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Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence matters. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Tovuz from July 12 to July 16. During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, authorities restricted freedom of movement and access to information.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.

The government did not prosecute or punish the majority of officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.

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

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

There were 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.

b. Disappearance

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.

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

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.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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.

Detainees 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.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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.

Trial Procedures

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.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

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.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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).

Property Restitution

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.

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

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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.

Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.

During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.

Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.

Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.

During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.

On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council continued to require that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.

The IREX Media Sustainability Index for 2019–the most recent year for which the index was available–reported that in 2018 the number of websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of the Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets, including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.

On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.

On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.

From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.

On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.

The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.

Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party leaders reported their members had difficulty finding and keeping teaching jobs at schools and universities.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government consistently and severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force against or detaining protesters.

Prior to the imposition of restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 in March, authorities prevented attempts by political opposition groups to organize demonstrations. For example, on February 11, police violently dispersed a protest concerning the conduct of the National Assembly elections and election results in front of the Central Election Commission. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission reported it observed riot police loading protesters onto buses in a disproportionately forceful way and that some protesters were beaten while inside the buses. On February 16, police detained and put approximately 200 protesters into cars and buses, drove them to either the distant suburbs of Baku or other regions of the country, and released them there without explanation or means of return. Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, these political groups did not attempt to organize demonstrations that would have otherwise been consistent with the right to freedom of assembly.

During a large and apparently unplanned mid-July gathering in support of the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, there were minor clashes between police and a group of protesters, causing damage to cars and property inside and outside the National Assembly. Police used violence to disperse the crowd. According to Human Rights Watch, police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.

Following a nationally televised speech in which President Aliyev accused the opposition Popular Front Party of having organized the demonstration, authorities arrested at least 16 members of the party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement on criminal charges. An additional 15 or more members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to administrative detention. Authorities made apparently politically motivated arrests in connection with the proarmy rally, although the gathering was apparently neither planned by the political parties nor in support of either the opposition or general freedom of assembly rights.

The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include substantial fines and up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission rather than merely prior notification. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations far from the city center of Baku and with limited access by public transportation. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right and severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.

Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.

The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts NGOs’ ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

Government regulations provide for a “single window” mechanism for registering grants. Under the procedures, grant registration processes involving multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

The Ministry of Justice is permitted by law to monitor NGO activities and conduct inspections of NGOs. The law offers few provisions protecting NGO rights and authorizes substantial fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. While the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal cases against the American Bar Association and IREX and ordered their bank accounts unfrozen in July, the two groups continued to face administrative difficulties, such as a remaining tax levy imposed on IREX. Problems remained for other groups. For example, the bank accounts of the Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen, and the organization was unable to operate (see section 5).

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate their support of “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and not be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, at least four foreign NGOs had been able to renew their registrations under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on their applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on matters related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

During the period of martial law following the September 27 outbreak of intensive fighting with Armenia and Armenia-supported separatists, the government imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in six cities, including Baku and Ganja, and 16 districts.

Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 652,326 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of midyear. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers continued to state the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,591 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many refugee children, however, were able to enroll at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 409 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.

Stateless persons generally enjoyed freedom of internal movement. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted if they left the country. The law provides stateless persons with access to the basic rights of citizens, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped one person of citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by obstructing the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In December 2019, the president dissolved the National Assembly in response to an appeal to do so by the National Assembly and announced early elections for the body to be held on February 9.

Some opposition parties boycotted the election, citing the restrictive environment, while other opposition parties and groups took part. According to the OSCE ODIHR election observation mission, the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the February 9 elections. ODIHR concluded that voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political competition and discussion. Although many candidates utilized social media to reach out to voters, use of social media generally did not compensate for the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. ODIHR observed several instances of pressure on voters, candidates, and candidates’ representatives. International and local observers reported significant procedural violations during the counting and tabulation of votes, including ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting. ODIHR concluded the flaws “raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.” Domestic nonpartisan election observers concluded the election results did not reflect the will of the people.

Similarly, in 2018 the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October 2018 to April 2018. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the ODIHR mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. The mission concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the 2016 referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting–a method of vote rigging usually involving voters casting ballots multiple times–and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. Observers reported significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The number of registered political parties increased from 55 to 63 during the year due to the registration of eight political parties, including the REAL party, the first such registrations since 2011. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party, however, continued to dominate the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. Following the February 9 National Assembly elections, the body included only one representative of the country’s main opposition parties. The National Assembly had not included any opposition representatives since 2010.

During the year a Presidential Administration official established direct communication with some of the country’s 63 political parties and groups. The official held meetings with political figures, including representatives of selected opposition parties, throughout the year. Despite the dialogue, however, restrictions on political participation continued.

Opposition members were generally more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). From mid-March to mid-May, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention mainly for violating the quarantine regime and resisting police charges. Human rights defenders estimated the country’s courts sentenced Popular Front Party activists to periods of administrative detention approximately 40 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, eight opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Babek Hasanov, Agil Maharramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, Pasha Umudov, Elchin Ismayilli, Alizamin Salayev, and Niyamaddin Ahmadov.

Prior to its registration on August 31, the REAL party was unable to rent space to hold a founding congress. In light of this difficulty, the Presidential Administration official responsible for liaising with political parties suggested that the party hold its congress online, which REAL did in August. Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and employing economic pressure on their family members.

Restrictions on local civil society organizations limited their ability to monitor elections. Such restrictions included legal provisions severely constraining NGO activities and the inability of NGOs to obtain registration, which was required for legal status. For example, two nonpartisan election-monitoring organizations (the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) and the Institute for Democratic Initiatives) remained unregistered. The EMDS Center also reported that independent election observers were subjected to physical and psychological pressure during the February 9 National Assembly elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA), a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 17.6 percent of members of the National Assembly, including the speaker of the Assembly, were women.

Female activists often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, local officials launched a gender-based harassment and intimidation campaign against Vafa Nagi, a member of the Kholgaragashli municipal council of the Neftchala District, after she publicly raised governance concerns regarding water access and the illegal sale of lands. On June 16, the local municipal council chair reportedly ordered authorities to hang photographs of Nagi dressed in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout the conservative village to shame her and her family members.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combating low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody. These problems persisted throughout the year. Media outlets reported the arrests for accepting bribes of the mayors of Neftchala on February 20, Bilasuvar on April 29, Imishli on May 5, and Jalilabad on December 7.

Similar to previous years, authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. For example, authorities continued punitive measures against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, including freezing of her bank accounts since 2017, banning her travel since 2016, and failing to implement three ECHR rulings in her favor (see section 1.e.). In March 2019 the Baku Court of Appeals rejected Ismayilova’s appeal of the 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court holding her accountable for 45,143 manat ($26,600) of RFE/RL’s alleged tax debt, despite RFE/RL’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit entity. In August 2019 the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Ismayilova’s reporting on elite corruption was widely considered the reason for the targeting, which also included her imprisonment from 2014 to 2016.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it completed investigation of 180 criminal cases against 281 officials and sent them to the courts during the year. While no senior officials were prosecuted, several high-ranking officials were arrested and charged. Several such cases remained under investigation at year’s end, including charges of corruption against the minister of culture and other high-ranking ministry officials, multiple ambassadors, several department heads at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several heads and deputy heads of regional executive committees (governors). Although those accused were charged with corruption, the arrests were not accompanied by systemic reforms, such as requiring all officials to comply with the asset declaration law or ending punitive measures against persons who exposed corruption. As a result observers considered the arrests to have political or economic motives that were unrelated to combating corruption.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article in April on the SerbAz company, which brought more than 700 workers from the Balkan region to Baku to build or renovate some its most prominent buildings between 2006 and 2009. The OCCRP revealed that SerbAz’s most powerful backer in the country was Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov. According to the OCCRP, there was strong evidence that the minister awarded contracts to his wife’s company, using public money to benefit his own family. SerbAz appeared to be a subsidiary of a major luxury importer, ItalDizain, a company owned jointly by Rahimov’s wife, Zulfiya Rahimova, and a man who appeared to be Rahimov’s associate. The Ministry of Youth and Sports signed contracts with SerbAz for the renovation of the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Concert Complex, the restoration of the “Palace of Happiness” marriage registration center, and the reconstruction of the Kur Olympic Training and Sports Center. While engaged in construction, workers were kept in inhuman conditions, were deprived of their passports, and reported physical abuse; several workers died.

There was widespread belief that a bribe could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between ages 18 and 35. Citizens also reported military personnel could buy assignments to easier military duties for a smaller bribe.

The government continued efforts to reduce low-level corruption and improve government services by expanding the capabilities and number of State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations service centers, which functioned as one-stop locations for government services, such as obtaining birth certificates and marriage licenses, from nine ministries.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires officials to submit reports on their financial situation and requires all candidates to submit financial statements. The process of submitting reports was complex and nontransparent, with several agencies and bodies designated as recipients, including the Anticorruption Commission, National Assembly, Ministry of Justice, and Central Election Commission, although their monitoring roles were not well understood. The public did not have access to the reports. The law permits administrative sanctions for noncompliance, but there were no reports that such sanctions were imposed.

The law prohibits the public release of the names and capital investments of business owners. Critics continued to state the purpose of the law was to curb investigative journalism into government officials’ business interests.

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

While the government provided access to certain areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, it restricted access to other areas, limiting reporting from local and international journalists, as well as international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, on August 3, former political prisoner and human rights defender Rufat Safarov was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office and warned he would face arrest after he publicized reports concerning detentions and alleged torture of political opposition activists Fuad Gahramanli and Seymur Ahmedov after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

As of December 31, human rights defender Oktay Gulaliyev remained in a coma after having been struck by a car in October 2019 while crossing a Baku intersection, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until the following day. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his announced 2019 campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. They also noted that Gulaliyev had been warned by authorities not to report on repression and torture. Other activists stated there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey. During the year Gulaliyev’s family reported delays in the government’s investigation of the case. Gulaliyev’s lawyer complained that law enforcement bodies did not provide him with the findings of the investigation. On October 30, the Nasimi District Court initiated a hearing on the case. At his family’s request, on November 7, Gulaliyev was transported to his home in Baku where he continued to receive medical treatment.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the same high level as recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev. On March 30, human rights defender and journalist Elchin Mammad was detained based on allegations of theft and illegal possession of a weapon. On October 14, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Human rights defenders viewed this verdict as politically motivated.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds. On December 17, however, the ministry registered the Baku Human Rights Club, an organization cofounded by prominent human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Javad Javadov.

Government officials and state-dominated media outlets engaged in rhetorical attacks on human rights activists and political opposition leaders (see section 3), accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country and working on behalf of foreign interests.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies, criticizing what authorities termed interference in the country’s internal affairs. In response to the adoption of a resolution on political prisoners by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on January 30, member of parliament Nagif Hamzayev commented that the country was treated unfairly and discriminated against. Although government officials and members of the National Assembly had previously criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, government officials referred to the ODIHR assessment of the 2020 parliamentary elections as “balanced.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsperson for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsperson for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsperson may refuse to accept cases of abuse that are more than one year old, anonymous, or already being handled by the judiciary. Human rights NGOs criticized the Ombudsperson’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies, but they were similarly accused of ignoring violations in politically sensitive cases.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Spousal rape is also illegal, but observers stated police did not effectively investigate such claims.

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, including in cases where husbands ultimately killed their wives.

The SCFWCA tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. On November 27, the president approved the National Action Plan to Combat Domestic Violence for 2020-23. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence. On December 1, the SCFWCA, together with the UN Population Fund, established an emergency hotline for gender-based violence. Callers could use the hotline to access free legal assistance, counseling support, and information concerning gender and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was available, but limited supplies and lack of education and counseling limited usage. Patriarchal norms based on cultural, historical, and socioeconomic factors in some cases limited women’s reproductive rights.

No legal, social, or cultural barriers or government policies adversely affected access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. In vitro fertilization procedures were available.

The government referred survivors of sexual violence to free medical care including sexual and reproductive services.

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

Discrimination: Although women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal and employment-based discrimination remained a problem. According to the State Statistical Committee, there was discrimination against women in employment, including wide disparities in pay and higher rates of unemployment.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the SCFWCA. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of and address the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. Registration at birth was routine for births in hospitals or clinics. Some children born at home were not registered.

Education: While education is compulsory, free, and universal until age 17, large families in impoverished rural areas sometimes placed a higher priority on the education of boys and kept girls in the home to work. Social workers stated that some poor families forced their children to work or beg rather than attend school.

Child Abuse: There is criminal liability for sexual violence against children. The law also stipulates punishment for child labor and other abuse against children. The SCFWCA organized multiple events prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to address the problem of child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The problem of early marriage continued during the year. The law provides that a girl may marry at age 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam.

In July the SCFWCA organized two awareness-raising online events on prevention of early marriages.

The law establishes substantial fines or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction of recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography, its production, its distribution, or its advertisement, for which conviction is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Conviction of statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish community was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life. Local experts noted that, although financial payments for persons with disabilities increased in 2019, in general the implementation of this law was not satisfactory, and persons with disabilities continued to experience problems.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. According to official statistics, there were approximately 62,951 children with disabilities in the country. A local NGO reported that 6,000 to 10,000 of them had access to segregated educational facilities, while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

Legislation mandates that access to public or other buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. Some assistance existed for them, including in education; however, this mandate was not fully implemented. Information and communication technology and most buildings were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. During the intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists from September 27 to November 10, all sides reportedly committed atrocities (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

On May 26, the ECHR rendered a judgment in the case of Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary, finding that Azerbaijan had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of discrimination). In 2004 Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov killed sleeping Armenian soldier Gurgen Markarian while both were attending NATO training in Budapest. Convicted by Hungarian authorities to life imprisonment in 2006, Safarov was pardoned and feted after his transfer to Azerbaijan in 2012. The court did not find the government of Azerbaijan responsible for Ramil Safarov’s actions but criticized Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to enforce the punishment of Safarov, effectively granting him impunity for a serious hate crime. Moreover, the court found Safarov’s pardon and other measures in his favor had been ethnically motivated, citing statements by high-ranking officials expressing their support for his actions targeting Armenian soldiers.

Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

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

A local NGO reported incidents of police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation and noted that authorities did not investigate or punish those responsible. There were also reports that men who acknowledged or were suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) during medical examinations for conscription were sometimes subjected to rectal examinations and often found unqualified for military service on the grounds that they were mentally ill. There were also reports of family-based violence against LGBTI individuals, including being kidnapped by family members and held against their will. Hate speech against LGBTI persons and hostile Facebook postings on personal online accounts also continued.

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover LGBTI individuals.

Activists reported that LGBTI individuals were regularly fired by employers if their sexual orientation or gender identity became known.

LGBTI individuals generally refused to file formal complaints of discrimination or mistreatment with law enforcement bodies due to fear of social stigma or retaliation. Activists reported police indifference to requests that they investigate crimes committed against LGBTI individuals.

Local NGOs reported that COVID-19-pandemic-related quarantine measures compounded the impact of the discrimination already faced by members of the LGBTI community. Since these individuals regularly faced discrimination in accessing employment, they were primarily employed informally and received payment on a day-to-day basis.

During the year the ECHR continued a formal inquiry begun in February 2019 into police raids on the LGBTI community in 2017. The raids entailed arrests and detentions of more than 83 men presumed to be gay or bisexual as well as transgender women. Media outlets and human rights lawyers reported that police beat detainees and subjected them to electric shocks to obtain bribes and information regarding other gay men. Detainees were released after being sentenced to up to 30 days of administrative detention, fined up to 200 manat ($118), or both. In 2018 some victims of the raids filed cases against the state in the ECHR.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Civil society representatives reported discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV and AIDS were prevalent throughout society. The government continued to fund an NGO that worked on health problems affecting the LGBTI community.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent trade unions. Uniformed military and police and managerial staff are prohibited from joining unions. While the law provides workers the right to bargain collectively, unions could not effectively negotiate wage levels and working conditions because government-appointed boards ran major state-owned firms and set wages for government employees.

The law provides most private-sector workers the right to conduct legal strikes but prohibits civil servants from striking. Categories of workers prohibited from striking include high-ranking executive and legislative officials; law enforcement officers; court employees; fire fighters; and health, electric power, water supply, telephone, railroad, and air traffic control workers.

The law prohibits discrimination against trade unions and labor activists and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also prohibits retribution against strikers, such as dismissal or replacement. Striking workers convicted of disrupting public transportation, however, may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. No strikes occurred during the year.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws involving denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. There were some additional restrictions, such as increased bureaucratic scrutiny of the right to form unions and conduct union activities.

Most unions were not independent, and the overwhelming majority remained tightly linked to the government, with the exception of some journalists’ unions. The Azerbaijan Trade Unions Confederation (ATUC) was the only trade union confederation in the country. Although ATUC registered as an independent organization, it was closely aligned with the government. ATUC reported it represented 1.2 million members in 27 sectors. Both local and international NGOs claimed that workers in most industries were largely unaware of their rights and afraid of retribution if they exercised those rights or initiated complaints. This was especially true for workers in the public sector.

Collective bargaining agreements were often treated as formalities and not enforced. Although labor law applies to all workers and enterprises, the government may negotiate bilateral agreements that effectively exempt multinational enterprises from it. For example, production-sharing agreements in the oil and gas sector supersede domestic law and often do not include provisions for employee participation in a trade union. While the law prohibits employers from impeding the collective bargaining process, employers engaged in activities that undercut the effectiveness of collective bargaining, such as subcontracting and using short-term employment agreements.

The state oil company’s 50,000 workers were required to belong to the Union of Oil and Gas Industry Workers, and authorities automatically deducted union dues from paychecks. Many of the state-owned enterprises that dominated the formal economy withheld union dues from worker pay but did not deposit the dues in union accounts. Employers officially withheld one-quarter of the dues collected for the oil workers’ union for “administrative costs” associated with running the union. Unions and their members had no means of investigating how employers spent their dues.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except in circumstances of war or in the execution of a court decision under the supervision of a government agency. Penalties for violations, including imprisonment, were commensurate with those for other analogous crimes. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law. Resources and inspections were inadequate, due in part to a moratorium on all routine and unannounced labor inspections. The government worked with the International Finance Corporation on a project to reform the state inspection system.

Broad provisions in the law provide for the imposition of compulsory labor as a punishment for expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system. In 2018 the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts noted its concern with a growing trend of using various provisions of the criminal code to prosecute journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, and others who expressed critical opinions, under questionable charges that appeared politically motivated, resulting in long periods of corrective labor or imprisonment, both involving compulsory labor.

Foreign observers made several visits to various regions of the country to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, including the Sabirabad, Saatli, Imishli, Beylagan, Agjabadi, Barda, and other districts located between Baku and the city of Ganja. No cases of forced labor were observed during the harvest.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

In most cases the law permits children to work from age 15 with a written employment contract; children who are 14 may work in family businesses or, with parental consent, in daytime after-school jobs that pose no hazard to their health. Children younger than 16 may not work more than 24 hours per week; children 16 or 17 may not work more than 36 hours per week. The law prohibits employing children younger than 18 in difficult and hazardous conditions and identifies specific work and industries in which children are prohibited, including work with toxic substances and underground, at night, in mines, and in nightclubs, bars, casinos, or other businesses that serve alcohol.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor and setting a minimum age for employment. The government maintained a moratorium on routine and unannounced inspections, which may have prevented effective enforcement of child labor law. Resources and inspections were inadequate to enforce compliance, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. Although the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection could receive and respond to complaints, its response did not include worksite inspections. Instead, the State Labor Inspection Service within the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection investigated complaints by requesting information from the employer in question. Inspectors identified violations and imposed appropriate penalties based on the information they received.

On July 22, the president approved the National Action Plan for 2020-2024 on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The plan tasked the relevant government bodies to continue efforts to: identify victims of human trafficking and forced labor, including children; carry out special work with children engaged in begging; develop general standards of communication with child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; conduct training on the identification and protection of child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; and conduct awareness-raising work with entrepreneurs and employers in order to prevent the exploitation of child labor.

There is no legal employment of children younger than age 15 in the country, and authorities reported no instances of investigated child labor in legal sectors of the economy. There were reports of children engaging in child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, and agriculture. During visits to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, foreign observers did not note any instances of child labor. Some nongovernmental observers, however, reported instances of rural children younger than 15 sometimes working on the family farm or accompanying parents working as day laborers to agricultural fields.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at “http://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/” www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. Legal penalties for discrimination in employment existed under various articles and laws but were patchwork in nature and not commensurate with those under other laws related to civil rights. The law excludes women from 678 occupations in 38 industries that are framed as inherently dangerous jobs. Many of these positions were higher ranked and better paid than positions that women were permitted to occupy in the same industries.

Employers generally hesitated to hire persons with disabilities, and workplace access was limited. Discrimination in employment and occupation also occurred with respect to sexual orientation. LGBTI individuals reported employers found other reasons to dismiss them, because they could not legally dismiss someone because of their sexual orientation. Women were underrepresented in high-level jobs, including top business positions. Traditional practices limited women’s access to economic opportunities in rural areas. According to the State Statistics Committee, in 2019 the average monthly salary for women was 58 percent of the average monthly salary for men. According to gender experts, gender-based harassment in the workplace was a problem.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the poverty income level (minimum living standard). Experts stated government employers complied with the minimum wage law but that it was commonly ignored in the informal economy. The law requires equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, age, or other classification, although women’s pay lagged behind that of men.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek. Workers in hazardous occupations may not work more than 36 hours per week. Information was not available on whether local companies provided the legally required premium compensation for overtime, although international companies generally did. There is no prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides equal rights to foreign and domestic workers.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on acceptable conditions of work, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

In 2017 the government extended its moratorium on scheduled and unannounced labor inspections through 2020. Although inspectors were permitted to request information from employers and relevant employees in order to investigate complaints, complaint response did not include worksite inspections. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that it investigated 8,512 complaints during the year.

Inspection of working conditions by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection’s labor inspectorate was weak and ineffective due to the moratorium. Although the law sets health and safety standards, employers are known to ignore them. Violations of acceptable conditions of work in the construction and oil and gas sectors remained problematic. A local NGO reported that oil workers were forced to work lengthy shifts at sea because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Local human rights groups, including the Oil Workers Rights Defense Organization, an NGO dedicated to protecting worker rights in the petroleum sector, maintained that employers, particularly foreign oil companies, did not always treat foreign and domestic workers equally. Domestic employees of foreign oil companies reportedly often received lower pay and worked without contracts or private health-care insurance. Some domestic employees of foreign oil companies reported violations of labor law, noting they were unable to receive overtime payments or vacations.

According to official statistics, 48 workers died on the job during the year, including three in the oil and gas sector.

Comoros

Executive Summary

The Union of the Comoros is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country consists of three islands–Grande Comore (also called Ngazidja), Anjouan (Ndzuani), and Moheli (Mwali)–and claims a fourth, Mayotte (Maore), that France administers. The March 2019 presidential elections were not free and fair, and international and domestic observers noted the election was marked by significant irregularities. The opposition did not recognize the results due to allegations of ballot stuffing, intimidation, and harassment. Observers considered the January legislative elections to be generally free and fair, although the opposition boycotted the elections and did not recognize the results.

The National Development Army and the Federal Police have responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. The National Development Army includes both the gendarmerie and the Comorian Defense Force. It reports to the president’s cabinet director for defense. The Federal Police report to the minister of interior. The National Directorate of Territorial Safety, which oversees immigration and customs, reports to the minister of interior. The gendarmerie’s intervention platoon also may act under the authority of the interior minister. When the gendarmerie serves as the judicial police, it reports to the minister of justice. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over police and other security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws although not enforced; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; severe restrictions of religious freedom; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity for human rights abuses was widespread. Although the government sometimes arrested or dismissed officials implicated in such abuses, they were rarely tried.

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 an arbitrary or unlawful killing. The prosecutor of the republic has responsibility to investigate the lawfulness of security force killings, and the military has responsibility to make parallel administrative investigations.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports that government officials employed them.

In January a man and woman from Kurani Ya Mkanga on Grande Comore told a Comorian online radio program of humiliating and harsh abuse and mistreatment by security forces at an office inside the Simboussa military camp. A January 5 social media video showed two Comorian soldiers mistreating the man. After viewing the video, the minister of justice claimed not to be aware of the abusive behavior. Authorities did not investigate following the radio show and video.

Impunity was a problem in the security forces, within both police and military. Corruption and reluctance by the populace to bring charges contributed to impunity. The prosecutor of the republic, under the Ministry of Justice, has the responsibility to investigate abuses.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained poor, particularly in the prison on Anjouan. The national prison in Moroni on Grande Comore is the largest of three prisons in the country. The third is on Moheli. Military detainees were held in military facilities. National or island authorities used various detention facilities as deemed appropriate, and detainees could be transferred from either Anjouan or Moheli to the national prison in Moroni, depending upon the nature of their offenses.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. As of August the Moroni prison held 204 inmates, including one woman and six minors, but according to International Committee of the Red Cross standards, the capacity was 60 inmates. The Koki prison on Anjouan held 118 detainees, with five women and no minors. Its capacity is not known but prisoners are kept in only one of the two prison buildings, consisting of three rooms each measuring 215 square feet and equipped with a single toilet.

The law on child protection provides for juveniles ages 15 to 18 to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. Juveniles and adult prisoners were held together.

Detainees and prisoners normally received a single meal per day consisting of 1.8 ounces of rice and one egg (in Moroni) or red beans when available (in Anjouan). Those who did not receive additional food from family members suffered food deprivation. Other common problems included inadequate potable water, sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and medical facilities. The prison in Moroni had a nurse on staff and a visiting doctor; prisoners in the Koki prison on Anjouan said they were sometimes allowed to leave the prison if they needed medical care. There were no reported deaths attributable to physical conditions.

Administration: Prisoners could submit complaints without censorship, but investigations and follow-up actions almost never occurred. Authorities allowed access to visitors and religious observance, although some minority religious organizations reported difficulty visiting prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross and diplomatic missions to monitor prisons. Authorities required that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) request a visit permit from the prosecutor general.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these provisions, although there were some arbitrary arrests.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires judicial arrest warrants as well as prosecutorial approval to detain persons longer than 24 hours without charge. The law provides for prompt judicial determination of the legality of detention, and for detainees to be informed promptly of the charges against them. A magistrate informs detainees of their rights, including the right to legal representation. These rights were inconsistently respected. The bail system prohibits persons on bail from leaving the country. Some detainees did not have prompt access to attorneys or their families.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrest. For example there were multiple press reports of suspects’ wives being held for one or two days to pressure their husbands to turn themselves in. On April 20, authorities detained singer Cheikh MC for several hours at a gendarmerie facility for disturbing the public order. He had posted on his Facebook page that his wife was suffering from COVID-19 while the government was claiming that there were no cases of COVID-19 in the country.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. By law pretrial detainees may be held for no more than four months, although many were held longer. A magistrate or prosecutor may extend this period. Detainees routinely awaited trial for extended periods for reasons including administrative delay, case backlog, and time-consuming collection of evidence. Some extensions continued for several years. Defense attorneys occasionally protested such judicial inefficiencies. The NGO World Prison Brief, using 2015 data, reported that 29 percent of detainees were pretrial detainees.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence. Judicial inconsistency, unpredictability, and corruption were problems. Authorities generally respected court orders.

Trial Procedures

The law provides all defendants with the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to a timely trial, but lengthy delays were common. The legal system incorporates sharia (Islamic law). Defendants are presumed innocent. Trials are by jury in criminal cases. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney. Indigent defendants have the right to counsel provided at public expense, although this right was rarely observed. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials, question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Although the law provides for the assistance of an interpreter, free of charge, for any defendant unable to understand or speak the language used in court, this was not generally implemented. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. There is an appellate process.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners and detainees. Observers considered there to be two political prisoners: former president Sambi and former governor of Anjouan Salami. The government permitted access by human rights or humanitarian organizations.

Former president Sambi remained in pretrial detention for charges relating to corruption and his Economic Citizenship Passport program, which provided passports to thousands of stateless United Arab Emirates residents and others (see section 4, Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government).

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through an independent but corrupt court system. By law individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies. Court orders were inconsistently enforced.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, with some limitations on press freedom.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals may not criticize the government or raise matters of public interest without restriction.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views, but not without restriction.

Violence and Harassment: Some journalists were subjected to violence or harassment by government authorities due to their reporting.

On January 11, authorities arrested prominent online radio journalist Oubeidillah Mchangama from online radio station Facebook FM and journalist Ali Mbae from the newspaper Masiwa Komor in Koimbani during a meeting organized by the opposition to boycott legislative elections. They were accused of disturbing the public order. Authorities released them the following day.

On January 30, the minister of information suspended National Television news director Binti Mhadjou and Editor in Chief Moinadjoumoi Papa Ali for covering a widespread strike by businesses against an increase in customs taxes. They returned to their duties on March 2.

On September 3, the gendarmerie arrested Oubeidillah Mchangama for allegedly spreading false information after he questioned the general prosecutor’s use of funds intended for a special court hearing. Authorities released Mchangama the next day pending trial.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some journalists practiced self-censorship. Following his release on September 4 (see immediately above), journalist Oubeidillah Mchangama could not hold public or private meetings, make statements to media, post messages on social networks, or depart the island of Grande Comore. On April 1, journalist Andjouza Abouheir reported in La Gazette des Comores that the country, which claimed to have no cases of COVID-19, had failed to send samples of six suspected cases for analysis. After a cabinet meeting the same day, government spokesperson Houmed Msaidie threatened to file complaints against journalists who published pieces on the health crisis “without going through official channels.” The directorate general of health also contacted Abouheir, demanding that he reveal his sources.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel. Authorities did not enforce the law. The law also prohibits blasphemy, or the propagation of non-Islamic beliefs to Muslims. It was not enforced.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but in at least one case, the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest).

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for peaceful assembly, but the government often did not respect this right. In January the interior minister declared that since the opposition had decided to boycott legislative elections, it could not hold political meetings during electoral campaigns for those elections.

On July 6, the opposition held a celebration of the National Day in the village of Ntsudjini on Grande Comore, despite a ban from the prefect (mayor) prohibiting the celebration. In response the army surrounded the village, and some villagers threw stones at the army personnel. The army used tear gas and arrested several persons, including minors. Fearing arrest, opposition leader Mouigni Baraka Said Soilihi fled the village and departed the region.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement and foreign travel, and the government generally respected these rights. No specific constitutional or legal provisions deal with emigration and repatriation.

In-country Movement: Following his release on September 4 pending trial, journalist Oubeidillah Mchangama could not depart the island of Grande Comore (see section 2.a., Censorship or Content Restrictions).

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner (UNHCR) for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR conducted refugee status determination interviews remotely.

g. Stateless Persons

The laws do not protect persons born in the country to unknown or stateless parents from becoming stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Citizens exercised that ability, although electoral irregularities marred the 2019 presidential election.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In March 2019 the country held presidential and gubernatorial elections, and the Supreme Court declared Azali Assoumani the winner of the presidential election with 59 percent of the vote following the first round. These elections were not free and fair, and international and domestic observers noted the election was marked by significant irregularities.

During the afternoon of election day, the opposition protested ballot stuffing and the lack of observers in polling stations. Refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the vote, the opposition destroyed ballot boxes on Anjouan and, to a lesser extent, on Grande Comore. Responding to these developments, the government failed to uphold election rules and regulations in the collection and counting of ballots. The government ordered security forces to collect ballots in multiple jurisdictions before polls were scheduled to close, and ballot counting occurred without public oversight.

Also in March 2019 presidential candidate Soilihi Mohamed, along with all of the other opposition candidates, established a National Transition Council and called on the population to engage in civil disobedience if the government did not invalidate the election. Police arrested Soilihi Mohamed for undermining the security of the state. Following a gunfight in which three individuals died, Soilihi Mohamed’s supporters freed him, but security forces subsequently recaptured him. After 12 days in prison, the government released him, and Soilihi Mohamed recognized Azali Assoumani as president and resigned his position as president of the National Transition Council.

In January election authorities conducted free and fair legislative elections. The opposition boycotted the elections and stated they did not recognize either the 2019 presidential or the January legislative results. The government did not allow opposition groups to hold meetings during the legislative elections (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they participated. Some observers believed that traditional and cultural factors prevented women from participating in political life on an equal basis with men. The March 2019 gubernatorial election resulted in the election of Comoros’s first female governor, Sitti Farouata Mhoudine, who represents Grande Comore. In the National Assembly, there are four women out of 24 elected members, compared with one woman among elected members in the previous National Assembly.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

The National Commission for Preventing and Fighting Corruption (CNPLC) was an independent administrative authority established to combat corruption, including through education and mobilization of the public. In 2016 the president repealed the provisions of the law that created the commission, citing its failure to produce any results. The Constitutional Court subsequently invalidated this decision, noting that a presidential decree may not overturn a law. Nevertheless, the president has neither renewed the commissioners’ mandates nor appointed replacement members.

Corruption: Resident diplomatic, UN, and humanitarian agency personnel reported petty corruption was commonplace at all levels of the civil service and security forces. Businesspersons reported corruption and a lack of transparency. Citizens paid bribes to evade customs regulations, to avoid arrest, and to obtain falsified police reports.

In April 2019 the court in Moroni heard embezzlement charges against former finance minister Mohamed Bacar Dossar, former vice president in charge of finance Mohamed Ali Soilihi, and former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi. Sambi remained under arrest, while the others were told they could not leave the country until after the trial. As of December the court proceedings continued.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-level officials at national and island levels to declare their assets prior to entering office. The submission of a disclosure is made public, but the disclosure itself is not. Failure to comply is punishable by fines and up to two years’ imprisonment. In 2016 the CNPLC reported that all officials subject to the law filed financial disclosures; however, the mandates of CNPLC commissioners have not been renewed since 2017, and it was unclear whether any other organization had taken on the oversight role.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: Domestic NGOs largely supplanted government ministries on human rights topics. By law the governmental National Commission for Human Rights and Liberties is mandated to investigate human rights abuses and to make recommendations to concerned authorities. It was independent but lacked effectiveness.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape regardless of age or gender is illegal and punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment or up to 15 years if the victim is younger than 15. The law does not specifically address spousal rape, but being married to a victim does not exonerate the perpetrator. Authorities prosecuted perpetrators if victims filed charges; otherwise authorities rarely enforced the law. There were reports families or village elders settled many allegations of sexual violence informally through traditional means and without recourse to the formal court system. According to press reports, in October, after the father of an age 12 alleged rape victim filed charges in the village of Mbabani, village leaders evicted him and his family as punishment for bringing the case. After the eviction drew social media attention, the minister of interior mediated with village leaders and the family, and the leaders allowed the wife and children to return, but not the father.

The law treats domestic violence as an aggravating circumstance, including crimes committed by one domestic partner against an existing or former partner. Penalties for conviction include prison sentences up to five years and fines. Courts rarely sentenced or fined convicted perpetrators. No reliable data were available on the extent of the problem. Women rarely filed official complaints. Although officials took action (usually the arrest of the spouse) when reported, domestic violence cases rarely entered the court system.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by fines and imprisonment. It is defined in the labor code as any verbal, nonverbal, or bodily behavior of a sexual nature that has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or humiliating work environment for a person. Although rarely reported due to societal pressure, such harassment was nevertheless a common problem, and authorities did not effectively enforce the law.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Many individuals lacked access to information and the means to manage their reproductive health.

Insufficient awareness, the influence of religious and cultural beliefs, the noninvolvement of men in the reproductive health program, and the low level of education of users reduced access to and use of contraception.

Barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth included low levels of awareness of available resources. According to the government’s 2012 Multiple Demographic and Health Survey, the rate of births attended by qualified personnel was 82 percent, and 76 percent of expected deliveries were in hospitals.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services, including counseling and legal and medical support, for survivors of sexual violence through government-funded “listening centers” on all three islands.

The maternal mortality rate was 273 deaths per100,000 live births. Major factors in the maternal mortality rate included a lack of access to skilled obstetric care and modern medical facilities, low levels of awareness about available resources, and difficulty traveling to available resources. According to National Health Policy statistics, the use of modern contraceptive methods was higher in urban areas (21 percent) than in rural areas (11 percent). The island of Anjouan had the highest prevalence (15 percent) followed by Grande Comore (14 percent) and Moheli (9 percent).

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

Discrimination: The law provides for equality of persons without regard to gender, creed, belief, origin, race, or religion, and authorities generally enforced the law effectively. Nevertheless, inheritance and property rights practices favor women. Local cultures are traditionally matrilineal, and all inheritable property is in the legal possession of women. Societal discrimination against women was most apparent in rural areas, where women were mostly limited to farming and child-rearing duties, with fewer opportunities for education and wage employment. While men can transmit citizenship to their wives, the law does not permit women to transmit citizenship to their husbands.

Children

Birth Registration: Any child having at least one citizen parent is considered a citizen, regardless of where the birth takes place. Any child born in the country is a citizen unless both parents are foreigners. Children of foreign parents may apply for citizenship if they have at least five years’ residency at the time they apply. Authorities did not withhold public services from unregistered children, and they did not adjudicate birth registration in a discriminatory manner.

Education: Universal education is compulsory until age 12. No child younger than 14 may be prevented from attending school. An approximately equal number of girls and boys attended public schools at the primary and secondary levels, but fewer girls graduated.

Child Abuse: Official statistics revealed cases of abuse when impoverished families sent their children to work for relatives or wealthy families, usually in the hope of obtaining a better education for their children. The government-affiliated NGO Listening and Counseling Service, funded by the government and UNICEF, had offices on all three islands to provide support and counseling for abused children and their families. The NGO routinely referred child abuse cases to police for investigation. Police conducted initial investigations of child abuse and referred cases to the Morals and Minors Brigade for further investigation and referral for prosecution if justified by evidence. If evidence was sufficient, authorities routinely prosecuted cases.

In August the Criminal Court of Moroni conducted special hearings on sexual assault, resulting in 14 convictions from a review of 21 cases. On August 18, the court sentenced Quranic teacher Oustadh Mohamed Ahmed Aboubacar to 10 years in prison for the rape of a girl age 10.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls. According to UNICEF, 32 percent of girls were married before age 18 and 10 percent before age 15. The government engaged in prevention and mitigation efforts.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law considers unmarried persons younger than 18 to be minors and prohibits their sexual exploitation, prostitution, and involvement in pornography; it does not specifically address sale, offering or procuring for prostitution. The law states that 18 is the minimum age for consensual sex. The law criminalizes some forms of child sex trafficking and prescribes penalties of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a substantial fine. The law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense. All forms of child sex trafficking, including those that did not include such means, could be addressed under provisions that criminalize child sexual exploitation, with penalties of five to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine. Conviction of child pornography is punishable by fines or imprisonment. Since there were no official statistics regarding these matters and no reports in local media of cases, prosecutions, or convictions relating to either child sex trafficking or child pornography, it was unclear if authorities consistently enforced the law.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The law mandates access to buildings, information, communication, education, and transportation for persons with disabilities. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Despite the absence of appropriate accommodation for children with disabilities, such children attended mainstream schools, both public and private.

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

Consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults is illegal, and conviction is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine. Authorities reported no arrests or prosecutions for same-sex sexual activity and did not actively enforce the law. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons generally did not publicly reveal their sexual orientation due to societal pressure. There were no local LGBTI organizations.

No laws prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements. It provides for the right to strike but requires an eight-day notification period and a declaration of the reason for the strike and its duration. Civil servants must provide 15 days’ notice. Strikes are restricted to work-related topics. Some categories of workers are prohibited from striking, such as members of the military, magistrates, and senior officials. The law includes a mandatory conciliation process for resolving labor disputes with recourse to the courts. Unions have the right to bargain collectively.

The law allows unions to conduct their activities without government interference. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers in hiring practices or other employment functions, and it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Worker organizations are independent of the government and political parties. No laws protect strikers from retribution. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Inspections and remediation were inadequate. Penalties for violations, including ordering employers to pay indemnities and damages to the employee, were commensurate with those for similar violations but were seldom applied. Labor disputes may be brought to the attention of the Labor Tribunal. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Wage arrears were common, including in the public sector.

Workers exercised their labor rights, and strikes occurred in the public sector (education, workers at the port of Anjouan, health, and road transport). There were no reports of retribution against strikers. Common problems included failure to pay salaries regularly or on time, mostly in the government sector, and unfair and abusive dismissal practices, such as dismissing employees without giving proper notice or paying the required severance pay. There were reported incidents of antiunion discrimination.

On August 12, Rahama Said, a midwife at El-Maarouf Hospital, was fired following a strike by contract workers at the hospital prompted by complaints that workers had not received COVID-19 special compensation for health workers. She filed a complaint with the labor inspectorate, which requested her reinstatement, but the hospital director refused. The director claimed her dismissal was due to unjustified absences. The labor inspector sent the case to the Labor Court for a decision.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, with certain exceptions for military service, community service, and during accidents, fires, and disasters. During times of national emergency, the government’s civil protection unit may compel persons to assist in unpaid disaster recovery efforts if it is unable to obtain sufficient voluntary assistance. The law criminalizes all forms of labor trafficking. The law requires prisoners who received labor as part of their sentencing to work.

The government did not consistently enforce the law. Inspections and remediation were inadequate. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar offenses. The government did not make tangible efforts to prosecute traffickers and protect victims.

The government did not identify any cases of adult forced labor.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work.

Labor inspectors were responsible for monitoring all potential violations of labor law and did not focus only on child labor cases. Regulations permit light apprentice work by children younger than age 15 if it does not hinder the child’s schooling or physical or moral development. The law, however, does not specify the conditions under which light work may be conducted or limit the number of hours for light work. In accordance with the law, labor inspectors may require the medical examination of a child by an accredited physician to determine if the work assigned to a child is beyond his or her physical capacity. Children may not be kept in employment deemed beyond their capacity. If suitable work cannot be assigned, the contract must be nullified and all indemnities paid to the employee.

The law identifies hazardous work where child labor is prohibited, including the worst forms of child labor. Child labor infractions are criminal offenses, punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws, but it did not do so actively or effectively. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. Child labor laws and regulations do not provide children working in unpaid or noncontractual work the same protections as children working in contractual employment. Children worked in fishing and extracting and selling sand. Children also worked in growing subsistence food crops such as manioc and beans and in the cultivation of cash crops such as vanilla, cloves, and ylang-ylang (a flower used to make perfume). Some children worked under forced labor conditions, primarily in domestic service and family-based agriculture and fishing. Some Quranic schools arranged for indigent students to receive lessons in exchange for labor that sometimes was forced. Some families placed their children in the homes of wealthier families where they worked in exchange for food, shelter, or educational opportunities.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation on the basis of race, skin color, sex, religion, political opinion, national ancestry, social origin, or actual or presumed state of health (such as HIV/AIDS). The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, but does not address sexual orientation. Discrimination cases are received by the Ministry of Labor and passed to the courts if not resolved.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other violations, and inspection was inadequate. In rural areas women tended to be relegated to certain types of work, and the UN Development Program reported women were underrepresented in leadership roles. Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment and access to worksites.

The law does not address gender pay disparities, and there were reports of pay gaps in the private sector.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The existing minimum wage established by the government is greater than the poverty line, but it is only a guideline. The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, except in the agriculture sector, where it sets the maximum hours of work at 2,400 per year (equivalent to 46 hours per week). The minimum weekly rest period is 24 consecutive hours. The law provides for paid annual leave accumulated at the rate of 2.5 days per month of service. There are no provisions to prohibit compulsory overtime; overtime is determined through collective bargaining. There are no sectors or groups of workers excluded from these laws within the formal sector, but the law does not apply to the informal sector, estimated to include 73 percent of workers.

The Ministries of Finance and Labor set wages in the large public sector and impose a minimum wage in the small, formal private sector. Unions had adequate influence to negotiate minimum wage rates for different skill levels for unionized jobs. These provisions applied to all union workers, regardless of sector or country of origin. Unions promoted this de facto minimum wage via their ability to strike against employers.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations. There were four labor inspectors (two on Grande Comore and one each on Anjouan and Moheli), but they did not have adequate training to perform their duties. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.

The labor code includes a chapter on appropriate occupational safety and health requirements, but these were seldom enforced. Fishing was considered the most hazardous work. Mostly self-employed, fishermen often worked from unsafe canoes, and sometimes died while fishing in rough seas. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The law provides that labor inspectors may remove workers from such situations as well, but this was not effective since labor inspectors generally did not visit worksites. There were no known industrial accidents, but workers in construction, ports, public works such road construction, fishing, and agricultural sectors sometimes experienced hazardous working conditions.

Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

In February 2014 Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and occupied it militarily. In March 2014 Russia announced the peninsula had become part of the Russian Federation following a sham referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 on the “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine” of March 27, 2014, and Resolution 75/192 on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”of December 28, 2020, called on states and international organizations not to recognize any change in Crimea’s status and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. In April 2014 Ukraine’s legislature (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a law attributing responsibility for human rights violations in Crimea to the Russian Federation as the occupying state. The United States does not recognize the attempted annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Russian law has been applied in Crimea since the Russian occupation and purported “annexation” of the peninsula. For detailed information on the laws and practices of the Russian Federation, see the Country Report on Human Rights for Russia.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

A local occupation authority installed by the Russian government and led by Sergey Aksyonov as “prime minister” of the “state council of the republic of Crimea” administers occupied Crimea. The “state council” is responsible for day-to-day administration and other functions of governing. In 2016 Russia’s nationwide parliamentary elections included seats allocated for purportedly annexed Crimea, a move widely condemned by the international community and that contravened the Ukrainian constitution.

Russian government agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Investigative Committee, and the Office of the Prosecutor General, applied and enforced Russian law in Crimea as if it were a part of the Russian Federation. The FSB also conducted security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism activities and combatted organized crime and corruption. A “national police force” operated under the aegis of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian authorities maintained control over Russian military and security forces deployed in Crimea. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by Russia or Russia-led “authorities,” including punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and transfer of prisoners to Russia; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the occupation judiciary; pervasive arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and website blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.

Occupation authorities took few steps to investigate or prosecute officials or individuals who committed human rights abuses, creating an atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness.

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

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

According to the human rights group Crimea SOS, there were no new reports that occupation authorities committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, but impunity for past killings remained a serious problem. The Russian government tasked the Russian Investigative Committee with investigating whether security force killings in occupied Crimea were justifiable and whether to pursue prosecutions. The HRMMU reported the Investigative Committee failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity. The Office of the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea also investigated security force killings from its headquarters in Kyiv, but de facto restrictions on access to occupied Crimea limited its effectiveness.

There were no reported investigations for the four Crimean Tatars found dead in 2019. Occupation authorities did not adequately investigate killings of Crimean residents from 2014 and 2015. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12 Crimean residents who had disappeared during the occupation were later found dead. Human rights groups reported occupation authorities did not investigate other suspicious deaths and disappearances, occasionally categorizing them as suicide. Human rights observers reported that families frequently did not challenge findings in such cases due to fear of retaliation.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of abductions and disappearances by occupation authorities. Crimea SOS reported 45 individuals have gone missing since Russian forces occupied Crimea in 2014, and the fate of 15 of these individuals remained unknown. The OHCHR reported occupation authorities have not prosecuted anyone in relation to the forced disappearances. NGO and press reports indicated occupation authorities were responsible for the disappearances. For example, in March 2014, Maidan activists Ivan Bondarets and Valerii Vashchuk telephoned relatives to report police in Simferopol had detained them at a railway station for displaying a Ukrainian flag. Relatives have had no communication with them since, and the whereabouts of the two men remained unknown. Occupation authorities denied international monitors, including the OHCHR and OSCE, access to Crimea, which made it impossible for monitors to investigate forced disappearances there properly.

Occupation authorities did not adequately investigate the deaths and disappearances, according to human rights groups. Human rights groups reported that police often refused to register reports of disappearances and intimidated and threatened with detention those who tried to report disappearances. The Ukrainian government and human rights groups believed Russian security forces kidnapped the individuals for opposing Russia’s occupation to instill fear in the population and prevent dissent.

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

There were widespread reports that occupation authorities in Crimea tortured and otherwise abused residents who opposed the occupation. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, “The use of torture by the FSB and the Russia-led police against Ukrainian citizens became a systematic and unpunished phenomenon after Russia’s occupation of Crimea.” Human rights monitors reported that Russian occupation authorities subjected Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in particular to physical abuse. For example, on January 28, plainclothes occupation authorities from the “ministry of internal affairs” detained Server Rasilchak, a 17-year-old Crimean Tatar, shortly after Rasilchak, his father, and two friends were stopped by traffic police at a gas station in Saki. The men beat and arrested Rasilchak and took him to a police station, where he was subjected to electric shocks, beaten, and threatened with sexual assault for several hours. Rasilchak’s mother claimed she filed a formal complaint with police, but human rights groups noted the difficulty of tracking the status of complaints and investigations in Crimea given the atmosphere of fear and impunity.

Occupation authorities reportedly demonstrated a pattern of using punitive psychiatric incarceration as a means of pressuring detained individuals. For example, according to press reports, on June 23, authorities transferred Crimean Tatar Ruslan Suleimanov to the Crimean Clinical Psychiatric Hospital for a forced psychiatric evaluation. Suleimanov was arrested in March 2019 and charged with allegedly belonging to the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia as a terrorist group but legal in Ukraine. Human right defenders viewed the authorities’ move as an attempt to break his client’s will and intimidate him.

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, as of late September, approximately 10 Crimean Tatar defendants had been subjected to psychiatric evaluation and confinement against their will without apparent medical need since the beginning of the occupation (see section 1.d.).

Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities also threatened individuals with violence or imprisonment if they did not testify in court against individuals whom authorities believed were opposed to the occupation.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions reportedly remained harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding and poor conditions.

Physical Conditions: The Crimean Human Rights Group reported inhuman conditions in official places of detention in Crimea. According to a June interim report by the UN secretary-general, inadequate conditions in detention centers in Crimea could amount to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” According to the report, prisons in Crimea were overcrowded, medical assistance for prisoners was inadequate, and detainees complained of systematic beatings and humiliating strip searches by prison guards.

Overcrowding forced prisoners to sleep in shifts in order to share beds. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, detainees held in the Simferopol pretrial detention center complained about poor sanitary conditions, broken toilets, and insufficient heating. Detainees diagnosed with HIV as well as tuberculosis and other communicable diseases were kept in a single cell. On July 7, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that three of the defendants in a case involving alleged involvement in the group Hizb ut-Tahrir complained of harsh conditions, including being kept in a basement cell with a sealed window in one case and sharing a 20-bed cell with 23 inmates in another.

There were reports detainees were denied medical treatment, even for serious health conditions. According to the June UN secretary-general’s special report, detainees often had to rely on relatives to provide medicine, since the medical assistance provided at detention centers was inadequate. For example, Dzhemil Gafarov, a 58-year-old Crimean Tatar civic activist imprisoned in Crimea, received inadequate treatment for severe kidney disease. On October 22, the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsperson reported Gafarov’s medical condition had severely deteriorated while in detention. As of November occupation authorities continued to ignore requests from Gafarov’s lawyer that Gafarov be hospitalized or medically released.

According to the Crimean Resource Center, 32 Crimean prisoners were transferred to the Russian Federation in the first eight months of the year, 26 of whom were Crimean Tatars. One factor in the transfers was the lack of specialized penitentiary facilities in Crimea, requiring the transfer of juveniles, persons sentenced to life imprisonment, and prisoners suffering from serious physical and mental illnesses.

According to defense lawyers, prisoners considered Russian citizens by the Russian Federation were denied Ukrainian consular visits, and some Crimean residents were transferred to prison facilities in Russia without Ukrainian passports.

Prison authorities reportedly retaliated against detainees who refused Russian Federation citizenship by placing them in smaller cells or in solitary confinement.

Independent Monitoring: Occupation authorities did not permit monitoring of prison or detention center conditions by independent nongovernmental observers or international organizations. Occupation authorities permitted the “human rights ombudsperson,” Lyudmila Lubina, to visit prisoners, but human rights activists regarded Lubina as representing the interests of occupation authorities and did not view her as an independent actor.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests continued to occur, which observers believed were a means of instilling fear, stifling opposition, and inflicting punishment on those who opposed the occupation. Security forces conducted regular raids on Crimean Tatar villages and the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, accompanied by detentions, interrogations, and often criminal charges. The Crimean Resource Center recorded 68 detentions and 70 interrogations that were politically motivated as of September 30. For example, on May 30, Ukrainian soldier Yevhen Dobrynsky disappeared while on duty near the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. On June 2, the FSB announced it had detained Dobrynsky for “illegally crossing the border from Ukraine to Russia.” As of October, Dobrynsky was still detained by occupation authorities.

The HRMMU noted that justifications underpinning the arrests of alleged members of “terrorist” or “extremist” groups often provided little evidence that the suspect posed an actual threat to society by planning or undertaking concrete actions.

The HRMMU noted the prevalence of members of the Crimean Tatar community among those apprehended during police raids. According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, of the 173 individuals arrested between January and August, 133 were Crimean Tatars. The HRMMU noted raids were often carried out on the pretext of purported need to seize materials linking suspects to groups that are banned in the Russian Federation, but lawful in Ukraine.

For example, according to press reports, on July 7, the FSB raided houses of Crimean Tatars in various parts of the peninsula. Security forces reportedly targeted the houses of activists belonging to the Crimean Solidarity movement, a human rights organization that provides the relatives and lawyers of political prisoners with legal, financial, and moral support. Seven individuals were arrested during the raid. According to human rights groups, security forces had no warrant for the raid and denied detained individuals access to lawyers. Of the seven men arrested during the raid, three were charged with organizing the activities of a terrorist organization (Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine), which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. The rest were charged with participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were also targeted for raids and arbitrary arrests. For example, on May 26, Russian security forces in Kerch conducted searches of four homes belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one man was arrested on “extremism” charges as a result of the searches. The group is banned in Russia as an extremist organization but is legal in Ukraine. On June 4, Jehovah’s Witness Artyom Gerasimov was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on “extremism” charges. Prosecutors presented secret audio recordings of Gerasimov and his family reciting prayers and Bible verses in their home, alleging these actions constituted illegal “organizational activities” on behalf of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gerasimov was the second Jehovah’s Witness during the year to receive a six-year prison sentence on extremism charges after an arbitrary arrest for exercising his freedom of religion.

Failure to submit to conscription into the Russian military was also used as a basis for arbitrary arrests. Since 2015, Russia has conducted annual spring and fall conscriptions in Crimea, and failure to comply is punishable by criminal penalty. Since the beginning of the occupation, nearly 30,000 persons have been conscripted, and in February the Crimean Human Rights Group documented eight new criminal cases of Crimean residents for evading military service in the Russian Federation Armed Forces.

Detainees were often denied access to a lawyer during interrogation. For example, on August 31, FSB officers searched the homes of four Crimean Tatar activists belonging to the group Crimean Solidarity. FSB officers detained all four activists: Ayder Kadyrov, a correspondent for the Grani.ru online media, Ridvan Umerov (a leader of the local mosque), and Crimean Solidarity members Ayder Yabliakimov and Enver Topchi. The men were interrogated for eight hours, during which authorities refused to grant their lawyers access to them. Kadyrov’s lawyer claimed that authorities forced Kadyrov to sign a confession.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Under Russian occupation authorities, the judicial system was neither independent nor impartial. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were subject to political directives, and the outcomes of trials appeared predetermined by government interference. The HRMMU noted that lawyers defending individuals accused of extremism or terrorism risked facing harassment or similar charges themselves. For example, human rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov reported that occupation authorities physically surveilled him and likely tapped his office phone. Kurbedinov has faced longstanding pressure for his involvement in defending human rights defenders and activists in Crimea, including being previously arrested in 2017 and 2018.

Trial Procedures

Defendants in politically motivated cases were increasingly transferred to the Russian Federation for trial. See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities limited the ability to have a public hearing. According to the HRMMU, occupation authorities banned family members and media from the courtroom for hearings related to charges of Hizb ut-Tahrir membership and other activities deemed subversive under Russian law. The courts justified the closed hearings by citing vague concerns about the “safety of the participants.” The courts failed to publish judgments in these cases.

Occupation authorities interfered with defendants’ ability to access an attorney. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, defendants facing terrorism or extremism-related charges were often pressured into dismissing their privately hired lawyers in exchange for promised leniency.

Occupation authorities intimidated witnesses to influence their testimony. On June 11, the FSB charged a former witness with providing false testimony at the hearings of individuals accused of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In an August 2019 court hearing, the witness retracted his pretrial statements, claiming they had been coerced by FSB officers during interrogation. While the HRMMU found the witness’s claims of mistreatment to be credible, the court dismissed the allegations and ruled that the witness’s retraction was intended to assist the defendant in avoiding criminal liability. The former witness faced five years in prison.

The HRMMU reported that occupation authorities retroactively applied Russia’s laws to actions that took place before the occupation of the peninsula began.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, as of August, 105 Crimeans were being deprived of freedom in occupied Crimea or in Russia on political or religious charges, 73 of whom were Crimean Tatar Muslims prosecuted on terrorism charges.

Charges of extremism, terrorism, or violation of territorial integrity were particularly applied to opponents of the occupation, such as Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, independent journalists, and individuals expressing dissent on social media.

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

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities and others engaged in electronic surveillance, entered residences and other premises without warrants, and harassed relatives and neighbors of perceived opposition figures.

Occupation authorities routinely conducted raids on homes to intimidate the local population, particularly Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses ostensibly on the grounds of searching for weapons, drugs, or “extremist literature.” According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, occupation authorities conducted 38 searches between January and August; 25 were in the households of Crimean Tatars.

Human rights groups reported that Russian authorities had widespread authority to tap telephones and read electronic communications and had established a network of informants to report on suspicious activities. Authorities reportedly encouraged state employees to inform on their colleagues who might oppose the occupation. According to human rights advocates, eavesdropping and visits by security personnel created an environment in which persons were afraid to voice any opinion contrary to the occupation authorities, even in private.

Occupation authorities regularly used recorded audio of discussions regarding religion and politics, obtained through illegal wiretapping of private homes, and testimonies from unidentified witnesses as evidence in court. For example, in June 2019 occupation authorities detained four Crimean Tatars in the Alushta region of Crimea on terrorism charges related to alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian prosecutors used FSB wiretaps of the men’s conversations during private religious classes about the concept of an Islamic caliphate in Crimea as evidence the men were planning a “forcible seizure of power.” As of November the men were being held at detention facility in Rostov-on-Don in Russia as the trial proceeded.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution. Occupation authorities’ reported failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Speech: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” On July 31, occupation authorities began enforcing a law that prohibited the unauthorized dissemination of information damaging to the FSB’s reputation without the FSB’s approval. Enforcement of this law in Crimea deprived Crimean residents of the opportunity to publicly criticize and disseminate information about reportedly unlawful actions of FSB officers and alleged violations or abuses of human rights.

Individuals could not publicly criticize the Russian occupation without fear of reprisal. Human rights groups reported the FSB engaged in widespread surveillance of social media, telephones, and electronic communication and routinely summoned individuals for “discussions” for voicing or posting opposition to the occupation. These unlawfully obtained recordings were often used against those who were arbitrarily arrested in closed trials.

Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on January 18, the FSB placed a 34-year entry ban on Taras Ibrahimov, a Ukrainian journalist who covered politically motivated lawsuits and human rights violations in Crimea. Occupation authorities officially informed Ibrahimov of the ban but did not provide a justification.

Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, on March 9, police dispersed a small group of women who began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during an authorized ceremony next to a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Police told the women their actions constituted an “act of provocation.”

Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, on May 22, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged in absentia Crimean Tatar television channel ATR deputy director Ayder Muzhdabaev with violating a Russian law against “public calls for committing terrorist activities.” The charges were purportedly due to his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he routinely expressed on the daily talk show that he cohosted.

There were multiple reports that occupation authorities detained and prosecuted individuals seeking to film raids on homes or court proceedings. For example, according to press reports, journalist Amet Suleimanov was among those arrested on “terrorism” charges in the FSB’s March 11 raid on multiple Crimean Tatars’ homes in Bakhchisaray district. Occupation authorities first detained Suleimanov in 2017 for filming security forces during a raid on the home of a fellow member of Crimean Solidarity. Occupation authorities have detained and released him multiple times since 2017, citing vague “terrorism” concerns. As of October Suleimanov was under house arrest.

During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts. For example, on May 28 a “district court” in occupied Crimea fined the acting chairman of the Alushta Muslim community, Ruslan Emirvaliev, for a social media post made in 2016 containing an image of a boy pointing at a banner displaying the words of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith, in Arabic script. Court documents characterized these words as “an inscription in an unknown language, of an unknown nature and content.”

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent print and broadcast media could not operate freely. Most independent media outlets were forced to close in 2015 after occupation authorities refused to register them. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, after the occupation began, many local journalists left Crimea or abandoned their profession. With no independent media outlets left in Crimea and professional journalists facing serious risks for reporting from the peninsula, civic activists were a major source of information on developments in Crimea.

Violence and Harassment: There were numerous cases of security forces or police harassing activists and detaining journalists in connection with their civic or professional activities. For example, on November 3, occupation authorities detained two journalists of the Russia-based Grani.ru website near a Russia-controlled military court building in Simferopol on administrative charges related to public order. The journalists had come to the military court building to report on the sentencing of three Crimean Tatars by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, which was due to be delivered on the same day. Occupation authorities suggested the reporters had been involved in protests in support of the defendants, although local media reported the crowds of protesters had already dispersed when the journalists were arrested.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting.

There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. As of September Russia-led authorities blocked 30 websites in Crimea, including the websites of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a representative body that Russia deems extremist), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Ministry of Integration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and several independent Ukrainian news outlets, among others. Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).

Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. On June 22, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that occupation authorities were continuing to block Ukrainian FM radio stations in northern Crimea by broadcasting their stations on the same wavelength. The signal of Ukrainian FM radio stations was heard in only five of the area’s 19 settlements.

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.

National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to justify retaliation against opponents of Russia’s occupation.

The Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service included prominent critics of the occupation on its list of extremists and terrorists. Inclusion on the list prevented individuals from holding bank accounts, using notary services, and conducting other financial transactions.

Authorities frequently used the threat of “extremism,” “terrorism,” or other purported national security grounds to justify harassment or prosecution of individuals in retaliation for expressing opposition to the occupation. For example, on May 25, the Russia-controlled “supreme court” in occupied Crimea began hearing the in absentia trial of Lenur Isliamov, the owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR. In 2015 occupation authorities charged Isliamov with “organizing an illegal armed group, committing sabotage, [and] public calls for extremist activities.” In 2015 Isliamov led a group of volunteers near the administrative border in blocking the transport of commercial goods to and from occupied Crimea. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the act an “essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea,” and the Ukrainian government subsequently approved the formal registration of Isliamov’s organization.

Internet Freedom

Russian occupation authorities restricted free expression on the internet (see section 2.a. of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia), by imposing repressive Russian Federation laws on Crimea. Security services routinely monitored and controlled internet activity to suppress dissenting opinions. According to media accounts, occupation authorities interrogated and harassed residents of Crimea for online postings with pro-Ukrainian opinions (see Censorship or Content Restrictions, above).

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Occupation authorities engaged in a widespread campaign to suppress the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

According to the June UN secretary-general’s special report, “public events initiated by perceived supporters of Ukrainian territorial integrity or critics of policies of the Russian Federation in Crimea were reportedly prevented or prohibited by occupation authorities.”

Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities routinely denied permission to hold assemblies based on political beliefs, in particular to opponents of the occupation or those seeking to protest the actions of the occupation authorities. Those who gathered without permission were regularly charged with administrative offenses. Expansive rules about what type of gatherings required permits and selective enforcement of the rules made it difficult for protesters to avoid such offenses. For example, according to a local news website, on January 19, police shut down a small women-led rally in Kerch against the possible closure of the Taigan Safari Park, which faced mismanagement-related litigation in Russia-based courts. Police and representatives of the Kerch city council told the rally’s participants that holding a public event unauthorized by the city council was illegal. The participants complied in ending the rally, and several of them began disseminating leaflets to passers-by. An hour later, police detained several of the women and took them to the police station. Police did not register the arrests.

Occupation authorities brought charges for “unauthorized assemblies” against single-person protests, even though preauthorization is not required for individual protests. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on June 8, police charged activist Serhiy Akimov with an administrative offense for holding a one-person protest in Simferopol in front of the Crimean “parliament” building in support of Russian politician Nikolay Platoshkin, who was under house arrest in Moscow.

There were reports that authorities used a ban on “unauthorized missionary activity” to restrict public gatherings of members of religious minorities. For example, on April 1, the “prosecutor” of Alushta opened administrative proceedings against Yusuf Ashirov, the imam of the local Islamic community, for “illegal missionary activity.” The prosecutor did not explain how Ashirov’s performance of Friday prayers, a traditional rite for Muslims, violated the law.

A “regulation” limits the places where public events may be held to 366 listed locations, which, as the HRMMU noted, restricted the ability to assemble to a shrinking number of “specially designated spaces,” a move that appeared “designed to dissuade” peaceful assembly.

There were reports occupation authorities charged and fined individuals for allegedly violating public assembly rules in retaliation for gathering to witness security force raids on homes.

Freedom of Association

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities broadly restricted the exercise of freedom of association for individuals who opposed the occupation. For example, there were numerous reports of authorities taking steps to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison members of the human rights group Crimean Solidarity, an unregistered movement of friends and family of victims of repression by occupation authorities (see section 1.d.). During the year the Crimean Human Rights Group documented multiple cases in which police visited the homes of Crimean Solidarity activists to threaten them or warn them not to engage in “extremist” activities. For example, on May 6, Seyran Menseitov, a member of the Crimean Solidarity movement, received a letter from the Yevpatoriya “prosecutor’s office,” which warned him against participating in gatherings related to the May 18 “Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide,” as they might constitute “extremist” activities. At least 10 other Crimean Tatar activists and journalists received similar “preventive warnings” in advance of the May 18 holiday.

According to human rights groups, Russian security services routinely monitored prayers at mosques for any mention that Crimea remained part of Ukraine. Russian security forces also monitored mosques for anti-Russia sentiment and as a means of recruiting police informants, whose secret testimony was used in trials of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members.

The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People remained banned for purported “extremism” despite a decision by the International Court of Justice holding that occupation authorities must “refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis.” Following the 2016 ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist organization,” occupation authorities banned gatherings by Mejlis members and prosecuted individuals for discussing the Mejlis on social media.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

Occupation authorities imposed restrictions on freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: Occupation authorities maintained a state “border” at the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. According to the HRMMU, the boundary and the absence of public transportation between Crimea and mainland Ukraine continued to undermine freedom of movement to and from the peninsula, affecting mainly the elderly and individuals with limited mobility. The government simplified crossing the administrative boundary for children in a decree that came into force on February 9. Children younger than 16 were allowed to cross the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea both ways if accompanied by one parent. Notarized permission of the second parent was no longer required. Children ages 14-16 could cross the administrative line both ways unaccompanied if they studied at an educational institution located in mainland Ukraine and resided or were registered in Crimea.

There were reports occupation authorities selectively detained and at times abused persons attempting to enter or leave Crimea. According to human rights groups, occupation authorities routinely detained adult men at the administrative boundary for additional questioning, threatened to seize passports and documents, seized telephones and memory cards, and questioned them for hours.

On March 14, Ukrainian authorities restricted crossing of the administrative boundary as a COVID-19 preventative measure. Under the restrictions, only individuals registered as residents of government-controlled territory could cross into mainland Ukraine, and only individuals registered in Crimea could cross into the occupied peninsula. Public backlash to the measures led the government to expand authorized crossings four days later, allowing for crossings for humanitarian reasons, such as family reunification, cases of serious illness, and the death of a close relative. On June 15, the State Border Guard Service rescinded the residency requirements and resumed normal operations of checkpoints along the administrative boundary, while still requiring self-isolation for persons leaving occupied Crimea. On August 1, the service rescinded the self-isolation requirement but temporarily closed the crossing points again from August 8 to 30.

On March 18, Russian occupation authorities banned Ukrainian citizens from entering occupied Crimea, citing COVID-19 prevention as justification. The number of administrative boundary crossings dropped to nearly 1 percent of historical levels as a result of these restrictions. For instance, from April to May, the State Border Guard Service registered 4,000 crossings of the administrative boundary, compared with 344,000 crossings during the same period in 2019.

On April 3, Russian occupation authorities imposed upon Ukrainians in Crimea a measure banning those they considered Russian citizens from leaving the territory of what they considered the Russian Federation. Occupation authorities justified the action by asserting that many Ukrainians in Crimea had Russian passports, many of which were issued without being requested. For example, on April 5, FSB officials at the administrative boundary denied the request of a Ukrainian citizen seeking cancer treatment in Kyiv to exit occupied Crimea, citing her alleged Russian citizenship. Similarly, on April 17, Soviet dissident and marathon swimmer Oleh Sofianyk presented a Ukrainian passport to Russian officials at the administrative boundary in order to cross into mainland Ukraine. The officials refused his request to exit occupied Crimea, citing his alleged Russian citizenship. On April 27, Sofianyk attempted a second time to exit Crimea, but authorities again refused his request. Sofianyk managed to leave the peninsula on June 2.

In other cases, occupation authorities issued entry bans to Crimean Tatars attempting to cross the administrative boundary. For example, on May 23, the FSB detained 61-year-old human rights defender Diliaver Memetov when he attempted to pass through an administrative boundary checkpoint for a planned trip to mainland Ukraine. Occupation authorities took Memetov to a police station, where he claims police tore out pages from his passport. Upon his release three hours later, Memetov attempted to cross again, but was denied entry and fined a substantial amount for presenting a damaged passport.

Occupation authorities launched criminal cases against numerous high-profile Crimean Tatar leaders, including Member of Parliament Mustafa Jemilev; the chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov; the director general of the ATR television channel, Lenur Isliamov; and ATR deputy director Aider Muzhdabayev.

According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian law restricts access to Crimea to three designated crossing points and imposes penalties, including long-term entry bans, for noncompliance. Crimean residents lacking Ukrainian passports, who only possessed Russian-issued Crimean travel documents not recognized by Ukrainian authorities, often faced difficulties when crossing into mainland Ukraine.

Citizenship: Russian occupation authorities required all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens. Those who refused Russian citizenship could be subjected to arbitrary expulsion. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, during the six years of Russia’s occupation, approximately 2,000 Ukrainians were prosecuted for not having Russian documents, and approximately 530 persons were ordered to be “deported.”

According to the HRMMU, in 2019 Crimean “courts” ordered “deportation” and forcible transfer of 109 Ukrainian citizens whose residence rights in Crimea were not recognized.

Residents of Crimea who chose not to adopt Russian citizenship were considered foreigners but in some cases could obtain a residency permit. Persons without Russian citizenship holding a residency permit were deprived of key rights and could not own agricultural land, vote or run for office, register a religious congregation, or register a vehicle. Authorities denied those who refused Russian citizenship access to “government” employment, education, and health care as well as the ability to open bank accounts and buy insurance, among other limitations.

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, Russian authorities prosecuted private employers who continued to employ Ukrainians. Fines could be imposed on employers for every recorded case of employing a Ukrainian citizen without a labor license. Fines in such cases amounted to several million dollars.

In some cases authorities compelled Crimean residents to surrender their Ukrainian passports, complicating international travel, because many countries did not recognize “passports” issued by Russian occupation authorities.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Approximately 47,000 residents of Crimea registered as IDPs on the mainland, according to the Ministry of Social Policy. The Mejlis and local NGOs, such as Crimea SOS, believed the actual number could be as high as 100,000, as most IDPs remained unregistered. Many individuals fled due to fear that occupation authorities would target them for abuse because of their work as political activists or journalists. Muslims, Greek Catholics, and Evangelical Christians who left Crimea said they feared discrimination due to their religious beliefs.

Crimean Tatars, who made up the largest number of IDPs, said they left because of pressure on their community, including an increasing number of arbitrary searches of their homes, surveillance, and discrimination. In addition, many professionals left Crimea because Russian occupation authorities required them to apply for Russian professional licenses and adopt Russian procedures in their work.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Recent Elections: Russian occupation authorities prevented residents from voting in Ukrainian national and local elections since Crimea’s occupation began in 2014.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Corruption: There were multiple reports of systemic rampant corruption among Crimean “officeholders,” including through embezzlement of Russian state funds allocated to support the occupation. For example, on March 28, a “district court” found the former head of the Feodosiya city administration, Dmitri Shchepetkov, guilty of abuse of office and attempted bribe taking. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 42 million rubles ($560,000).

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

Most independent human rights organizations ceased activities in Crimea following Russia’s occupation. Occupation authorities refused to cooperate with independent human rights NGOs, ignored their views, and harassed human rights monitors and threatened them with fines and imprisonment.

Russia continued to deny access to the peninsula to international human rights monitors from the OSCE and the United Nations.

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

Children

Birth Registration: Under both Ukrainian law and laws imposed by Russian occupation authorities, either birthplace or parentage determines citizenship. Russia’s occupation and purported annexation of Crimea complicated the question of citizenship for children born after February 2014, since it was difficult for parents to register a child as a citizen with Ukrainian authorities. Registration in the country requires a hospital certificate, which is retained when a birth certificate is issued. Under the occupation regime, new parents could only obtain a Russian birth certificate and did not have access to a hospital certificate. In 2016 the Ukrainian government instituted a process whereby births in Crimea could be recognized with documents issued by occupation authorities.

Anti-Semitism

According to Jewish groups, the Jewish population in Crimea was approximately 10,000 to 15,000, with most living in Simferopol. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Since the beginning of the occupation, authorities singled out Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians for discrimination, abuse, deprivation of civil liberties and religious and economic rights, and violence, including killings and abductions (also see sections 1.a.-1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 2.b., and 2.d.). The June UN secretary-general’s report noted, “Law enforcement authorities seemed to target actual or perceived critics of the occupation of Crimea and the policies of the Russian Federation on the peninsula, such as the Mejlis and Crimean Solidarity.”

There were reports that Russian occupation authorities openly advocated discrimination against Crimean Tatars. Occupation authorities harassed Crimean Tatars for speaking their language in public and forbade speaking it in the workplace. There were reports teachers prohibited schoolchildren from speaking Crimean Tatar to one another. Crimean Tatars were prohibited from celebrating their national holidays and commemorating victims of previous abuses (see section 2.b.).

Occupation authorities also restricted the use of Crimean Tatar flags and symbols (see section 2.a.).

By the end of 2014, Ukrainian as a language of instruction was removed from university-level education in Crimea. According to the Crimean Resource Center, schools in Crimea no longer provided instruction in Ukrainian. Crimean Tatar was the sole instruction language for seven schools, and five schools that previously offered all instruction in Crimean Tatar added Russian language instruction. In 2017 the International Court of Justice ruled on provisional measures in proceedings brought by Ukraine against the Russian Federation, concluding unanimously that the Russian Federation must “ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language.”

Occupation authorities have not permitted churches linked to ethnic Ukrainians, in particular the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to register under Russian law. Occupation authorities harassed and intimidated members of the churches and used court proceedings to force the OCU in particular to leave properties it had rented for years. On July 24, “court bailiffs” issued an order to Archbishop Klyment of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to dismantle the only OCU church in Yevpatoriya within five days.

The largest OCU congregation in Crimea closed in September 2019 following a ruling by occupation authorities that the cathedral located in Simferopol must be “returned to the state.” The church was shut down after repeated refusals by the authorities to allow it to register.

Russian occupation authorities prohibited Crimean Tatars affiliated with the Mejlis from registering businesses or properties as a matter of policy.

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

Human rights groups and LGBTI activists reported that most LGBTI individuals fled Crimea after the Russian occupation began. Those who remained lived in fear of abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert received reports of increased violence and discrimination of the LGBTI community in Crimea, as well as the use of homophobic propaganda employed by the occupation authorities. LGBTI persons reportedly were frequently subjected to beatings in public spaces and entrapped by organized groups through social networks. The council’s report noted, “this environment created an atmosphere of fear and terror for members of the community, with related adverse impacts on their mental health and well-being.”

According to the HRMMU, NGOs working on access to health care among vulnerable groups have found it impossible to advocate for better access to healthcare for LGBTI persons due to fear of retaliation by occupation authorities.

Occupation authorities prohibited any LGBTI group from holding public events in Crimea. LGBTI individuals faced increasing restrictions on their exercise of free expression and peaceful assembly, because occupation authorities enforced a Russian law that criminalizes the so-called propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors (see section 6 of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia).

Section 7. Worker Rights

Occupation authorities announced the labor laws of Ukraine would not be in effect after 2016 and that only the laws of the Russian Federation would apply.

Occupation authorities imposed the labor laws and regulations of the Russian Federation on Crimean workers, limited worker rights, and created barriers to the exercise of freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the ability to strike. Trade unions are formally protected under Russian law but limited in practice. As in both Ukraine and Russia, employers were often able to engage in antiunion discrimination and violate collective bargaining rights. Pro-Russian authorities threatened to nationalize property owned by Ukrainian labor unions in Crimea. Ukrainians who did not accept Russian citizenship faced job discrimination in all sectors of the economy. Only holders of Russian national identification cards were allowed to work in “government” and municipal positions. Labor activists believed that unions were threatened in Crimea to accept “government” policy without question and faced considerable restrictions on advocating for their members.

Although no official data were available, experts estimated there was growing participation in the underground economy in Crimea.

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Ukraine

Egypt

Executive Summary

According to its constitution, Egypt is a republic governed by an elected president and bicameral legislature, with the upper house or Senate newly established during the year. Presidential elections were held in 2018. Challengers to incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi withdrew ahead of the election, citing personal decisions, political pressure, legal troubles, and unfair competition; in some cases they were arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules. Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on association, assembly, and expression severely constrained broad participation in the political process. A progovernment coalition won an overwhelming majority of seats in multistage, multiround elections for parliament’s reconstituted Senate and House of Representatives. Domestic and international observers stated that government authorities professionally administered parliamentary elections in accordance with the country’s laws and that their results were credible. Observers noted restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, political association, and expression significantly inhibited the political climate surrounding the elections.

The Interior Ministry supervises law enforcement and internal security, including the Public Security Sector Police; the Central Security Force; the National Security Sector; and the Passports, Immigration, and Nationality Administration. The Public Security Sector Police are responsible for law enforcement nationwide. The Central Security Force protects infrastructure and is responsible for crowd control. The National Security Sector is responsible for internal security threats and counterterrorism along with other security services. The armed forces report to the minister of defense and are responsible for external defense, but they also have a mandate to assist police in protecting vital infrastructure during a state of emergency. Military personnel were granted full arrest authority in 2011 but normally only use this authority during states of emergency and “periods of significant turmoil.” The country has been under an almost continuous state of emergency since 2017, when there were terrorist attacks on Coptic churches. Defense forces operate in North Sinai as part of a broader national counterterrorism operation with general detention authority. The Border Guard Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel laws, which were not enforced; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and use of the law to arrest and prosecute arbitrarily such persons; and forced or compulsory child labor, including its worst forms.

The government inconsistently punished or prosecuted officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government. In most cases, the government did not comprehensively investigate allegations of human rights abuses, including most incidents of violence by security forces, contributing to an environment of impunity.

Attacks by terrorist organizations caused arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life. Terrorist groups conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including places of worship. Authorities investigated terrorist attacks and prosecuted alleged perpetrators. Terrorists and other armed groups abducted civilians in North Sinai, some of whom they beheaded. There were incidents of societal sectarian violence against Coptic Christian Egyptians.

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 numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including incidents that occurred while making arrests or holding persons in custody or during disputes with civilians. Media reported that on September 30, Ewais Abdel Hamid al-Rawy died from a gunshot wound following an altercation with a police officer in Luxor Governorate. Police officers reportedly searched for al-Rawy’s cousin and then sought to arrest al-Rawy’s younger brother, resulting in the altercation; the Prosecutor General’s Office stated al-Rawy had a gun and intended to attack police.

There were also reports of civilians killed during military operations in North Sinai. Impunity was a problem. The Prosecutor General’s Office (for Interior Ministry actions) and the Military Prosecution (for military actions) are responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions.

There were reported instances of persons tortured to death and other allegations of killings in prisons and detention centers. The government charged, prosecuted, and convicted perpetrators in some cases. A local human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported 359 unlawful killings by the government from January through November, mostly in North Sinai.

According to press reports, one day after President Sisi met with the Italian prime minister in Cairo on January 14, the Egyptian prosecutor general started a new investigation of the 2016 killing in Egypt of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who was found dead with what forensic officials said were marks of torture, following reports indicating he was detained prior to his death. Italian press reported in June that the Italian government requested the personal data and legal residences of five Egyptian security officials suspected in Regeni’s death in order to inform them of their indictment, and that the Egyptian prosecutor general told Italian prosecutors on July 1 he was considering a possible response. On December 10, Italian prosecutors announced their intent to charge four members of Egypt’s National Security Agency with Regeni’s kidnapping and murder. On December 30, the Egyptian prosecutor general announced Egypt would not pursue criminal charges against the four officials due to a lack of evidence.

There were reports of suspects killed in unclear circumstances during or after arrest. On April 6, a human rights organization said it documented 75 deaths due to denial of medical care and nine deaths due to torture in places of detention in 2019. According to the report, one detainee who suffered from hepatitis C, liver cirrhosis, and ascites died in March 2019, having been denied medications and proper health care since his 2018 arrest.

There were several reports of groups of suspected terrorists and other suspected criminals killed during security raids conducted by security forces. In April media outlets reported security forces had arrested a man in North Sinai in 2018 and that his name and photograph had appeared in an official army publication later stating he was killed during an operation against terrorists.

Terrorist groups, including “Islamic State”-Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and Harakat al-Suwad Misr, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including places of worship. There were no published official data on the number of victims of terrorist violence during the year. Terrorist groups claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of civilians throughout the country. As of July in North Sinai alone, militant violence killed at least 12 civilians and 42 security force members, according to publicly available information. During the same period in North Sinai, the government killed at least 178 terrorists in counterterror operations, according to public statements. On December 8, a military spokesman announced that the armed forces had killed 40 terrorists during raids from September to December. According to a progovernment newspaper, government security forces killed more than 320 terrorists in North Sinai, and 55 security force members were killed or wounded by December 31.

b. Disappearance

International and local human rights groups reported continuing large numbers of enforced disappearances, alleging authorities increasingly relied on this tactic to intimidate critics. A National Council for Human Rights member stated on June 11 before the House of Representative’s Human Rights Committee that the council inspected all complaints received about alleged forced disappearances and concluded that in most of the cases the individuals were in detention based on a prosecution order, and that in four of the cases the individuals joined ISIS.

Authorities also detained individuals without producing arrest or search warrants. According to a local NGO, authorities detained many of these individuals in unspecified National Security Sector offices and police stations, but they were not included in official registers. Authorities held detainees incommunicado and denied their requests to contact family members and lawyers. On August 29, a local NGO reported 2,723 enforced disappearances in the last five years.

On May 7, local media reported that, after 26 months in pretrial detention, the Supreme State Security Prosecution (State Security Prosecution), a branch of the Public Prosecution specialized in investigating national security threats, ordered the release on bail of Ezzat Ghoneim. Ghoneim was a human rights lawyer who worked on enforced disappearance cases, along with nine other detainees involved in the case who were detained on charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist group. Ghoneim was not released, and a new case was opened against him based on the same charges. He remained in pretrial detention.

On January 20, the Administrative Court ruled the Interior Ministry must reveal the whereabouts of Mustafa al-Naggar, a former member of parliament who disappeared in 2018 after criticizing the government on Facebook. According to local press, on January 25, the Interior Ministry denied knowledge of al-Naggar’s whereabouts and stated he had fled from a court ruling of imprisonment and a fine on charges of insulting the judiciary. On May 30, the Administrative Court ruled that the Interior Ministry must search for al-Naggar and that solely reporting al-Naggar was not in its custody was not sufficient.

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

The constitution states that no torture, intimidation, coercion, or physical or moral harm shall be inflicted upon a person whose movements are restricted or whom authorities have detained or arrested. The penal code forbids torture to induce a confession from a detained or arrested suspect but does not account for mental or psychological abuse against persons whom authorities have not formally accused, or for abuse occurring for reasons other than securing a confession. The penal code also forbids all public officials or civil servants from “employing cruelty” or “causing bodily harm” under any circumstances.

Local rights organizations reported hundreds of incidents of torture throughout the year, including deaths that resulted from torture (see section 1.a.). According to domestic and international human rights organizations, police and prison guards resorted to torture to extract information from detainees, including minors. Reported techniques included beatings with fists, whips, rifle butts, and other objects; prolonged suspension by the limbs from a ceiling or door; electric shocks; sexual assault; and attacks by dogs. On March 22, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting alleged abuses, including torture, by security forces against 20 minors as young as 12 while under arrest between 2014 and 2019. Human Rights Watch characterized torture as a systematic practice in the country. According to Human Rights Watch and local NGOs, torture was most common in police stations and other Interior Ministry detention sites. Government officials denied the use of torture was systematic. Authorities stated they did not sanction these abuses and, in some cases, prosecuted individual police officers for violating the law.

On December 8, the Cairo Criminal Court extended Esraa Abdel Fattah’s pretrial detention for 45 days. Local media and international organizations reported Abdel Fattah had been abused while in custody following her October 2019 arrest, including beatings and suspension from a ceiling. As of December 30, there were no reports that the government investigated her allegations of abuse. On December 8 and December 27, respectively, a criminal court renewed the 45-day pretrial detentions of journalist Solafa Magdy and her husband, Hossam El-Sayed. International organizations reported that Magdy was beaten in custody following her November 2019 arrest. On August 30 and 31, respectively, prosecutors added Magdy and Abdel Fattah to a second case and ordered their 15-day pretrial detention in the new case pending investigations on accusations of membership in a banned group and spreading false news.

There were reports that prisoners detained on politically motivated charges were held in prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement. On August 9, local media reported that Strong Egypt party deputy president Mohamed El-Kassas was held in solitary confinement since his initial arrest in 2018. On August 5, a criminal court ordered the release of El-Kassas, after 30 months of pretrial detention. On August 8, the State Security Prosecution ordered his detention pending investigations in a third new case, without prior release and on the same charges. El-Kassas had been arrested originally in 2018 on allegations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and then rearrested without release in December 2019.

According to human rights activists, impunity was a significant problem in the security forces.

On February 8, a criminal court took up the case of a police officer and nine noncommissioned police personnel on charges of torturing to death Magdy Makeen, a donkey-cart driver, in a Cairo police station in 2016. The case was first referred to the court in October 2019 but was on hold since March 10 because of COVID-19 court closures. On December 12, a Cairo Criminal Court sentenced the police officer and eight of the noncommissioned personnel to three years in prison. A police corporal also charged in the case was acquitted. The convicted defendants have the right to appeal.

On February 10, six police officers received a presidential pardon after being sentenced in 2019 to between one and eight years in prison in connection with the 2018 death of Ahmed Zalat due to physical abuse in custody at a police station in Hadayek al-Qobba District in east Cairo.

On September 24, the Court of Cassation upheld a 10-year prison sentence against a police officer for killing a citizen stopped at a checkpoint in Minya Governorate in 2013 and for forging official documents connected with the case.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in June of sexual exploitation and abuse by Egyptian peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission. The allegation was against one military contingent member deployed to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, allegedly involving attempted transactional sex with an adult in April. As of September, the Egyptian government was investigating the allegation, and the case was pending final action.

A local human rights organization reported on August 18 that Ayman al-Sisi, director of the Technology Development Center, was abused at the National Security headquarters in Abbasiya. According to the organization, the State Security Prosecution’s August 17 investigation report showed that al-Sisi was subjected to physical and psychological abuse, which led him to suffer memory loss. Al-Sisi was detained in early July on accusations of joining and providing financial aid to a banned group and publishing false news. Al-Sisi appeared before the State Security Prosecution 45 days after the arrest.

Human rights organizations said the Public Prosecution continued to order medical exams in “family values” cases. Local rights groups and international NGOs reported authorities sometimes subjected individuals arrested on charges related to homosexuality to forced anal examinations (see section 6). Media reported in late July that, according to her lawyer, TikTok influencer Mowada Al-Adham refused to undergo a “virginity test” as part of the prosecution against her (see section 2.a.). Local media reported in early September that a male and a female witness were compelled to undergo an anal exam and a virginity test, respectively, as part of investigations in the Fairmont Hotel gang rape case (see section 6).

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers were harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, poor infrastructure, and poor ventilation.

Physical Conditions: According to domestic and international NGO observers, prison cells were overcrowded, and prisoners lacked adequate access to medical care, proper sanitation and ventilation, food, and potable water. On July 20, Human Rights Watch said that the release of approximately 13,000 prisoners since February was insufficient to ease the overcrowding. On April 3, the UN high commissioner for human rights estimated the total prison population at more than 114,000. Inmates often relied upon outside visitors for food and other supplies or were forced to purchase those items from the prison canteen at significantly inflated prices, according to local NGOs. Tuberculosis was widespread. Provisions for temperature control and lighting generally were inadequate. Reports that guards abused prisoners, including juveniles in adult facilities, were common. Prison conditions for women were marginally better than those for men. Media reported some prisoners protested conditions by going on hunger strikes.

On January 14, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than 300 prisoners in Tora Prison staged a hunger strike to protest abuse and harsh treatment in custody and to demand transparent investigations into the deaths of prisoners who died due to alleged medical negligence. In April local NGOs stated that prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and lawyer Hamed Sedik started hunger strikes in Tora Prison to protest their prison conditions and inability to attend their pretrial detention renewal hearings after hearings were suspended in March due to COVID-19. On April 19, a lawsuit against the interior minister was filed to enable Abdel Fattah to correspond with his lawyers and family. Abdel Fattah ended his hunger strike on May 18 and transmitted a letter to his family on June 29. On December 21, a criminal court renewed the pretrial detention of Abdel Fattah and his attorney Mohamed Elbakr for 45 days pending investigations.

According to six local human rights organizations, several prisoners in the Istiqbal Tora Prison started a hunger strike on October 11 to demand investigation of mistreatment against detainees, including electric shocks, and better prison conditions, including exercise, medical care, and canteen services.

Authorities did not always separate juveniles from adults and sometimes held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. Rights organizations alleged the use of Central Security Force camps as detention facilities, which violates the law regulating prisons.

The large number of arrests and the use of pretrial detention during the year exacerbated harsh conditions and overcrowding, contributing to a significant number of deaths in prisons and detention centers. Human rights groups and the families of some deceased prisoners claimed that prison authorities denied prisoners access to potentially life-saving medical care and in some cases denied requests to transfer the prisoners to the hospital, leading to deaths in prison.

In March the Interior Ministry began a program of sanitizing police stations and prisons to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. Local and international NGOs raised concerns beginning in March regarding the situation inside the country’s prisons due to COVID-19 and called for the release of prisoners, especially those vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. One NGO posted weekly reports of prison-related COVID-19 infections and deaths among detainees, police officers, and detention facility employees. On several occasions, the government denied there had been any prison-related COVID-19 infections or deaths.

According to one rights group, authorities appeared to have taken no contact tracing measures and done little to isolate prisoners showing symptoms of COVID-19. It added that guards in at least three prisons refused to allow inmates to obtain or wear masks. In September at least one U.S. citizen detainee contracted COVID-19 during imprisonment.

On August 13, Essam Al-Erian, a former member of parliament and deputy chair of the banned Freedom and Justice Muslim Brotherhood party, died in prison. On August 13, one NGO said Al Erian had contracted hepatitis C and been denied medical care while in custody. On August 14, the public prosecutor stated he had died of natural causes.

A member of the April 6 youth movement, activist Mustafa al-Jabaruni, died in Tora Prison on August 10 when he reportedly touched an electric kettle by accident with wet hands. According to local media, his family did not learn about his death until August 17. State Security Prosecution interrogated al-Jabaruni on May 10, approximately one month after his arrest, in connection with accusations of joining a banned group, spreading false news, and misusing social media related to COVID-19. Al-Jabaruni was transferred from his detention place in Damanhur to Tora Prison without notification to his lawyer or family, according to local media.

According to media reports and local NGOs, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, former presidential candidate, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, and leader of the opposition party Strong Egypt, suffered two heart attacks in July 2019 while in prison. In February and May, two rights groups called for Fotouh’s release because of his “deteriorating health condition.” On February 2, the Public Prosecution added Fotouh to a new case pending investigations on accusations of assuming leadership in a terrorist group and committing financial crimes. On September 27, Fotouh filed a lawsuit to improve his prison conditions. On December 7, a Criminal Court renewed Aboul Fotouh’s pretrial detention, pending investigations into charges of joining a banned group, spreading false news, and receiving funding for the purpose of terrorism.

There were reports authorities sometimes segregated prisoners accused of crimes related to political or security issues from common criminals and subjected them to verbal or physical abuse and punitive solitary confinement. In January 2019 the retrial of imprisoned activist Ahmed Douma resulted in a 15-year prison sentence. Douma appealed the verdict, and the Court of Cassation on July 4 turned down the appeal. Since his arrest in 2015, Douma had been held in solitary confinement for more than 2,000 days.

The law authorizes prison officials to use force against prisoners who resist orders.

Administration: Prisoners could request investigation of alleged inhuman conditions. NGO observers claimed prisoners were reluctant to do so for fear of retribution from prison officials. The government did not investigate most of these allegations. As required by law, the public prosecutor inspected prisons and detention centers.

The criminal procedure code and the law regulating prisons provide for reasonable access to prisoners. According to NGO observers and relatives, the government sometimes prevented visitors’ access to detainees. On March 10, the prime minister instructed authorities to suspend all prison visits as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Authorities did not provide for regular alternative means of communications between detainees and their families and lawyers. Limited prison visits with precautionary measures for COVID-19 resumed on August 22. Rights groups also claimed that authorities administered some court hearings and trials inside state security premises not accessible to family or legal counsel and denied detainees access to legal counsel during times of heightened security or due to COVID 19 complications.

Independent Monitoring: The government arranged three visits in February and March for a delegation of foreign media correspondents, representatives of human rights organizations, and the National Council for Women to Tora Prison, El Marag General Prison, and Al-Qanater Women’s Prison. Media published three professionally recorded videos covering the visits, in which all the inmates interviewed gave positive feedback about their prison conditions. On February 19, the Interior Ministry’s prison sector allowed some university students to visit El Marag General Prison and Al-Qanater Women’s Prison. In November the Public Prosecution announced it had conducted an additional inspection of Al-Qanater Prison, where officials reviewed prison administrative and legal procedures and inspected the prison pharmacy. On December 27, members of the National Council for Human Rights toured Al-Qanater Prison, visiting the prison’s nursery and health clinic.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but reported incidents of arbitrary arrests and detentions remained frequent, according to local and international rights groups.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

For persons other than those apprehended in the process of committing a crime, the law requires that police act on the basis of a judicial warrant issued either under the penal code or the code of military justice, but there were numerous reports of arrests without a warrant.

Ordinary criminal courts and misdemeanor courts hear cases brought by the prosecutor general. Arrests under the penal code occurred openly and with warrants issued by a public prosecutor or judge. There was a functioning bail system, although some defendants claimed judges imposed unreasonably high bail.

Criminal defendants have the right to counsel promptly after arrest, and usually, but not always, authorities allowed access to family members. The court is obliged to provide a lawyer to indigent defendants. Nevertheless, defendants often faced administrative and, in some cases, political or legal obstacles and could not secure regular access to lawyers or family visits. A prosecutor may order four days of preventive detention for individuals suspected of committing misdemeanors or felonies. In regular criminal cases, the period of preventive detention is subject to renewal in increments of 15 days by the investigative judge up to a total of 45 days, for both misdemeanors and felonies. Before the 45th day, the prosecutor must submit the case to a misdemeanor appellate court panel of three judges, who may release the accused person or renew the detention in further increments of 45 days. In cases under the jurisdiction of the State Security Prosecution, prosecutors may renew preventive detention in increments of 15 days up to a total of 150 days, after which the prosecutor must refer the case to a criminal court panel of three judges to renew the detention in increments of 45 days.

Detention may extend from the stage of initial investigation through all stages of criminal judicial proceedings. The combined periods of prosecutor- and court-ordered detentions prior to trial may not exceed six months in cases of misdemeanors, 18 months in cases of felonies, and two years in cases involving the death penalty or life imprisonment. After the pretrial detention reaches its legal limit without a conviction, authorities must release the accused person immediately. Legal experts offered conflicting interpretations of the law in death penalty or life imprisonment cases once the trial has commenced, with some arguing there is no time limit on detention during the trial period, which may last several years.

Charges involving the death penalty or life imprisonment, such as joining a banned group to undermine state institutions, sometimes were added to cases related to expression; as a result authorities might hold some appellants charged with nonviolent crimes indefinitely.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution prohibits arrest, search, or detention without a judicial warrant, except for those caught in the act of a crime. These rights are suspended during a state of emergency. There were frequent reports of arbitrary arrest and detention. Local activists and rights groups stated that hundreds of arrests did not comply with due-process laws. For example, authorities did not charge the detainees with crimes or refer them to prosecutors and denied access to their lawyers and families (see section 1.b.).

On September 20, Kamal el-Balshy was arrested in downtown Cairo according to a local news website. On October 1, the state prosecutor’s office charged el-Balshy with illegal assembly, membership of a banned group, spreading false news, and misusing social media, according to local news reports. He remained in pretrial detention as of December 30. A regional rights group characterized the arrest as retaliation for the work of his brother Khaled el-Balshy, editor in chief of Daarb, a local independent news website.

In November 2019, Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian human rights activist, was arrested in his home in Cairo. On December 7, the Criminal Court renewed for 45 days his pretrial detention on accusations of joining a terror group and spreading false news. Activists called for his release during the COVID-19 pandemic due to his health issues, including asthma. An international organization stated Kamel has been held in solitary confinement since his November 2019 arrest and had not been authorized a visit from his family or lawyers between March and July due to COVID-19 restrictions on prison visits. He remained in custody.

On March 24, the Islamist YouTuber Abdallah Al Sherif claimed security authorities had arrested his brothers in Alexandria in response to his March 19 posting of a leaked video allegedly showing an Egyptian military officer mutilating a corpse in North Sinai.

Local media reported a criminal court ordered the release of human rights lawyer Mohsen Al-Bahnasi on probation on August 24 and that he was physically released on August 31. State Security officers had arrested him on March 27 after he publicly expressed confidence that prosecutors would release detainees due to COVID-19 concerns. On May 20, prosecutors renewed his pretrial detention for 15 days on charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media. A local human rights organization said authorities beat Bahnasi upon arrest, refused to grant his lawyers access to the investigation record and arrest warrant, and presented no evidence of the accusations against him.

Kholoud Said, the head of the translation unit of the publication department at Bibliotheca Alexandria, was arrested on April 21 on charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media. She appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 28. On December 13, the Cairo Criminal Court ordered Said released pending investigation. Said remained in detention as of December 30. Freelance translator Marwa Arafa was arrested on April 20 and appeared before the State Security Prosecution on May 4. Her 45-day pretrial detention was renewed on December 10 pending investigations on similar charges. Representatives of one women’s rights organization said they could not identify any apparent reason for these arrests.

On June 22, security forces arrested human rights activist Sanaa Seif from outside the public prosecutor’s office in New Cairo. Seif’s brother, activist Alaa Abdel Fatah (see section 1.c.), had been in detention since September 2019. Seif’s trial on charges of disseminating false news, inciting terrorist crimes, misusing social media, and insulting a police officer started on September 12. The next session was set for January 2021.

According to a local human rights organization, in September security forces increased their presence in downtown Cairo and continued to search and arrest citizens around the anniversary of protests in September 2019. On October 3, local media reported a number of arrests in Cairo following demonstrations, and a lawyer reported that nearly 2,000 individuals had been arrested. Between late October and early December, several hundred persons were released.

On January 13, Moustafa Kassem, a dual Egyptian-U.S. citizen who was arbitrarily arrested in Cairo in 2013, died in an Egyptian prison.

Pretrial Detention: The government did not provide figures on the total number of pretrial detainees. Rights groups and the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights alleged excessive use of pretrial detention and preventive detention during trials for nonviolent crimes. Authorities sometimes held pretrial detainees in the same facilities as convicted prisoners. Large backlogs in the criminal courts contributed to protracted periods of pretrial detention. Estimates of the number of pretrial and preventive detainees were unreliable. According to human rights organizations, the government sometimes rearrested detainees on charges filed in new cases to extend their detention beyond a two-year maximum.

On December 12, local media reported that a criminal court renewed the pretrial detention of Ola Qaradawi for 45 days. Authorities had arrested Qaradawi and her husband, Hosam Khalaf, in 2017 on charges of communicating with and facilitating support for a terrorist group. A court ordered her release in July 2019, but prior to her release, authorities rearrested her on the same charges in a new case. A court ordered her release again on February 20, although the order was overturned on appeal. Qaradawi and her husband remained in pretrial detention pending investigations.

On November 8, a court renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been held for more than 1,400 days in pretrial detention, including long periods in solitary confinement, for allegedly disseminating false news and receiving funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. He was arrested in 2016, ordered released, and rearrested on unspecified charges in a new case in May 2019; he remained in pretrial detention awaiting formal charges.

On September 2, Ahmed Abdelnabi Mahmoud died in a prison in Cairo after nearly two years in pretrial detention, according to Human Rights Watch. He was charged with belonging to an unspecified illegal group. Authorities allegedly never provided Mahmoud’s lawyers with a copy of the official charges against him.

On September 4, authorities arrested Islam el-Australy in Giza. On September 7, he died in police custody, allegedly of heart failure. Following the death, dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the local police station until security forces dispersed them and sealed off the area. On September 9, security forces arrested Islam al-Kalhy, a reporter for Daarb, while he was covering protests related to el-Australy’s death. He was charged with spreading false news and joining a banned group and ordered to be detained for 15 days pending an investigation.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to the constitution, detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention before a court, which must decide within one week if the detention is lawful or otherwise immediately release the detainee. In practice, authorities deprived some individuals of this right, according to international and local human rights groups. The constitution also defers to the law to regulate the duration of preventive detention.

On April 28, the Cairo Court of Appeals ruled that due to COVID-19, courts could release detainees or renew their pretrial detention without their presence in court. Based on this decision, between May 4 and May 6, judges extended the pretrial detention of 1,200 to 1,600 detainees without their presence, according to Amnesty International and local human rights organizations. Affected detainees included lawyer Mahienour al-Massry, who was arrested in September 2019 while he was representing detained protesters and then charged anew on August 30 on the same charges; and political activist Sameh Saudi, whom authorities arrested in 2018, ordered released in May 2019, and rearrested before his release in a new case in September 2019. Both remained detained pending investigations on charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news. On May 3, courts resumed pretrial renewal sessions after suspending them on March 16 due to COVID-19. After the sessions resumed, courts issued retroactive pretrial detention renewal orders for detainees whose detention orders expired while detained between March 16 and May 3.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Individual courts sometimes appeared to lack impartiality and to arrive at outcomes that were politically motivated or without individual findings of guilt. The government generally respected court orders. Human rights organizations claimed the State Security Prosecution bypassed court orders to release detainees by arresting them again in a new case and in some instances on the same charges. After authorities ordered their release on May 7, and prior to their actual release, the State Security Prosecution on May 9 and 10 ordered the continued pretrial detention of journalists Moatez Wadnan and Mostafa Al Aaser for 15 days pending investigations in a new case on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news. Security forces arrested them both in 2018. Wadnan was arrested after a press interview with the former head of the Central Audit Organization, Hisham Genena. A misdemeanor appellate court on August 27 upheld a 2016 conviction against Genena for spreading false information against the state and suspended the one-year sentence, pending no further convictions for three years. Genena was arrested in 2018 and was serving a five-year sentence based on a separate military court conviction for making offensive statements against the state. On June 17, human rights defender Ahmed Amasha was arrested from his home and taken to an unknown location. On July 12, he was seen at the office of the State Security Prosecution. The State Security Prosecution ordered his detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining and funding a terror group.

Some trials involving hundreds of defendants continued, particularly in cases involving demonstrators sympathetic to former president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and 2014. On July 9, the Court of Cassation upheld the life sentences of Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie, Badie’s deputy Khairat El-Shater, and four others on charges stemming from violence that occurred in 2013.

The law imposes penalties on individuals designated by a court as terrorists, even without criminal convictions. The effects of a designation include a travel ban, asset freeze, loss of political rights, and passport cancellation. The court designation may be appealed directly to the country’s highest appeals court, but human rights organizations reported that designated individuals were not allowed to appeal the designation, and authorities had not informed most individuals of their impending designation before the court ruled.

The constitution states: “Civilians may not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that represent an assault against military facilities, military barracks, facilities protected by the military, designated military or border zones; military equipment, vehicles, weapons, ammunition, documents, military secrets, public funds or military factories; crimes related to conscription; or crimes that represent an assault against its officers or personnel because of the performance of their duties.”

Authorities used military courts to try civilians accused of threatening national security. Public access to information concerning military trials was limited. Military trials were difficult to monitor because media were usually subjected to restraint orders. Rights groups and lawyers said defense attorneys in military trials had difficulty gaining access to their clients and to documentation related to the cases. A local NGO reported that from January through March, there were five military trials conducted involving 1,332 civilian defendants.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary often failed to uphold this right.

The law presumes defendants are innocent, and authorities usually inform them promptly and in detail of charges against them. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials. Attendance is mandatory for individuals charged with felonies and optional for those charged with misdemeanors. Civilian criminal and misdemeanor trials usually are public. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney, and the government is responsible for providing counsel if the defendant cannot afford a lawyer. Defendants have the right to free interpretation from the moment charged through all appeals. The court assigns an interpreter. The law allows defendants to question witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The constitution provides for the right of an accused person to remain silent in his own trial. Defendants have the right of appeal up to the Court of Cassation. Judicial and executive review is available to individuals sentenced to the death penalty. Judges must seek the nonbinding review of the grand mufti on all death sentences, and the president must confirm all such sentences.

A local NGO reported in February that authorities executed eight men convicted of deadly attacks on three churches in 2017. On March 4, authorities executed former special forces officer and militant Hisham Ashmawy. On June 27, authorities executed Libyan citizen Abdel-Raheem al-Mesmary. Both were convicted of terrorism crimes for attacks that resulted in the deaths of armed forces personnel and police officers and the destruction of public facilities and equipment. In July authorities executed seven men convicted of killing a police officer in 2013. Human rights organizations said the trials lacked due process. In December a human rights organization reported that authorities executed 57 additional individuals between October and November.

The law permits individual members of the public to file charges with the prosecutor general, who is charged with deciding whether the evidence justifies referring the charges for a trial. Observers reported, however, that due to unclear evidentiary standards, the Prosecutor General’s Office investigates and refers for trial most such cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence.

On September 7, an economic misdemeanor appellate court reduced the sentence of dancer Sama El-Masry from three years to two years in prison and a fine for inciting debauchery and immorality. On October 18, in a separate case, the economic misdemeanor appellate court reduced El-Masry’s prison sentence handed down in August from two years to six months and cancelled her fine for verbally offending television host Reham Saeed. El-Masry was arrested on April 24 based on lawsuits filed against her by Saeed and her attorney. Saeed accused El-Masry of “libel and slander for uploading photos and videos onto social media without any regard for public decency or morals.”

After a prime ministerial decree in 2017, authorities began referring certain economic and security crimes, including violations of protest laws, to state security courts instead of the public prosecutor. State security courts may have two military judges appointed to sit alongside three civilian judges. Verdicts of state security courts may be appealed only on points of law rather than the facts of the case as in a civilian court.

Military courts are not open to the public. Defendants in military courts nominally enjoyed the same fair trial assurances, but the military judiciary has wide discretion to curtail these rights in the name of public security. Military courts often tried defendants in a matter of hours, frequently in groups, and sometimes without access to an attorney, leading lawyers and NGOs to assert they did not meet basic standards of due process. Consequently, the quick rulings by military courts sometimes prevented defendants from exercising their rights. Defendants in military courts have the right to consult an attorney, but sometimes authorities denied them timely access to counsel. According to rights groups, authorities permitted defendants in military trials visits from their attorneys only once every six months, in contrast with the civilian court system, where authorities allowed defendants in detention attorney visits every 15 days.

On March 9, a military court acquitted four minors facing death sentences in a mass trial on charges of associating with a terrorist group. The acquittal followed an opinion by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which stated the minors’ confessions were obtained through torture. The Military Judiciary Law governing the military court system grants defendants in the military court system the right to appeal up to the Supreme Military Court of Appeals. The president must certify sentences by military courts.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners and detainees, although verifiable estimates of their total number were not available. The government claimed there were no political prisoners and that all persons in detention had been or were in the process of being charged with a crime. Human rights groups and international observers maintained the government detained or imprisoned as few as 20,000 and as many as 60,000 persons solely or chiefly because of their political beliefs.

Amnesty: The government periodically issued pardons of prisoners, sometimes including individuals whose cases human rights organizations considered to be politically motivated. Local press reported that the Interior Ministry Prisons Authority ordered the release of thousands of inmates based on presidential decrees in May on the eve of Eid al-Fitr holiday. Reportedly, no activists, journalists, or political prisoners were included. On January 21, the chairman of the Human Rights Committee in the House of Representatives stated that 22,399 inmates had received pardons since 2014. On November 21, the assistant minister of the interior for the prisons sector told the press that 21,457 prisoners received pardons in 2020.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Five cousins of a U.S. citizen were arrested and detained in June, and his already incarcerated father was moved to an unknown prison location in apparent retaliation for the filing of a U.S.-based lawsuit alleging that Egyptian officials authorized the torture of the U.S. citizen. Government authorities reportedly did not provide the cousins access to counsel or family members. The cousins were released in early November; however, the location of the father of the U.S. citizen, a former senior official in the Morsi government, remained unknown.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals had access to civil courts for lawsuits relating to human rights violations and filed such lawsuits during the year. Nonetheless, courts often dismissed cases or acquitted defendants for lack of evidence or conflicting witness testimonies. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Property Restitution

Following the launching of Operation Sinai 2018, the government intensified its efforts to establish a buffer zone in North Sinai Governorate to interdict weapons smuggling and incursions to and from the Gaza Strip. The government also created a buffer zone around the Arish Airport, south of al-Arish.

In 2018, based on interviews and analysis of satellite imagery, human rights organizations reported the government destroyed approximately 3,600 homes and commercial buildings and hundreds of acres of farmland in North Sinai. In contrast, according to statements to media, the government stated it demolished 3,272 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings between mid-2013 and 2016. Human rights organizations continued to report that security forces punitively demolished the homes of suspected terrorists, dissidents, and their families. On July 30, following an IS-Sinai attack on a village in Bir al-Abd, the Ministry of Social Solidarity announced it had allocated two million Egyptian pounds (EGP) ($125,000) as urgent aid to compensate the families that were negatively affected by the attack and subsequent military operations, with each affected family receiving EGP 500 ($31). On June 27, local media reported that the North Sinai governor issued a report to the prime minister stating that between October 2015 and May 2020 the government spent approximately EGP 385 million ($24 million) in humanitarian assistance and EGP 2.7 billion ($169 million) in compensation for agricultural land and rebuilding for North Sinai residents.

On December 27, a criminal court sentenced 35 residents of Warraq Island to prison terms ranging from five years to life for unauthorized protests or refusal to leave their residences, which the government was preparing to demolish as part of a redevelopment plan. The government stated the residents had illegally built homes on the properties. In a separate action, the Administrative Court scheduled a November 7 hearing in the case filed by Warraq Island residents seeking to suspend the prime minister’s decision to transfer ownership of the island to the New Communities Authority.

Beginning on July 18, security forces arrested dozens of residents of Al-Sayadin village for demonstrating against the government’s decision to relocate them from their coastal homes, according to a local human rights organization. The relocation was part of a nationwide initiative to redevelop poor areas, and residents were reportedly protesting ownership and compensation claims. According to the organization, the Alexandria military prosecution released all but one defendant by the beginning of November on bail pending investigations of gathering, demonstrating, and attacking army and police forces and causing injuries due to clashes that ensued. According to the organization, security forces beat some protesters, and a four-year-old girl died from tear gas used by security forces during the protests.

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

The constitution prohibits such actions and provides for the privacy of the home, correspondence, telephone calls, and other means of communication. Nevertheless, there were reports that security agencies sometimes placed political activists, journalists, foreigners, and writers under surveillance; monitored their private communications; screened their correspondence, including email and social media accounts; examined their bank records; searched their persons and homes without judicial authorization; and confiscated personal property in an extrajudicial manner. Ahead of planned protests or demonstrations, there were reports of police stopping young persons in public places and searching their telephones for evidence of involvement in political activities deemed antigovernment in nature.

The constitution protects the right to privacy, including on the internet. The constitution provides for the confidentiality and “inviolability” of postal, telegraphic, and electronic correspondence; telephone calls; and other means of communication. They may not be confiscated, revealed, or monitored except with a judicial order, only for a definite period, and only in cases defined by law. The law allows the president to issue written or oral directives to monitor and intercept all forms of communication and correspondence, impose censorship prior to publication, and confiscate publications.

Surveillance was a significant concern for internet users. The constitution states that private communications “may only be confiscated, examined, or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period of time, and in cases specified by the law.” Judicial warrants are required for authorities to enter, search, or monitor private property such as homes. In practice the government’s surveillance operations lacked transparency, potentially violating the constitution’s privacy protections. There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority, including cyberattacks to gain access to devices and accounts belonging to critics of the government.

On May 22, the Interior Ministry posted pretrial videos showing defendants making confessions. Human Rights attorneys claimed this violated the law and constitution and the secrecy of investigations. On June 14, journalist Mohamed Mounir posted on Facebook a surveillance video allegedly showing security forces breaking into his apartment. Security forces arrested him on June 15, after which the State Security Prosecution held him in pretrial detention on accusations of joining a banned group, spreading false news, and misusing social media. Al-Jazeera showed an interview with him on June 13 and published an article he wrote on June 14 that criticized the government’s handling of COVID-19. On July 13, Mounir died from COVID-19 in a hospital, 11 days after his release from detention for medical reasons.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

The conflict in North Sinai involving government security forces, terrorist organizations, and other armed groups (including militias and criminal gangs) continued. According to media reports, at least 36 troops were killed in attacks on government positions or in counterterrorist operations between January and July. Rights groups and international media reported that the armed forces used indiscriminate violence during military operations resulting in killings of civilians and destruction of property. The government continued to impose restrictions on North Sinai residents’ travel to mainland Egypt and movement within North Sinai Governorate. During the year the armed forces initiated some development projects, such as building houses and a desalination plant.

The government severely restricted media access to North Sinai. On May 22, the State Information Service reported that the Interior Ministry arrested 12 persons for allegedly fabricating reports to media on conditions in North Sinai. There were continuing reports of periodic shortages of food, fuel, and other supplies as a result of the conflict in North Sinai. Armed groups disrupted water and electricity services in al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid.

Killings: The government acknowledged no civilian deaths due to security force actions. Human rights organizations stated some persons killed by security forces were civilians. A local NGO reported 12 civilian deaths, 42 security force deaths, and 178 terrorist deaths in the conflict in Sinai through July.

Human rights groups and media reported civilian casualties following army artillery fire or stray bullets from unidentified sources in civilian residential areas. An estimated 621 civilians were killed and 1,247 were injured between July 2013 and mid-2017 by stray bullets and shelling from unknown sources, according to statistics from the North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate cited in a May 2019 press report.

Terrorist and other armed groups continued to target the armed forces and civilians, using gunfire, improvised explosive devices, and other tactics. On July 21, militants attacked a military camp in the village of Rabea in North Sinai. The spokesperson for the armed forces stated that two soldiers, one civilian, and 18 militants were killed in the attack. On July 24, local media quoted a source who said that militants checking identification at a checkpoint in Qatiya village discovered a noncommissioned military officer and killed him on the spot. The militants claimed they killed 40 security force members. Local media reported on August 13 that ISIS-Sinai executed four Egyptian citizens after the attack for their alleged cooperation with the army.

Abductions: Terrorist groups and other armed groups abducted civilians in North Sinai. According to human rights groups, terrorist groups and other armed groups sometimes released abductees; other abductees were often shot or beheaded. According to human rights groups, terrorist groups and other armed groups abducted civilians suspected of cooperating with security forces. Local Sinai media reported that militants released one abductee on May 15 and another on August 1. On August 17, local media reported that ISIS-Sinai kidnapped a citizen in Bir al-Abd for ransom.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: In March, Human Rights Watch reported that military forces in North Sinai arrested a 12-year-old boy in 2017, detained him without notice to his family or attorneys for six months, waterboarded and tortured him with electricity, suspended him by one handcuffed hand, and placed him in solitary confinement for approximately 100 days after his older brother allegedly joined ISIS-Sinai.

In the same report, Human Rights Watch and a local human rights organization documented the cases of 20 children who had been detained and abused by security forces across the country. According to the children and their families, all were subjected to arbitrary arrest. Authorities ordered their pretrial detention for extended periods; one boy was in pretrial detention for 30 months despite a two-year maximum in law. In at least nine cases, children were detained with adults. At least 13 of the children were allegedly physically tortured during interrogation, another was verbally threatened to confess to crimes, and at least one more child was severely beaten by prison officials.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: After the July 21 attack on Rabea, local media reported that many residents in nearby villages on the outskirts of Bir al-Abd fled their homes amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Armed militants with ISIS-Sinai occupied the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen, and Merih, forcing mass displacement from the area, according to local media. On October 10, residents from the four villages started returning to their homes after the armed forces began clearing the area of terrorist elements. Explosions caused by hidden explosive devices killed several villagers upon their return. An international organization reported on July 29 that combatants in North Sinai regularly placed explosive devices at the entrance of villages and along the road.

On June 27, the government reported it paid nearly EGP 3.5 billion ($219 million) to residents as compensation to those affected by the security confrontations in North Sinai and that residents benefited from humanitarian aid valued at more than EGP 397 million ($25 million) and medical services of EGP 204 million ($13 million) through the end of May. The report stated the state also paid EGP 2.7 billion ($169 million) to owners of demolished houses and those affected by the 2017 Sinai mosque attack in the village of Al Rawda in North Sinai.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. On June 10, a local human rights organization said authorities did not investigate police reports it filed after several attacks against its director between October and December 2019 that resulted in bodily injury to the director and theft of his car. On June 27, eight human rights organizations condemned a media attack against the director after he published a report on conditions in Gamassa Prison.

On February 16, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued executive regulations for the media law ratified in 2018. Among the regulations, newspapers are required to print their issues in Egypt at licensed printing houses registered with the council; news websites must host their servers in Egypt; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies all of published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The regulations also prohibit any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.

Freedom of Speech: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals.

Between March and July, authorities arrested at least seven doctors and charged them with membership in a banned group, spreading false news, and misuse of social media after they criticized the government’s response to COVID-19. Between October and December, three doctors were released pending investigation. The Doctors’ Syndicate protested the arrests and called for release of all the doctors. On October 1, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of prominent lawyer Tarek Jamil Saeed pending investigations of disturbing the peace, spreading rumors, and misusing social media after he criticized candidates for parliament. Saeed was released on bail on October 11.

On December 27, a criminal court ordered the release of housing-rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine with probationary measures. Ezzedine remained in detention until the end of the year. According to a local human rights organization, he was held without notice beginning in June 2019 after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in November 2019 before the State Security Prosecution accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.

A criminal court on September 13 renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of Mohamed Ramadan, who was arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. After a court ordered Ramadan’s release on bail on December 2, the State Security Prosecution ordered him remanded into custody on December 8 on additional charges of joining a banned group based upon letters he sent while in detention.

The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.

Between January and September, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 96 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. In June 2019 several political figures were arrested, including El-Aleimy and journalist Hossam Moanes, after they met to form the political Alliance of Hope to run in parliamentary elections. They remained in pretrial detention. On March 11, a misdemeanor court sentenced El-Aleimy to one year in prison for spreading false news and disturbing public peace as a result of a BBC interview in 2017. On April 18, a terrorism court added 13 defendants from the “Hope” case to the terrorism list, including former member of parliament and Social Democratic Party leader Ziyad El-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On June 16, the Cairo Criminal Court turned down a challenge filed by Moanes against an August 2019 ruling to seize his money. On August 4, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (No. 930/2019). On October 10, a criminal court ordered the release of four Alliance of Hope defendants, including activist Ahmed Tammam. On November 14, an administrative court heard the lawsuit filed by El-Aleimy to allow him to receive telephone calls and correspondence. Amnesty International reported he was being denied adequate health care by Tora Prison authorities even though his underlying medical conditions put him at particular risk if exposed to COVID-19.

On March 19, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 political figures in pretrial detention, including political science professor Hassan Nafaa and former president Sisi campaigner Hazem Abdel Azim. Nafaa was arrested in September 2019 with Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign, and journalist Khaled Dawoud. On December 27, a criminal court renewed Hosni’s and Dawoud’s pretrial detention for 45 days pending investigations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and ordered Hosni’s release. The State Security Prosecution ordered Hosni’s continued detention in a new case on November 4. On July 5, a criminal court overturned the public prosecutor’s 2019 decision to freeze Nafaa’s fixed assets and stayed the public prosecutor’s decision to seize his assets until the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Antiterrorism Law.

On August 5, the writer and prominent leftist Sinai activist, Ashraf Ayoub, and his son Sherif, were detained in Arish city, North Sinai, and taken to an unknown location. According to a labor leader, Ayoub advocated for detainees. After 20 days, Ayoub appeared before the State Security Prosecution, which ordered his pretrial detention on charges of joining a terrorism group and spreading false news. According to local media, Ayoub’s son was released without charges in mid-August.

In May security forces arrested sports critic Awny Nafae while he was under government-imposed COVID-19 quarantine after returning from Saudi Arabia, according to local media. The arrest came after Nafae criticized the Ministry of Emigration for its handling of thousands of Egyptian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was held in pretrial detention on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and participating in a terrorist group, but he was released in October.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.

More than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.

The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of EGP 50,000 ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (Supreme Council) broad discretion to block their content.

According to media reports, on April 21, the Supreme Council fined the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm for an op-ed written by its founder Salah Diab under a pseudonym. The article suggested that Sinai should have one governor with expanded powers to better govern the entire peninsula. The Supreme Council ordered the newspaper to remove the op-ed, issue an apology, and suspend Diab’s opinion pieces for one month. On May 12, the Supreme Council ordered media not to publish or broadcast any material under pseudonyms without the approval of the Supreme Council.

On April 12, authorities arrested Mustafa Saqr, owner of the Business News company, and the State Security Prosecution detained him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist, spreading false news, and misusing social media. His arrest came after he published an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 27 journalists were imprisoned in the country.

During the year the government raided several newspapers, arrested employees, and released them shortly thereafter. On June 24, the security services arrested Noura Younis, editor in chief of the independent news website Al-Manassa and a former Washington Post correspondent. On June 26, authorities released Younis on bail pending trial on charges of creating a network account with the intent to commit a crime, possessing software without a license from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority, copyright infringement, and wrongfully profiting through the internet or telecommunication services.

On May 11, authorities arrested Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Haitham Mahgoub, days after he published an article relating to the country’s response to COVID-19, according to media. Media reported that Mahgoub and his attorneys were not allowed to attend the June 7 hearing where the State Security Prosecution ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigations of joining a banned group, financing a banned group, and spreading false news. Mahgoub was released on November 19 pending further investigation. On May 22, television stations broadcast confessions of four of 11 journalists and media workers whom the Interior Ministry claimed were part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to produce false reports for al-Jazeera. Human rights lawyers challenged the confessions and their pretrial publication as illegal.

Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.

On March 17, the State Information Service revoked the accreditation of a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, after it published a report addressing the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. On March 26, the Guardian reported that authorities forced the correspondent to leave the country.

On March 30, authorities ordered the detention of Mohamad Al-Eter, the Ultra Sawt website correspondent, for 15 days pending investigations. He was accused of joining a terrorist group, publishing false news, and misusing the online social networks. A court granted Al-Eter bail in May, and he was released on June 1 pending investigation.

According to Freedom House, multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remained in prison. In many cases the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argued they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist or banned group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations were the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The state of emergency empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.

In June the Supreme Council for Media Regulation stated that all media in any form had to use official sources to publish or broadcast any information about Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the war against terrorism in Sinai, or COVID-19.

In June a media rights organization said that the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 media websites.

The rising number of arrests for social media posts had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. On August 15, the National Translation Center published its translation guidelines, including conditions that books it translates do not “oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.” According to media, professional writers and translators denounced the rules as a form of censorship. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as sectarian tensions, sexuality, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy.

Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims. On June 21, the Alexandria Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court upheld the February 27 three-year sentence against activist and blogger Anas Hassan for “insulting religion and misusing social media.” According to a local human rights organization, security forces arrested Hassan in August 2019 for his Facebook page “The Egyptian Atheists” that a police report stated contained atheistic ideas and criticism of the “divinely revealed religions.”

National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.

The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.

On March 10, the prime minister instructed relevant authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors regarding COVID-19. On March 28, the Public Prosecution affirmed in a statement that it would address such “fake news” stories according to the law.

On March 18, security forces arrested Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, at his home in Aswan following a critical post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 14, which ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigation.

A local independent human rights organization reported that journalist Basma Mostafa was detained for nine hours while covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories in downtown Cairo. Media reported Mostafa was arrested on October 3 while covering the death of Luxor Governorate citizen Ewais al-Rawy (see section 1.a.) and ensuing protests; Mostafa was released on October 6.

On February 12, local media reported that the Supreme Council for Media Regulations sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posting “false news” regarding a reported COVID-19 infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban publishing any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.

Judges may issue restraining orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.

On March 11, authorities released, with probationary measures, blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers. He had been held in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.

Internet Freedom

The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.

Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.

On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cybercrime law states, “The relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.

On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.

There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.

The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.

The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.

There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.

In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education and Technical Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, like that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. University faculty members and Ministry of Education employees (including teachers) needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic or professional purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason. Some public universities restricted campus visits of foreign speakers or delegations or required a faculty chaperone for delegations of university students traveling to the United States.

On May 8, authorities at the Cairo International Airport confiscated the passport of Walid Salem, a University of Washington doctoral student, preventing him from traveling. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probationary measures pending trial. On February 22, the State Security Prosecution canceled the probationary measures and released him under guarantee of his place of residence.

There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Interior Ministry and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.

On February 16, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mahraganat music, a popular street-music genre, in public and prohibited any dealings with Mahraganat singers without the syndicate’s permission. This decision came two days after a Cairo concert where Mahraganat singers used what the syndicate considered inappropriate words. A few hours after the decision, the Tourism Police prevented Omar Kamal from holding a concert in a Cairo hotel. The syndicate and the Department of Censorship of Artistic Works filed police reports against a number of Mahraganat singers.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly “according to notification regulated by law.” The demonstrations law includes an expansive list of prohibited activities, giving a judge the authority to prohibit or curtail planned demonstrations after submitting an official memorandum. Domestic and international human rights organizations asserted the law did not meet international standards regarding freedom of assembly. On January 18, an administrative court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a local human rights organization in 2017 challenging the law. A government-imposed exclusion zone prohibits protests within 2,600 feet (790 meters) of vital governmental institutions.

On March 22, President Sisi ratified amendments to the Prison Regulation Law, preventing the conditional release of those convicted of assembly crimes, among other crimes.

There were protests throughout the year, mostly small, and some occurred without government interference. In most cases the government rigorously enforced the law restricting demonstrations, in some instances using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.

On February 7, authorities detained Patrick George Zaki, a student at the University of Bologna, at the Cairo International Airport. Media reported he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. On February 8, Zaki appeared before the prosecutor, who ordered his pretrial detention on charges of inciting individuals to protest in September 2019, spreading false news, promoting terrorism, and harming national security. A criminal court renewed his pretrial detention for 45 days on December 6.

On April 22, a local NGO reported that authorities released 3,633 of the 3,717 protesters detained after street demonstrations in September 2019. According to the report, approximately 1,680 defendants were released in 2019, approximately 1,983 were released in the first quarter of 2020, and an estimated 54 remained in detention. On February 5, the Al-Mokattam Emergency Misdemeanor Court ordered the acquittal of 102 individuals of charges of attacking the Mokattam police station in protest against the death in custody of Mohamed Abdel Hakim. Government investigators reported that Hakim had died from beatings by two police employees following his arrest in 2018.

On July 1, the Cassation Court reduced the prison sentence of a Central Security Forces officer, Yaseen Hatem, from 10 years to seven years for the death of activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Hatem was convicted of wounding that led to the death and deliberately wounding other protesters during a 2015 protest marking the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution.

According to a local human rights organization, thousands of persons whom authorities arrested during 2013 and 2014 due to their participation in demonstrations (some of which were peaceful) remained imprisoned; however, authorities released others who had completed their sentences. Authorities reportedly held such individuals under charges of attending an unauthorized protest, incitement to violence, or “blocking roads.” Human rights groups claimed authorities inflated or used these charges solely to target individuals suspected of being members of groups in opposition to the government or those who sought to exercise the rights to free assembly or association.

On April 12, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 35 detainees on bail whom authorities had accused of spreading false news about COVID-19, some of whom had participated in a street march in Alexandria on March 23 after curfew, despite government restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic. On April 25, authorities released 20 detainees on bail who had participated in an April 23 street march after curfew in Alexandria to celebrate Ramadan and protest COVID-19.

On June 17, a local human rights organization filed an official complaint with the prosecutor general to release activist Mohamed Adel as he reached the two-year legal limit for pretrial detention since his June 2018 arrest on charges of violating the protest law. On December 21, State Security Prosecution ordered Adel’s detention for 15 days pending investigation in a new case on charges of joining and funding a terrorist group, meeting terrorist leaders in prison, and spreading false news. Reports indicated that in September more than 2,000 persons, including at least 70 younger than 18, were arrested in response to small demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the anticorruption protests of September 2019. On September 27, the Public Prosecution ordered the release of 68 of the 70 minors who had been arrested. In early November more than 400 persons arrested during the demonstrations were released from prison, and in early December approximately 67 additional individuals were also released.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.

A 2019 law governing NGOs eliminated prison sentences as penalties and removed formal oversight roles for security and intelligence authorities. It also required the government to issue executive regulations to clarify that NGOs will have exclusive access to and control of NGO funds as well as procedural protections, such as impartial administrative and judicial appeal mechanisms. On November 25, the cabinet approved the executive regulations. As of December 31, however, they had not been published in the official gazette.

The penal code criminalizes the request for or acceptance of foreign funds, materiel, weapons, ammunition, or “other things” from states or NGOs “with the intent to harm the national interest.” Those convicted may be sentenced to life in prison (or the death penalty in the case of public officials) for crimes committed during times of war or with “terrorist purpose.”

As of year’s end, lawyer Amr Emam remained in detention pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist organization, publishing false news, and misusing social media to spread false information. Emam was arrested in October 2019 after he began a hunger strike and sit-in to protest the arrests, alleged abuse, and continued detention of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and lawyer Mohamed Elbakr. In late August Emam, along with Esraa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Elbakr, was added to a new case on similar charges.

On September 6, after a criminal court ordered his release on August 26, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy on new charges. This was the third case against Hegazy, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, since his 2017 arrest at the Cairo International Airport while traveling to Geneva to participate in the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the Muslim Brotherhood was listed as a designated terrorist organization.

Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. On July 18, the Cairo Criminal Court denied a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on 14 defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan and others, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO. On December 5, an investigative judge dismissed criminal charges, including receiving foreign funding to harm the national interests, and lifted the travel bans and asset freezes against 20 domestic NGOs involved in the 2011 case.

A court case brought by el-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (also registered under the name el-Nadeem for Psychological Rehabilitation) challenging a 2016 closure order remained pending an expert report ordered by the court. The organization asserted the closure was politically motivated, targeting el-Nadeem because of its work investigating torture, deaths in detention, and impunity for these crimes. The organization continued to operate in a limited capacity.

In November Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and executive director Gasser Abdel Razek of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were arrested on charges of “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news.” On December 3, authorities released the three pending investigation. On December 6, the Third Terrorism Circuit Court ordered a temporary freeze on the personal assets of the three employees.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers.

In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai on safety grounds.

Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.” Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.

Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.

The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. A 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”

Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country because of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).

Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.

On June 6, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have to renew the passport of Ayman Nour, the president of the opposition New Ghad Party who was living abroad. Nour filed the lawsuit when the ministry refused to renew his passport at the Egyptian consulates in Turkey and Lebanon.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not Applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.

According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.

Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.

On January 8, the Supreme Administrative Court made a final ruling that the government could not extradite to Libya six former Libyan officials who were part of the government of former president Muammar Gaddafi. The court stated that according to domestic and international law, they were entitled to protection in Egypt.

UNHCR protested the government’s November 2019 deportation of a Yemeni asylee to Yemen. According to UNHCR, the asylee was arrested in August 2019 in Egypt for his alleged conversion from Islam to Christianity and subsequent proselytizing activities.

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.

According to UNHCR as of March, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.

In 2013 the government began applying a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria, since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.

Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean, remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following enactment and enforcement of a law dramatically increasing patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.

UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed most detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently not detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Authorities often held detained migrants as unregistered asylum seekers in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent some to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.

The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.

Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases that were either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.

Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools or private schools, or they were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care.

g. Stateless Persons

Of the eight stateless persons known to UNHCR, most were Armenians displaced for more than 50 years. According to a local civil society organization, the number of stateless persons in the country was likely higher than the number recorded by UNHCR. The government and UNHCR lacked a mechanism for identifying stateless persons, including those of disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese nationality and those of disputed Ethiopian/Eritrean nationality. A majority of the approximately 70,000 Palestinian refugees were stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Constraints on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, however, limited citizens’ ability to do so.

On July 29, President Sisi ratified legal amendments that ban active or retired military personal from running in presidential, parliamentary, or local council elections without prior approval from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Decisions are appealable within 30 days before the Supreme Judicial Committee for Officers and Personnel of the Armed Forces. Amnesty International said on July 30 that the amendments would allow President Sisi and the government to restrict electoral opposition.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on freedoms of speech, association, and assembly severely constrained broad participation in the political process. Local media reported that video blogger and satirist Shady Abu Zeid was released from detention on October 17 with probationary measures based on an October 10 release order. Authorities arrested him in 2018 after the March presidential election on charges of spreading false news and joining a banned group; following a February 4 release order, he was charged in a new case on February 11 on the same charges. On November 21, a Cairo appeals court sentenced Abu Zeid to six months in prison following his conviction for insulting a government official in a Facebook post. On March 19, former Constitution Party leader Shady El Ghazali Harb was released after spending 22 months in detention. According to local media, authorities arrested Harb in 2018 after he made statements about the presidential elections. On July 27, authorities released the chief editor of the blocked Masr al-Ababiya news site, Adel Sabri, after he spent more than two years in detention. According to Front Line Defenders, authorities arrested Sabri in 2018 after Masr al-Arabiya published a translation of a New York Times article that claimed authorities gave bribes to citizens to vote during the presidential elections.

There were two rounds of elections during the year for the re-established 300-seat upper house, or “Senate,” and for the House of Representatives’ 568 elected seats. A progovernment coalition won an overwhelming majority of the Senate’s 200 elected seats; the president appointed the remaining 100 seats. Election observers documented visible judicial supervision, a tight security presence, available ambulances and wheelchairs, and COVID-19 precautions in place. Local media noted higher than expected participation by women and youth voters. One political coalition alleged instances of vote rigging and bribery that advantaged an opponent political party during the House of Representatives’ elections. Some opposition parties questioned the youth turnout, especially in poorer areas, and claimed they were “bussed in” to vote. Irregularities observed included campaign stickers at the entrance of some polling stations, distribution of campaign flyers to voters at one polling station, and some instances of voters not wearing masks or social distancing. No significant acts of violence or disturbances to the election processes were observed.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution grants citizens the ability to form, register, and operate political parties. The law requires new parties to have a minimum of 5,000 members from each of at least 10 governorates. The constitution also states: “No political activity may be practiced and no political parties may be formed on the basis of religion or discrimination based on gender, origin, or sectarian basis or geographic location. No activity that is hostile to democratic principles, secretive, or of military or quasi-military nature may be practiced. Political parties may not be dissolved except by virtue of a court judgment.”

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, remained banned. According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party, based on the allegation of the Political Parties Affairs that the party was affiliated with an Islamic group in violation of the law. Authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt party.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: On July 2, President Sisi ratified laws governing legislative elections, as required by the April 2019 constitutional amendments. The new Senate law requires that women receive at least 10 percent of Senate seats. Women received 40 seats in the 300-seat Senate. Amendments to the House of Representatives law require that women receive at least 25 percent of House seats. Women received 148 of the 568 elected seats in the House of Representatives.

No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Social and cultural barriers, however, limited women’s political participation and leadership in most political parties and some government institutions. The April 2019 constitutional amendments introduced a requirement to better represent workers, farmers, youth, Christians, Egyptians abroad, and individuals with disabilities.

Eight women led cabinet ministries. There were two Christians among the appointed governors of the 27 governorates. In 2018 authorities appointed Manal Awad Michael, a Coptic woman, governor of Damietta, making her the country’s second female governor. On December 20, a female academic was appointed as deputy to the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court. In September the General Assembly of the Cairo Economic Court appointed for the first time a female judge as the head of civil division circuit of an appellate court. In 2018 the Supreme Judiciary Council promoted 16 female judges to higher courts, including the Qena Appeals Court. Legal experts stated there were approximately 66 female judges serving in family, criminal, economic, appeals, and misdemeanor courts; that total was less than 1 percent of judges. Several senior judges were Christian.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not consistently implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: The Central Agency for Auditing and Accounting is the government’s internal anticorruption body and submitted reports to the president and prime minister that were not available to the public. The auditing and accounting agency stationed monitors at state-owned companies to report corrupt practices. The Administrative Control Authority (ACA), another state institution with technical, financial, and administrative independence, has jurisdiction over state administrative bodies, state-owned enterprises, public associations and institutions, private companies undertaking public work, and organizations to which the state contributes in any form. The ACA is a civilian agency led by personnel seconded from the military and intelligence services with authority to investigate any crimes related to public corruption. The ACA has no oversight role for allegations of corruption involving the military. In addition to anticorruption, it also has jurisdiction for criminal violations to include human trafficking and financial crimes.

On March 9, the ACA arrested Gamal Al-Showeikh, a member of parliament, for accepting a bribe to influence a real estate project in the Cairo. At year’s end, the case remained under investigation.

On February 23, the Cassation Court upheld a verdict issued in April 2019 by the Port Said Felonies court sentencing Gamal Abdel Azim, the former head of the Customs Authority, to 10 years in prison and a fine on charges of corruption and bribery.

On September 5, the Cairo Court of Appeals started hearing the retrial of a corruption case against Ahmed Shafiq, former prime minister and 2012 presidential candidate, and two former leaders in the Ministry of Civil Aviation on charges of wasting public funds and facilitating embezzlement. A Cairo criminal court acquitted Shafiq in absentia in 2013, and the Court of Cassation accepted the public prosecutor’s appeal and ordered the retrial on August 29. The court was scheduled to reconvene on January 4, 2021, to examine the case.

Financial Disclosure: There are no financial disclosure laws for public officials. The law forbids government officials from maintaining any pecuniary interest in matters over which they exercise authority.

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

International and local human rights organizations stated the government continued to be uncooperative. The Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights, established by the cabinet and chaired by the minister of foreign affairs as an intragovernmental body, was launched during the year to devise a national human rights strategy, lead national efforts on human rights education and training, and work with regional and international human rights institutions. Domestic civil society organizations criticized the government’s consultations with civil society as insufficient.

Extended delays in gaining government approvals and an unclear legal environment continued to limit the ability of domestic and international NGOs to operate. State-owned and independent media frequently depicted NGOs, particularly international NGOs and domestic NGOs that received funding from international sources, as undertaking subversive activities. Some NGOs reported receiving visits or calls to staff, both at work and at home, from security service officers and tax officials monitoring their activities, as well as societal harassment.

Human rights defenders and political activists were also subjected to governmental and societal harassment and intimidation, including through travel bans (see section 2.d.).

Well-established, independent domestic human rights NGOs struggled to operate amid increasing pressure from security forces throughout the country. Online censorship (see section 2.a.) diminished the roles of internet activists and bloggers in publicizing information concerning human rights abuses. Authorities sometimes allowed civil society organizations not registered as NGOs to operate, but such organizations often reported harassment, along with threats of government interference, investigation, asset freezes, or closure.

The government continued investigations into the receipt of foreign funding by several human rights organizations (see section 2.b.). Major international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, had not had offices in the country since 2014.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2018 the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing visited the country, the first rapporteur to visit since 2010. Nine other UN special rapporteurs had pending visit requests. Authorities did not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisoners and detainees. The Interior Ministry provided international and local organizations informal access to some asylum seeker, refugee, and migrant detention centers (see section 2.d.).

Government Human Rights Bodies: The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights monitored government abuses of human rights submitted in the form of citizen complaints to the government. The council continued to function with its existing membership, even though under the law the terms of council members ended in 2016. Several well-known human rights activists served on the organization’s board, although some observers alleged the board’s effectiveness was limited because it lacked sufficient resources and the government rarely acted on its findings. The council at times challenged and criticized government policies and practices, calling for steps to improve its human rights record.

On March 7, the council issued a report covering May 2018 to July 2019. According to media, the council reported a significant decline in freedoms and stated there should be a statement of intent to make room for freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Media reported that the council received complaints about detention deaths due to torture and identified possible changes to reduce impunity for torture.

On May 7, the council renewed its call to release detainees held in pretrial detention for longer than the two-year maximum. It highlighted the case of Shadi Habash, a filmmaker arrested in 2018 for directing a music video that mocked President Sisi, who was held in pretrial detention beyond the two years and died in Tora Prison on May 1 after ingesting sanitizing alcohol used to prevent COVID-19. The council called on the prosecutor general to examine the medical procedures taken in Habash’s case.

In early June the council renewed its call to the Interior Ministry to allow communication between prisoners and their families after the suspension of prison visits due to COVID-19. The Interior Ministry allowed prison visits to resume on August 22. Visitors were required to wear face masks and were allowed one 20-minute visit per month for each prisoner.

Other government human rights bodies include the Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights; Justice Ministry General Department of Human Rights; Prosecutor General Human Rights Office; State Information Service Human Rights Unit; Ministry of Foreign Affairs Human Rights and International, Social, and Humanitarian Department; and human rights units in each of the country’s governorates.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, prescribing penalties of 15 to 25 years’ imprisonment, or life imprisonment for cases of rape involving armed abduction. Spousal rape is not illegal. The government improved its enforcement of the law. Civil society organizations reported instances of police pressuring victims not to pursue charges.

On July 4, authorities arrested Ahmed Bassam Zaki after more than 50 women accused him online of rape, sexual assault, and harassment dating back to 2016. On July 8, the prosecution ordered his pretrial detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges that included attempted rape and sexual assault. Zaki faced charges of statutory rape, sexual harassment, and blackmail in an October 10 trial session; the court was scheduled to reconvene in January 2021. On December 29, the Cairo Economic Court convicted Zaki of misuse of social media and using social media for sexual assault and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment with labor. These allegations gave rise to what media referred to as Egypt’s #MeToo movement.

On July 21, a Qena criminal court sentenced three defendants to death after convicting them of kidnapping and raping a young woman from Farshout in Qena Governorate in 2018. A local NGO said on July 22 that the victim received threats from the families of the defendants hours after the verdict was issued and after she discussed the rape on television two weeks prior to the ruling.

On July 31, media reported that the administrator of the Instagram and Twitter accounts “Assault Police,” which had almost 200,000 followers, deactivated the accounts after it received death threats following postings about various alleged gang rapes. Local media reported the account also referred allegations against Ahmed Bassam Zaki to authorities and the National Council for Women.

On August 4, the National Council for Women forwarded a complaint to the public prosecutor from a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by multiple men at the Fairmont Nile City hotel in 2014. The complaint included testimony about the incident in which a group of men allegedly drugged, raped, and filmed the victim after a social event. According to social media, the men signed their initials on her body and used the film as a “trophy” and blackmail. On August 24, the public prosecutor ordered the arrests of nine men allegedly involved in the case, most of them sons of prominent businesspeople. According to media, as of September 2, authorities arrested five suspects in Egypt and three in Lebanon, who were extradited to Egypt. Media reported that in late August state security arrested a man and three women who were witnesses to the alleged rape and two of the witnesses’ acquaintances. The prosecutor general charged all six in a separate case with violating laws on drug use, “morality,” and “debauchery;” the prosecutor general ordered the release on bail of three of the six on August 31 and was pressing charges.

Domestic violence was a significant problem. The law does not prohibit domestic violence or spousal abuse, but authorities may apply provisions relating to assault with accompanying penalties. The law requires that an assault victim produce multiple eyewitnesses, a difficult condition for domestic abuse victims. Police often treated domestic violence as a family issue rather than a criminal matter.

The Interior Ministry includes a unit responsible for combating sexual and gender-based violence. The National Council for Women (NCW) was responsible for coordinating government and civil society efforts to empower women. In 2015 the NCW launched a five-year National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women with four strategic objectives: prevention, protection, intervention, and prosecution. An NCW study found that approximately 1.5 million women reported domestic violence each year. A 2015 Egypt Economic Cost of Gender-based Violence Survey reported that 5.6 million women experience violence at the hands of their husbands or fiances each year. After the start of the country’s #MeToo movement, the NCW coordinated with women’s rights organizations and the Prosecutor General’s Office to help women who disclosed they were victims of sexual harassment.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C is illegal, but it remained a serious problem. According to international and local observers, the government did not effectively enforce the FGM/C law. In May 2019 the government formed a national task force to end FGM/C, led by the NCW and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). On June 13, the NCCM stated that 82 percent of FGM crimes were carried out by doctors.

On January 20, a Sohag criminal court sentenced a doctor who conducted FGM/C surgery on a girl in Sohag Governorate in 2018 and the father of the girl to one year in prison; it ruled to suspend implementation of the sentence unless the doctor committed the crime again within the next three years. On August 6, the Administrative Prosecution referred the doctor, who directed a government clinic in Sohag Governorate, to administrative trial for committing FGM/C. One local human rights organization welcomed this disciplinary proceeding and criticized the legal discretion given to the judiciary in sentencing FGM/C cases. The circumcision resulted in severe bleeding and caused the girl permanent disability that forced her to stay in a Sohag hospital for more than a year.

In late January Nada Hassan, a 12-year-old girl, died from FGM/C in Assiut. Authorities arrested the doctor who performed the FGM/C, the parents, and an aunt. On February 6, a court in Assiut released the parents and aunt on guarantee of their residence pending trial and released the doctor on bail pending trial. The public prosecutor summoned the doctor and redetained him on February 20 and referred the case to trial on February 22. The Assuit Criminal Court scheduled a review of the case on October 28, but further developments were not made public. On June 3, the Public Prosecution stated that after a forensic analysis confirmed FGM/C occurred on three minor girls in Sohag Province, it charged a doctor with performing the procedure and the father of the girls for assisting in the crime. The statement also said the father had told the girls that the doctor was going to vaccinate them for COVID-19. According to media reports, the children’s mother reported the crime on May 31 to police. On July 12, a Sohag court sentenced the doctor to three years in prison and the father to one year in prison.

A 2016 amendment to the law designated FGM/C a felony, as opposed to a misdemeanor as it was previously, and assigned penalties for conviction of five to seven years’ imprisonment for practitioners who perform the procedure, or 15 years if the practice led to death or “permanent deformity.” The law granted exceptions in cases of “medical necessity,” which rights groups and subject matter experts identified as a problematic loophole that allowed the practice to continue. After Hassan’s death and the case of the three Sohag girls, the Ministry of Health and Population, National Council for Population, NCCM, National Council for Women, Prosecutor General’s Office, and local NGOs worked together successfully to eliminate the loophole and raise awareness of the crime.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law does not specifically address “honor” crimes, which authorities treated as any other crime. There were no reliable statistics regarding the incidence of killings and assaults motivated by “honor,” but local observers stated such killings occurred, particularly in rural areas. Local media, especially in Upper Egypt, occasionally reported on incidents where fathers or brothers killed their daughters and sisters in alleged “honor killings” after they discovered they had premarital or extramarital relationships.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. The government claimed it prioritized efforts to address sexual harassment. The penal code defines sexual harassment as a crime, with penalties including fines and sentences of six months’ to five years’ imprisonment if convicted. Media and NGOs reported sexual harassment by police was also a problem, and the potential for further harassment further discouraged women from filing complaints. In September the president ratified a penal code amendment to strengthen protection of the identities of victims of harassment, rape, and assault during court cases.

On January 29, a Giza court ordered a daily newspaper to pay financial compensation to journalist May al-Shamy for dismissing her wrongfully in 2018 after she complained of sexual harassment in the workplace.

On February 9, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final ruling dismissing a teacher after he was convicted of sexual harassment of 120 elementary school students in Alexandria Governorate in 2013. The teacher had been dismissed in 2013 by the school where he was working.

According to local press, a Qena criminal court on July 11 sentenced a man to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in February. The verdict remained subject to appeal.

On July 18, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that Pope Tawadros II decided to defrock priest Rewiess Aziz Khalil of the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas, following allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia leveled by Coptic Christians in North America where the priest had lived on a foreign assignment.

Reproductive Rights: The law recognizes the basic right of married couples to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and it enables individuals to have access to the information and means to do so free from coercion or violence. The Ministry of Health and Population distributed contraceptive materials and assigned personnel to attend births, offer postpartum care to mothers and children, and provide treatment for sexually transmitted diseases at minimal or no cost. The government also did not restrict family-planning decisions. Gender norms and social, cultural, economic, and religious barriers inhibited some women’s ability to make reproductive decisions, to access contraceptives, and to attain full reproductive health. Some women lacked access to information on reproductive health, and the limited availability of female healthcare providers impacted access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, given the preference many women had for female healthcare providers for social and religious reasons.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2020 World Health Statistics report, the country’s maternal mortality ratio is 37/100,000 births, the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel is 90 percent, the adolescent birth rate is 51.8/1,000 aged 15-19, and the proportion of women of reproductive age who have their need for family planning met with modern methods is 80 percent. Although on the decline, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) continues to be widely practiced. In 2015, 87 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C, according to the 2015 Egypt Health Issues Survey. The prevalence, however, is reportedly much higher among older age groups. FGM/C third grade (infibulation) is more prevalent in the South (Aswan and Nubia), and this, in some cases, has been associated with difficulty in giving birth, obstructed labor, and higher rates of neonatal mortality. The government enlisted the support of religious leaders to combat cultural acceptance of FGM/C and encourage family planning.

There was no information on government assistance to survivors of sexual assault.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal rights for male and female citizens. Women did not enjoy the same legal rights and opportunities as men, and discrimination was widespread. Aspects of the law and traditional societal practices disadvantaged women in family, social, and economic life.

Women faced widespread societal discrimination, threats to their physical security, and workplace bias in favor of men that hindered their social and economic advancement.

Laws affecting marriage and personal status generally corresponded to an individual’s religious group. A female Muslim citizen cannot legally marry a non-Muslim man. If she were to do so, authorities could charge her with adultery and consider her children illegitimate. Under the government’s interpretation of Islamic law, any children from such a marriage could be placed in the custody of a male Muslim guardian. Khula divorce allows a Muslim woman to obtain a divorce without her husband’s consent, provided she forgoes all her financial rights, including alimony, dowry, and other benefits. The Coptic Orthodox Church permits divorce only in rare circumstances, such as adultery or conversion of one spouse to another religion. Other Christian churches permitted divorce on a case-by-case basis.

On February 4, President Sisi approved harsher penalties in the penal code for divorced men who avoid paying spousal and child support.

The law follows sharia in matters of inheritance; therefore, a Muslim female heir generally receives one-half the amount of a male heir’s inheritance, and Christian widows of Muslims have no inheritance rights. A sole Muslim female heir receives one-half her parents’ estate, and the balance goes to the siblings of the parents or the children of the siblings if the siblings are deceased. A sole male heir inherits his parents’ entire estate.

In marriage and divorce cases, a woman’s testimony must be judged credible to be admissible. Usually the woman accomplishes credibility by conveying her testimony through an adult male relative or representative. The law assumes a man’s testimony is credible unless proven otherwise.

Labor laws provide for equal rates of pay for equal work for men and women in the public but not the private sector. Educated women had employment opportunities, but social pressure against women pursuing a career was strong. Large sectors of the economy controlled by the military excluded women from high-level positions.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship through their parents. The mother or the father transmits citizenship and nationality. The government attempted to register all births soon after birth, but some citizens in remote and tribal areas such as the Sinai Peninsula registered births late or could not document their citizenship. In some cases, failure to register resulted in denial of public services, particularly in urban areas where most services required presentation of a national identification card.

Education: Education is compulsory, free, and universal until the ninth grade. The law provides this benefit to stateless persons and refugees. Public schools enrolled Syrian refugees, but they largely excluded refugees of other nationalities.

Child Abuse: The constitution stipulates the government shall protect children from all forms of violence, abuse, mistreatment, and commercial and sexual exploitation. According to a local rights group, authorities recorded hundreds of cases of alleged child abuse each month. The NCCM worked on child abuse issues, and several civil society organizations assisted runaway and abandoned children.

Rights organizations reported children faced mistreatment in detention, including torture, sharing cells with adults, denial of their right to counsel, and authorities’ failure to notify their families. In March Human Rights Watch reported that security forces arrested a 14-year-old boy for protesting in 2016, used electric shocks on sensitive parts of his body, suspended him from his arms until it dislocated his shoulders and left him without medical care for three days, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for participating in an antigovernment protest.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18. On January 30, the NCCM announced it had stopped 659 cases of child marriage in 2019. A government study published on March 17 reported that 2.5 percent of the population in Upper Egypt governorates were married between the ages of 15 and 17, and the percentage of females in that age group who had previously been married exceeded that of males. On February 23, the deputy minister of health and population affairs stated there were 230,000 newborns as a result of early marriage in various governorates across the country. Informal marriages could lead to contested paternity and leave minor females without alimony and other claims available to women with registered marriages. Families reportedly sometimes forced adolescent girls to marry wealthy foreign men in what were known locally as “tourism” or “summer” marriages for the purpose of sexual exploitation, prostitution, or forced labor. According to the law, a foreign man who wants to marry an Egyptian woman more than 25 years younger than he is must pay her EGP 50,000 ($3,030). Women’s rights organizations argued that allowing foreign men to pay a fine to marry much younger women represented a form of trafficking and encouragement of child marriage. They called on the government to eliminate the system altogether. The NCCM’s antitrafficking unit is responsible for raising awareness of the problem.

On January 4, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court ruling to dismiss an imam and preacher in the village of Mit Habib in Samanoud, Gharbeya, for administering the marriage of a minor girl and a minor boy in violation of the law. He had administered several urfi (unregistered) marriages of underage girls under the pretext that the practice is “lawful” in Islamic law. The court ruled that urfi marriages of minors is a violation of children’s rights and an attack on children and young girls, calling the practice of child marriage inconsistent with efforts to protect and promote women’s rights. On February 14, security forces arrested a criminal network engaged in the sale of minors in Giza Governorate. According to local media, the gang sold girls for marriage to wealthy Arabs for a large fee, exploiting their families’ financial need. On December 10, the Public Prosecution referred the case to the Criminal Court.

On March 10, the NCCM’s Child Protection Committee at the Akhmeem Center in Sohag announced it stopped an early marriage of a minor in the village of Al-Sawamah Sharq after receiving a report that a person was preparing to marry off his 16-year-old sister.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides for sentences of not less than five years’ imprisonment and fines for conviction of commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. The government did not adequately enforce the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is age 18.

On May 26, security forces detained Menna Abd El-Aziz, a minor, after she said in a social media video that an acquaintance and others had sexually assaulted her. On May 31, the prosecution ordered Abd El-Aziz’s detention pending investigations on charges of inciting debauchery and forging an online account. On June 9, the prosecutor general confirmed Abd El-Aziz had been assaulted, beaten, and injured and ordered her pretrial detention in one of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s shelters for women. On July 26, the prosecutor general referred Abd El-Aziz and six other defendants to criminal court. According to her lawyers, Abd El-Aziz was released on September 17. The individuals she accused were charged in a separate case with sexual abuse and violating the sanctity of a minor’s private life.

On August 29, the public prosecutor ordered the detention of a cook whom authorities had arrested the same day on charges of sexually assaulting underage girls at the orphanage where he worked. On September 26, the Public Prosecution ordered the detention of a teacher pending investigations on charges of sexually assaulting two children in the Khalifa district.

Displaced Children: The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics and the NCCM estimated there were 1,600 street children, while civil society organizations estimated the number to be in the millions. The ministry offered shelters to street children, but many chose not to use them because staff reportedly treated the children as if they were criminals, according to local rights groups. According to rights groups, the incidence of violence, prostitution, and drug dealing in these shelters was high. Religious institutions and NGOs provided services for street children, including meals, clothing, and literacy classes. The Ministry of Health and Population provided mobile health clinics staffed by nurses and social workers. The Ministry of Social Solidarity also provided 17 mobile units in 10 governorates, offering emergency services, including food and health care, to street children.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish community reportedly numbered fewer than 10 individuals. In January the government publicly celebrated the history of Jews in Egypt with the reopening of a historic synagogue in Alexandria following completion of its restoration.

On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League called on the government to remove anti-Semitic books from the Cairo International Book Fair.

In April, Israel condemned an Egyptian television series called The End, which depicted the future destruction of Israel in a science fiction film.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution states persons with disabilities are equal without discrimination before the law. The law prohibits discrimination in education, employment, health, political activity, rehabilitation, training, and legal protection.

The law provides for persons with disabilities to gain access to vocational training and employment. Government policy sets a quota for employing persons with disabilities of 5 percent of workers with disabilities for companies with more than 50 employees. Authorities did not enforce the quota requirement, and companies often had persons with disabilities on their payroll to meet the quota without employing them. Government-operated treatment centers for persons with disabilities, especially children, were of poor quality.

A 2019 law establishes the National Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD), an independent body that aims to promote, develop, and protect the rights of persons with disabilities and their constitutional dignity. The council signed a cooperation protocol with the Justice Ministry to guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities and to train employees in the government on how to help those with hearing impairments.

Persons with disabilities rode government-owned mass transit buses without charge, but the buses were not wheelchair accessible. Persons with disabilities received subsidies to purchase household products, wheelchairs, and prosthetic devices. Some children with disabilities attended schools with their nondisabled peers while others attended segregated schools. Some of the segregated institutions were informal schools run by NGOs. Some parents of children with disabilities complained on social media of the lack of experience of teacher assistants assigned to help their children.

On January 11, President Sisi directed the government to increase its support to persons with special needs. On April 28, the NCPD general secretary complained to the Human Rights Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office about a reality television broadcast where one participant presented himself as having intellectual disabilities in order to elicit reactions from other participants.

On June 29, the prosecutor general ordered reconsideration of the acquittal of a minor who had allegedly raped an autistic child in late January.

During the Senate and House of Representatives elections, polling stations provided wheelchairs for persons with walking disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination on any grounds. Nevertheless, dark-skinned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans faced discrimination and harassment, as did Nubians from Upper Egypt.

On July 3, the prosecutor general ordered the detention of two suspects pending investigations on charges of insulting a Sudanese child, violating his personal life, violating Egyptian social values, theft, physical abuse, and discrimination based on national origin. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated the two suspects had beaten the child, stolen his property, and filmed him to post the video on social media. On July 25, the Imbaba misdemeanor court sentenced two defendants in a bullying case to two years in prison with labor and a fine. On September 5, President Sisi ratified amendments to the penal code to criminalize bullying. The new law criminalizes disparaging someone else’s race, gender, religion, physical attributes, social status, health, or mental condition with up to six months in prison a fine, or both.

According to the constitution, the state should make efforts to return Nubians to their original territories and develop such territories within 10 years of the constitution’s 2014 ratification.

On January 20, the prime minister presided over a ceremony granting compensation to Nubians in Aswan Governorate who were displaced by the construction of the two Aswan dams decades ago. The ministers of social solidarity and of culture and of housing attended the event. In his speech, the prime minister noted recent major development projects in Upper Egypt, including improvements to roads, electricity, housing, drinking water, sanitation, education, and health.

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

While the law does not explicitly criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, it allows police to arrest LGBTI persons on charges such as “debauchery,” “prostitution,” and “violating the teachings of religion” and it provides for prison sentences of up to 10 years. According to a local rights group, there were more than 250 reports of such arrests since 2013. Authorities did not use antidiscrimination laws to protect LGBTI individuals. Legal discrimination and social stigma impeded LGBTI persons from organizing or advocating publicly in defense of their rights. Information was not available on official or private discrimination in employment, occupation, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination. There were reports of arrests and harassment of LGBTI individuals. Intimidation and the risk of arrest greatly restricted open reporting and contributed to self-censorship. Rights groups and activists reported harassment by police, including physical assault and forced payment of bribes to provide information concerning other LGBTI individuals or to avoid arrest. The government has the authority to deport or bar entry to the country of LGBTI foreigners.

There were reports that authorities used social media, dating websites, and cell phone apps to entrap persons they suspected of being gay or transgender, a method LGBTI advocates described as especially effective as LGBTI-friendly public spaces had largely closed in recent years.

On June 1, the Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit filed by transgender Malak El-Kashef, whom authorities released from detention in July 2019, to compel the interior minister to establish separate facilities for transgender individuals inside prisons and police stations. A court ordered transgender male Hossam Ahmed, whom authorities subjected to invasive physical exams, released from pretrial detention in a women’s prison in September.

In a televised statement in early May, prominent actor Hisham Selim spoke openly about his son’s gender change and inability to change his identity card from female to male. On June 23, two lawyers filed lawsuits against Selim and his transgender son for an Instagram post that paid tribute to Egyptian LGBT activist Sara Hegazy, who died by suicide in 2020. Hegazy was reportedly subjected to electric shocks, verbally and sexually assaulted, and held in solitary confinement during her imprisonment for debauchery in 2017, reportedly because she flew a rainbow flag at a concert.

Rights groups reported that authorities, including the Forensic Medical Authority, conducted forced anal examinations. The law allows for conducting forced anal exams in cases of debauchery.

According to a LGBTI rights organization 2019 annual report issued in January, authorities arrested 92 LGBTI individuals in 2019 and conducted forced anal exams on seven persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

HIV-positive individuals faced significant social stigma and discrimination in society and the workplace. The health-care system provided anonymous counseling and testing for HIV, free adult and pediatric antiretroviral therapy, and support groups.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with significant restrictions. The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law prescribes union elections every four years and imposes a strict hierarchy for union formation consisting of a company-level trade union committee, a profession, or industry-level general union, and a national-level union.

While the law provides for collective bargaining, it imposes significant restrictions. For example, the government sets wages and benefits for all public-sector employees. The law does not provide for enterprise-level collective bargaining in the private sector and requires centralized tripartite negotiations that include workers, represented by a union affiliated with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), business owners, and the Ministry of Manpower overseeing and monitoring negotiations and agreements. In January, 115 workers in the Mega Glass Company in Al Fayyum conducted a strike demanding better wages. The Local Ministry of Manpower officials negotiated a raise in workers’ pay with company management, resolving the strike.

The constitution provides for the right to “peaceful” strikes. The Unified Labor Law permits peaceful strikes as well, but it imposes significant restrictions, including prior approval by a general trade union affiliated with ETUF.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Labor laws do not cover some categories of workers, including agricultural and domestic workers, and other sectors of the informal economy.

The Ministry of Manpower and affiliated directorates did not allow trade unions to adopt any bylaws other than those provided in the law. This position, according to local workers’ rights organizations, was contrary to the law, which states that unions can use the statutory bylaws as guidance to develop their own.

Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent, and penalties for engaging in illegal strikes are more stringent than other laws involving denial of civil rights, such as discrimination. The government also occasionally arrested workers who stage strikes or criticize the government, and it rarely reversed arbitrary dismissals. Since February authorities arrested at least 10 doctors from the Egyptian Medical Syndicate for social media posts critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and charged the doctors with spreading false news, misuse of social media, and membership in a banned group, according to human rights groups. In March government prosecutors extended the detention of labor union activist Khalil Rizk on charges of spreading false news, misuse of social media, and membership in a banned group. Authorities first arrested Rizk in 2019 while he was advocating for workers in a pharmaceutical factory engaged in a dispute with management over wages. In April, Aswan University, a public university, laid off 1,500 workers when the university closed due to COVID-19. In June the National Steel Fabrication Company in Suez Governorate fired six workers, including trade union leadership, and suspended another 270 workers following a dispute over compensation.

The government seldom followed the requirement for tripartite negotiations in collective disputes, leaving workers to negotiate directly with employers, typically after resorting to a strike. In March workers from Al Masryia Company for Weaving and Textile struck for alleged unpaid raises and bonuses. Management and worker representatives reached an agreement on compensation and back pay.

Independent unions continued to face pressure to dissolve. In some cases the Ministry of Manpower delayed responding to unions’ applications for legal status, leaving many in legal limbo. In other instances the Ministry of Manpower refused to legalize proposed unions if an ETUF-affiliated counterpart existed. In January, Bibliotheca Alexandria workers resubmitted documents to form a trade union committee. Their application had been pending since 2018, and they filed multiple legal and administrative complaints to local police and the Ministry of Manpower to have it reviewed. A decision on accepting its registration remained pending.

Workers sometimes staged sit-ins on government and private property, often without obtaining the necessary permits. Rights groups claimed authorities sometimes arrested those seeking to obtain protest permits. In March police in Nasr City detained 70 street cleaner workers protesting an employer who reportedly withheld their salaries for three months. Police originally accused the workers of staging an illegal assembly, but subsequently released them without charges.

A new law provides that for a period of 12 months beginning July 1, a monthly 1 percent deduction will be made from the net income of all public-sector employees, and 0.5 percent of the net income of pensioners, to fund efforts to address the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution states no work may be compulsory except by virtue of a law. The government did not effectively enforce the prohibition but conducted awareness raising activities such as distributing antitrafficking informational booklets to migrant laborers, and the NCW conducted a media campaign regarding the treatment of domestic workers, a population vulnerable to trafficking, and worked with NGOs to provide some assistance to victims of human trafficking, including forced labor. Penalties for forced labor and trafficking were less severe than for other analogous crimes, such as kidnapping.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for regular employment at age 15 and at age 13 for seasonal employment. The constitution defines a child as anyone younger than 18. A Ministry of Manpower decree bars children younger than 18 from 44 specific hazardous occupations, while the law prohibits employment of children younger than 18 from work that “puts the health, safety, or morals of the child into danger.” Provincial governors, with the approval of the minister of education, may authorize seasonal work (often agricultural) for children age 13 and older, provided duties are not hazardous and do not interfere with schooling. The labor code and law limit children’s work hours and mandate breaks.

Overall, authorities did not consistently enforce child labor laws. The maximum penalties for violating laws against child labor were fines, while those for other analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping ranged from imprisonment to the death penalty. The Ministry of Manpower, in coordination with the NCCM and the Interior Ministry, enforced child labor laws in state-owned enterprises and private-sector establishments through inspections and supervision of factory management. Labor inspectors generally operated without adequate training on child labor issues, although the Ministry of Manpower offered some child labor-specific training. The government did not inspect noncommercial farms for child labor, and there were very limited monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for children in domestic service. When authorities imposed penalties for violations, fines were insufficient to deter violations.

Although the government often did not effectively enforce relevant laws, authorities implemented a number of social, educational, and poverty reduction programs to reduce children’s vulnerability to exploitive labor. The NCCM, working with the Ministries of Education and Technical Education and of Social Solidarity, sought to provide working children with social security safeguards and to reduce school dropout rates by providing families with alternative sources of income.

Child labor occurred, although estimates on the number of child laborers varied. According to the 2012 joint International Labor Organization and Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics child labor survey, of the 1.8 million children working, 1.6 million were engaged in hazardous or unlawful forms of labor, primarily in the agricultural sector in rural areas but also in domestic work and factories in urban areas, often under hazardous conditions. Children also worked in light industry, the aluminum industry, construction sites, brick production, and service businesses such as auto repair. According to government, NGO, and media reports, the number of street children in Cairo continued to increase in the face of deteriorating economic conditions. Such children were at greater risk of sexual exploitation or forced begging. In some cases employers abused or overworked children. Children also worked in the production of limestone. On April 9, a total of 43 persons, mostly children, were injured when a truck carrying day-laborer children overturned near a security check point in the district of Abu Tesht, Qena. After an investigation, the government announced that the children worked in agriculture. Authorities charged the hiring contractor and the owner of the farm for violating laws against children engaging in the worst forms of child labor.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution states all citizens “are equal in rights, freedoms, and general duties without discrimination based on religion, belief, gender, origin, race, color, language, disability, social class, political or geographic affiliation, or any other reason.” While discrimination is a civil violation, penalties for other analogous violations of civil rights, such as those related to election interference, were punishable by imprisonment. The country has legal restrictions against women in employment to include limiting working hours at night, occupations such as mining, construction, factories, agriculture, energy, and jobs deemed hazardous, arduous, or morally inappropriate. It does not specify age, citizenship, sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. In April 2019 the Justice Ministry started its first training course for 22 employees working at the state’s real estate departments in Giza and Cairo to use sign language to help persons with disabilities fill out documents. The training came as part of a cooperation protocol signed in January 2019 between the Justice Ministry and the newly established NCPD. While the law provides for persons with disabilities to gain access to vocational training and employment, the government did not effectively enforce prohibitions against such discrimination. Discrimination also occurred against women and migrant workers (see sections 2.d. and 6), as well as workers based on their political views.

An employee facing discrimination can file a report with the local government labor office. If the employee and the employer are unable to reach an amicable settlement, they can file their claim in administrative court, which may order the employer to redress the complaint or to pay damages or legal fees. According to local rights groups, implementation of the law was inadequate. Additionally, the lengthy and expensive litigation process could deter employees from filing claims. In January the Ministry of Culture rescinded the appointment of artist Mona Al Qammah, who wore a niqab, from a managerial position in Behira Governorate. Al Qammah told the BBC the decision to cancel her appointment came after several online posts claimed she was an ISIS sympathizer and criticized her for wearing the niqab.

Local rights groups reported several cases of employers dismissing workers or depriving them from work for expressing antigovernment opinions.

In August the Ministry of Religious Endowments revoked the preaching license of an Al Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Challenges to improving working conditions in both the private sector and informal sector include uneven application or lack of regulations and restrictions on engaging in peaceful protests as a means of negotiating resolutions to workplace disparities. For example, there is no national minimum wage in the private sector, but the government sets a monthly minimum wage for government employees and public-sector workers, which is above the poverty line. According to labor rights organizations, the government implemented the minimum wage for public-sector workers but applied it only to direct government employees and included benefits and bonuses in calculating total salaries. For government employees and public business-sector workers, the government also set a maximum wage limit per month. The law does not require equal pay for equal work. Penalties for violating laws on acceptable conditions of work were not commensurate with crimes such as fraud, which are punishable by imprisonment. In April the International Labor Organization Cairo Office commended the country’s efforts to combat COVID-19. The Egyptian Medical Syndicate, however, criticized a lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals and blamed a lack of COVID-19 testing for the spread of the virus among doctors. In April an international human rights organization accused private-sector garment factory owners of forcing workers to work without providing sufficient protections from contracting COVID-19 and urged the government to ensure that private-sector companies provide personal protective equipment at no cost to workers. In May a trade union NGO criticized the Ministry of Health for not providing sufficient polymerase chain reaction tests for health-care personnel and placing doctors, nurses, and their families at risk of contracting the virus.

The law stipulates a maximum 48-hour workweek for the public and private sectors and provides for premium pay for overtime and work on rest days and national holidays. The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The government sets worker health and safety standards, for example, by prohibiting employers from maintaining hazardous working conditions. The law excludes agricultural, fisheries, and domestic workers from regulations concerning wages, hours, and working conditions.

The Ministry of Manpower is responsible for enforcing labor laws and standards for working conditions. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The ministry did not attempt to apply labor standards to the informal sector. Penalties include imprisonment and fine but were not sufficient to deter violations, as they were often unenforced. Labor inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions and did not face a moratorium on inspections during the year. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance with the law.

By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to employment, although authorities did not reliably enforce this right. In March employees at the Port Said Investment Zone warned of the spread of COVID-19 and criticized restrictions against working from home. Following the circulation of a video depicting hundreds of factory workers working in close proximity, the governor ordered the closure of five factories for 15 days. Workers continued to protest the decision not to close all factories in the investment zone.

According to media reports, laborers in some remote areas worked in extremely dangerous environments. In North Sinai, workers’ movements were restricted by local government-established curfews and checkpoints run by both the military and nonstate armed groups.

The government provided services, such as free health care, to all citizens, but the quality of services was often poor. Other benefits, such as social insurance, were available only to employees in the formal sector. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, approximately 11.9 million of the 25.7 million Egyptians in the labor force did not have formal contracts with employers and were categorized as “informal” workers. In March the Ministry of Manpower announced that workers in the informal sector who registered with the ministry were eligible to receive three monthly payments because of wages lost due to the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19. The minister of manpower stated that 400,000 informal workers had registered with the ministry.

Many persons throughout the country faced poor working conditions, especially in the informal economy, which employed up to 40 percent of workers, according to some estimates. Domestic workers, agricultural workers, workers in rock quarries, and other parts of the informal sector were most likely to face hazardous or exploitive conditions. There were reports of employer abuse of citizen and undocumented foreign workers, especially domestic workers. Little information was available on workplace fatalities and accidents.

Estonia

Executive Summary

Estonia is a multiparty, constitutional democracy with a unicameral parliament, a prime minister as head of government, and a president as head of state. The prime minister and cabinet generally represent the party or coalition of parties with a majority of seats in the parliament. The most recent parliamentary elections took place in March 2019. The coalition is composed of the Center Party, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, and the Pro Patria party, and is headed by Prime Minister Juri Ratas (Center Party), who took office in April 2019. Observers considered the elections free and fair.

The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service report to the Ministry of the Interior. The Defense Forces report to the Ministry of Defense. The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service investigate civilian cases, while military police investigate defense force cases. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

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 Prosecutor’s Office leads criminal investigations in the country, investigates whether security force abuses were justifiable, and pursues prosecutions.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports that police used excessive physical force and verbal abuse during the arrest and questioning of some suspects. The number of cases brought against police officers for excessive use of force was similar to that in previous years. During the first half of the year, authorities filed four cases against police officers for excessive use of force.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: In April the legal chancellor publicly criticized the government’s COVID-related ban on prisoners’ outdoor time and reduction of visits from relatives, characterizing the ban as impermissible treatment of prisoners under government guidelines.

In a November 2019 report on its 2017 visit to the country, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) expressed concern over “appalling material conditions” at the Parnu, Tallinn, Tartu, and Valga detention houses as well as at the Tallinn East Police Station and over the small size of some of the cells seen in various police establishments. The report also expressed the CPT’s “serious misgivings” that remand prisoners were frequently held in deficient police detention houses for one to four weeks, and in some cases for several months, beyond the period of police custody (pending their transfer to a prison).

With regard to prison conditions, the CPT report noted that the use of solitary confinement as a punishment appeared to be widespread in all three of the country’s prisons and that the practice appeared to be particularly excessive at Viru Prison. Prisoners were placed in disciplinary solitary confinement continuously for more than 14 days, thus exceeding the maximum permissible time. At Viru Prison, multiple periods in solitary confinement were imposed on prisoners consecutively, which in a number of cases resulted in very long periods of solitary confinement (in one prisoner’s case, 225 days). There were no major concerns in prisons regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse except for the excessive use of solitary confinement.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, including human rights groups, media, and international bodies.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Apart from those arrested during the commission of a crime, the law requires that in making arrests, authorities must possess warrants issued by a court based on evidence and must inform detainees promptly of the grounds for their arrest. There is a functioning bail system and other alternatives for provisional release pending trial. Authorities may hold individuals for 48 hours without charge; further detention requires a court order. Police generally complied with these requirements. Criminal procedure rules provide for a maximum detention of two months during preliminary investigations in cases where the accused is a minor and four months in cases of second-degree (less serious) crimes. Detainees are entitled to immediate access to legal counsel, and the government pays for legal counsel for indigent persons.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

Defendants enjoy the right to: a presumption of innocence; prompt and detailed notification of the charges (with free interpretation if necessary); a fair and public trial without undue delay; be present at their trial; communicate with an attorney of their choice; have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; have free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses; and present one’s own witnesses and evidence. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal. A single judge, a judge together with public assessors, or a committee of judges may hear cases. In criminal proceedings, an attorney is available to all defendants at public expense, although individuals often preferred to hire their own attorneys. In civil proceedings, the government provides an attorney for indigents. Authorities generally respected these rights and extended them to all residents regardless of citizenship.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations in domestic courts. They may appeal unfavorable decisions to the European Court of Human Rights after exhausting all domestic remedies.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place for property restitution, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups reported no issues with the government’s resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens.

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

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

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of speech, including for the press.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected these freedoms. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced several temporary restrictions on public assembly, which changed in proportion to the assessed risks throughout the year.

Freedom of Association

While the constitution provides for freedom of association, the law specifies that only citizens may join political parties. There were no restrictions on the ability of noncitizens to join other civil groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The NGO Estonian Human Rights Center and other NGOs provided legal and social assistance to asylum seekers in cooperation with authorities. Government officials indicated that access to legal aid was available at every stage of the asylum procedure. The Estonian Human Rights Center continued to raise concerns about the prolonged detention of asylum seekers during adjudication of cases.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government has a policy of denying asylum to applicants from a “safe” country of origin or transit. Authorities asserted that they granted interviews to all individual asylum seekers.

Durable Solutions: The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of some refugees to their countries of origin under an International Organization for Migration program. The country worked with the EU and UNHCR to implement a refugee resettlement program. Naturalization is open to all permanent residents of the country after five years’ residence, provided they pass mandatory citizenship and language examinations.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Temporary protection includes the right to work, access to education, and health care. In 2019 the government granted temporary protection via residence permits to 10 persons.

g. Stateless Persons

UNHCR categorized 76,639 persons residing in the country as stateless in 2019. As of July 1, according to government statistics, there were approximately 70,000 residents of undetermined citizenship, or 5.3 percent of the population. Nearly all were ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians. These persons are eligible to apply for naturalized citizenship, and some of them may hold Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarusian citizenship.

There are statutory procedures that offer persons older than 18 opportunities for obtaining citizenship by naturalization, but some human rights observers regarded them as inadequate, and their rate of naturalization remained low. To facilitate acquisition of citizenship, authorities funded civics and language courses and simplified naturalization for persons with disabilities. The government also simplified the Estonian language requirements so that applicants older than 65 are no longer required to take a written language examination, although they still must pass an oral one. The government also provides citizenship, without any special application by the parents, to persons younger than 15 who were born in the country and whose parents were not citizens of Estonia or of any other country and had lived in Estonia for five years at the time of the birth of the child.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Parliamentary elections in March 2019 were considered free and fair and led to the formation of a three-party coalition government comprising the Center Party, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), and the Pro Patria party. The coalition is led by Prime Minister Juri Ratas (Center Party).

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The law allows only citizens to organize or join political parties.

Noncitizens who are long-term residents may vote in local elections but cannot vote in national elections or hold public office.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. The government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There were isolated reports of official corruption during the year.

Corruption: In January a member of parliament, Kalev Kallo, was found guilty of corruption charges connected to a criminal case involving malfeasance in the Tallinn City Government. He was convicted of three crimes: mediating a bribe, aiding and abetting the bribe, and illegally financing the Center Party. Kallo was sentenced to one-and-a-half years on conditional release, with an additional six months of conditional parole. Following a Supreme Court ruling in November upholding his conviction, Kallo resigned from parliament, as required by law.

In 2019 a court sentenced Indrek Suld, a railways official, to three years in prison and three years’ probation for violating the Anticorruption Act. Suld was arrested in 2016 for various incidences of manipulating public contracts. One other defendant, Raivol Lill, was also convicted of lesser offenses related to the contracts. The court also fined the company Autsec OU for violations of the law related to the contracts.

In 2019 the number of corruption cases dropped considerably compared to 2018. Of these cases, 44 percent occurred in the state government sector and 41 percent in the local government sector.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all public officials to disclose their income and assets. Designated offices are responsible for monitoring and verifying disclosures. The financial declarations of high-level government officials were available to the public, and there are criminal and administrative sanctions for noncompliance with the law.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The legal chancellor, an independent official with a staff of more than 45, performs the role of human rights ombudsman. The chancellor reviews legislation for compliance with the constitution; oversees authorities’ observance of fundamental rights and freedoms and the principles of good governance; and helps resolve accusations of discrimination based on gender, race, nationality (ethnic origin), color, language, religion, social status, age, disability, or sexual orientation. The legal chancellor also makes recommendations to ministries and local governments, requests responses, and has authority to appeal to the Supreme Court. The chancellor compiles an annual report for the parliament. Public trust in the office was high, and the government was responsive to its reports and decisions.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, and physical abuse, including domestic violence. The law is effectively enforced. The penalty for rape, including spousal rape, is imprisonment for up to 15 years. According to the NGO Sexual Health Union, 13 percent of women have suffered sexual abuse, including rape.

According to NGOs and shelter managers, violence against women, including domestic violence, was a problem. During the first nine months of the year, domestic violence crimes made up 40 percent of all violent crimes in the country. Women constituted more than 80 percent of the victims of domestic violence registered by police. During the first nine months of the year, there were six percent fewer official reports of domestic violence than in the same period in 2019.

NGOs, local governments, and others could seek assistance for victims from the national government. There is a network of shelters for women and women with children who were victims of gender-based violence as well as hotlines for domestic violence and child abuse. There are four treatment centers for victims of sexual violence. Police officers, border guards, and social workers received training related to domestic and gender violence from NGOs and the Ministries of Social Affairs, Interior, and Justice.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and there were reports of such harassment in the workplace and on public transport. By law, sexual harassment complaints may be resolved in court. The penalty for sexual harassment is a fine or detention for up to 30 days. In 2019 the number of registered sexual harassment cases was 17 percent above the previous year; 97 percent of the victims in reported cases of sexual harassment were women. The number of registered stalking incidents in 2019 was similar to the previous year; 88 percent of reported stalking victims were women, 92 percent of alleged perpetrators were men.

Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the basic right of couples and individuals to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government provides access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women as for men. The government generally enforced such laws. There were reports of discrimination in employment and occupation, and unequal treatment, due to gender, age, disability, and sexual preference (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives primarily from the citizenship of at least one parent. Either citizen parent may pass citizenship to a child regardless of the other parent’s citizenship status. Children born to parents who are not citizens of Estonia or of any other country and have lived in the country for five years acquire citizenship at birth. Registration of births occurred in a timely manner.

Child Abuse: In 2019 the number of sexual crimes committed against persons younger than 18 grew by 18 percent over the previous year. The Police and Border Guard Board worked to combat child abuse, including sexual abuse. The legal chancellor acted as children’s ombudsman. Police provided training to officers on combatting sexual abuse in cooperation with the justice, education, and social ministries and local and international organizations.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. A court may extend the legal capacity of a person who is at least 15 for the purpose of marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and authorities enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14. Conviction of engaging in child pornography carries punishment ranging from a fine to three years in prison. Girls were more frequently exploited than boys.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community numbered an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

On January 27, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools participated in commemorative activities throughout the country. The Education and Research Ministry, in cooperation with the Estonian Jewish community, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the Estonian Memory Institute, and the Museum of Occupation, organized an essay writing competition on topics related to the Holocaust for schoolchildren. The competition was dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Klooga concentration camp.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government generally enforced these provisions.

Persons with disabilities may avail themselves of government assistance in accessing information and may request individual personal assistants when necessary. The law provides that new or renovated buildings must be accessible to persons with disabilities. Few older buildings were accessible, but new or renovated ones generally were.

According to the legal chancellor, measures to safeguard the fundamental rights of individuals in mental health facilities remained inadequate, including protections against the use of unauthorized restraint measures in psychiatric care institutions. In April the legal chancellor also raised concerns about movement restrictions on residents of state-run homes for those with disabilities during the COVID-19 emergency.

NGOs complained that, while services typically were accessible in the capital, persons with disabilities in some rural areas had difficulty receiving appropriate care. For persons with disabilities outside of major population centers, access to local government social services (such as a personal assistants, support persons, and transportation) depended on that person’s own ability to seek assistance.

There were reports of discrimination in occupation or employment (also see section 7.d.).

The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and local governments are responsible for the provision of social welfare services to persons with disabilities. The government focused on developing rehabilitation services to improve the ability of those with disabilities to cope independently.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

On October 25, at the height of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, pigs’ heads were found in front of the Estonian Islamic Center and the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Police identified the perpetrator and initiated misdemeanor proceedings pursuant to the law concerning incitement to hatred. The perpetrator was ultimately charged with littering and fined 20 euros ($24).

In 2019 police registered eight cases of physical abuse, breach of public order, or threats that included hatred against persons from racial, religious, or ethnic minorities.

In August several racially motivated scuffles took place on three separate occasions between neo-Nazis and foreign students in Tartu, the country’s second largest city, leading to altercations between the groups. All cases involved the same neo-Nazi perpetrators. The incidents remained under investigation.

Knowledge of Estonian is required to obtain citizenship, and all public servants and public-sector employees, service personnel, medical professionals, and other workers who have contact with the public must possess a minimum competence in the language. Russian speakers stated that Estonian language requirements resulted in job and salary discrimination. The government continued to provide free and subsidized opportunities for learning Estonian.

In districts where more than half the population spoke a language other than Estonian, the law entitles inhabitants to receive official information in their language, and authorities respected the law.

Roma, who numbered fewer than 1,000, reportedly faced discrimination in several areas, including employment. The government took steps to emphasize the importance of education for Romani children, but their school dropout rate remained high.

Nonwhite residents reported discrimination in housing. The government faced difficulties finding housing for resettled refugees, which refugee advocates attributed to societal discrimination.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While the law is not specific regarding the forms of sexual orientation and gender identity covered, the general understanding is that it encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. In 2019 police registered two cases that included hatred against LGBTI persons. Advocacy groups reported that societal harassment and discrimination against LGBTI persons remained common but noted improving public attitudes towards LGBTI persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, related regulations, and statutory instruments provide workers with the right to form and join independent unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The government generally respected these rights. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference and prohibits antiunion discrimination. Both employees and employers have the right to request that labor dispute committees, consisting of representatives of unions and employers, or the courts resolve individual labor disputes. The law prohibits discrimination against employees because of union membership and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Public-sector employees do not have the right to strike, but they can negotiate their salaries and working conditions directly with their employers.

The government generally enforced applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were usually adequate to achieve compliance with the law. In most cases, violators incurred fines that were sufficient to deter violations. Criminal proceedings and civil claims were also available and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. The penalties employers had to pay were related primarily to workplace accidents and occupational illnesses. Administrative and judicial procedures were not subject to lengthy delays.

The government and most employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Parties freely engaged in collective bargaining, and there were no reports that the government or other parties interfered in the functioning of workers’ organizations.

The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions alleged frequent violations of trade union rights in the private sector during the year. Confederation officials claimed antiunion behavior was widespread. They also reported that some enterprises advised workers against forming trade unions, threatening them with dismissal or a reduction in wages if they did, or promising benefits if they did not.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and the government effectively enforced the law. Authorities prosecuted and convicted three persons for labor-related trafficking crimes during the year. Penalties for human trafficking and forced-labor offenses were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, but sentences often failed to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. In most cases, the legal minimum age for employment is 18. Minors who graduated from basic school may work full time. Children who are 15 to 17 may work, depending on whether they are still at school. Seven- to 12-year-old children may engage in light work in the areas of culture, art, sports, or advertising with the consent of the Labor Inspectorate. Minors may not perform hazardous work, such as handling explosive substances or working with wild animals. The law limits the hours that children may work and prohibits overtime or night work. The Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing these laws. The government effectively enforced laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace. Penalties were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes. The Labor Inspectorate monitored whether the conditions for child workers were appropriate.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation. The government generally enforced the law, and penalties were commensurate with those under laws related to civil rights. If workers claimed discrimination and turned to the courts, and the Labor Inspectorate or gender equality commissioner and the appropriate institution found the suit justified, workers were indemnified by employers. Labor laws and regulations require employers to protect employees against discrimination, follow the principle of equal treatment, and promote equal treatment and gender equality. Nevertheless, discrimination in employment or occupation occurred with respect to age, gender, disability, ethnicity, and language (see section 6), and there were complaints to the gender and equal treatment commissioner, the legal chancellor, and the Labor Inspectorate.

Although women have the same rights as men under the law and are entitled to equal pay for equal work, employers did not always respect these rights. Despite having a higher average level of education than men, according to government statistics, women’s average earnings per hour were 17.1 percent lower than those of men. There continued to be female- and male-dominated professions. Women constituted one-third of mid-level managers.

Fewer than 25 percent of persons with disabilities had jobs. During the year the legal chancellor and the commissioner for gender equality and equal treatment received claims of discrimination based on disability. Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment and access to the workplace.

Russian speakers worked disproportionately in blue-collar industries and continued to experience higher unemployment than ethnic Estonians. Some citizens and noncitizen residents, particularly native speakers of Russian, alleged that the language requirement resulted in job and salary discrimination. Roma reportedly faced discrimination in employment (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly minimum wage was higher than the poverty income level. Authorities generally enforced minimum wage laws, and penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations.

The standard workweek is 40 hours. The law requires a rest period of at least 11 hours in sequence for every 24-hour period. Reduced working time is required for minors and for employees whose work is underground, poses a health hazard, or is of an otherwise special nature. The law provides for paid annual holidays and requires overtime pay of not less than 150 percent of the employee’s hourly wage. The government effectively enforced these requirements and penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes. There is no prohibition against excessive compulsory overtime.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Authorities generally enforced occupational health and safety standards in all sectors. The Labor Inspectorate, the Health Protection Inspectorate, and the Technical Inspectorate were responsible for enforcing these standards and made efforts to do so in both the formal and informal sectors. Violations of health and safety standards were more common in the construction and wood-processing industries. The Labor Inspectorate had an adequate number of inspectors to enforce compliance. Inspectors have authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for similar crimes. Men from Ukraine experienced labor exploitation, particularly in the construction sector, where “envelope wages” (nontaxed cash payments) were sometimes paid. In May the government passed legislation designed to prevent this form of labor exploitation. An estimated 8 percent of wage payments during the year were informal. Officials reported six fatal workplace accidents during the first eight month of the year and 535 other accidents that led to serious injury during the same period.

Georgia

Executive Summary

Georgia’s constitution provides for an executive branch that reports to the prime minister, a unicameral parliament, and a separate judiciary. The government is accountable to parliament. The president is the head of state and commander in chief. Under the constitution that came into force after December 2018, future presidents are not elected by popular vote, but by members of parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 parliamentary elections due to COVID-19; in a preliminary assessment, the observers stated the first round of the elections was competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of public order. The ministry is the primary law enforcement organization and includes the national police force, the border security force, and the Georgian Coast Guard. The State Security Service of Georgia is the internal intelligence service responsible for counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and anticorruption efforts. There were indications that at times civilian authorities did not maintain effective control of domestic security forces. Members of the security forces allegedly committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious problems with the independence of the judiciary along with detentions, investigations and prosecutions widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; limited respect for freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took steps to investigate some officials for human rights abuses, but impunity remained a problem, including a lack of accountability for the inappropriate police force used against journalists and protesters during June 2019 demonstrations and the 2017 abduction and rendition from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.

Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside central-government control and de facto authorities were supported by Russian forces. The 2008 ceasefire remained in effect, but Russian guards restricted the movement of local populations. Significant human rights issues in the regions included: unlawful killing, including in South Ossetia; unlawful detentions; restrictions on movement, especially of ethnic Georgians; restrictions on voting or otherwise participating in the political process; and restrictions on the ability of ethnic Georgians to own property or register businesses. While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia, de facto authorities refused to permit most ethnic Georgians driven out by the 2008 conflict to return to their homes in South Ossetia. De facto authorities did not allow most international organizations regular access to South Ossetia to provide humanitarian assistance. Russian “borderization” of the administrative boundary lines increased, further restricting movement and separating residents from their communities and livelihoods. Russian and de facto authorities in both regions committed abuses with impunity.

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.”

b. Disappearance

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.

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

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.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government’s observance of these prohibitions was uneven, and reports of arbitrary arrests continued.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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.

Detainees 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.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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.

Trial Procedures

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.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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.

Property Restitution

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.

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

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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised serious concerns regarding the environment for media pluralism. In addition to raising such concerns, the Public Defender’s Office noted in its April parliamentary report covering 2019 that the country continued to lack proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists.

Freedom of Speech: NGOs accused the justice minister of attempting to restrict freedom of speech by suspending notary Bachana Shengelia from office on June 19 for comments he posted on Facebook regarding the controversial 2018 death of his mother, school principal Ia Kerzaia (see the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia, section 3). GYLA described the suspension as a restriction on freedom of expression and submitted a case on Shengelia’s behalf to the Constitutional Court on July 6.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to express concern regarding the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, the public broadcaster’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party, decreased media pluralism, and a number of criminal prosecutions against owners of media outlets that appeared politically motivated.

In June parliament appointed Bondo Mdzinarishivli as a member of the nine-member Georgian Public Broadcaster Board of Trustees. Many media watchers expressed concern about Mdzinarishvili’s appointment, as he was known for his homophobic rhetoric at TV Obiektivi.

Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding decreased media pluralism and continuing political influence in media. Concerns also persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. Persistent allegations of political pressure on public broadcasters remained. During the year civil society groups alleged the ruling party continued to attempt to gain undue influence over Adjara Public Broadcaster following the controversial dismissal of Natia Kapanadze, the former director of Adjara Television, in April 2019. Kapanadze appealed the decision in court but lost. After several attempts, in November 2019 the Adjara Public Broadcaster Advisory Council elected a new director, Giorgi Kokhreidze, who fired and harassed dozens of employees who were vocally critical of the management.

On February 2, Natia Zoidze, deputy director of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, resigned as a result of what Reporters without Borders termed “political pressure.” Approximately one-third of the station’s employees (100) founded an alternative trade union to protect their rights. Solidarity rallies were held in several cities, including Batumi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi, in support of Adjara Public Broadcaster’s employees and editorial policy. In March the public defender expressed concern regarding the possible negative effect the developments might have on freedom of expression, as did Reporters without Borders; Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media; and 33 local NGOs. Former employees of Adjara Public Broadcaster and their respective trade unions filed several lawsuits and applied to the Prosecutor’s Office alleging harassment, interference with journalistic activities, and unlawful termination by Giorgi Kokhreidze.

Concerns continued regarding decreased media pluralism and an increase in the concentration of media outlets in favor of the ruling party following the July 2019 ECHR ruling in favor of a former owner of Rustavi 2, Kibar Khalvashi. Whereas the previous owner had been affiliated with the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, Khalvashi was affiliated with the ruling party. During the year some journalists who had been fired due to changes of management and staff sought to defend their labor rights in court. Many media watchers expressed concern and called upon international watchdog groups to monitor thoroughly developments around the station. As of December, Rustavi 2’s reporting critical of the government had softened, particularly in the pre-election period. Rustavi 2’s former general director, Nika Gvaramia, and many journalists who formerly worked for Rustavi 2 moved to media outlet Mtavari Arkhi, which was established in September 2019 and was aligned with the opposition UNM party and one of the harshest critics of the ruling party. Other journalists who had worked at Rustavi 2 joined Formula TV, launched in August 2019, or TV Pirveli.

The Public Defender’s Office, some media watchers, NGOs, and opposition parties expressed suspicion that a number of criminal prosecutions against critical media outlets or their owners were politically motivated. On July 9, for example, the public defender stated that multiple criminal cases against owners of independent television companies raised questions about “attempts to persecute independent and critical media in the country.” On August 4, nine NGOs questioned the legality of the July 30 Tbilisi City Court criminal conviction of Giorgi Rurua, a shareholder of Mtavari Arkhi, and four-year prison sentence on charges related to the illegal purchase, storage, and carrying of firearms and ammunition. They also stated they saw reason to suspect the case was politically motivated. Several rights groups and opposition parties attributed the criminal proceedings against Rurua, and the verdict against him, to his activism during the June 2019 protest rallies (see Section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly) and his acquisition of a share in the opposition television station.

On December 1, Mtavari Arkhi’s general director Nika Gvaramia was notified a court case against him would resume on December 7. The opposition perceived this as the ruling party’s retribution for Mtavari Arkhi’s favorable coverage of the UNM. The case involved allegations that Nika Gvaramia exchanged advertising for two vehicles from Porsche Center Tbilisi. In summer 2019 Gvaramia was charged with abuse of power, misappropriation of property, and commercial bribery. The public defender stated that holding a company director civilly liable for the company’s decision should apply only in exceptional circumstances and that criminal liability should be even rarer. Gvaramia and a number of media advocacy groups disputed the charges, claiming they were politically motivated. Earlier in the year, Gvaramia claimed to have been physically assaulted and his family surveilled. His trial date remained postponed at year’s end.

In early January journalists from a business program at Maestro, a member of Imedi Media Holding, alleged censorship and political interference from Imedi TV’s director shortly before the program was shut down in March. The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics (GCJE) described the case as a violation of the charter’s principle providing noninterference with journalists’ work.

Media rights groups alleged the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of the broadcast media through controversial amendments passed by parliament to the electronic communication law. The amendments, which were adopted on July 17, allow the GNCC to appoint special “media managers” to telecommunications companies–which include a number of broadcasters that operate as electronic communication companies through multiplexes–to enforce GNCC decisions. Local telecommunication companies also criticized the amendments, as did Reporters without Borders, which characterized the amendments as a government attempt to control radio stations and television channels.

Passage of the July amendments occurred in the context of concerns the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of expression through its online platform, Media Critic, created in December 2019. The platform was designed to examine and guide media content, and many media watchers voiced concern that the GNCC had overstepped its operational mandate. Mediachecker, a self-regulatory media monitoring platform, asserted Media Critic’s main activity was to criticize independent media outlets.

On November 1, the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission reported that during the parliamentary election campaign the diverse and pluralistic media were highly polarized, and there was little analytical reporting and policy-based discussion, detracting from the voters’ ability to make a fully informed choice. The November 9 monitoring report on parliamentary elections by the GCJE stated the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s newscasts dedicated the largest portion of the time to the ruling party and that the government enjoyed the highest indicators of positive coverage.

By law media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners.

Violence and Harassment: There were attacks on journalists during the October election campaign allegedly by political party representatives. The GCJE, in a statement released in November, complained of verbal and physical abuse against media on Election Day by unknown assailants. On one occasion at a voting precinct, a journalist from online Publika.ge was assaulted and injured and his camera was broken. A criminal investigation was underway. In addition, a TV Pirveli journalist was hit in the face, and an On.ge reporter’s camera was damaged.

The GCJE also reported disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials at a rally near the Central Election Commission. According to media reports, police injured four journalists and damaged their equipment. The GCJE alleged police intentionally targeted the media representatives with water cannons.

Throughout the year the Prosecutor General’s Office repeatedly claimed it continued to investigate attacks on journalists by law enforcement officers during the June 2019 protests in which several journalists were injured. Some journalists and NGOs claimed these injuries occurred as a result of the deliberate targeting of journalists. For example, GYLA stated law enforcement officers “deliberately fired rubber bullets” at media representatives, despite their identification badges. According to the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, 39 journalists were among the 240 injured, and GYLA and TI Georgia asserted they should be recognized as victims. The Prosecutor General’s Office questioned several journalists as witnesses. As of year’s end, the Prosecutor General’s investigation continued.

On June 12, the State Security Service of Georgia arrested a Russian citizen suspected in an alleged plot to kill Giorgi Gabunia, a Mtavari Arkhi journalist who in July 2019 insulted President Putin on a live show. The station’s general director and local media said the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, ordered the killing. The latter denied his involvement. The Media Advocacy Coalition and Reporters without Borders urged the government to investigate the incident in a timely manner. On November 27, Gabunia received victim status. As of year’s end, the investigation continued.

There were some reports of harassment against media. For example, NGOs considered the State Security Service of Georgia’s investigation of Mtavari Arkhi for a report it broadcast to constitute harassment. On June 20, a number of media observers announced they considered the investigation gross interference in the editorial independence of the media, creating a risk of self-censorship. TI Georgia and the Media Advocacy Coalition advised the government to use the GCJE or a self-regulatory body operating at the television channel instead of opening a criminal investigation. The investigation was opened under the charge of discrediting the government, inflaming mistrust toward the authorities, which is punishable under the criminal code.

On June 24, the general secretary of the ruling party, Mayor Kakha Kaladze, posted to Facebook a photograph depicting three opposition-leaning media outlets (Mtavari Arkhi, Formula TV, and TV Pirveli) as generators of lies. The page referred to “Mtavari (main) Lie,” “Formula of the Lie,” and “Pirveli (first) Lie.” The post advertised a new initiative from the mayor of Tbilisi’s office, “Truth Punch,” a Facebook live series that was intended to combat disinformation in the media. On June 25, the Media Advocacy Coalition along with 11 member rights groups characterized the mayor’s post as an attempt “to use his political power to intensify attacks on media.” The mayor’s office took down the Truth Punch platform after two live streams, attributing the move to the summer season and criticism by media experts.

On October 21, a few days before parliamentary elections, Avtandil Tsereteli, father of the TV Pirveli owner, stated his life was threatened by some unknown persons if he did not change the station’s editorial policy.

Some watchdog groups, such as TI Georgia, expressed concern that law enforcement bodies summoned journalists for questioning and asked them to identify their sources. The law allows journalists to maintain the anonymity of their sources and not to be compelled to testify as a witness.

Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged Georgian Dream party chair and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continued to exert a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions against the owner of TV Pirveli and the general director of Mtavari Arkhi.

On May 5, Facebook removed a network of pages, groups, and accounts linked to news agency Espersona, a media organization owned by a former Georgian Dream public relations consultant, claiming these were “fake news” pages. At the same time, Facebook took down a set of assets connected to the UNM party. Both parties denied any connection to the pages in question.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by Russian and de facto authorities.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained regarding unauthorized surveillance. Insufficient information was available regarding general internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In February a number of governments criticized Russia for launching disruptive cyberattacks in Georgia in October 2019. The cyberattacks directly affected the population, several thousand government and privately run websites, and interrupted the broadcast of at least two major television stations. In October, according to the Georgian Public Broadcaster website, a “cyberattack” caused it to stop broadcasting in the early evening on election day. It resumed broadcasting shortly after polls closed.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

On August 25, the Board of Appeals held a hearing on terminating the authorization of the Shota Rustaveli School-Lyceum. The board upheld a March decision citing numerous academic, managerial, and facility violations. The school’s representative appealed, highlighting ethnic Azeri children who would be deprived of education and the disproportional nature of the decision compared to similar cases. In March government education officials had terminated the authorization of the school, which was alleged to be affiliated with exiled Turkish Islamic scholar and cleric Fethullah Gulen, without giving the school time to redress shortcomings. The school’s authorization had been valid until 2023. A monitoring team from the Education Ministry’s National Center for Education Quality Development, however, visited the school in February and in March released a report asserting the school did not meet one of three standards required by law. The Authorization Board of General Education Institutions used the report as grounds immediately to terminate the school’s authorization without allowing school representatives to respond to and resolve the cited shortcomings. The board had given other schools a deadline for resolving deficiencies rather than issuing an immediate revocation of authorization. According to civil.ge, the school was the third alleged Gulen-affiliated educational institution closed by the Ministry of Education since 2017.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; government respect for those rights was uneven.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of assembly. Human rights organizations expressed concern, however, regarding provisions in the law, including the requirement that political parties and other organizations give five days’ notice to local authorities to assemble in a public area, thereby precluding spontaneous demonstrations. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported that police sometimes restricted, or ineffectively managed, freedom of assembly.

To combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the government instituted a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. In the context of this state of emergency, on March 21, the president issued a decree restricting freedom of assembly. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the Law on Public Health giving the government power to restrict movement and gatherings, and to implement other measures without a state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until July 15. On July 14, parliament extended the amendments until the end of the year. On December 29, parliament extended the amendments to the Law on Public Health for six months, allowing the government to restrict rights without declaring a state of emergency and parliamentary oversight until July 1, 2021. There were no significant reports that the government abused its powers under the state of emergency.

While a number of protests took place during the year, there were reports that police restricted freedom of assembly at times. For example, the public defender and NGOs criticized police use of water cannons to disperse protesters outside of the Central Election Commission on November 8, after protesters tried to breach a metal fence around the commission. The public defender and the Georgian Democracy Initiative characterized this use of force as disproportionate. GYLA called it illegitimate and cited film footage showing that in some cases water cannons were directly targeted against peaceful protesters, resulting in injuries.

There were reports police continued to employ the administrative offenses code to restrict freedom of assembly. For example, in its December 10 report, Georgian Democracy Initiative stated authorities engaged in arbitrary administrative detention at a November 28 rally. In its June 19 report, GYLA stated police used the code to engage in the mass arrest of protesters in June 2019. The association described this as “unjustifiably restricting the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration.”

During the year the Public Defender’s Office and NGOs continued to report on the police response to the June 2019 protests outside parliament and the lack of accountability for police abuses. The protests proceeded peacefully until some protesters attempted to force their way into the parliament building. Police then used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons without warning to break up the protests, injuring more than 200 persons, according to the Public Defender’s Office.

In its annual report on 2019 released in April, and on June 20, the Public Defender’s Office stated the force used in dispersing the rally could not be considered proportionate. The office also highlighted police failure to warn the protesters as required by law and give them adequate time to leave the area prior to the use of force and special equipment, such as rubber bullets. There also were widespread accusations by NGOs that police used disproportionate and excessive force. In a June report, GYLA concluded the events of June 2019 remained uninvestigated by authorities and accused the Internal Affairs Ministry of having used “mostly illegal and disproportionate force” to disperse protesters and “excessive and unnecessary force” against individuals in police custody. The association reported that police subjected some individuals to mistreatment during and after their detention.

Following the events of June 2019, the Special Tasks Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs abandoned the use of rubber bullets in its less-lethal munitions arsenal.

In connection with the June 2019 events, the Prosecutor General’s Office filed charges against one Internal Affairs Ministry Special Tasks Department officer for intentionally targeting nonviolent protesters and two criminal police officers for abuse of power–one officer was accused of beating a prisoner while arresting him, and another of beating a protester held in a detention facility. The Tbilisi City Court was trying the three cases separately. The three defendants were charged with exceeding authority by using violence or weapons, a crime punishable by five to eight years of imprisonment and deprivation of the right to hold public office for up to three years. All three defendants were released on bail, and their trials continued as of year’s end.

In a special March 31 interim report, the Public Defender’s Office stated the prosecutor’s investigation of law enforcement actions in dispersing the protests was “still far from establishing the truth.” The office particularly faulted the Prosecutor General’s Office for the investigation’s lack of timeliness and thoroughness, including failing to provide a systemic legal analysis of events, failing to objectively or fully assess the responsibility of senior officials, and not fully implementing the Public Defender Office’s recommendations.

Three law enforcement officials were prosecuted in connection with the June 2019 events. As of June authorities had charged 17 activists with engaging in violence during the protests. Noting a substantially higher number of activists than police officers were injured, GYLA and the Human Rights Center raised concerns regarding the impartiality of the Prosecutor’s Office and termed the disparity in prosecutions “selective” in their June reports.

In its June 24 report, the Human Rights Center highlighted problems in the prosecution of a number of criminal cases against activists, including Morris Machalikashvili (also see section 1.e.). Machalikashvili, a nephew of Malkhaz Machalikashvili (see section 1.a.), was arrested following the June 20 protests and charged with “participation in group acts of violence against government officers.” He was previously detained in July 2019. Although investigators published video purporting to show Morris pushing police officers, the Human Rights Center reported the video did not show him engaging in violence against police. Malkhaz Machalikashvili and the Human Rights Center claimed Morris was only trying to exit the crowd and alleged the government was using Morris’ arrest to pressure Malkhaz Machalikashvili to drop his campaign for an investigation into his son’s death. On February 6, the court approved a plea agreement with Morris Machalikashvili that provided for a two-year conditional sentence.

The public defender reported violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem to which the government had not appropriately responded. As an example, she cited the government’s failure to take adequate measures to prevent homophobic groups from violently restricting the freedom of assembly of peaceful LGBTI activists in 2019. In October the Public Defender’s Office held a meeting with members of Tbilisi Pride and governmental offices to discuss the numerous vandalism attacks on Tbilisi Pride’s office over the summer. Civil society representatives at the meeting claimed police were not doing enough to prevent the attacks from happening and not investigating persons they believed were directing these attacks.

Freedom of Association

There were reports that some government representatives and supporters of the ruling party pressured political opposition figures and supporters (see sections 1.d. and 1.e.).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation of citizens, but de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces limited this freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In-country Movement: There were substantial impediments to internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The majority of the approximately 290,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia wished to return to their areas of origin but lacked adequate security provisions and political, human, economic, and movement protections absent a political resolution to the conflicts.

Foreigners were restricted from moving in and out of Russian-occupied South Ossetia but could access Russian-occupied Abkhazia with approval from the de facto authorities. The law prohibits entry into and exit from the Russian-occupied regions through the territory of neighboring states (i.e., Russia). There were reports in 2018 that Russia prohibited citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States countries from entering Abkhazia except from Russia, which violated Georgian law. These citizens, however, were at times able to enter from Tbilisi-administered territory if they were staff members of international organizations or if there was a request from an international organization such as the United Nations.

Russia and de facto Abkhaz authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia. Russia and de facto South Ossetian authorities limited access of international organizations, including humanitarian organizations, to South Ossetia. Before COVID-19, the cochairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID)–representing the United Nations, the OSCE, and the EU–visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia approximately quarterly prior to most rounds of the GID. The ICRC office in Tskhinvali was the only international organization represented in South Ossetia.

De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the administrative boundary lines. Although they showed some flexibility for travel for medical care, pension services, religious services, and education, in several instances during the year, de facto authorities hindered access to medical care in Tbilisi-administered territory for residents in the occupied territories. On July 7, media outlets reported the death of Akhalgori resident Gela Gariev at the Tskhinvali hospital after several failed attempts to cross the South Ossetia administrative boundary line to receive medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. By year’s end 16 persons reportedly died in occupied South Ossetia due to inability to cross into Tbilisi-administered territory to receive higher quality medical care. The last person was Onise Gatenashvili, who died on November 14 during ICRC-administered medical evacuation to Tbilisi-administered territory. The reason of death was determined to be delayed treatment.

In September 2019 de facto South Ossetian authorities closed all but one checkpoint along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, claiming it was necessary for “national security.” The GID cochairs and other international actors expressed concern that prolonged crossing closures would undermine livelihoods; prevent local residents from getting the pensions, food, and medicine they needed; and potentially cause a new wave of displacement. As of year’s end, all crossing points remained closed.

Since 2017, when de facto authorities closed two of the four remaining Abkhazia administrative boundary line crossing points, crossings stayed open only at the Enguri Bridge and Saberio-Pakhulani. On March 14, asserting preventive measures were needed to avoid the spread of COVID-19, de facto authorities closed the Enguri and Saberio-Pakhulani crossing points as well. According to reliable sources, the closures particularly affected ethnic Georgian Gali residents, who became practically unable to collect their pensions and allowances or to receive scheduled (nonemergency) medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. The Gali clinics were also said to be largely ignored by de facto Abkhaz authorities in terms of receiving international humanitarian medical assistance.

As of December, however, de facto Abkhaz authorities briefly opened the Enguri crossing point seven times during the year to allow the return of residents who received medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. Also, starting in mid-October, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated Georgian-Abkhaz cooperation to establish a “humanitarian corridor” at the Enguri crossing point, which enabled ethnic Georgian residents of Abkhazia to access life-saving medicines and pensions from the government.

Regarding travel documents, residents of Abkhazia who had Georgian citizenship could not use their Georgian passports to cross the Abkhazia administrative boundary line to or from Tbilisi-administered territory. Since 2018 de facto authorities prohibited older Soviet-era passports, used by thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia for crossing, threatening the livelihood of many residents. De facto authorities claimed residents without valid crossing documents were allowed to apply for residence permits (reserved for “foreign” residents) that would enable them to cross but would strip them of voting, property, and other rights. During the year only holders of new Abkhaz “passports,” permanent residence permits, and temporary identification documents known as Form No. 9 were allowed to cross. Form No. 9 identification was given to any resident who applied for a residence permit and was valid until that person received the permit or for six months maximum. There were still some residents of Abkhazia without valid documentation.

Georgian passport holders not resident in Abkhazia could cross a checkpoint if they possessed invitation letters cleared by the de facto state security services allowing them to enter Abkhazia. The latter did not consistently provide permission to cross and limited movement to specific areas. Crossing permits issued by de facto South Ossetian authorities were the only document that allowed movement across the South Ossetia administrative boundary line to or from Tbilisi-administered territory.

De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox Church clergy from entering the occupied territory.

Villagers who approached the administrative boundary lines or crossings risked detention by members of the Russian Federal Border Service (referred to hereinafter as “Russian guards”). Russian guards along the Abkhazia administrative boundary line typically enforced the boundary-crossing rules imposed by de facto authorities through detentions and fines. Along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, Russian guards frequently transferred individuals to de facto authorities. The State Security Service of Georgia reported detentions by de facto authorities typically lasted two to three days until the detainee paid “fines” set by the de facto “court,” although some sentences for “violations of the state border” carried considerably longer terms.

As of December 31, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) was aware of eight individuals detained along the administrative boundary line with Abkhazia and 56 detained along the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia. There were credible reports based on local sources that on several occasions de facto security actors or Russian guards crossed into Tbilisi-administered territory to detain an individual. Most often, the arrested individuals were accused of violating the “state border.” According to EUMM, many detainees were obliged to sign documents in Russian that they did not understand.

De facto authorities continued to expand and reinforce fencing and other physical barriers along the administrative boundary line between Tbilisi-administered territory and South Ossetia. This expansion of the Russian “borderization” policy further restricted movement, creating physical barriers and obstructing access to agricultural land, water supplies, and cemeteries.

In an illustrative example of the effects of the Russian “borderization” policy, as a result of barbed wire installed by Russian guards in 2012, the house of 80-year-old Data Vanishvili was on the occupied South Ossetian side, while his plot of land, which he had been tilling all his life, remained on Tbilisi-administered territory. Since then Datishvili has been unable to go to Tbilisi-administered territory to collect his Georgian pension or go in the direction of Tskhinvali to buy foodstuffs and other essential goods, since he refused to relinquish his Georgian passport. On April 17, the de facto regime detained Datishvili’s grandson, Malkhaz Kurtaev, and his wife, Tatia Adikashvili, who were staying with him, reportedly after a short trip to Tbilisi-administered territory. De facto authorities released both shortly afterwards.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to UNHCR, as of December there were approximately 290,000 IDPs from the 1992-93 and 2008 conflicts. UNHCR estimated 240,000 persons were IDPs, with the remaining 50,000 in “IDP-like” situations in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. This number included individuals who returned to Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as those displaced in the 2008 conflict, who subsequently were relocated or obtained housing or cash compensation. Governmental responsibilities for IDPs are divided among the Ministries of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs; the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality; and the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure. As of year’s end, a long-planned IDP social allowance reform to change the assistance from status-based to needs-based had not been implemented.

Most persons displaced in 2008 received formal IDP status in accordance with national legislation, although some individuals who were not displaced by the 2008 conflict and lived close to the administrative boundary line were officially described as being in an “IDP-like situation.” The government provided monthly allowances to persons recognized as IDPs, promoted their socioeconomic integration, and sought to create conditions for their return in safety and dignity.

Despite their 1994 agreement with Georgia, Russia, and UNHCR that called for the safe, secure, and voluntary return of IDPs who fled during the 1992-93 war, de facto Abkhaz authorities continued to prevent the return of those displaced by the war. Between 45,000 and 60,000 IDPs had returned since that time to the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli regions of eastern Abkhazia, but de facto Abkhaz authorities refused to allow the return of IDPs to other regions. De facto authorities prevented IDPs living elsewhere in the country from reclaiming homes in Abkhazia based on a “law” that expropriated all “abandoned property” from the 1992-93 war. IDPs who returned and managed to obtain Abkhaz “passports” were allowed to buy and sell property.

Ethnic Georgians living in Russian-occupied Abkhazia lacked fundamental rights and confronted onerous registration requirements that threatened their continued status. De facto authorities continued to pressure ethnic Georgians to acquire a “foreign residency permit” that allows the holder to cross the administrative boundary line and remain in Abkhazia for a period of five years. An applicant must, however, accept the status of an alien (i.e., a Georgian living as a foreigner in Abkhazia), may not purchase property, may not transfer residency rights of property to children born in de facto controlled territory, may not vote, and must accept a lack of other basic rights. In 2019 de facto Abkhaz authorities required additional permits and threatened to discontinue administrative boundary line crossing with a Form No. 9 administrative pass. During the year, before the pandemic closures, Form No. 9 was reportedly allowed sporadically for crossing after new de facto president Aslan Bzhania came to power.

Since 2015 UNHCR reported a widening documentation gap in Russian-occupied Abkhazia, noting fewer residents of Gali district held valid documents due to the expiration and nonrenewal of documentation by de facto authorities there. The solution offered by de facto authorities, i.e., to issue permanent residence permits, did not provide the full scope of rights and was not welcomed by the majority of Gali district residents who did not wish to declare themselves foreigners living in their ancestral land.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: In 2019 UNHCR learned of a few cases of asylum seekers who were denied access to the territory (and consequently the asylum procedure) at the border and whose return may have amounted to indirect refoulement. During 2019, but also in 2020, the penalization for irregular entry for individuals accepted into the asylum procedures remained a problem.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs, however, alleged executive and judicial authorities made politically motivated decisions in response to asylum requests by some Turkish citizens and a number of Azerbaijani citizens, although they reported the situation had improved since 2018. UNHCR reported concerns regarding applications from citizens of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen being rejected automatically on national security grounds, without a thorough examination on a case-by-case basis of the threat posed by the individual applicants. Rejected asylum seekers from those countries were rarely deported, nor were they detained, which brought into question whether they posed a security threat.

The law distinguishes among three types of protection: refugee status (as per the 1951 Refugee Convention), protected humanitarian status (complementary protection), and temporary protection. In July 2018 the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Refugees, and Accommodation was dismantled and its asylum portfolio transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In 2019 the number of asylum seekers increased. By December 2019 the overall recognition rate increased to 16 percent, compared with 14.5 percent in 2018. The overall recognition rate, however, dropped to 3 percent in the first half of the year.

The overall protection situation became more complicated for persons in need of asylum or refugee status. Gaps remained between asylum seekers’ access to the country’s territory and the fairness and efficiency of the refugee status determination procedures, the provision of assistance by national authorities, including free legal aid at the administrative stage of the asylum procedure, the need to adjust the reception capacities to the needs of asylum seekers, and effectively engaging the judiciary in the substantive review of asylum decisions.

UNHCR raised concerns regarding the trend since the end of 2019 of the government not issuing or not extending identification cards for newly registered asylum seekers or asylum seekers already in process and not extending residence documents for recognized refugees and humanitarian status holders, for reasons not provided to them, as required by law. The lack of identification hindered the access of asylum seekers to all the rights provided by law, leaving them vulnerable to deportation or refoulement.

Employment: Persons under international protection have legal access to the labor market. Foreigners, including persons under international protection, may register in the Worknet state program for vocational training and skills development. The program, however, is available only in the Georgian language.

Access to Basic Services: The government provided limited assistance to persons with protected status. The government supported an integration center to provide structured integration programs for such persons and a reception center that had adequate services for asylum seekers and capacity for approximately 150 persons.

The law enables refugees to receive a temporary residence permit during the entirety of their asylum procedure as well as documentation necessary to open a bank account and register a business or property. Refugees receive a renewable temporary residence permit for three years, while protected humanitarian status holders receive a permit for one year, renewable upon a positive assessment of the need for continued protection. Access to education remained a problem due to the language barrier, notwithstanding the government’s provision of Georgian language classes.

Durable Solutions: The government offered a path to naturalization for refugees residing on its territory that includes required language and history tests. Authorities purportedly denied naturalization to some applicants based on national security concerns.

Temporary Protection: The law on the legal status of aliens and stateless persons provides avenues for temporary stay permits for those individuals who were rejected for international protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin due to the reasons stated in the law. The Ministry of Internal Affairs may grant temporary stay permits to individuals who meet the criteria for refugee status or humanitarian protection but who were rejected on national security grounds.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In December 2018 a new constitution went into effect that eliminates direct election of the president and establishes a fully proportional electoral system for the 2024 parliamentary elections, among other provisions. Parliament adopted a series of constitutional amendments and electoral reforms aimed at strengthening electoral processes and transitioning to a more proportional electoral system for the October 31 parliamentary elections. The measures included a prohibition on teachers campaigning during work hours, third-party financing regulations, and a mandatory gender quota aimed at increasing women’s participation in parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held parliamentary elections on October 31 and second-round runoff elections in 17 of 30 electoral districts on November 21. The OSCE deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its November 1 preliminary statement, the OSCE mission assessed the October 31 elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but stated “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state” reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process. The mission particularly highlighted concerns about ruling party dominance in election commissions. It also reported continuing shortcomings in the complaints and appeals process, noting that during the pre-election period, of more than 300 complaints, the majority were rejected, “many without due consideration, undermining the right to effective legal remedy.”

Credible domestic civil society organizations deployed approximately 3,000 election observers across the country. They alleged misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party, voter intimidation, vote buying, violations of ballot secrecy, obstruction of journalists and domestic election observers, and inaccurate and altered vote tabulation at the precinct and district level. Domestic organizations submitted hundreds of electoral complaints and were highly critical of the Central Election Commission’s management of the elections. On November 4, a total of 26 domestic NGOs issued a statement describing the conduct of the October 31 elections as the worst held under Georgian Dream. In addition, opposition parties alleged the number of missing ballots in certain precincts indicated there was widespread “carousel voting.” Leading domestic nonpartisan election monitors reported the majority of their postelection complaints were rejected by the election administration and courts, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and the outcome of the election.

As a result of the alleged violations leading up to and on election day, opposition parties boycotted the runoff elections on November 21 and refused to take their seats in parliament. On December 11, the new parliament was sworn in, but only the ruling Georgian Dream members of parliament took their seats (Georgian Dream won 90 of 150 seats). The OSCE did not observe the November 21 runoff elections, and most domestic observer groups significantly scaled back their observation efforts or did not observe because of the boycott. Despite the boycott, domestic election monitoring organizations raised concerns regarding electoral violations on election day.

Throughout November and December, foreign embassies facilitated a series of negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition parties, at the request of the parties. Negotiations continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Reports of political violence continued. For example, in its November 2 election report, the international NGO National Democratic Institute stated that parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets reported “multiple incidents of violence and intimidation during the campaign period.” Altercations between supporters of competing political parties in September, including violent street fights in Marneuli and Bolnisi, left several persons injured. On November 16, the office of a UNM candidate was reportedly firebombed with Molotov cocktails. On December 24, TI Georgia reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs had commenced investigations into all election-related violence and arrested several individuals. Citing the Ministry of Internal Affairs, TI Georgia noted that, as of October 20, police had opened investigations into 59 cases of election-related violence, of which six were terminated. In nine of the remaining 53 cases, prosecutions were underway. TI observed, however, that the Internal Affairs Ministry had not released updated statistics on investigations underway since October 20.

Following a 2018 assault by the then mayor of Marneuli, Temur Abazov, on a citizen whom he forced to apologize to “41” (the Georgian Dream party’s ballot number) and whose face he allegedly smeared with his own urine, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened an investigation into those involved, including the mayor, UNM member of parliament Azer Suleymanov, and a Georgian Dream member of the Marneuli city council, Ramin Allahverdiyev. The mayor was charged with degrading and inhuman treatment and faced five to 10 years in prison if convicted. The Rustavi City Court acquitted Abazov on February 12. The Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the case to the Tbilisi Appellate Court; at year’s end the case was pending.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides for a gender quota for candidates for seats in parliament. The law aims to increase the number of women in the electoral process by 2024 and requires that every third candidate on a party list be a woman by 2028.

De facto authorities in Abkhazia stripped ethnic Georgians of their Abkhaz “citizenship” in 2014, preventing them from participating in de facto elections. Ethnic Georgians willing to apply for Abkhaz “passports” generally did not receive them in time to participate in de facto elections due to extensive delays. Ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia were also required to accept a South Ossetian “passport” and “citizenship” to participate in political life. International actors, including the OSCE Group of Friends of Georgia, did not recognize the legitimacy of de facto “elections.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for officials convicted of corruption. While the government implemented the law effectively against low-level corruption, NGOs continued to cite weak checks and balances and a lack of independence of law enforcement agencies among the factors contributing to allegations of high-level corruption. NGOs assessed there were no effective mechanisms for preventing corruption in state-owned enterprises and independent regulatory bodies. While noting that petty bribery was extremely rare, TI Georgia stated the country failed to pursue a “result-oriented anticorruption policy that would make it possible to investigate cases of corruption, especially those at high levels of government.” In June, TI Georgia, in its National Integrity System Assessment for Georgia, noted enforcement of the law was inadequate with respect to preventing conflicts of interest and corruption in the public sector. The country also lacked an independent anticorruption agency to combat high-level corruption.

The Anticorruption Coordination Council included government officials, legal professionals, business representatives, civil society, and international organizations. In October 2019 the minister of justice announced the government had approved its 2019-21 anticorruption strategy.

TI Georgia in its October report, Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policy in Georgia: 2016-2020, noted the government annually approves national action plans to combat corruption. It reported some shortcomings, however, including ineffective investigations of cases of alleged high-level corruption. Although the law restricts gifts to public officials to a maximum of 5 percent of their annual salary, a loophole allowing unlimited gifts to public officials from their family members continued to be a source of concern for anticorruption watchdogs.

Corruption: In a high-profile case, the head of the Omega Group, a large conglomerate including independent Iberia TV, alleged in 2018 that current and former high-level officials had demanded bribes and engaged in violent racketeering, to include the physical abuse of a former minister. During the year there were no developments in the case. In a separate case involving Iberia TV, on March 5, the Tbilisi City Court convicted former prosecutor general Zurab Adeishvili and former deputy prosecutor general Giorgi Latsabidze of exceeding official powers in 2004-07 by illegally seizing the broadcasting license of Iberia TV so the television station could be controlled by the Saakashvili government. The Tbilisi City Court sentenced Adeishvili to two years’ imprisonment. The length of sentence was reduced by 25 percent under the amnesty law; as a result, he was sentenced to imprisonment for 18 months. Latsabidze was fined 40,000 lari ($12,000). In the same ruling, the court restricted Adeishvili and Latsabidze from holding any position in public sector.

As of August, 13 sitting or former public servants had been charged with corruption since January.

In 2018 authorities questioned the former ministers of infrastructure and economy in connection with a high-profile corruption case. Some observers considered the investigations politically motivated. The investigations continued at year’s end but lacked transparency, and authorities did not update the public on their progress.

As of year’s end, the Anticorruption Agency of the State Security Service of Georgia had detained nine public servants at the local and central levels for taking bribes, including the mayor of Borjomi, Levan Lipartia, and the chair of the city council, Giorgi Gogichaishvli. NGOs continued to call for an independent anticorruption agency outside the authority of the State Security Service, alleging its officials were abusing its functions.

The trial of TBC Bank cofounders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, which began in December 2019, continued during the year. The case stemmed from bank transactions in 2008 when TBC Bank issued a $16.7 million loan to Avtandil Tsereteli’s companies Samgori Trade and Samgori M. Within seconds of receiving the loan, the companies transferred the same amount to Khazaradze and Japaridze. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, TBC Bank released Tsereteli’s companies from financial liabilities in 2012 despite their failure to repay the loans. In a March 2019 interview with Imedi TV, Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili accused Khazaradze of directing an assault against the government. July 2019 charges by the Prosecutor General’s Office came just weeks after Khazaradze’s announcement of his intent to establish a civil movement. Khazaradze established the movement “Lelo” and in December launched the movement as a political party. Tsereteli’s son was the owner of TV Pirveli, an independent media outlet that accused the government of attempting to interfere with its operations (see section 2.a.). In August 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Avtandil Tsereteli with providing support to Khazaradze and Japaridze in the alleged money-laundering scheme. A group of 20 NGOs, including TI Georgia, the Open Society Fund Georgia, the Atlantic Council of Georgia, and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, considered the charges against all three men to be politically motivated, given the amount of time that had transpired. In April the public defender’s annual report for 2019 stated there was no evidence in the case files for the July 2019 charge of money laundering in 2008. On May 14, TI Georgia released an assessment by an international expert that there was no proof that Mamuka Khazaradze, Badri Japaridze, or Avtandil Tsereteli committed a money-laundering offense, either individually or as coconspirators.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual declarations of their income and property for tax inspection; these were posted online. Declarations were not subject to verification, and TI Georgia estimated six members of parliament had undeclared assets in 2019. The Civil Service Bureau received annual financial declarations from public officials and published them in mid-January.

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

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: While there was little official information on the human rights situation in the Russian-occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted. De facto authorities in the occupied territories continued to deny unimpeded access to the United Nations and other international bodies.

Government Human Rights Bodies: NGOs viewed the Public Defender’s Office, which has a mandate to monitor human rights and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination, as the most objective of the government’s human rights bodies. The constitution limits the public defender to one six-year term in office.

The Public Defender’s Office lacks authority to initiate prosecutions or other legal actions, but it may recommend action, and the government must respond. While the office generally operated without government interference and was considered effective, the office reported government offices at times responded partially or not at all to inquiries and recommendations, despite a requirement to respond to information requests within 10 days and initiate follow-up action within 20 days.

The Public Defender’s Office retains the right to make nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies to investigate individual human rights cases. The office must submit an annual report on the human rights situation for the calendar year but may also make periodic reports. The office may not report allegations of torture unless the victim gives clear consent or a monitor from the office witnessed the torture.

By law the Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights unit of the office monitors government prosecutions overall and supervises compliance with national and international human rights obligations and standards. The unit reviews statistical and analytical activities related to the Prosecutor General’s Office or the justice system at large, and it is responsible for examining and responding to recommendations of national and international institutions involving human rights.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is required to investigate high-profile cases and other criminal offenses. The office may take control of any investigation if it determines that doing so is in the best interest of justice (e.g., in cases of conflict of interest and police abuse cases). In certain politically sensitive cases investigated by the office–including the case of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and instances of political violence–impunity remained a problem. During the year local NGOs expressed alarm regarding what they considered politically motivated investigations and prosecutions (see section 1.e.).

In the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Human Rights Department is in charge of ensuring prompt response and quality of investigations of domestic violence, hate crime, violence against women, human trafficking, crimes committed by or toward minors, and crimes based on discrimination. The ministry’s General Inspection Department investigates cases of human rights abuses by police officers. The human rights unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office has a mandate to monitor and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued training prosecutors on proper standards for prosecuting cases of alleged mistreatment by public officials.

The effectiveness of government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse by law enforcement officials and security forces was limited, and domestic and international concern regarding impunity remained high. As of November the Investigative Department of the State Inspector’s Service had commenced 256 criminal investigations; four of 256 cases investigated by the State Inspector’s Service were prosecuted, and convictions were obtained in three cases.

The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which was designed to cover Abkhazia and South Ossetia and includes security actors from the government, Russia, and de facto authorities of the Russian-occupied regions, considered human rights abuses reported in the occupied territories and along the administrative boundary line. Due to a dispute regarding agenda items, however, IPRM meetings in Gali (Abkhazia) had been suspended since 2018. Regular IPRM meetings in Ergneti (South Ossetia) had also been suspended, although IPRM meetings took place in Ergneti on July 30 and September 24. In August 2019 South Ossetian participants walked out of an IPRM meeting in Ergneti. De facto authorities in the occupied territories did not grant representatives of the Public Defender’s Office access. The government fully supported and participated actively in IPRM meetings.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but criminal law does not specifically address spousal rape. A convicted first-time offender may be imprisoned for up to eight years. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

At the end of 2019, the head of the Sapari women’s organization, Baia Pataraia, alleged the enforcement of the law on sexual crimes was problematic. Investigative authorities lacked training on effective procedures on case handling and evidence collection. Victims were often told to focus on physical violence as proof of sexual violence. GYLA reported sexual violence was prevalent and underreported. In only a small number of reported cases were perpetrators convicted. Prosecutors applied overly burdensome evidence requirements for bringing charges against perpetrators of sexual violence, while overwhelmingly strict requirements for convictions of sexual violence crimes were applied by judges.

During the year a study by the Public Defender’s Office into cases of sexual violence revealed a number of serious legislative shortcomings in regulation of crimes involving sexual violence, as well as in investigation, criminal prosecution, and court hearing of such crimes, falling short of the standards of Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and international human rights. The analysis of the cases showed that in the cases of rape and other sexual violence, the court did not consider the absence of a victim’s consent an integral part of the definition of crime. Furthermore, the legislation does not consider a broad spectrum of circumstances that may affect the victim’s will and provides for a disproportionately lenient punishment for a crime committed in certain conditions.

The law criminalizes domestic violence. In cases that do not result in injury, penalties for conviction of domestic violence include 80 to 150 hours of community service or imprisonment for up to one year. Domestic and gender-based violence remained a significant problem that the government took several steps to combat. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had a risk assessment tool that enables a police officer to decide whether to issue a restraining order based on a questionnaire available in the restraining order protocol, the data assessment, and risk analysis. In addition, if there is a high risk of recurrence of violence, a system of electronic surveillance allows the Ministry of Internal Affairs permanently to monitor abusers 24 hours a day. The high rate of domestic violence showed reporting of incidents increased in the country and that police were responding. Shortcomings, however, remained. In one example, in October 2019 an employee of the Tbilisi City Council accused councilmember Ilia Jishkariani of sexual assault and beating. The Prosecutor’s Office charged Jishkariani with sexual and other violence; however, the trial at Tbilisi City Court had not begun as of year’s end.

The Public Defender’s Office highlighted a shortage of measures to prevent violence against women and to empower survivors of domestic violence. The office analyzed gender-based killings (femicides) and concluded they demonstrated an absence of mechanisms to prevent violence against women in the country.

As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened 90 investigations into allegations of rape and the Prosecutor General’s Office prosecuted 44 individuals on rape charges, compared with 29 in 2019.

During the year and in 2019, parliament approved amendments to the Law on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that eliminated shortcomings in the law concerning the detection of domestic violence in minors by crisis and shelter staff. The law also promotes a prevention-oriented approach to correct abusers’ behavior and reduce recidivism. Overall, the Public Defender’s Office and women’s rights NGOs welcomed the new legislation but emphasized the need for the government to improve coordination between government agencies working on the issue.

NGOs and the government expanded the services provided to survivors of domestic violence in recent years. GYLA reported that considering the increase of domestic violence cases by one-third worldwide during the pandemic, the official statistics on domestic violence and violence against women did not change significantly, which indicated a possible underreporting of domestic violence incidents by victims.

Domestic violence laws mandate the provision of temporary protective measures, including shelter and restraining orders that prohibit an abuser from coming within 330 feet of the survivor and from using common property, such as a residence or vehicle, for six months.

Local NGOs and the government jointly operated a 24-hour hotline and shelters for abused women and their minor children, although space in the shelters was limited and only four of the country’s 10 regions had facilities.

In 2019 UN Women conducted a population-level survey and a study on gender-based violence, according to which women’s biggest risk in Abkhazia was violence from intimate partners, with 15 percent of respondents having experienced physical abuse, 30 percent emotional abuse, and 8 percent sexual violence in their lifetime, while 5 percent experienced physical abuse, 14 percent emotional abuse and 7 percent sexual violence in the last 12 months. This risk was more pronounced in rural areas, where 22 percent experienced physical violence, 32 percent emotional violence, and 15 percent sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence by nonpartners was also a problem, with 15 percent of the women surveyed reporting at least one form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime by a nonpartner.

Authorities worked to combat domestic and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. In cooperation with the NGO Women’s Information Center, short text messages were sent to the population on April 14-15 in Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian, explaining the mechanisms and forms of reporting domestic violence to police. The short text message had a built-in link that allowed the user to download an emergency services application and, if necessary, use the silent alarm button to send a message. After sending the text message, up to 5,000 users downloaded the application. The government also produced a video with information on legal instruments and services available in the country against domestic violence and gender-based violence that was shown on both public and commercial television channels.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and ethnic minority communities but was rare. The Public Defender’s Office reported some cases of kidnapping for forced marriage and early marriage in its 2019 report. The practice of early marriage and engagement remained a significant challenge. Similar to previous years, the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement was problematic. There was no effective referral mechanism to identify and prevent incidents of early marriage and engagement. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that in the first half of the year, the Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department held a number of meetings and participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the problem as well as provide timely reporting to police.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal under the code of administrative offenses but is not criminalized; it remained a problem in the workplace. Under the law sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination and is defined as an unwanted physical, verbal, or nonverbal action of a sexual nature that aims to or results in the degradation of a person or creation of a hostile environment for that person. Based on amendments to laws on sexual harassment in 2019, the public defender analyzes the case and provides recommendations on the case to authorized persons at the institution where the violation took place. During the year the Public Defender’s Officer examined eight allegations of sexual harassment and identified violations in five instances. For example, in June the public defender found evidence of sexual harassment committed by a doctor against a woman in quarantine. Under May 2019 amendments to the code of administrative offenses, sexual harassment victims may file complaints with police. If found guilty, a person can be fined 300 lari ($90); repeated violations result in a fine of 500 lari ($150) or correctional work for up to one month. Repeated violations in the case of a minor, a pregnant woman, a person unable to resist due to physical or mental helplessness, a person with a disability, or in the presence of a minor with prior knowledge leads to a fine of 800 to 1,000 lari ($240 to $300), correctional labor for up to one month, or administrative detention for up to 10 days.

The public defender considered especially problematic a selective approach applied by the state to instances of violence against women and domestic violence involving influential persons as abusers. In such cases, the approach of the state changed and response was delayed, leaving the impression that preference was given not to victims’ rights but to abusers’ interests. Victims often had to go public to prompt action by relevant authorities.

Reproductive Rights: The law does not regulate the number, spacing, or timing of children for single people or couples. The country regulated the use of surrogacy services, and only heterosexual couples have a right to surrogacy services. In August the Ministry of Justice amended the decree regulating civil acts, restricting the right to surrogacy to heterosexual couples who have been married or living together for more than one year. Women and LGBTI rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women and LGBTI persons who wanted to have a child. The law requires gender confirmation surgery for legal gender-identity change and does not provide transgender individuals who do not wish to undergo confirmation surgery the legal ability to change their gender identity.

The UNFPA reported that women from minority communities, women from rural areas, and poor women faced barriers in accessing information related to their reproductive health.

There were no legal, social, or cultural barriers to access contraception, and contraceptives were available in pharmacies or by prescription, with a prescription exemption for emergency contraceptives. The UNFPA reported, however, that financial barriers limited access to customized contraceptive options for many women.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, limited access to information about contraceptives remained a challenge for girls and women of childbearing age. The office stated human sexuality education was not fully integrated into school curriculums. Programs in schools failed to provide information to teenagers about safe sexual relations. The lack of comprehensive education prevented girls from defending themselves from early marriage and early pregnancy. According to a UNFPA 2020 report, during 2019 there were 29 births per 1,000 girls 15 to 19 years of age.

The Public Defender’s Office stated in 2019 that poor funding and lack of information limited the use of contraceptives and resulted in unplanned pregnancies for women of childbearing age. Women in rural areas, especially remote mountain villages, lacked regular access to family planning services and clinics. Women often had to travel to larger towns for these services, causing additional financial burden.

There were no barriers to receiving skilled personal medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth. During the year, however, the use of maternal health

services decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both due to fear of infection and movement restrictions.

The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of post-partum care needed for the prevention of maternal mortality and for maintaining women’s mental and physical well-being. Maternal health services were somewhat limited for women who spoke languages other than Georgian.

The Agency for Social Care, under the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health and Social Affairs, provided medical, psychological, legal, and other kinds of help to survivors of sexual violence. The agency operated two shelters for survivors and their minor children.

The UNFPA reported that the state funded services for victims of sexual violence based on a 2018 decree. The decree stipulates the state budget will fund certain services, including, but not limited to, emergency contraceptives and postexposure prophylaxis. Regulations, however, require victims of sexual assault–who may hesitate to come forward–to notify police to receive these services, which can be a barrier for victims and health specialists. Victims of trafficking in persons and domestic violence do not need to cooperate with police to receive services.

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

Discrimination: Civil society organizations continued to report discrimination against women in the workplace. The Public Defender’s Office monitored gender equality complaints, in particular those involving domestic violence and workplace harassment, and stated that gender equality remained a problem, despite a number of steps taken in the past few years to enhance legislative and institutional mechanisms. The office considered the small number of government projects, programs, and initiatives designed to empower women to be inadequate to achieve gender equality.

In August the Ministry of Justice passed amendments to the decree regulating the procedure for approving the registration of civil acts. As of September 1, only couples who are officially married for at least one year or can prove they have lived together for at least one year have the right to hire a surrogate and have a child. Women’s rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women who are not officially married and want to have a child. The Ministry of Justice’s stated goal was to decrease trafficking risks, but the decision affected single women and men who cannot have children and planned to use surrogacy services. The legislation gives the right to become a parent with surrogacy help only to couples.

Children

Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory; children born to stateless parents in the country are citizens. According to UNICEF, 99 percent of children were registered before reaching the age of five.

While IDP returnees were in principle able to register their children’s births with de facto authorities, they reportedly preferred to have their births registered with Georgian authorities.

Education: Children of noncitizens often lacked documentation to enroll in school. The level of school attendance was low for children belonging to disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as street children and children with disabilities or in foster care.

According to a multiple indicator cluster survey conducted in 2018 by the national statistics office GEOstat and the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health with UNICEF support, total enrollment of preschool children between the ages three and five was 81.8 percent. Enrollment rates were lower for children of ethnic minorities (the rate for Azeri children was 28.8 percent, while the rate for Armenian children was 68.8 percent) as well as children from socially vulnerable groups (poor or large families, single parent families, IDPs, families with persons with disabilities) (63.6 percent) and rural communities (70.2 percent). In 2019 the Public Defender’s Office reported that in spite of efforts by municipalities, availability of preschool care and education remained problems. Kindergarten infrastructure, classroom overcrowding, and sanitary compliance with official standards were particularly problematic.

The school dropout rate remained high. Identifying the reasons for the high rate and adopting effective measures to reduce dropouts remained significant problems. The public defender emphasized the problem in several reports, highlighting the impact of early marriage, child poverty, and child labor on the ability of children to access education. In 2019, more than 14,000 minors dropped out of school, compared with 10,433 in 2018. In 2019 the public defender reported schools had no uniform mechanism to process statistical data of school dropouts or to indicate the grounds for dropping out.

According to a UNICEF study released in 2018, the majority of street children did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care.

Child Abuse: Conviction of various forms of child abuse, including trafficking, forced labor, or forced begging, is punishable by a spectrum of prison terms and fines. Conviction of domestic violence against minors is punishable by imprisonment for one to three years, and conviction for trafficking minors is punishable by eight to 20 years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstance. The Public Defender’s Office reported general education institutions and preschools lack qualified professionals who could detect and respond to signs of violence against children in a timely manner.

Authorities referred children who suffered abuse to the relevant community and government services in coordination with stakeholders, including police, schools, and social service agencies. In 2019 there were 3,881 alleged cases of violence against children reported to the government’s Social Service Agency, 87 of which involved allegations of domestic violence. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 2019 courts issued 740 restraining orders in domestic violence cases involving victims who were minors.

On September 1, the Code on the Rights of Children, adopted in 2019, entered into force. The code is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols and recognizes child-specific needs and rights, including the right to dignity, life, survival, and development, and prohibits discrimination.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18. Conviction of forced marriage of an individual younger than 18 is punishable by two to four years’ imprisonment. During the year the Public Defender’s Office reported the practice of early marriage and engagement remained problematic. The lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement also remained a problem. Due to COVID-19, home-based learning made it more difficult for social workers to detect cases and intervene promptly. The Public Defender’s Office noted that the social service agency did not have guidelines for case management and their response to child marriages was often superficial and fragmented. The Ministry of Internal Affairs launched an information campaign against the practice. The ministry’s Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the issue, as well as provide timely reporting to police. Reports of child marriages continued throughout the year. A 2019 report by the public defender indicated child marriages occurred more frequently among certain ethnic and religious groups. Further, immediate and adequate response to unlawful imprisonment and forced marriage remained a problem, often due to preconceptions and stereotyped attitudes about ethnic minorities. Inadequate response to such incidents encouraged this type of crime, according to the public defender, because it emboldened potential offenders who believed they would not be held responsible for their crimes. According to the report, male elders (aqsaqals) decided the fate of girls in cases of early marriage in the Kvemo Kartli region . The response of the state entities in such cases was belated and unproductive, according to the report, potentially because authorities may have been reluctant to enter into conflict with influential locals.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction for commercial sexual exploitation of children or possession of child pornography is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Authorities enforced the law. Street children and children living in orphanages were reportedly particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The law considers sexual intercourse with a juvenile as rape, provided the perpetrator is proven to be aware of the victim’s age. The penalty for conviction for rape is up to nine years’ imprisonment; the government generally enforced the law. Conviction of other sexual crimes carried increased levels of punishment if the victim was a juvenile.

In 2019 the public defender described children living and working in the street as a vulnerable social group that faced a high risk of domestic and sexual violence. They lacked protections from labor and sexual exploitation and had limited access to health care and education. The government’s detection, outreach, and actions to protect and assist street children were limited, and access to services for them and their families remained inadequate.

Due to their homelessness and lack of sanitation, street children had a higher risk of COVID-19 infection. The Public Defender’s Office reported, based on information received from the A-TIPFUND, that a quarantine area where children were placed was opened in Tbilisi. Mobile groups working under the state subprogram, if necessary, placed street children in this quarantine area as well.

Displaced Children: The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of information regarding street children and noted the inadequacy of resources devoted to them. It was unclear how many children were geographically displaced, and a significant portion belonged to families that migrate seasonally to Georgia from Azerbaijan. In 2019 the office reported that stereotypical public attitudes toward children living or working in the street and their families posed a problem. The population of street children was diverse, consisting of ethnic Georgians, members of two Romani language groups, Kurds from Azerbaijan, children of Armenian refugees, and children of IDPs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Law enforcement officers and labor inspectors began to take enforcement action, but more work was needed to protect children from being trafficked or being exploited through illicit work and forced labor.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued replacing large-scale orphanages with alternative arrangements. The government provided grants for higher education for institutionalized and foster-care children, including full coverage of tuition and a stipend, and provided emergency assistance to foster families.

The government continued to transfer children, including those with disabilities, who are institutionalized in large-scale orphanages to family and family-type services (small group homes for specialized care). The government increased the pool of foster parents and specialized foster parents available to receive children from orphanages and avoid an inflow of new cases to orphanages.

The Public Defender’s Office reported protection of minors in state care remained a problem. The protection of children in state care from violence, care for their mental health, protection of right to education, preparation for independent life, improvement of care-taking personnel, and allocation of sufficient human and financial resources posed a challenge. Teachers in small family-type homes as well as foster parents lacked the knowledge and skills to handle children with behavioral problems or children victims of violence. This resulted in children being moved between different types of care, creating additional stress and worsening their situation. Minors with disabilities presented a particular challenge for protection, preparation for independent living, and the right to education because programs were not oriented for individual need. The trend of placement of children with behavioral problems or mental health problems together was also problematic, which further aggravated their situation.

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

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the Jewish community to be no more than 6,000 persons.

As of December an appeals court decision was pending in the 2018 killing in Tbilisi of human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who had Jewish and Yezidi roots. Human rights NGOs alleged the two men responsible for the killing were members of a neo-Nazi group, and a key witness at the trial testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish. In 2018 the Prosecutor General’s Office added the charge of “premeditated murder due to racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance due to his nationality and profession.” In June 2019 the Tbilisi City Court convicted the two men of killing Safarov but dismissed qualifying the killing as a hate crime. In November 2019 the prosecutor appealed the court’s decision not to classify the killing as a hate crime.

On December 20, Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli of the Georgian Orthodox Church delivered a sermon that included a number of traditional anti-Semitic tropes, including references to Jews as “the crucifiers of the Christ” and “the persecutors of Christians.” Metropolitan Gamrekeli went on to say, “This is not defined by ethnicity–this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” The sermon was criticized as anti-Semitic by prominent religious freedom NGOs and civil activists. In response to this criticism, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the metropolitan’s statement, saying his words were misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable. Church officials subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, and right to a fair trial, and the provision of other government or private-sector services, the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities continued to encounter barriers to participating fully in public life. Many families with children with disabilities considered themselves stigmatized and kept their children from public view. The office reported that violence, especially sexual violence, was a significant problem for persons with disabilities. Discrimination in employment was also a problem.

The country operated several orphanages for children with disabilities, although the number of residents decreased with the increased use of alternatives, such as specialized foster parents and family-type services.

The government continued operations of state-run institutions for adults with disabilities. Despite some improvements in these institutions, they lacked infrastructure, trained staff, psychosocial services, and opportunities for patients to have contact with the outside world and families. The Public Defender’s Office’s May report, Situation of Womens Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Psychiatric and Public Care Institutions, found shortcomings in meeting the reproductive health needs of women with disabilities at state institutions. The report revealed frequent cases of violence among patients subjected to prolonged hospitalization and at boarding houses for persons with disabilities. Efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to cases were insufficient.

On July 14, parliament adopted the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The law establishes principles to guide the government’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and clarifies the government’s roles and responsibilities to ensure persons with disabilities fully and effectively participate in society. The new law mandates all agencies employ the principles of universal design, reasonable accommodation, and independent living; recognizes Georgian sign language as an official state language; authorizes special plaintiff organizations to represent persons with disabilities in court; requires municipalities to provide services to support independent living for persons with disabilities; and mandates that relevant state agencies ensure all new and old buildings and services will be accessible for persons with disabilities within 15 years. The new law requires the education system to elevate the status of special education teachers and introduce social workers at schools to work on the inclusion of children with disabilities.

In 2019 only 98 of the 10,099 persons with disabilities registered on the public employment portal (Worknet) were employed, compared with 99 of the 6,073 in 2018. Provisions of the law that disqualify a person with disabilities working in the public sector from receiving state disability assistance was seen as a disincentive to such work, although in January the government passed legislation that would maintain social benefits for one year in cases a person with disabilities finds public-sector employment. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities employed in the public sector, unlike those in the private sector, cannot receive social benefits (with the exception of those with severe disabilities or visual impairments).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported some instances of discrimination against minority communities. As of November 30, the office had received 12 claims of discrimination based on nationality or ethnic origin. When the government declared the Bolnisi-Marneuli region a quarantine zone, for example, one public official encouraged discrimination against ethnic Azeris on their personal Facebook pages. The Public Defender’s Office received several other complaints alleging racial discrimination by law-enforcement bodies. In one case, a police officer purportedly commented on the skin color of an individual while on duty. Several claims came from prisons. In one case, the claimant alleged poor treatment by the prison administration because he was ethnically Armenian.

In 2019 two of the 15 cases of alleged discrimination received by the Public Defender’s Office involved commercial banks refusing to provide services to individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. As of November 30, the courts had not determined whether any had suffered discrimination. According to the office, authorities had not taken steps to address discrimination in the provision of commercial financial services. NGOs noted that victims of such discrimination rarely registered claims due to a lack of knowledge about their rights and criticized authorities for not raising greater awareness in minority communities.

During the year the Prosecutor General’s Office charged six individuals with committing a crime on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.

Media outlets reported numerous cases of hate speech targeting minority groups during the year.

On May 24, during a weekly Sunday service, the bishop of Marneuli and Hujabi Eparchy, Giorgi Jamdeliani, criticized the mayor of Marneuli, Zaur Durgali, for renovating the statue of Nariman Narimanov, an ethnic Azerbaijani Bolshevik writer and revolutionary born in Georgia and active in Baku and Moscow, and threatened to dismantle the statue. Far-right nationalist radical groups, such as Georgian March, publicly endorsed the bishop’s statements and began an aggressive social media campaign. Although the bishop later commented that his criticism was prompted by Narimanov’s personality rather than his ethnicity, many local residents perceived his statements as xenophobic.

On May 30, the State Security Service of Georgia initiated an investigation of the events surrounding the Narimanov statue controversy under the law on racial discrimination. Civil society organizations noted the aims of the investigation were not made clear to the public. On July 16, Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani, Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center head Dimitri Lordkipanidze, and other nationalist leaders affiliated with Georgian March held a protest rally in Marneuli with the same demands. Press reports suggested the protest was followed by a spontaneous counterrally by young Azerbaijani residents. Police were present to ensure security.

In addition to political, civic, economic, and cultural obstacles, weak Georgian-language skills remained the main impediment to integration for members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Some minorities asserted the law requiring “adequate command of the official language” to work as a civil servant excluded them from participating in government. The Public Defender’s Office reported that involving ethnic minorities in national decision-making processes remained a problem due to the small number of representatives of ethnic minorities in the central government.

The government continued its “1+4” program for ethnic minorities to study the Georgian language for one year prior to their university studies. Under a quota system, the government assigned 12 percent of all bachelor or higher certificate-level placements to students with ethnic minority backgrounds. Of these reserved slots, ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities each received 40 percent (5 percent of the total), while Ossetian and Abkhaz communities received 10 percent each (1 percent of the total).

The law permits the repatriation of Muslim Meskhetians deported in 1944. The government, however, closed its review of repatriation applications in 2017.

De facto Abkhaz authorities enacted policies that threatened the legal status of ethnic minorities, including Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Roma, and Syrians, living in the Gali district of Abkhazia. They closed village schools and did not provide ethnic Georgians opportunities for education in their native language. De facto authorities dismissed ethnic Georgian teachers in Abkhazia deemed to have insufficient knowledge of Russian. The language of instruction for students in first through fourth grades in Lower Gali was Russian. Russian was the only instructional language in the Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire zones, and the de facto authorities prohibited Georgian-language instruction there.

The Public Defender’s Office noted that in the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli districts, ethnic Georgian students and teachers had poor command of Russian, and therefore Russian-only instruction had significantly affected the quality of their education. Local communities had to either pay for teachers, arrange for teachers to cross from Tbilisi-administered territory to teach, or send their children across the administrative boundary line for Georgian-language lessons. According to the EUMM, some Gali students faced difficulties in crossing the administrative boundary line to take university entrance examinations. In autumn 2019 the EUMM noted a small increase in the number of schoolchildren crossing the administrative boundary line, and there were more reports of barriers to studying in their mother tongue. During the year, as de facto authorities fully closed the line, purportedly because of the pandemic, prospective students residing in the occupied territories were unable to take the national examinations for university enrollment. The government subsequently decided to enroll all of the applicants without the exams.

De facto South Ossetian authorities also required ethnic Georgians of all ages to study in Russian.

The government continued to report discrimination against ethnic Georgians in the Russian-occupied territories. The Public Defender’s Office noted the case of Tamar Mearakishvili, an activist in South Ossetia who alleged persecution by the de facto authorities because of her Georgian ethnicity. In July 2019 de facto authorities in Akhalgori cleared Mearakishvili of all charges and lifted all restrictions imposed on her, including the restriction on leaving South Ossetia. The de facto “prosecutor” appealed the decision in September 2019; in October 2019 the court dismissed all charges. The “prosecutor” appealed the decision; on January 17, the de facto “supreme court” partly satisfied the “prosecutor’s” appeal, returning one case to the trial court. At the same time, on February 25, the “prosecutor” filed the same charges against Mearakishvili in the other case in which the “supreme court” had acquitted Mearakishvili. In September, Mearakishvili reported she had been without electricity since September 16, in what she characterized as an act of retribution by Akhalgori “prosecutor” Alan Kulumbegov. Prior to the cut-off of her electricity, she reportedly complained to the de facto “prosecutor general’s office” that Kulumbegov repeatedly sought to blackmail her.

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

The law makes acting on the basis of prejudice because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor for all crimes. According to NGOs, however, the government rarely enforced the law. The Human Rights Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs trained officers on hate crimes.

The Public Defender’s Office reported LGBTI individuals continued to experience systemic violence, oppression, abuse, intolerance, and discrimination. LGBTI rights organizations reported several instances of violence against LGBTI individuals during the year. Authorities opened investigations into several of the cases. The office reported that violence against LGBTI individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem and that the government was unable to respond to this challenge.

LGBTI organizations, NGOs, and the Public Defender’s Office reported the government’s ineffective antidiscrimination policy reduced the LGBTI community’s trust in state institutions, and they pointed to homophobic statements by politicians and public officials as furthering hatred and intolerance against the LGBTI community.

Starting in May and continuing through the summer, there were numerous vandalism attacks and anti-LGBTI demonstrations at the Tbilisi Pride office. On May 26, a flag was stolen from the office of Tbilisi Pride. As of year’s end, an investigation was underway. On June 7, black paint and eggs were thrown at the Tbilisi Pride’s office and at the flag displayed on the office’s balcony. The Tbilisi City Court found four persons in violation of the administrative law; three were verbally warned, and one received a fine of 500 lari ($150). On July 21-22, painted eggs were thrown at the flag displayed on the office’s balcony and into the building’s entrance. The investigation continued at year’s end. On August 3, painted eggs were again thrown at the pride flag on the office’s balcony. The case was pending at year’s end. During an October meeting with the Public Defender’s Office, LGBTI organizations expressed frustration that only the attackers were investigated and none of the organizers behind the attacks had been investigated or charged. LGBTI organizations claimed that persons who were charged were only pawns organized and paid by Levan Vasadze and other prominent anti-LGBTI figures.

As of December the Public Defender’s Office had received six complaints of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. One of the complaints was from a transgender woman in prison who claimed she was unable to receive the medication required for her hormonal treatment. In another case, the claimant alleged being threatened due to the claimant’s sexual orientation but police did not respond appropriately. In the third case, the claimant alleged being physically attacked and injured on the head by a man not known to the victim. An NGO lawyer told the Ministry of Internal Affairs that, due to the low trust among LGBTI individuals in local law enforcement organizations, the victim appealed to the Public Defender’s Office to monitor the investigation process.

In June 2019 the Ministry of Internal Affairs charged one person for making death threats on the basis of sexual orientation after he threatened an individual who made public statements against homophobia on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. As of year’s end, the case remained on trial at Batumi City Court.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS were major barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention and service utilization. NGOs reported that social stigma caused individuals to avoid testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Some health-care providers, particularly dentists, refused to provide services to HIV-positive persons. Individuals often concealed their HIV/AIDS status from employers due to fear of losing their jobs.

As of December the Public Defender’s Office had received one claim involving discrimination against HIV/AIDS-positive persons. The claimant alleged that a representative of the Patriarchy of the Georgian Orthodox Church encouraged discrimination by providing incorrect information on the spread of HIV/AIDS on television.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law generally provides for the right of most workers, including government employees, to form and join independent unions, to legally strike, and to bargain collectively. According to the law, if a trade union or a group of employees initiates negotiations for the conclusion of a collective agreement, employers shall negotiate in good faith. The parties should provide each other with information relevant to the issues being discussed during negotiations.

Although the law provides for the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, employers did not always negotiate in good faith. Employers’ obligations to participate in mediation are not clearly defined by law or practice. This was illustrated by a collective bargaining process that deadlocked at the Adjara Public Broadcaster. On March 2, an alternative trade union established within the company notified the broadcaster that it was commencing a collective labor dispute for the purposes of safeguarding the editorial independence and labor rights of the employees. Among other procedural problems, the ineffectiveness of mediation was due to the fact that the employer effectively refused to participate in the process.

While strikes are not limited in length, the law limits lockouts to 90 days. A court may determine the legality of a strike, and violators of strike rules may face up to two years in prison. Although the law prohibits employers from discriminating against union members or union-organizing activities in general terms, it does not explicitly require reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity.

Certain categories of workers involved in “human life and health,” as defined by the government, were not allowed to strike. The International Labor Organization noted the government’s list of such services included some it did not believe constituted essential businesses and services, such as municipal cleaning departments; natural gas transportation and distribution facilities; and oil and gas production, preparation, refining and processing facilities.

The government did not effectively enforce laws that protect freedom of association and prohibit antiunion discrimination. Penalties were not commensurate with those under other laws involving the denial of other civil rights. Remedies to address arbitrary dismissal and legal disputes regarding labor rights were subject to lengthy delays. Employees who believe they were wrongfully terminated must file a complaint in a local court within one month of their termination.

Labor organizations reported employers’ obligations to participate in mediation were unclear, and some refused to participate. On March 2, an alternative trade union of workers at Adjara Public Broadcaster formally sought mediation to safeguard their editorial independence and other issues. The employer effectively refused to participate in the process, preventing the employees from addressing their concerns by these means.

In September parliament adopted amendments to the labor code to protect labor and employee rights and a new law on labor inspection that defines basic principles, authority, and power of inspection and the rights and obligations of the Labor Inspection Service.

Workers generally exercised their right to strike in accordance with the law but at times faced management retribution. In November, Georgian House Ltd (Delisia) fired approximately 20 employees and docked the pay of others following their participation in a strike demanding unpaid wages. Some employers interfered with unions. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) reported the influence of employer-sponsored “yellow” unions in the Georgian Post and Georgian Railways impeded the ability of independent unions to operate. GTUC also reported widespread instances of harassment in both the public and private sectors based on union affiliation, notably in the railway and postal services.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government’s enforcement of the laws was not always effective. Forced labor is a criminal offense with penalties commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The low number of investigations into forced or compulsory labor, however, offset the effect of strong penalties.

The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported it found no cases of forced or compulsory labor during the year, although GTUC claimed this was because the Labor Inspectorate lacked enough inspectors to cover the country effectively. The law permits the ministry’s inspection department to make unannounced visits to businesses suspected of employing forced labor or human trafficking. The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and International Organization for Migration provided training on forced labor and human trafficking for inspectors.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum legal age for employment is generally 16, although in exceptional cases, children may work with parental consent at 14. Children younger than 18 may not engage in unhealthy, underground, or hazardous work; children who are 16 to 18 are also subject to reduced workhours and prohibited from working at night. The law permits employment agreements with persons younger than 14 in sports, the arts, and cultural and advertising activities.

The law prohibits children from engaging in harmful activities, such as employment in hazardous work, and forms of exploitation of children, including forced child labor and commercial sexual exploitation. The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported that it found one case of child labor law violations during the year, and two other cases were referred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The government effectively enforced the law, but some child labor persisted undetected. Experts reported minors were employed in the service, construction, agriculture, and tourism sectors. The penalties for violations of child labor laws were commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

According to the National Child Labor Study for 2016, the latest year for which data were available, the majority of working children (an estimated 83 percent) were employed in agriculture, mainly helping self-employed family members in a family enterprise or farm. In older age groups, children became increasingly involved in other industries. In most cases, authorities did not consider this work as abusive or categorize it as child labor. In some ethnic minority areas, family farm obligations interfered with school attendance and school participation by ethnic minority children was especially low. Some families in rural Kvemo Kartli (an ethnic Azeri region) and Kakheti (where there was also a significant ethnic Azeri population) worked in distant pastures for six to nine months a year, so their children seldom attended school. Estimates of the number of children affected were not available.

Street begging remained the most visible form of child labor, especially in Tbilisi. In 2018 UNICEF reported that children of street families and unaccompanied children moved following the agricultural and tourist seasons, including to tourist sites along the Black Sea during the summer. Such children were vulnerable to violence and did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor code prohibits discrimination in employment due to race; skin color; language, ethnicity, or social status; nationality, origin, or position; place of residence; age; sex, sexual orientation, or marital status; disability; religious, public, political or other affiliation, including affiliation with trade unions; political or other opinions; or other reasons. It does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status or social origin. The law further stipulates that discrimination be considered “direct or indirect oppression of a person that aims to or causes the creation of a frightening, hostile, disgraceful, dishonorable, and insulting environment.”

The law requires that the principle of equal treatment should apply to labor and precontractual relations. In May 2019 parliament amended the law to define sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and strengthen regulations against it. By law a person may report sexual harassment in a public space to police for investigation. Cases of sexual harassment in the workplace are submitted to the public defender for investigation.

In July parliament passed a law on supporting employment that prohibits all forms of discrimination in the process of supporting employment, unless unequal treatment serves to equalize the employment opportunities of jobseekers and is a proportionate and necessary means of achieving that goal.

The government only sometimes effectively enforced these laws, due to the lack of a fully functioning labor inspectorate. Penalties, when enforced, were not commensurate with those provided by similar laws related to civil rights.

Discrimination in the workplace was widespread. GTUC reported cases of discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, and union affiliation. Companies and public workplaces frequently reorganized staff to dismiss employees who had reached the qualifying age to receive a pension. At job interviews women often were asked specific questions on marital status, family planning, and household responsibilities. Women were frequently paid less than men for the same work and were less likely to receive promotion opportunities. In addition, vacancy announcements often included age requirements as preconditions to apply for a particular position, despite laws that prohibit discriminatory wording in job announcements. Through August, seven cases were referred to the public defender.

While the law provides for equality in the labor market, NGOs and the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs agreed that discrimination against women in the workplace existed and was underreported. Although some observers noted continuing improvement in women’s access to the labor market, women were overrepresented in low-paying, low-skilled positions, regardless of their professional and academic qualifications, and salaries for women lagged behind those for men.

There was some evidence of discrimination in employment based on disability. There were also reports of informal discrimination against members of Romani, Azeri, and Kurdish populations in the labor market.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage for both state- and private-sector employees was below the official subsistence income level. Employers did not apply the official minimum wage, however, since the lowest-paid jobs in the private sector were typically significantly higher than the minimum wage.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek and a weekly 24-hour rest period unless otherwise determined by a labor contract. Overtime is defined as work by an adult employee in excess of the regular 40-hour workweek, based on an agreement between the parties. An executive order establishes essential services in which overtime pay may not be approved until employees work more than 48 hours a week. Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth may not be required to work overtime without their consent. Minors between ages 16 and 18 may not work in excess of 36 hours per week. Minors who are 14 or 15 may not work in excess of 24 hours per week. Overtime is only required to “be reimbursed at an increased rate of the normal hourly wage…defined by agreement between the parties.” The law does not explicitly prohibit excessive overtime. Inspectors did not have the ability to inspect workplaces or levy fines or other penalties on employers for overtime or wage violations. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes, although they were set to increase under legislation scheduled to go into force on January 1, 2021.

Under the law the Labor Inspectorate has a mandate to inspect for occupational safety and health in all sectors of the economy and may make unannounced inspections and initiate penalties. The government effectively enforced the law, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes, but the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance fully. During the year the inspectorate was responsible for reviewing and enforcing compliance with COVID-19 safety regulations, and most of its inspections were to enforce those regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected employment and labor relations. According to GTUC, pandemic restrictions had a significant economic impact on the tourism, retail, and transport sectors and also affected the construction, real estate, leisure, and entertainment sectors.

Employer abuses of workers’ rights persisted, and it was difficult for workers to remove themselves from hazardous situations without jeopardizing their employment. Workers hired on fixed-term contracts frequently feared that calling employers’ attention to situations that endangered their health or safety would be cause for the employers not to renew their contracts. The Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center reported that, considering the difficulty of finding a new job as well as a lack of adequate social protection mechanisms in the country, workers were reluctant to be vocal about improper and even hazardous working conditions due to fear they would lose their jobs. This situation was particularly acute in some industrial towns where the local population was dependent on a single business operation. The COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the situation, putting employees in precarious positions due to their social insecurity and inability to demand adequate working conditions.

Conditions for migrant workers were generally unregulated. While the government did not keep specific statistics on migrant laborers in the country, the Public Services Development Agency may issue up to 5,000 residence permits annually to migrant workers.

More than 35 percent of nonagricultural workers worked in the informal sector. Labor laws do not cover workers performing work outside of “organized labor conditions,” as most informal employment arrangements do not include employment contracts and thus many informal workers were not protected by the law. NGOs reported informal-sector workers were vulnerable to exploitation. These workers also tended to be the most affected by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Human Rights Watch reported that, according to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, 22 workers died and 110 were injured in work-related accidents through September. The mining and construction sectors remained especially dangerous, with reports of injuries, sleep deprivation, and unregulated work hours.

Hungary

Executive Summary

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in 2018, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with the organization’s commitments” and noted, “The widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.

The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts; it is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. The state of emergency was renewed in September for another six months. On April 29, the government amended a decree passed under the coronavirus state of emergency law that allows the minister of interior to involve police and the military to participate in the protection of medical resources and permits the military during the state of emergency to take part in street patrols and in monitoring compliance with security measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal penalties for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” or libel (although court decisions limited the impact of the latter); exposure of asylum seekers to risk of refoulement; allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.

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. There are no special bodies to investigate security force abuses. Authorities investigated and prosecuted alleged killings by members of the security forces in the same manner as alleged killings by civilians.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports that inhuman and degrading treatment and abuse sometimes occurred. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that the investigation of cases of mistreatment was often inefficient, the success rate of holding officials accountable for alleged mistreatment through indictments and prosecutions was low, and in some cases law enforcement officials (such as police officers and penitentiary staff) who were sentenced to suspended imprisonment for committing criminal offenses involving the mistreatment of detainees were permitted to continue working.

On March 17, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report on its 2018 visit to ascertain the situation of persons in police custody, juvenile prisoners, adult male prisoners serving life sentences or very long terms, and persons placed in social institutions. According to the report, there were some accounts of authorities resorting to unnecessary or excessive force when apprehending suspects and physical mistreatment of detainees shortly after arrival at police stations. There were also several accounts of racist verbal abuse. The report also noted some instances of interprisoner violence in juvenile prisons. Impunity among members of security forces was not a significant problem.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Official statistics and NGOs reported overcrowding and poor physical conditions in the prison system. There were occasional reports of physical violence by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities holding pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a problem. In December 2019 the Hungarian Prison Service reported that its facilities were occupied at 110 percent of capacity, a 3 percent decline from 2018. In response to a freedom of information request by the human rights NGO Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the National Prison Administration reported on June 18 that the prison occupancy rate was 112 percent.

On June 8, parliament adopted legislation that extended until December 31 the deadline for the state to pay compensation to inmates for inhuman or degrading prison conditions. After a court judgment, the general deadline for paying compensation was also extended from 60 days to 90 days. On December 16, parliament approved a bill submitted by the justice minister that restricted government compensation payments to those imprisoned in inhuman conditions.

NGOs continued to report poor physical and sanitary conditions in certain penitentiaries, including the presence of bedbugs and other insects, insufficient toilet facilities, and toilets not separated from living spaces. NGOs also noted frequent shortages of both natural and artificial lighting in cells, a lack of adequate heating, and a continued shortage of psychological care.

In August inmates at the detention center for foreigners in Nyirbator, and subsequently in Gyor, held a hunger strike. The detainees–who were awaiting deportation on noncriminal grounds and included some foreign citizens whose children hold Hungarian citizenship–reported the jail was overcrowded, with some alleging that authorities had not informed them of the reason for their detention.

Administration: NGOs reported that authorities occasionally failed to investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. There was no separate ombudsperson for prisons, but detainees could submit complaints to the ombudsperson or to the prosecutor’s office responsible for supervising the lawfulness of detention. The ombudsperson handled prison complaints and conducted ex officio inquiries but had no authority to act on behalf of prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed the CPT and the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture to conduct periodic and ad hoc visits to prisons and detention centers for both the country’s citizens and foreign nationals. As of November the national preventive mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) undertook 19 visits (seven to prisons, two to correctional facilities, seven to police facilities, and three to social institutions).

There has been no independent NGO monitoring of police detention centers and prisons since 2017, when authorities terminated monitoring agreements with NGOs. The government introduced COVID-19 measures in prisons, which included an almost full ban on in-person visits from family members in detention facilities and suspension of temporary leave for inmates, which made the facilities more closed and less transparent for the public, according to NGOs. In May the Hungarian Helsinki Committee called on the government to consider the early release of elderly and sick inmates due to the pandemic. Restrictions on inmates’ right to family life due to the pandemic stayed in place.

The office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson) continued to operate prison-monitoring services prescribed by OPCAT. The Independent Police Complaints Board was terminated in February, and complaints of police misconduct and mistreatment were handled by the ombudsperson’s office.

Improvements: On July 13, Minister of Justice Judit Varga announced new places for 2,750 inmates in the newly inaugurated wings of 10 prisons made from steel shipping containers located across the country.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police are obligated to take into “short-term arrest” individuals apprehended while committing a crime or subject to an arrest warrant. Police may take individuals suspected of a crime or a petty offense into short-term arrest if they are unable or unwilling to identify themselves or are unaccompanied minors suspected of having run away. Short-term arrests generally last up to eight hours but may last up to 12 hours in exceptional cases. Police may hold persons under “detention for the purposes of public safety” for 24 hours. Persons who abscond from probation may be detained for up to 72 hours. Police, a prosecutor, or a judge may order detention of suspects for 72 hours if there is a well founded suspicion of an offense punishable by imprisonment. A pretrial detention motion must be filed with a court prior to the lapse of the 72-hour period. A defendant may appeal a pretrial detention order.

Police must inform suspects of the charges against them at the beginning of their first interrogation, which must occur within 24 hours of detention. Authorities generally respected this right.

There is a functioning bail system. Representation by defense counsel is mandatory in the investigative phase if suspects face a charge punishable by more than five years’ imprisonment; their personal liberty is already restricted; they are deaf, blind, unable to speak, or have a mental disability; they are unfamiliar with the Hungarian language or the language of the procedure; they are unable to defend themselves in person for any reason; they are juveniles; or they are indigent and request appointment of a defense counsel. The court, prosecution, or the investigating authority (police) may also order a defense counsel in certain cases. Since 2018 local bar chambers, rather than the authorities, assign legal counsel to defendants who lack legal representation.

Police must inform suspects of their right to counsel before questioning them. The law requires that police or the prosecutor suspend interrogation and wait for up to two hours for an attorney to arrive if the suspect invokes this right. Some attorneys reported the right to an effective defense was violated in several cases. For example, in some instances detainees and their defense counsels were required to meet where government security cameras could monitor them. If bar chamber-appointed attorneys refuse the case or do not respond within one hour of appointment, authorities assign the defense counsel. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee found that appointed attorneys frequently neglected their work, with only 16 percent attending their clients’ first court hearings, in contrast with 63 percent of retained attorneys. According to statistics cited in the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s report on the practice of assigning defense attorneys, authorities assigned at least a third of defendants’ attorneys. The law permits short-term detainees to notify relatives or others of their detention within eight hours unless the notification would jeopardize the investigation. Investigative authorities must notify relatives of a detainee’s short-term detention and its location within eight hours.

Pretrial Detention: An investigatory judge may order pretrial detention where there is a risk a detainee may flee, commit a new offense, or hinder an investigation. Cases involving pretrial detention take priority over other expedited hearings. A detainee may appeal pretrial detention.

When the criminal offense is punishable by life in prison, the law does not limit the duration of pretrial detention. The presence of defense counsel at hearings related to pretrial detention is not mandatory.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Some experts and legal scholars expressed concern over what they considered systemic threats to the country’s judicial independence.

Amnesty International asserted in an April report on the Hungarian judiciary that increasing political control undermined judicial independence. Amnesty International noted, as others have previously, that the politically appointed president of the National Office for the Judiciary (OBH) wields greater power and authority than the 14-member panel of peer-elected judges (OBT) that is charged with oversight of the OBH. Amnesty International characterized the imbalance of power between the two bodies as a threat to judicial independence because the OBH’s influence on the appointment of court leaders throughout the system enabled it to exert “tight control” over the lower courts, further hindering judicial independence. Judges interviewed for the report said “loyalty” was the main requirement for career advancement and administrative advantages in the judiciary.

In late 2019 the long-standing public dispute between then OBH president Tunde Hando and the OBT, which Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee characterized as a “constitutional crisis,” ended with Hando’s departure from the OBH for an appointment as a Constitutional Court judge. Alleging numerous procedural and legal violations as well as abuse of power, the OBT had unsuccessfully asked parliament to remove Hando from office in May 2019. Hando’s nominated successor, Judge Gyorgy Barna Senyei, received the OBT’s unanimous support in December 2019. The OBH and OBT have not feuded publicly since Senyei took office in December 2019. While observers viewed the absence of public conflict between the OBT and OBH since Hando’s departure as an improvement, Amnesty International asserted that the “systemic problems caused by the ineffective supervisory powers of the OBT and other weaknesses in the institutions of judicial self-governance will not be solved simply by a change of OBH president.”

In February the European Commission stated that “developments of checks and balances in the Hungarian courts system continued to raise concerns.” In September the European Commission stated in its first Rule of Law Report that the OBT faces challenges in counterbalancing the powers of the president of the OBH, but the appointment of a new president “may open the way for reinforced cooperation” between the two bodies. The report raised concerns over a decision of the Curia, the country’s supreme court, that declared a request for preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice to be unlawful.

In January several senior government officials, including Prime Minister Orban and Minister of Justice Varga, criticized court rulings that awarded compensation to Romani families in a school segregation case and to prisoners for poor prison conditions. On January 17, Orban alleged that groups of lawyers profited, earning millions of forints from the state, through lawsuits over poor prison conditions by abusing the law. On February 28, Orban stated that a network of NGOs and lawyers that he claimed was linked to a prominent Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist was responsible for this “prison business” (see sections 1, 5, and 6 for information on the Romani segregation and prisoner compensation cases). In a January 21 statement, Hungarian Bar Association chairman Janos Banati responded that the prime minister’s statements “undermine the rule of law in Hungary” and expressed his concerns over government attacks against independent courts and defense attorneys.

In December 2019 parliament adopted legislation (the Omnibus Bill) on judicial system reforms that granted state authorities the right to appeal legal decisions to the Constitutional Court if they allege a lower court decision violates their rights. Appealing to the Constitutional Court would enable the government to bypass the traditional route of appeal through the Curia, where appeals by the government would have previously ended. Domestic legal experts said they believed these reforms would allow the government to overturn unfavorable rulings via the Constitutional Court, in which all of the judges have been appointed by Fidesz-led governments and which has consistently ruled in favor of the government in politically sensitive cases over the previous five years. While the Curia was considered to be largely apolitical and staffed by professional judges, many Constitutional Court judges were viewed as more politically aligned legal scholars with limited prior judicial experience. A judge interviewed for the Amnesty International’s report in April asserted that the mere possibility that a judge’s decision could be appealed to the Constitutional Court might be sufficient for the judge to rule in the government’s favor. Another provision of the law requires judges to provide “additional judicial reasoning” if they depart from a previously published nonbinding Curia legal argument.

The European Commission’s September Rule of Law Report noted that the Omnibus Bill allows members of the Constitutional Court, who are elected by parliament, to be appointed as a judge to the Curia without undergoing the formal application and evaluation procedure (in which the peer-elected OBT approves the appointment). The report also noted that the Omnibus Bill lowered the eligibility criteria for the Curia president, allowing time served at the Constitutional Court or at an international court to be taken into account when calculating the “experience as a judge,” even though such an applicant may never have served as a judge in a courtroom. Following the change in the eligibility criteria, on October 5, President Janos Ader nominated Constitutional Court justice Andras Zsolt Varga–who has never served as a presiding judge–for the post of president of the Curia. On October 9, the OBT opposed Varga’s nomination, citing his lack of courtroom experience. On October 19, despite the OBT’s and opposition parties’ objections, parliament elected Varga as the new Curia president. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee stated that Varga’s election represented the “next stage in the government’s series of attacks against the judiciary,” as he was expected to be “a potential transmission belt of the executive within the judiciary.”

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Suspects have the right to be informed promptly of the nature of charges against them and of the applicable legal regulations, with free interpretation as necessary. Trial proceedings are public, although a judge may minimize public attendance and may order closed hearings under certain conditions. Trials generally occurred without undue delay. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial.

The law stipulates that the investigating authority shall schedule the interrogation to enable defendants to exercise their right to a defense. A summons for a court hearing must be delivered at least five days prior to the hearing. Defendants have the right to free interpretation from the moment charged. Defendants may challenge or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law states that no one may be compelled to provide self-incriminating testimony or produce self-incriminating evidence. Defendants have the right of appeal.

Courts may not impose prison sentences on juveniles who were between the ages of 12 and 14 when they committed an offense but may order their placement in a juvenile correctional institute.

Some observers and legal experts asserted that the country’s system for assigning defense attorneys and the low compensation provided to those attorneys could hinder criminal defendants’ access to adequate legal representation, and consequently, a fair trial (see section 1.d.).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

By law individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Individuals or organizations that have exhausted domestic legal remedies regarding violations of the European Convention on Human Rights allegedly committed by the state may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for redress.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place, but there was little progress on the resolution of remaining Holocaust-era claims.

Communal property restitution in the country was completed in the 1990s based on a law that allowed religious organizations to claim previously owned properties that were confiscated after January 1946. Work on private property restitution process took place in the 1990s and was completed by 2001. Holocaust survivors from the country receive pension supplements. The 1947 Paris Peace Treaty regulates the restitution of heirless Jewish properties in the country. In 2007 the government pledged and subsequently distributed $21 million to assist Holocaust survivors in the country and survivors of Hungarian origin living abroad as an advance payment on an expected, subsequent agreement that would provide more comprehensive compensation for heirless property. The Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment, a domestic restitution foundation composed of local Hungarian Jews, government officials, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), distributed one-third of the funds to survivors living in the country, while two-thirds were transferred to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to fund social welfare services for survivors in need living outside the country.

In April 2019 the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property. As of December the government had not yet agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations.

For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

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

There is no requirement for the Counterterrorism Center (known by its Hungarian acronym TEK), or in certain cases the national intelligence services, to obtain prior judicial authorization for surveillance in national security cases that involve terrorism. In such cases the justice minister may permit covert intelligence action for 90 days, with a possibility of extension. Such intelligence collection may involve secret house searches, surveillance with recording devices, opening of letters and parcels, and checking and recording electronic or computerized communications without the consent of the persons under investigation. A decision to approve a covert intelligence action is not subject to appeal.

The country’s criminal procedure code establishes a regime for covert policing and intelligence gathering. The law gives prosecutors unrestricted access to information obtained through covert investigations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.”

On March 30, as part of the government’s legislative package declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19, parliament permanently amended the criminal code to increase the penalty for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” (“scaremongering”) that could obstruct or prevent successful protection under a special legal order to imprisonment of up to five years (see section 3 for more on the state of emergency). Government officials asserted that the legislation sought to discourage the spread of harmful “fake news” that could hinder attempts to keep the pandemic under control. Domestic and international observers spoke out against the legislation and raised concerns about its potential effects on media freedom. On March 27, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns that the amendments could negatively affect the work of journalists and have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. On March 26, Reporters without Borders (RSF) stated that the law granted the government a tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. On April 21, RSF also noted that before the legislation was submitted, “progovernment media organizations” had called for the arrest of journalists critical of the government.

On June 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2018 government decree classifying the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA)–which experts estimated controls between 80 and 90 percent of all commercial Hungarian media outlets and is managed by Fidesz party allies–as being of “national strategic importance” was constitutional. The Competition Authority and the Media Council cannot scrutinize transactions categorized as of national strategic significance. Government-linked media mounted mostly ad hominem attacks against the owner of the country’s largest independent media group. A law granting members of parliament the right to enter the offices of public buildings was repealed in 2019, and they now require prior notification or permission; experts viewed this as a response to opposition members of parliament having attempted to enter government and state-run media facilities as a form of protest. The European Commission reported that KESMA represented an “increased risk to media pluralism.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government set up an Operative Board to manage and communicate government action. Operative Board members answered press questions submitted in writing and in advance at daily press briefings. Independent and government-critical media repeatedly complained that their questions were rarely answered.

Freedom of Speech: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech; however, NGOs representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that police officers continued to resist classifying incidents as hate speech and were unfamiliar with police hate crime protocols (see section 6). The media law also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.

On May 12, police went to the home of a man from Borsod County with a search warrant based on suspicion of COVID-19 “scaremongering” because of his April 28 social media post. The man had questioned the government’s decision to lift curfew restrictions the day after a peak of the pandemic and appealed to “our dear dictator, our dear leader.” Police published photos and videos of the arrest, which was widely reported. Police released him that afternoon after questioning and told him he would not be charged since no crime had been committed.

On May 13, police also carried out a home raid and detained Janos Csoka-Szucs, a member of the opposition Momentum party in the town of Gyula, for a comment he made in a closed Facebook group on April 20. Csoka-Szucs had shared a post from an independent member of parliament about a protest against the government’s decision to discharge patients from hospitals to make room for potential COVID-19 cases. Police claimed his post “jeopardized the effectiveness of the defense in an emergency.” He was released after four hours of questioning, but police seized his computer and mobile phone. NGOs and opposition parties claimed the arrest was an attempt to suppress free speech and intimidate opponents of the government.

A law approved in 2018 imposed a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). According to press reports, no entity had paid any tax in 2019 under the law, and no known tax office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.

On September 21, the independent news outlet Telex reported that, in a June 2 letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy state secretary for development of European affairs, Jozsef Magyar, asked the country’s EU-based embassies to report the professional visits of Hungarian journalists to those countries. According to the report, the letter asked the embassies to report when the visit(s) took place, which Hungarian outlets took part, and the organizations or local press outlets with which they met. In response to Telexs query as to the purpose of gathering such information, the ministry stated: “To fulfill its mandate, [the ministry] is doing everything against foreign interference in Hungarian domestic affairs. Experience has shown that Soros organizations tend to be behind such attacks.”

On September 29, the Prosecutor General’s Office indicted the president of the Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, and another member of the party on the charge of assaulting law enforcement personnel during the 2018 protests against the government’s changes to the labor code, which critics dubbed the “slave law” (see section 7). Fekete-Gyor declared he was innocent of the charges, which he described as politically motivated, and opposition Democratic Coalition party released a statement of support, arguing that the government was attempting to use the justice system to stifle freedom of expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices. Some new independent media outlets were founded, one of them by reporters from a formerly independent outlet. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) relaunched its Hungarian service on September 8.

In February the beverage company Hell Energy Drink brought a lawsuit against the monthly magazine Forbes Hungary after it published a list of the richest Hungarians. Forbes was forced to recall the issue from newsstands because the privately owned family beverage company argued that the magazine had breached their privacy under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In October the company also obtained a court order barring the publication of parts of an article in the weekly Magyar Narancs, which noted that companies connected to the family had received large amounts in state and EU grants and subsidized loans in previous years, citing again GDPR regulations.

On March 31, government-aligned media mogul Miklos Vaszily purchased 50 percent of Indamedia, the advertising sales company that generated virtually all revenues for the independent news site Index, at the time the country’s most visited online news outlet. With ad revenues decreasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly appointed adviser proposed a reorganization plan that would have stripped part of the editorial board’s control. In June, Indexs editor in chief, Szabolcs Dull, publicly opposed the proposal, warning that the outlet was under increasing political pressure. In response, Laszlo Bodolai, chairman of the board of Indexs parent foundation, fired Dull on July 22. Bodolai asserted that Dull’s actions had endangered Indexs economic viability while denying that the outlet’s independence was at risk. Index journalists publicly called Dull’s dismissal “unacceptable” and an open attempt at pressure, which would lead to “the end of independent reporting.” On July 24, more than 70 journalists–the majority of Indexs staff–resigned in protest. On November 23, Indamedia announced it had purchased all of Index’s shares. As of November the website was still operating under the same name but with different staff and with far fewer investigative stories.

Some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, “while private, opposition-aligned media outlets exist, national, regional, and local media are increasingly dominated by progovernment outlets, which are frequently used to smear political opponents and highlight false accusations. Government advertising and sponsorships favored progovernment outlets, leaving independent and critical outlets in a financially precarious position.” The European Commission stated that advertising directed at progovernment outlets permitted the government to exert indirect control over media.

The government and government-linked entities often excluded independent and opposition media from their events and press conferences.

The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties. Some experts criticized the NMHH’s frequency awarding practices for allegedly penalizing radio stations that are critical of the government. In December 2019 the NMHH declined to extend the frequency license of a prominent Budapest community radio station, citing previous minor violations of the media law for which the station had already been fined. The station continued to operate online throughout the year. The Capital City Court of Law ruled in July that a September 2019 Media Council resolution that exonerated a public television station from accusations of unlawful bias violated the media law. The court ordered the Media Council to conduct new proceedings into the case. In September the NMHH announced it would not renew the frequency license for Klubradio, set to expire in February 2021, due to minor national content violations. Klubradio had previously broadcast news critical of the government.

The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Because MTI’s news services are free, its news products are broadcast widely by national and local outlets. Opposition politicians complained that they were rarely able to appear on state-run broadcasts or were given significantly less time to articulate their positions.

A November independent press report described a concerted effort by state-run media to promote the political agenda of Fidesz ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. The report included audio recordings from officials at state media conglomerate MTVA from March and April 2019, in which MTVA chief editor Balazs Bende and news director Zsolt Nemeth were heard directing MTVA employees to promote the government agenda in advance of the elections. Bende made repeated threats that employees were to get on board with the directive or “get out.” According to the independent press report, the Media Council stated it had “received a complaint which was being investigated.”

The speaker of parliament, Laszlo Kover, continued to ban parliamentary access for various individuals–primarily journalists–for alleged violations of parliamentary rules. On May 26, the ECHR ruled that the bans Kover imposed on journalists working for independent and government-critical media in the spring of 2016 unlawfully restricted the work of media and violated the rights of the reporters. Kover issued a statement declaring that the ruling did not mandate his office to change the existing rules governing press work.

Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists as “Soros agents” or “Soros mercenaries” and independent media as the “Soros media,” or in one instance as the “Soros blog.” In 2018 an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information by using publicly available information in an article on a Hungarian person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. In September 2019 another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest. The prosecutors appealed the court ruling, and the Capital City Appeal Court remanded the case to the original court for a new trial in February. The case remained pending as of November.

In November 2019 an extreme right-wing website published an anti-Semitic drawing of a journalist from an independent outlet, which was then shared by a mainstream progovernment outlet. A few days later, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli posters appeared in downtown Budapest with the photographs of two reporters who at that time worked for the country’s most widely read news site. The posters suggested the two journalists were foreign agents. The Action and Protection Foundation and the mayor of the district where the posters appeared filed police reports, citing hate speech, against unknown perpetrators. In March the chief of the Budapest police told a press outlet that no proceedings had been launched as there was no indication of a public crime, and no private prosecution had been initiated.

On multiple occasions, government-aligned outlets criticized nongovernment-aligned, independent, and international journalists by name for their reporting. The outlets, many of which belong to the Fidesz-affiliated media conglomerate KESMA (see above), accused these journalists, among other accusations, of being “Soros agents” and, on at least one occasion, reported comments calling for a journalist to be prosecuted under the “scaremongering” provision of the COVID-19 state of emergency law. Some publications included details about the journalists’ backgrounds, where they reside, and photographs of them. Some journalists and commentators were specifically named on multiple occasions, including by a government representative in a press briefing.

For example, an April 16 article in a KESMA-held media outlet published the names of two international journalists, claiming that the “sole purpose of their article was to denigrate the Hungarian government” and included pictures of the journalists. On April 9, the host of a KESMA-held news channel identified by name one of the journalists who resides in Budapest as a native of another country. In an April 16 press conference, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, singled out one of the international reporters for criticism over his reporting. An April 6 article in the KESMA-held Magyar Nemzet quoted a constitutional lawyer who said an article the journalist published on COVID-19 in Hungary qualified as the “spread of horror” and therefore a crime under the scaremongering provision of the emergency law. The lawyer also suggested that a Hungarian news portal that reported on the article should be liable under the law, and both comments were later reported on a KESMA-held news channel. Journalists targeted in this manner by media and government officials reported receiving threats to their safety from individuals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.

The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by public media. Public television station M1 and its news website, hirado.hu, launched a segment monitoring “fake news” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The independent media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor noted in a June 16 analysis that the featured reports were “a mix of items published on actual fake news sites and of articles published by independent and government-critical media that obviously do not seem like fake news at all; in fact, the series even included as alleged fake news statements by opposition politicians.”

The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.

As of August 24, the Media Council had issued 86 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, of which 57 imposed fines totaling some 23.14 million forints ($77,800) on 46 media service providers.

Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.

Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Opposition politicians and government-critical private individuals sued government-allied media outlets in several high-profile cases. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters.

Internet Freedom

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

In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

In 2017 an amendment to the higher education law required universities from non-EU countries to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the country of accreditation, and ensure that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. The U.S.-accredited Central European University (CEU) established a presence at Bard College in New York in 2018, and the government and the State of New York negotiated an intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the draft agreement to bring CEU into compliance with the law. In 2018 CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna and did so in 2019. In July 2019 CEU was accredited as an Austrian private university under the name of Central European University, and in November 2019 it officially opened its campus in Vienna. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the matter in 2017. The Constitutional Court suspended the case until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) makes its decision.

The ECJ ruled on October 6 that the amendment violated EU law and contradicted the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relating to academic freedom. The ECJ also found the law violated the international General Agreement on Trade in Services and World Trade Organization regulations. The ruling stated that the condition of an international treaty between Hungary and the third country constituted a “means of arbitrary discrimination because of the decisive nature of the political will of the Hungarian authorities.” The CEU rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the ruling as a legal and moral vindication but underscored that CEU’s move to Vienna was final, adding that the ruling “lifts the whole burden of Lex CEU off our backs and restores our freedom.”

In 2019 parliament passed a law that gave the government control, through a newly established organization, over the funding of 15 research institutes previously funded and managed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The law received domestic and international criticism as infringing upon the principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions. In July the research institutes received a one-day deadline to submit their “research plan descriptions,” which renewed concerns over the evaluation process of research funding.

Under legislation passed by parliament on May 19, the government assigned private foundations the right to operate six public universities starting August 1. Following the model introduced at Corvinus University in 2019, the Veterinary University, the University of Miskolc, the Moholy-Nagy University of Arts, Neumann Janos University, the University of Sopron, and Szechenyi Istvan University began operating under new structures financed by foundations and in some cases with government officials as members of the board.

On July 3, parliament adopted a law that transferred the ownership of the University of Theater and Film Arts to a foundation as of September 1. The government disregarded the university’s proposal on the composition of the foundation board, instead appointing National Theater director Attila Vidnyanszky as the head of the foundation. The university senate asserted that Vidnyanszky “consistently and deliberately sought to destroy the reputation of the university for years, while the other members of the board have no significant experience in higher education.” Several instructors announced their resignations following the announcement. The university’s students, staff, artists and the public held several demonstrations against the law, and students barricaded themselves inside university buildings, demanding university autonomy. Students ended the blockade due to the government announcement of a ban on assemblies on November 10 as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In an exceptional procedure on March 24 during the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament passed an amendment to the act on culture that removed state-funded Budapest theaters from the control of the municipal government and placed them under central government control. The central government also gained the right to appoint theater leadership. Referring to an allegation of sexual harassment at a Budapest theater at the end of 2019, the government argued that if it provided all funds for the operation of the theaters then it should also be entitled to make personnel and financial decisions, adding that it could no longer support the operation of theaters that did not allow inspection into their affairs. The cabinet introduced the amendment without any professional consultations. In April the central government and the municipality of Budapest concluded an agreement on the operation of Budapest theaters. Under the agreement the municipality of Budapest will finance four theaters without government funding, with the right to decide on the appointment of their directors.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the dignity of the nation or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.

The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings and events. In May police fined drivers who participated in a protest against the government’s decision to release patients from hospitals due to COVID-19 by honking their car horns. Police considered the May 28 protest of far-right groups against “Gypsy crime” as falling outside the scope of the law on assembly (see also section 6 on ethnic minorities). During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government put a blanket ban on assemblies in public spaces and imposed fines for violations of up to 500,000 forints ($1,670) for participants of banned protests.

On May 26, the ECHR ruled that police interfered with a private individual’s right to peaceful assembly by unjustifiably dismissing his notification of intent to hold a demonstration in front of the president’s residence in 2013. Police argued that TEK had closed the area in question, rendering it no longer a public space available for demonstrations for the requested period. Subsequent court scrutiny removed the legal basis of the ban but only at a time when the reason for the demonstration had already become obsolete. The ECHR ordered the state to pay the private individual 2,600 euros ($3,100) as compensation for nonpecuniary damage.

Freedom of Association

On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law (see section 5).

A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. In 2019 an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights those religious groups could exercise before 2011.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with and provided the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in detention under the aliens policing procedure.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates and UNHCR criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, including its pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia.

Domestic human rights NGOs reported that their attorneys had difficulties in maintaining contact with foreigners kept in aliens-policing or asylum-detention facilities.

Refoulement: The CPT report published in March noted there were no legal remedies offering effective protection against forced removal or refoulement, including chain refoulement. Human rights advocates reported that