in August 2019 but withdrew it after significant public outcry. On December 7, the KNB announced that the certificate rollout was simply a test that had been completed.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were credible allegations that the government contributed to civilian deaths in connection with its fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) organization in the southeast, although at a markedly reduced level compared with previous years (see section 1.g.). The PKK continued to target civilians in its attacks; the government continued to work to block such attacks. The law authorizes the Ombudsman Institution, the National Human Rights and Equality Institution, prosecutors’ offices, criminal courts, and parliament’s Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of security force killings, torture, or mistreatment, excessive use of force, and other abuses. Civil courts, however, remained the main recourse to prevent impunity.
According to the International Crisis Group, from January 1 to December 10, a total of 35 civilians, 41 security force members, and 235 PKK militants were killed in eastern and southeastern provinces in PKK-related clashes. Human rights groups stated the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK.
The PKK continued its nationwide campaign of attacks on government security forces and, in some cases, civilians. For example, on May 14, PKK terrorists attacked aid workers in Van, killing two and injuring one. On June 18, PKK terrorists reportedly attacked a truck carrying fuel for roadwork in Sirnak province by planting an improvised explosive device (IED). The IED explosion killed four truck passengers.
There were credible reports that the country’s military operations outside its borders led to the deaths of civilians. On June 25, a Turkish air strike against the Kurdistan Free Life Party terrorist group reportedly wounded at least six civilians in Iraq. On June 19, Turkish air strikes against PKK targets killed three civilians in the same region of Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch.
Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or Turkish-supported Syrian opposition groups on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa, Syria; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities use to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The government of Turkey considers the YPG the Syrian branch of the United States-designated foreign terrorist organization the PKK. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020, including near civilian infrastructure.
Following the launch of the Turkish armed forces’ offensive in northern Syria in October 2019 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch continued to report claims from local and regional human rights activists and media organizations that Turkish-supported Syrian opposition groups committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance of civilians; torture and sexual violence; forced evacuations from homes; looting and property seizures in areas under Turkish control; transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey; restricting water supplies to civilian populations; recruitment of child soldiers; and looting and desecrating religious shrines. Reports by the UN Commission of Inquiry into Syria similarly suggested that Turkish-supported opposition groups may have been responsible for attacks against civilians (for more information, see the Syria section of Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights). The government rejected these reports as flawed and biased, including by an October 6 note verbale to the UN high commissioner for human rights, but acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports. The government relayed that the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline in 2019. The government claimed the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout the operation.
According to the Baran Tursun Foundation, an organization that monitors police brutality, police have killed 403 individuals for disobeying stop warnings since 2007. According to the report, 93 were children. In April police shot and killed a 19-year-old Syrian refugee who ran from an enforcement stop connected with anti-COVID-19 measures that at the time prohibited minors younger than age 20 from leaving their residences. On May 28, a police officer involved in the shooting was arrested for the killing. Human rights groups documented several suspicious deaths of detainees in official custody, although reported numbers varied among organizations. In November the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) reported 49 deaths in prison related to illness, violence, or other causes. Of these 15 were allegedly due to suicide. In August a 44-year-old man convicted of having ties to the Gulen movement died in a quarantine cell in Gumushane Prison after displaying COVID-19 symptoms. Press reports alleged the prisoner had requested medical treatment multiple times, but the prison failed to provide it. Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Member of Parliament (MP) Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu called on the Ministry of Justice to investigate the case.
By law National Intelligence Organization (MIT) members are immune from prosecution as are security officials involved in fighting terror, making it harder for prosecutors to investigate extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by requiring that they obtain permission from both military and civilian leadership prior to pursuing prosecution.
Domestic and international human rights groups reported disappearances during the year that they alleged were politically motivated.
In February the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint with the Ankara prosecutor on behalf of seven men reportedly “disappeared” by the government, who surfaced in police custody in 2019. One of the men, Gokhan Turkmen, a civil servant dismissed under state of emergency powers following the 2016 coup attempt, alleged in a pretrial hearing that intelligence officials visited him in prison, threatened him and his family, and urged him to retract his allegations that he was abducted and tortured while in custody. In April the Ankara prosecutor declined to investigate Turkmen’s complaints. Six of the seven men were in pretrial detention on terrorism charges at year’s end. The whereabouts of the seventh were unknown.
In May former HDP MP Tuma Celik asserted that the disappearance of an Assyrian Chaldean Catholic couple in the village of Kovankaya (Syriac: Mehri), reported missing since January, was “a kidnapping carried out with the ones who lean on the state or groups within the state,” likely alluding to nonstate armed groups aligned with the government. Others, including witnesses on the scene, asserted that the PKK was responsible. The husband, Hurmuz Diril, remained missing at year’s end, while in March relatives found the dead body of the wife, Simoni Diril, in a river near the village.
The government declined to provide information on efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts.
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but domestic and international rights groups reported that some police officers, prison authorities, and military and intelligence units employed these practices. Domestic human rights organizations, the Ankara Bar Association, political opposition figures, international human rights groups, and others reported that government agents engaged in threats, mistreatment, and possible torture of some persons while in custody. Human rights groups asserted that individuals with alleged affiliation with the PKK or the Gulen movement were more likely to be subjected to mistreatment or abuse.
In June, Emre Soylu, an adviser to ruling alliance member Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Mersin MP Olcay Kilavuz, shared photos on his Twitter account showing a man allegedly being tortured by police at the Diyarbakir Antiterror Branch. A short video shared widely on social media included the screams of a man at the same facility in Diyarbakir. Kurdish politicians and civil society organizations, including the Human Rights Association of Turkey (HRA), condemned the incident and called on authorities to investigate.
In July, Human Rights Watch reported there was credible evidence that police and community night watchmen (bekcis) committed serious abuses against at least 14 persons, including violent arrests and beatings, in six incidents in Diyarbakir and Istanbul from May through July. In four of the cases, authorities refuted the allegations and failed to commit to investigate. In one case on June 26, masked police allegedly raided former mayor and HDP member Sevil Cetin’s home in Diyarbakir city, setting attack dogs on her while beating her. On June 28, the Diyarbakir Governor’s Office released a statement refuting the allegations and stating authorities did not intend to investigate.
In September news reports claimed that Jandarma forces apprehended, detained for two days, tortured, and threw out of a helicopter two farmers in Van province as part of an anti-PKK operation. One of the men died from his injuries. The Van Governor’s Office denied the allegations and stated that the injuries resulted from of the men falling in a rocky area while trying to escape from the officers. A court approved a ban on all news reports on the case, as requested by the Van Prosecutor’s Office. On November 27, Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu stated one of the villagers, Osman Siban, was aiding PKK terrorists and that authorities therefore apprehended him.
In 2019 public reports alleged that as many as 100 persons, including former members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed under the 2016-18 state of emergency decrees due to suspected ties to the Gulen movement, were mistreated or tortured while in police custody. The Ankara Bar Association released a report that detailed its interviews with alleged victims. Of the six detainees the association interviewed, five reported police authorities tortured them. In August the Ankara Prosecution Office decided not to pursue prosecution based on the allegations, citing insufficient evidence.
Reports from human rights groups indicated that police abused detainees outside police station premises and that mistreatment and alleged torture was more prevalent in some police facilities in parts of the southeast. The HRA reported receiving complaints from 573 individuals alleging they were subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment while in custody or at extracustodial locations from January through November. The HRA reported that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report police abuse due to fear of reprisal. In June, responding to a parliamentary inquiry, the minister of interior reported the ministry had received 396 complaints of torture and maltreatment since October 2019. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) human rights reports alleged that from May to August, 223 individuals reported torture or inhuman treatment.
The government asserted it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture and has abolished statute of limitations for cases of torture. On August 5, the Council of Europe released two reports on visits to the country by its Committee for the Prevention of Torture’s (CPT) in 2017 and 2019. The 2019 report stated that the delegation received “a considerable number of allegations of excessive use of force or physical ill-treatment by police and gendarmerie officers from persons who had recently been taken into custody (including women and juveniles). The allegations consisted mainly of slaps, kicks, punches (including to the head and face), and truncheon blows after the persons concerned had been handcuffed or otherwise brought under control.” The CPT noted, “A significant proportion of the allegations related to beatings during transport or inside law enforcement establishments, apparently with the aim of securing confessions or obtaining other information, or as a punishment. Further, numerous detained persons claimed to have been subjected to threats, and/or severe verbal abuse.” The CPT found that the severity of alleged police mistreatment diminished in 2019 compared with the findings of the 2017 CPT visit, although the frequency of the allegations remained worrying.
In its World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch stated: “A rise in allegations of torture, ill-treatment and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in police custody and prison over the past four years has set back Turkey’s earlier progress in this area. Those targeted include Kurds, leftists, and alleged followers of Fethullah Gulen. Prosecutors do not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity for members of the security forces and public officials implicated.” According to Ministry of Justice 2019 statistics, the government opened 2,767 investigations into allegations of torture and mistreatment. Of those, 1,372 resulted in no action being taken by prosecutors, 933 resulted in criminal cases, and 462 in other decisions. The government did not release data on its investigations into alleged torture.
Some military conscripts reportedly endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in death or suicide. Human rights groups reported that suspicious deaths in the military were widespread. The government did not systematically investigate them or release data. The HRA and HRFT reported at least 18 deaths as suspicious during the year. In September a Kurdish soldier serving in Edirne reported being beaten by other soldiers because of his ethnic identity. Turkish Land Forces Command opened an investigation into the incident.
The government did not release information on its efforts to address abuse through disciplinary action and training.
Prisons generally met standards for physical conditions (i.e., infrastructure and basic equipment), but significant problems with overcrowding resulted in conditions in many prisons that the CPT found could be considered inhuman and degrading. While detention facilities were generally in a good state of repair and well ventilated, many facilities had structural deficiencies that made them unsuitable for detention lasting more than a few days.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem. CPT reports from 2017 and 2019 stated, “The problem of prison overcrowding remained acute, and the steady increase in the size of the prison population already observed in the mid-2000s continued.” According to the Ministry of Justice, as of July, the country had 355 prisons with a capacity for 233,194 inmates and an estimated total inmate population of 281,000, prior to the ministry’s granting of COVID-19 amnesty for 90,000 prisoners.
In April, Minister of Justice Gul announced that three prisoners had died of COVID-19. The same month, to alleviate conditions in prisons due to the pandemic, parliament approved a bill to modify the sentences of 90,000 prisoners by allowing for their release, including those convicted of organized crime and attempted murder. The bill did not include any provisions for persons held under provisional or pretrial detention and explicitly excluded anyone convicted under antiterror charges, including journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders. The Ministry of Justice has not released updated figures on prisoner deaths due to COVID-19 since April.
If separate prison facilities for minors were not available, minors were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Children younger than six were allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers. The HRA estimated that as of December, 300 children were being held with their mothers. HRA noted that authorities released many mothers and children as a result of the COVID-19 amnesty. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities as convicted prisoners.
The government did not release data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members. The HRA reported that 49 inmates died in prison from January to November. The HRA noted that prisoners were unlikely to report health issues and seek medical care since a positive COVID-19 result would lead to a two-week quarantine in solitary confinement. Human rights organizations and CPT reports asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, lighting, food, and health services. Human rights organizations also noted that prison overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions exacerbated the health risks for prisoners from the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil Society in the Penal System Association reported that prison facilities did not allow for sufficient social distancing due to overcrowding and did not provide cleaning and disinfection services on a regular basis. Prisons also did not provide disinfectant, gloves, or masks to prisoners, but instead sold them at commissaries.
The Ministry of Justice’s Prison and Correctional Facilities official reported to parliament that, as of October, more than 1,900 health workers were serving the prison population. Of the health workers, there were seven medical doctors, 144 dentists, 84 nurses, and 853 psychologists. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. According to HRA statistics, in September there were 1,605 sick prisoners in the country’s prisons, 604 of whom were in serious condition.
Reports by human rights organizations suggested that some doctors would not sign their names to medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal. As a result victims were often unable to get medical documentation that would help prove their claims.
In December, Amnesty International reported that prison guards in Diyarbakir severely beat prisoner Mehmet Siddik Mese, but the prison doctor stated that the prisoner was not beaten in the official report. Mese did not receive an independent medical examination. The prosecutor decided not to prosecute the suspected perpetrators based on the prison doctor’s report.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners whom they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
Administration: Authorities at times investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhuman or degrading conditions but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or disclose publicly whether actions were taken to hold perpetrators accountable. Some human rights activists and lawyers reported that prisoners and detainees were sometimes arbitrarily denied access to family members and lawyers.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. The Ministry of Interior reported that under the law prisons were to be monitored by domestic government entities including the Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey and the Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Human Rights. International monitors included the CPT, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
HDP MP Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu stated that in response to his June inquiry, the Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Human Rights reported it had received 3,363 reports of human rights violations from detainees and prisoners since June 2018 but found no violations in any of the cases.
The government did not allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor prisons. In October, HRA Balikesir chairman Rafet Fahri Semizoglu was detained under charges stemming from his visits to prisons. The Civil Society Association in the Penal System published periodic reports on prison conditions based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court, but numerous credible reports indicated the government did not always observe these requirements.
Human rights groups noted that, following the 2016 coup attempt, authorities continued to detain, arrest, and try hundreds of thousands of individuals for alleged ties to the Gulen movement or the PKK, often with questionable evidentiary standards and without the full due process provided for under law (see section 2.a.).
On the four-year anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt in July, the government announced that authorities had opened legal proceedings against 597,783 individuals, detained 282,790, and arrested 94,975 since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation or connection with the Gulen movement. During the year the government started legal proceedings against 39,719 individuals, detained 21,000, and arrested 3,688. In July the Ministry of Justice reported that the government had conducted nearly 100,000 operations targeting Gulenists since the coup attempt. The government reportedly detained and investigated a majority of the individuals for alleged terror-related crimes, including membership in and propagandizing for the Gulen movement or the PKK. Domestic and international legal and human rights experts questioned the quality of evidence presented by prosecutors in such cases, criticized the judicial process, asserted that the judiciary lacked impartiality, and that defendants were sometimes denied access to the evidence underlying the accusations against them (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures).
The courts in some cases applied the law unevenly, with legal critics and rights activists asserting court and prosecutor decisions were sometimes subject to executive interference. In January an Ankara court of appeals reversed a lower court ruling for life imprisonment of a former three-star general, Metin Iyidil, accused of participation in the coup attempt. Two days after Iyidil’s release, another court reordered his detention. After President Erdogan publicly criticized the Ankara appeals court decision to acquit, the court ruled for Iyidil to be rearrested. The Council of Judges and Prosecutors opened an investigation into the acquittal decision, suspending the three judges who ruled for acquittal from their posts.
The law requires that prosecutors issue warrants for arrests, unless the suspect is detained while committing a crime. The period for arraignment may be extended for up to four days. Formal arrest is a measure, separate from detention, which means a suspect is to be held in jail until and unless released by a subsequent court order. For crimes that carry potential prison sentences of fewer than three years’ imprisonment, a judge may release the accused after arraignment upon receipt of an appropriate assurance, such as bail. For more serious crimes, the judge may either release the defendant on his or her own recognizance or hold the defendant in custody (arrest) prior to trial if there are specific facts indicating the suspect may flee, attempt to destroy evidence, or attempt to pressure or tamper with witnesses or victims. Judges often kept suspects in pretrial detention without articulating a clear justification for doing so.
While the law generally provides detainees the right to immediate access to an attorney, it allows prosecutors to deny such access for up to 24 hours. In criminal cases the law also requires that the government provide indigent detainees with a public attorney if they request one. In cases where the potential prison sentence for conviction is more than five years’ imprisonment or where the defendant is a child or a person with disabilities, a defense attorney is appointed, even absent a request from the defendant. Human rights observers noted that in most cases authorities provided an attorney if a defendant could not afford one.
Under antiterror legislation adopted in 2018, the government may detain without charge (or appearance before a judge) a suspect for 48 hours for “individual” offenses and 96 hours for “collective” offenses. These periods may be extended twice with the approval of a judge, amounting to six days for “individual” and 12 days for “collective” offenses. Human rights organizations raised concerns that police authority to hold individuals for up to 12 days without charge increased the risk of mistreatment and torture. According to a statement by Minister of Justice Gul, 48,752 persons were in pretrial detention in the country as of July.
The law gives prosecutors the right to suspend lawyer-client privilege and to observe and record conversations between accused persons and their legal counsel. Bar associations reported that detainees occasionally had difficulty gaining immediate access to lawyers, both because government decrees restricted lawyers’ access to detainees and prisons–especially for those attorneys not appointed by the state–and because many lawyers were reluctant to defend individuals the government accused of ties to the 2016 coup attempt. Human rights organizations reported the 24-hour attorney access restriction was arbitrarily applied and that in terrorism-related cases, authorities often did not inform defense attorneys of the details of detentions within the first 24 hours, as stipulated by law. In such cases rights organizations and lawyers groups reported attorneys’ access to the case files for their clients was limited for weeks or months pending preparations of indictments, hampering their ability to defend their clients.
Some lawyers stated they were hesitant to take cases, particularly those of suspects accused of PKK or Gulen movement ties, because of fear of government reprisal, including prosecution. Government intimidation of defense lawyers also at times involved nonterror cases. The international NGO Freedom House in its 2020 Freedom in the World report stated, “In many cases, lawyers defending those accused of terrorism offenses were arrested themselves.” According to human rights organizations, since 2016 authorities prosecuted more than 1,500 lawyers, arrested 605, and sentenced 441 to lengthy prison terms on terrorism-related charges. Of the arrested lawyers, 14 were presidents of provincial bar associations. This practice disproportionately affected access to legal representation in the southeast, where accusations of affiliation with the PKK were frequent and the ratio of lawyers to citizens was low. In a September speech, the president suggested that lawyers who are “intimate” with terrorist organizations should be disbarred.
Arbitrary Arrest: Although the law prohibits holding a suspect arbitrarily or secretly, there were numerous reports that the government did not observe these prohibitions. Human rights groups alleged that in areas under curfew or in “special security zones,” security forces detained citizens without official record, leaving detainees at greater risk of arbitrary abuse.
In September the HDP released a statement detailing allegations that police kidnapped, physically assaulted, and later released six HDP youth assembly members in separate incidents in Diyarbakir, Istanbul, and Agri province. The HDP also stated that on May 4 police abducted HDP assembly member Hatice Busra Kuyun in Van province, forced her into a car, and threatened her. Police released Kuyun on the same day.
Pretrial Detention: The maximum time an arrestee can be held pending trial with an indictment is seven years, including for crimes against the security of the state, national defense, constitutional order, state secrets and espionage, organized crime, and terrorism-related offenses. Pretrial detention during the investigation phase of a case (before an indictment) is limited to six months for cases that do not fall under the purview of the heavy criminal court–referred to by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) as the central criminal court–and one year for cases that fall under the heavy criminal court. The length of pretrial detention generally did not exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crimes. For other major criminal offenses tried by high criminal courts, the maximum detention period remained two years with the possibility of three one-year extensions, for a total of five years.
For terror-related cases, the maximum period of pretrial detention during the investigation phase is 18 months, with the possibility of a six-month extension.
Rule of law advocates noted that broad use of pretrial detention had become a form of summary punishment, particularly in cases that involved politically motivated terrorism charges.
The trial system does not provide for a speedy trial, and trial hearings were often months apart, despite provisions in the code of criminal procedure for continuous trial. Trials sometimes began years after indictment, and appeals could take years more to reach conclusion.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees’ lawyers may appeal pretrial detention, although antiterror legislation imposed limits on their ability to do so. The country’s judicial process allows a system of lateral appeals to criminal courts of peace for arrest, release, judicial control, and travel ban decisions that substitutes appeal to a higher court with appeal to a lateral court. Lawyers criticized the approach, which rendered ambiguous the authority of conflicting rulings by horizontally equal courts. In addition since 2016 sentences of less than five years’ imprisonment issued by regional appellate courts were final and could not be appealed. Since 2019 the law provides for defendants in certain types of insult cases or speech-related cases to appeal to a higher court.
Detainees awaiting or undergoing trial prior to the 2016-18 state of emergency had the right to a review in person with a lawyer before a judge every 30 days to determine if they should be released pending trial. Under a law passed in 2018, in-person review occurs once every 90 days with the 30-day reviews replaced by a judge’s evaluation of the case file only. Bar associations noted this element of the law was contrary to the principle of habeas corpus and increased the risk of abuse, since the detainee would not be seen by a judge on a periodic basis.
In cases of alleged human rights violations, detainees have the right to apply directly to the Constitutional Court for redress while their criminal cases are proceeding. Nevertheless, a backlog of cases at the Constitutional Court slowed proceedings, preventing expeditious redress.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that detention center conditions varied and were often challenging due to limited physical capacity and increased referrals. Refugee-focused human rights groups alleged authorities prevented migrants placed in detention and return centers from communicating with the outside world, including their family members and lawyers, creating the potential for refoulement as migrants accept repatriation to avoid indefinite detention.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but there were indications the judiciary remained subject to influence, particularly from the executive branch.
The executive branch exerts strong influence over the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), the judicial body that assigns and reassigns judges and prosecutors to the country’s courts nationwide and is responsible for their discipline. Out of 13 total judges on the board, the president directly appoints six: The executive branch and parliament appoint 11 members (seven by parliament and four by the president) every four years; the other two members are the presidentially appointed justice minister and deputy justice minister. The ruling party controlled both the executive and the parliament when the existing members were appointed in 2017. Although the constitution provides tenure for judges, the HSK controls the careers of judges and prosecutors through appointments, transfers, promotions, expulsions, and reprimands. Broad leeway granted to prosecutors and judges challenges the requirement to remain impartial, and judges’ inclination to give precedence to the state’s interests contributed to inconsistent application of laws. Bar associations, lawyers, and scholars expressed concern regarding application procedures for prosecutors and judges described as highly subjective, which they warned opened the door to political litmus tests in the hiring process.
The judiciary faced a number of problems that limited judicial independence, including intimidation and reassignment of judges and allegations of interference by the executive branch. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the government suspended, detained, or fired nearly one-third of the judiciary accused of affiliation with the Gulen movement. The government in the intervening years filled the vacancies, but the judiciary continued to experience the effects of the purges. A Reuters international news organization analysis of Ministry of Justice data showed that at least 45 percent of the country’s prosecutors and judges have three years of legal professional experience or less.
Observers raised concerns that the outcome of some trials appeared predetermined or pointed to judicial interference. In February an Istanbul court ruled to acquit philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others on charges of attempting to use the 2013 Gezi Park protests to overthrow the state. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in pretrial detention since 2017. The presiding judge permitted Kavala’s lawyer to argue on his client’s behalf but refused to allow any other defendant’s lawyers to do likewise. Without pausing for deliberation following final statements from the defendants, the presiding judge produced a paper that appeared to have the verdict already written. The court acquitted Kavala of the charges and ordered him released immediately, but authorities detained Kavala the same day upon exit from prison on new charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the state order in connection with the 2016 failed coup. In March authorities issued an order of arrest for Kavala while he was in detention. In October prosecutors filed a new indictment against Kavala seeking three aggravated life sentences for espionage and renewed charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and organizing the Gezi Park protests and supporting the Gulen movement. In December the Constitutional Court found that the government did not violate Kavala’s rights when he was re-arrested following acquittal in February. Kavala remained in detention at year’s end.
The government also targeted some defense attorneys representing a number of high-profile clients. In September authorities issued detention orders for 48 lawyers and seven legal trainees in Ankara on charges related to terrorism due to alleged links to the Gulen movement. Prominent bar associations, including those of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and Gaziantep, condemned the arrests and reported that investigators’ questions to the lawyers, as well as presented evidence, were related to their professional activities.
The country has an inquisitorial criminal justice system. The system for educating and assigning judges and prosecutors fosters close connections between the two groups, which some legal experts claimed encouraged impropriety and unfairness in criminal cases.
There are no military courts, and military justice is reserved for disciplinary action, not criminal cases.
Lower courts at times ignored or significantly delayed implementation of decisions reached by the Constitutional Court. The government rarely implemented European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions, despite the country’s obligation to do so as a member of the Council of Europe.
The government acknowledged problems in the judicial sector, and in 2019 parliament passed a Judicial Reform Strategy for 2019-23 reportedly designed to protect legal rights and freedoms and strengthen the independence of the judiciary while fostering more transparency, efficiency, and uniformity in legal procedures. Human rights groups criticized the strategy for focusing on cosmetic rather than structural changes; lacking a clear implementation plan, including timeline; failing to identify responsible government bodies and budget; and failing to address judicial independence concerns. Under the strategy the parliament in July adopted a legislative package amending trial procedures to streamline civil case processing and expanding use of arbitration and the scope of cases where trials may be closed to the public. Human rights organizations noted the effort to reduce trial durations was positive but voiced concern that the law may reduce trial transparency.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial, although bar associations and rights groups asserted that increasing executive interference with the judiciary and actions taken by the government through state of emergency provisions jeopardized this right.
The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence and the right to be present at their trials, although in a number of high-profile cases, defendants increasingly appeared via video link from prison, rather than in person. Judges may restrict defense lawyers’ access to their clients’ court files for a specific catalogue of crimes (including crimes against state security, organized crime, and sexual assault against children) until the client is indicted.
A single judge or a panel of judges decides all cases. Courtroom proceedings were generally public except for cases involving minors as defendants. The state increasingly used a clause allowing closed courtrooms for hearings and trials related to security matters, such as those related to “crimes against the state.” Court files, which contain indictments, case summaries, judgments, and other court pleadings, were closed except to the parties to a case, making it difficult for the public, including journalists and watchdog groups, to obtain information on the progress or results of a case. In some politically sensitive cases, judges restricted access to Turkish lawyers only, limiting the ability of domestic or international groups to observe some trials.
Defendants have the right to be present at trial and to consult an attorney of their choice in a timely manner, although legal advocates have asserted the government coerced defendants to choose government-appointed lawyers. Observers and human rights groups noted that in some high-profile cases, these rights were not afforded to defendants. Individuals from the southeast were increasingly held in prisons or detention centers far from the location of the alleged crime and appeared at their hearing via video link systems. Some human rights organizations reported that hearings sometimes continued in the defendant’s absence when video links purportedly failed.
Defendants have the right to legal representation in criminal cases and, if indigent, to have representation provided at public expense. Defendants or their attorneys could question witnesses for the prosecution, although questions must usually be presented to the judges, who are expected to ask the questions on behalf of counsel. Defendants or their attorneys could, within limits, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to testify or confess guilt and the right to appeal. The law provides for court-provided language interpretation when needed. Human rights groups alleged interpretation was not always provided free of charge, leaving some poor, non-Turkish-speaking defendants disadvantaged by the need to pay for interpretation.
Observers noted the prosecutors and courts often failed to establish evidence to sustain indictments and convictions in cases related to supporting terrorism, highlighting concerns regarding respect for due process and adherence to credible evidentiary thresholds. In numerous cases authorities used secret evidence or witnesses to which defense attorneys and the accused had no access or ability to cross-examine and challenge in court, particularly in cases related to national security. The government occasionally refused to acknowledge secret witnesses.
In April court authorities released from judicial control (parole) Turkish dual national Serkan Golge. In 2018 a court sentenced Golge to seven-and-a-half years in prison on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization,” referring to the Gulen movement. An appeals court later reduced the charges and sentence to “support of a terrorist organization” and five years’ imprisonment. Authorities arrested Golge in 2016 based on specious evidence, including witness testimony that was later recanted. Golge served nearly three years in prison before he was released; he was permitted to leave the country in June.
The number of political prisoners remained a subject of debate at year’s end. In July the Ministry of Interior reported the government had detained 282,790 persons in connection with the coup attempt since 2016. Of those, 25,912 were in prison awaiting trial. NGOs estimated there were 50,000 individuals in prison for terror-related crimes. Some observers considered some of these individuals political prisoners, a charge the government disputed.
Prosecutors used a broad definition of terrorism and threats to national security and in some cases, according to defense lawyers and opposition groups, used what appeared to be legally questionable evidence to file criminal charges against and prosecute a broad range of individuals, including journalists, opposition politicians (primarily of the HDP), activists, and others critical of the government.
At year’s end eight former HDP parliamentarians and 17 HDP comayors were in detention following arrest. According to the HDP, since July 2015 at least 5,000 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members were in prison for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech. The government had suspended from office using national security grounds 48 locally elected opposition politicians in Kurdish-majority areas, and subsequently arrested 37. The government suspended from office the elected village leaders of 10 villages in the southeast in May. By August 2019 the government had suspended most of the mayors elected in the southeast in March 2019, including the HDP mayors of major southeastern cities Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Van. The government suspended an additional 16 mayors during the year. The government suspended the majority of mayors for ongoing investigations into their alleged support for PKK terrorism, largely dating to before their respective elections.
In September authorities arrested both comayors of Kars, Ayhan Bilgen and Sevin Alaca, as part of detention orders for 101 persons across seven provinces, including former HDP members of parliament and senior HDP officials, for their alleged involvement in the 2014 Kobane protests in the country regarding perceived government inaction in response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria takeover of the majority Kurdish town of Kobane, Syria. The prosecutor’s office also issued a secrecy injunction, citing terror charges, which prevented lawyers from accessing their clients’ files. In total authorities arrested 17 HDP officials. On December 30, the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office filed an indictment containing 37 counts of homicide and charges of “disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state” against 108 individuals, including the arrested HDP officials, in relation to the Kobane protests.
Former HDP cochair and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas remained in prison on terrorism charges since 2016 despite 2018 and 2020 ECHR rulings for his release. In June the Constitutional Court ruled that Demirtas’ lengthy pretrial detention violated his rights, but the government did not release him from prison because of a second detention order stemming from a separate investigation related to the 2014 antigovernment Kobane protests. In September the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a new indictment against Demirtas under counterterrorism statutes for his criticism of the Ankara chief prosecutor at a hearing in January. On the same day, an Ankara court also ruled for the continuation of Demirtas’ imprisonment based on the Kobane protests investigation. On December 22, the ECHR ruled that Turkey violated Demirtas’ rights, including freedom of expression, liberty, and security; speedy decision on lawfulness of detention; and free elections, and it called for his immediate release. Following the ruling, President Erdogan accused the ECHR of “defending a terrorist” and making a hypocritical, politically motivated ruling. The president also stated that only Turkish courts could rule on the case and that Turkey would “evaluate” the ECHR decision. On December 30, authorities indicted Demirtas for his involvement in the Kobane protests as part of the mass indictment of 108 individuals.
Authorities used antiterror laws broadly against opposition political party members, human rights activists, media outlets, suspected PKK sympathizers, and alleged Gulen movement members or groups affiliated with the Gulen movement, among others, including to seize assets of companies, charities, or businesses. Human rights groups alleged many detainees had no substantial link to terrorism and were detained to silence critical voices or weaken political opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly the HDP or its partner party, the Democratic Regions Party.
In June the government expelled MPs Leyla Guven and Musa Farisogulları of the HDP and Enis Berberoglu of the main opposition CHP from parliament and arrested them after appeals courts upheld charges against them on terrorism and espionage, respectively. The Constitutional Court ruled that the government had violated Berberoglu’s rights because it did not renew the lifting of his legal immunity following his re-election in 2018. In October the criminal court in Istanbul, which reviewed Berberoglu’s case, rejected the Constitutional Court ruling for a retrial. Berberoglu remained on release from prison due to COVID-19 precautions. In December a Diyarbakir court sentenced Guven to 22 years and three months in prison on three separate terrorism charges. Authorities transferred Guven to prison following sentencing; they had released her earlier in the year based on time served in a separate case.
Students, artists, and association members faced criminal investigations for alleged terror-related activities, primarily due to their social media posts. The government did not consider those in custody for alleged PKK or Gulen movement ties to be political prisoners and did not permit access to them by human rights or humanitarian organizations.
Credible reports claimed that authorities subjected some persons jailed on terrorism-related charges to abuses, including long solitary confinement, unnecessary strip and cavity searches, severe limitations on outdoor exercise and out-of-cell activity, denial of access to prison library and media, slow medical attention, and in some cases the denial of medical treatment. Reports also alleged that authorities subjected visitors of prisoners accused of terrorism-related crimes to abuse, including limited access to family and degrading treatment by prison guards, including strip searches.
The government engaged in a worldwide effort to apprehend suspected members of the Gulen movement. There were credible reports that the government exerted bilateral pressure on other countries to take adverse action against specific individuals, at times without due process. According to a report by several UN special rapporteurs in May, the government reportedly coordinated with other states to transfer more forcibly than 100 Turkish nationals to Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt, of which 40 individuals were subjected to enforced disappearance. In January, Albania deported Turkish citizen Harun Celik, a teacher at a school associated with the Gulen movement, to Turkey after arresting him for traveling on false documents in 2019. Celik’s lawyer reported Celik requested asylum while detained in Albania and that Albania repatriated him to Turkey without giving him an opportunity to appeal the decision. Authorities detained Celik upon arrival in Istanbul. Turkish media hailed the repatriation as a successful operation by Turkish state intelligence. Individuals returned to the country under such circumstances usually faced legal proceedings based on their association with the Gulen movement. In September, Isa Ozer, a Turkish national who had been an elected local deputy in Dogubeyazit in eastern Anatolia for the left-wing HDP, was brought to Turkey from Ukraine in what the Turkish state press described as an intelligence operation.
There were also credible reports that the government attempted to use INTERPOL red notices to target specific individuals located outside the country, alleging ties to terrorism connected to the 2016 coup attempt or to the PKK, based on little evidence. Freedom House reported that, since the 2016 coup attempt, the country had uploaded tens of thousands of requests in INTERPOL for persons the government designated as affiliated with the Gulen movement. There were also reports that individuals faced complications related to erroneous lost or stolen passport reports the government filed against suspected Gulen movement supporters in the years directly following the coup attempt. Targeted individuals often had no clearly identified role in the attempted coup but were associated with the Gulen movement or had spoken in favor of it. The reports to INTERPOL could lead to individuals’ detention or prevent them from traveling.
In September press reported that the Diyarbakir Chief Prosecutor’s Office requested the extradition of former HDP MP and Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir, who resides in the United Kingdom, as part of a terrorism investigation. Authorities also petitioned an INTERPOL red notice for Baydemir. He was previously convicted for insulting police and stripped of MP status in 2018.
The government used property seizure orders to pressure individuals living in exile abroad. In October a court seized all assets, including property and bank accounts, of exiled opposition journalist Can Dundar and declared him a fugitive after he did not attend trial proceedings for the case against him and other former Cumhuriyet journalists who reported on alleged illicit arms shipments by Turkish intelligence officers to Syria. On December 23, an Istanbul court sentenced Dundar in absentia to 27 years’ imprisonment. The court also upheld the asset seizure and began an extradition request from Germany, where Dundar resides.
The government continued to refuse to renew the passports of some citizens with temporary residency permits in other countries on political grounds, claiming they were members of “Gulenist” organizations; these individuals were unable to travel outside of their countries of residence.
The constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, although this differed in practice. Citizens and legal entities such as organizations and companies have the right to file a civil case for compensation for physical or psychological harm, including for human rights violations. On constitutional and human rights issues, the law also provides for individuals to appeal their cases directly to the Constitutional Court, theoretically allowing for faster and simpler high-level review of alleged human rights violations within contested court decisions. Critics complained that, despite this mechanism, the large volume of appeals of dismissals under the state of emergency and decreased judicial capacity caused by purges in the judiciary resulted in slow proceedings.
As of September 30, the Constitutional Court has received 30,584 applications and found rights law violations in 20 percent of applications, according to official statistics. Of the 2019 applications, 30 percent remained pending. Citizens who have exhausted all domestic remedies have the right to apply for redress to the ECHR; however, the government rarely implemented ECHR decisions. According to the NGO European Implementation Network, Turkey has not implemented 60 percent of ECHR decisions from the last 10 years. For example, the country has not implemented the ECHR decision on the illegality of pretrial detention of former Constitutional Court judge Alparslan Altan, arrested and convicted following the coup attempt in 2016. Altan was serving an 11-year prison sentence at year’s end.
The government established the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures, in 2017 to adjudicate appeals of wrongfully dismissed civil servants and began accepting cases that July. The commission reported that, as of the end of the year, it had received 126,630 applications, adjudicated 112,310 cases, approved 13,170, and rejected 99,140. Critics complained the appeals process was opaque, slow, and did not respect citizens’ rights to due process, including by prohibiting defendants from seeing the evidence against them or presenting exculpatory evidence in their defense.
In multiple parts of the southeast, many citizens continued efforts to appeal the government’s 2016 expropriations of properties to reconstruct areas damaged in government-PKK fighting (see section 1.g, Other Conflict-related Abuse).
According to the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund of Turkey, as of July the government had seized 796 businesses worth an estimated 61.2 billion lira ($7.85 billion) since the 2016 coup attempt. A March NGO report estimated that $32.2 billion in businesses and business assets, including from media outlets, schools, universities, hospitals, banks, private companies, and other holdings were confiscated since the 2016 coup attempt in breach of domestic regulations.
In July the government completed the flooding of a valley in Batman province for a new hydroelectric dam. Residents displaced by the use of eminent domain reported the government’s payment for their property would not cover the cost of the apartment buildings intended to replace their former homes and complained that animal husbandry was not allowed in the new city, a practice residents had until then relied upon for income and sustenance.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, may be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
While the constitution provides for the “secrecy of private life” and states that individuals have the right to demand protection and correction of their personal information and data, the law provides MIT with the authority to collect information while limiting the ability of the public or journalists to expose abuses. Oversight of MIT falls within the purview of the presidency, and checks on MIT authorities are limited. MIT may collect data from any entity without a warrant or other judicial process for approval. At the same time, the law establishes criminal penalties for conviction of interfering with MIT activities, including data collection or obtaining or publishing information concerning the agency. The law allows the president to grant MIT and its employees’ immunity from prosecution.
Police possess broad powers for personal search and seizure. Senior police officials may authorize search warrants, with judicial permission required to follow within 24 hours. Individuals subjected to such searches have the right to file complaints; however, judicial permission occurring after a search had already taken place failed to serve as a check against abuse.
Security forces may conduct wiretaps for up to 48 hours without a judge’s approval. As a check against potential abuse of this power, the State Inspection Board may conduct annual inspections and present its reports for review to parliament’s Security and Intelligence Commission. Information on how often this authority was used was not available. Human rights groups noted that wiretapping without a court order circumvented judicial control and potentially limited citizens’ right to privacy. Some citizens asserted that authorities tapped their telephones and accessed their email or social media accounts. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
The Ministry of Interior disclosed that in the first seven months of this year, it examined 14,186 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 6,743 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. The law allows courts to order domestic internet service providers to block access to links, including to websites, articles, or social media posts, and was routinely used to block access to news sites. The editor of one such news website, Sendika, reported that his site has been blocked 63 times since 2015. The HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, the government detained at least 485 persons and arrested six for social media posts, including but not limited to posts on COVID-19.
Human rights groups asserted that self-censorship due to fear of official reprisal accounted in part for the relatively low number of complaints they received regarding allegations of torture or mistreatment.
Using antiterror legislation, the government targeted family members to exert pressure on wanted suspects. Government measures included cancelling the passports of family members of civil servants suspended or dismissed from state institutions, as well as of those who had fled authorities. In some cases the government cancelled or refused to issue passports for the minor children of individuals outside the country who were wanted for or accused of ties to the Gulen movement. In June the Ministry of Interior announced it would lift restrictions on the passports of 28,075 persons in addition to the 57,000 reported in 2019.
Government seizure and closure during the previous three years of hundreds of businesses accused of links to the Gulen movement created ambiguous situations for the privacy of client information.
Clashes between security forces and the PKK and its affiliates in the country continued throughout the year, although at a reduced level relative to previous years, and resulted in the injury or deaths of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government continued security operations against the PKK and its affiliates in various areas of the east and southeast. Authorities issued curfews of varying duration in certain urban and rural areas and also decreed “special security zones” in some areas to facilitate counter-PKK operations, which restricted access of visitors and, in some cases, residents. While portions of Hakkari province and rural portions of Tunceli Province remained “special security zones” most of the year, the government imposed curfews and “special security zones” less frequently overall than in 2019. PKK attacks claimed the lives of noncombatant civilians, as did kidnappings. Residents of these areas reported they occasionally had very little time to leave their homes prior to the launch of counter-PKK security operations. Those who remained faced curfews of varying scope and duration that at times restricted their movement and complicated living conditions.
Killings: According to the International Crisis Group, from mid-2015 to December, at least 1,265 security force members, 3,166 PKK terrorists, 5,539 civilians, and 226 individuals of unknown affiliation died in PKK-related fighting in the country and the surrounding region.
The HRA reported that in the first 10 months of the year, 14 security officers, 15 civilians, and 78 PKK terrorists were killed during clashes; 15 security officers and 23 civilians were reportedly injured.
PKK attacks resulted in civilian deaths. For example, on April 8, a roadside bomb attack killed five forestry workers in Diyarbakir province. Government data on casualty tolls were unavailable.
PKK tactics included targeted killings and assault with conventional weapons, vehicle-borne bombs, and IEDs. At times IEDs or unexploded ordnance, usually attributed to the PKK, killed or maimed civilians and security forces. According to news reports, in April an 11-year-old boy died as a result of an explosion of unexploded ordnance in Diyarbakir. Since 2016, unexploded ordnance killed at least 22 civilians, 21 of whom were children.
Abductions: The PKK abducted or attempted to abduct civilians (see Child Soldiers, below).
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Human rights groups alleged that police, other government security forces, and the PKK abused some civilian residents of the southeast. There was little accountability for mistreatment by government authorities. In April a Gevas court acquitted a police officer who was accused of torturing four village residents in 2017. Although victims identified seven police officers, the prosecutor pressed charges against only one.
Child Soldiers: The government and some members of Kurdish communities alleged the PKK recruited and forcibly abducted children for conscription. A group of mothers continued a sit-in protest they began in Diyarbakir in September 2019 alleging the PKK had forcibly recruited or kidnapped their children and demanding their return. According to the Directorate of Communications of the Presidency, 438 children escaped and left the PKK from January 2014 to June.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Extensive damage stemming from government-PKK fighting led authorities in 2016 to expropriate certain properties in specific districts of the southeast to facilitate postconflict reconstruction. Many of these areas remained inaccessible to residents at year’s end due to reconstruction. In Diyarbakir’s Sur District, the government had not returned or completed repairs on many of the expropriated properties, including the historic and ancient sites inside Sur, such as Surp Giragos Armenian Church and the Mar Petyun Chaldean Church. The government allocated 30 million lira ($3.8 million) to renovate four churches; renovations on two of them were completed. Some affected residents filed court challenges seeking permission to remain on expropriated land and receive compensation; many of these cases remained pending at year’s end. In certain cases courts awarded compensation to aggrieved residents, although the latter complained awards were insufficient. The overall number of those awarded compensation was unavailable at year’s end.
In May press reported the discovery of plastic boxes containing the remains of 261 bodies of PKK terrorists from the Kurdish-dominated southeastern province of Bitlis; the boxes were buried under the sidewalks in Istanbul’s Kilyos Cemetery. Authorities reportedly removed the bodies from a cemetery in Bitlis during a construction project in 2017 and moved them without the knowledge of families of the buried.
Government actions and adverse security conditions impacted democratic freedoms, including limiting journalists’ and international observers’ access to affected areas, which made monitoring and assessing the aftermath of urban conflicts difficult. Since 2019 the Ministry of Interior suspended 48 of 65 elected HDP mayors in the southeast based on allegations of support for terrorism related to the PKK. Because the mayors were suspended but not removed, pursuant to 2018 antiterror legislation, local residents did not have the opportunity to elect other representatives. The government appointed officials to govern these 48 municipalities in lieu of the removed elected mayors.