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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control some portions of the country. On September 28, Afghanistan held presidential elections after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reschedule the election multiple times. To accommodate the postponements, the Supreme Court extended President Ghani’s tenure. The IEC delayed the announcement of preliminary election results, originally scheduled for October 19, until December 22, due to technical challenges in vote tabulations; final results scheduled for November 7 had yet to be released by year’s end.

Three ministries share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Afghan National Police (ANP), under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a community-based self-defense force. The Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The NDS functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. The investigative branch of the NDS operated a facility in Kabul, where it held national security prisoners awaiting trial until their cases went to prosecution. Some areas were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently.

Armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on civilians and targeted killings of persons affiliated with the government.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by security forces and antigovernment personnel; reports of torture by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; government corruption; lack of accountability and investigation in cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. The Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) used child soldiers as suicide bombers and to carry weapons. Other antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 8,239 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with 62 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. Taliban propaganda did not acknowledge responsibility for civilian casualties, separating numbers into “invaders” and “hirelings.” The group also referred to its attacks that indiscriminately killed civilians as “martyrdom operations.”

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature is also more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms. This monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law remained inconsistent and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the Access to Information Law and that therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they seek.

Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-related figures attempting to influence how they are covered in the news. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 13 journalists were killed in connection to their work in 2018, including nine journalists killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing. Local NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan released findings that violence against journalists declined by 50 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of 2018. In February, two journalists, Shafiq Arya and Rahimullah Rahmani, were shot and killed by unknown assailants at local radio station Radio Hamsada in Takhar Province.

A rapid expansion in the availability of mobile phones, the internet, and social media provided many citizens greater access to diverse views and information. The government publicly supported media freedom and cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to media.

Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media is also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks. According to news reports, a Samaa radio station was forced to shut down its operations for the third time since 2015 because of threats from a local Taliban commander.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio over other forms of media.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. On May 2, Presidential Protective Service guards at the palace physically assaulted a broadcast journalist from 1TV television. In June an NDS employee beat the Ariana News reporter and cameraperson who was covering the controversial closing of an Afghan-Turk school in Kabul.

The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported three journalists killed in the first six months of the year. It recorded 45 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 50 percent decrease from the first six months of 2018. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 18 instances of violence, half as many as in 2018 when 36 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K also declined sharply from 2018–from 37 cases to seven cases. The organization insisted the reduction was not due to better protection from the government but rather due to a lower number of suicide attacks by antigovernment forces, as well as media companies’ adaptation to the reality of violence by not sending journalists for live coverage of suicide attacks and other self-imposed safety measures.

The Taliban continued to attack media organizations and warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.” In June the Taliban commission threatened media to stop transmitting “anti-Taliban advertisements” within one week or “reporters and staff members will not remain safe.”

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.

In 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the AGO, it did not increase protection for journalists.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the AJSC, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Farah, Laghman, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, Sar-e Pul, Uruzgan, and Zabul.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. A survey by an NGO supporting media freedom showed more than one-half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information and found that one-third of government offices did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public. Most requests for information from journalists who lack influential connections inside the government or international media credentials are disregarded and government officials often refuse to release information, claiming it is classified.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

Women in some areas of the country say their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.

Internet Freedom

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

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.

There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Academic freedom is largely tolerated in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there has been growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Government security forces and the Taliban have both taken over schools to use as military posts. The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. In January the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, voted to reject a presidential decree that would have given police broad authority to prevent demonstrations.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The 2009 law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, AGO, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership while government employees. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.

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. The government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. In August the Taliban captured Dasht-e-Archi District, Kunduz Province and Pul-i-Khumri District, Baghlan Province, blocking roads leading to the Kabul highway for more than two weeks.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

Access to Asylum: The government had yet to adopt a draft national refugee law or asylum framework. Nonetheless, UNHCR registers, and mitigates protection risks of approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. The country also hosts some 76,000 Pakistani refugees who fled Pakistan in 2014; UNHCR registered some 41,000 refugees in Khost Province and verified more than 35,000 refugees in Paktika Province.

Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. The IOM reported undocumented returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 504,977 from January 1 to December 29, with 485,096 from Iran and 19,881 from Pakistan. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 2,000 returns as of June 22. In addition to these numbers, there were 23,789 undocumented Afghan returnees from Turkey.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The right to vote may be stripped for certain criminal offenses. For instance, in September the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) reportedly fined Border and Tribes minister Gul Agh Shirzai and removed his right to vote for improper campaign activities. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups and widespread allegations of fraud and corruption interfered with, but did not derail, the presidential election.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The presidential election was originally scheduled for April but was postponed until September 28. Official turnout figures were not released by year’s end, but according to media reports, low voter turnout resulted from security threats, less robust campaigning by candidates, voter apathy, the decoupling of the presidential and provincial elections that traditionally helped drive local mobilization networks, and cultural sensitivities regarding mandatory photographs for women voters, among other factors. According to the United Nations, the Taliban carried out a deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation, including on polling centers located in schools and health facilities during the presidential election. It found these attacks targeting the electoral process caused 458 civilian casualties (85 killed and 373 injured) from the start of the top-up registration on June 8 through September 30, two days after the presidential election. These figures include 100 incidents on September 28, the day of the election, resulting in 277 civilian casualties (28 killed and 249 injured). According to the United Nations, civilian casualty levels were higher on September 28 than on polling day for the first round and second rounds of the 2014 presidential election. On December 22 (after its October 19 deadline), IEC officials released preliminary results, indicating that President Ghani secured re-election with 50.64 percent of the vote. Final results had yet to be released by year’s end. Although election experts noted technical improvements in the electoral procedures, there were concerns regarding the electoral bodies’ ability to ensure transparency during the results tabulation process. The ECC investigation into approximately 16,500 electoral complaints continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Political Party Law of 2003 grants parties the right to exist as formal institutions. The law provides that any citizen 25 years old or older may establish a political party. The law requires parties to have at least 10,000 members from the country’s 34 provinces to register with the Ministry of Justice, conduct official party business, and introduce candidates in elections. Only citizens 18 years old or older and who have the right to vote may join a political party. Certain members of the government, judiciary, military, and government-affiliated commissions are prohibited from political party membership during their tenure in office.

In large areas of the country, political parties could not operate due to insurgencies and instability.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. The October 2018 parliamentary election produced approximately the same level of female voter turnout as in the 2010 parliamentary election; however, there was an increase in the participation of female candidates. Absent reliable data, civil society, think tanks, and election monitoring organizations assessed that women’s participation across the country varied according to the security conditions and social norms. There was lower female voter turnout in provinces where communities purposely limited female participation in the democratic process, where lack of security was a concern, or both. Conflict, threats, financial constraints, corruption, conservative family members, and a greater number of polling centers available to male voters than women, put female voters at a disadvantage. Women reported security threats in the provinces of Maidan, Nuristan, Paktiya, Uruzgan, Wardak, and Zabul. Men in these provinces prohibited women from signing voter registration documents, thereby denying them the right to vote. There were reports some men declared voting a sin, and those who demonstrated some degree of flexibility said women should vote for male candidates. Ahead of the September 28 presidential election, members of a women’s association in the eastern province of Khost reportedly stated they would not be able to vote because they viewed as offensive a voter identification requirement to have their photos taken.

The constitution specifies a minimum number of seats for women and minorities in the two houses of parliament. For the Wolesi Jirga, the constitution mandates that at least two women shall be elected from each province (for a total of 68). The IEC finalized 2018 parliamentary election results in May, and 418 female candidates contested the 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga in the 2018 parliamentary election. In Daikundi Province a woman won a seat in open competition against male candidates, making it the only province to have more female representation than mandated by the constitution. The constitution also mandates one-half of presidential appointees must be women. It also sets aside 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga for members of the Kuchi minority (nomads). In the Meshrano Jirga (upper house of the National Assembly), the president’s appointees must include two Kuchis and two members with physical disabilities. One seat in the Meshrano Jirga and one in the Wolesi Jirga is reserved for the appointment or election of a Sikh or Hindu representative, although this is not mandated by the constitution.

Traditional societal practices continue to limit women’s participation in politics and activities outside the home and community, including the need to have a male escort or permission to work. These factors, in addition to an education and experience gap, likely contributed to the central government’s male-dominated composition. The 2016 electoral law mandates that 25 percent of all provincial, district, and village council seats “shall be allocated to female candidates.” Neither district nor village councils were established by year’s end.

Women active in government and politics continued to face threats and violence and were targets of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. No laws prevent minorities from participating in political life, although different ethnic groups complained of unequal access to local government jobs in provinces where they were in the minority. Individuals from the majority Pashtun ethnic group have more seats than any other ethnic group in both houses of parliament, but they do not have more than 50 percent of the seats. There was no evidence authorities purposely excluded specific societal groups from political participation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Reports indicated corruption was endemic throughout society, and flows of money from the military, international donors, and the drug trade continued to exacerbate the problem. Local businessmen complained government contracts were routinely steered to companies that pay a bribe or have family or other connections to a contracting official.

According to prisoners and local NGOs, corruption was widespread across the justice system, particularly in connection with the prosecution of criminal cases and in arranging release from prison. For example, as in previous years, there were multiple reports that judges would not release prisoners who had served their sentences without receiving payment from family members. There were also reports that officials received unauthorized payments in exchange for reducing prison sentences, halting investigations, or outright dismissing charges.

During the year Freedom House reported inadequately trained judges and extensive corruption in the judiciary, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups.

During the year there were reports of “land grabbing” by both private and public actors. Most commonly, businesses illegally obtained property deeds from corrupt officials and sold the deeds to unsuspecting prospective homeowners who were later prosecuted. Other reports indicated government officials confiscated land without compensation with the intent to exchange it for contracts or political favors. There were reports provincial governments illegally confiscated land without due process or compensation in order to build public facilities.

Corruption: UNAMA found that from the Anti-Corruption Justice Center’s (ACJC) inception in 2016 to mid-May, the ACJC tried 223 defendants in 57 cases before its trial chamber and 173 defendants in 52 cases before its appellate chamber. Of its cases against 117 accused, 36 were decided after appeal to the Supreme Court, the report stated. It also issued 127 warrants and summonses of which only 13 warrants and 39 summonses could be executed to date, with only a single defendant tried as a result. According to UNAMA, the number of defendants tried in their absence before the ACJC remained high at 20 percent. The number of cases has declined since 2017, and the rank of the accused generally dropped, although the amounts ordered by the court in compensation, restitution, and confiscation marginally increased.

A series of violent attacks by insurgents against Afghan judges, prosecutors, and prison officials during the year made members of the judicial sector increasingly fearful in carrying out their duties. According to Afghan government and media reports, since 2015 an estimated 300 judges, prosecutors, prison personnel, and other justice workers were killed, injured, or abducted. During the year at least 29 were targeted: three judges, one court clerk, three prosecutors, and 14 prison officials were killed; three prosecutors and two prison officials were injured; and three prisons officials were taken hostage. Justice professionals came under threat or attack for pursuing certain cases–particularly corruption or abuse-of-power cases–against politically or economically powerful individuals.

According to various reports, many government positions, including district or provincial governorships, ambassadors, and deputy ministers could be suborned. Government officials with reported involvement in corruption, the drug trade, or records of human rights abuses reportedly continued to receive executive appointments and served with relative impunity. Former minister of communication and information technology, Abdul Razaaq Wahidi, was accused of corruption in the form of embezzling revenue from a mobile phone tax. Although convicted by a lower court, in July an appeals court acquitted Wahidi.

There were allegations of widespread corruption, and abuse of power by officers at the Ministry of Interior. Provincial police reportedly extorted civilians at checkpoints and received kickbacks from the drug trade. Police reportedly demanded bribes from civilians to gain release from prison or avoid arrest. Senior Ministry of Interior officials also refused to sign the execution of arrest warrants. In one case Ministry of Interior officers served as the protective detail of warrant-target Major General Zamari Paikan and drove him in a Ministry of Interior armored vehicle. The Ministry of Defense also provided protection to Paikan. The ACJC convicted General Paikan in absentia for corruption in 2017 and sentenced him to 8.5 years’ imprisonment, but the Ministry of Interior had yet to arrest him by year’s end.

On August 15, former Kabul Bank chief executive Khalilullah Ferozi was released to house arrest reportedly for health reasons. Presidential candidate and former NDS head Rahmatullah Nabil alleged that the release came after a $30 million donation to President Ghani’s re-election campaign. Following the bank’s collapse in 2010, Ferozi was convicted in 2013 and ordered, along with bank founder Sherkhan Farnood, to repay more than $800 million in embezzled funds. Ferozi’s release came with less than a year left in his sentence. Farnood died in prison in 2018.

Financial Disclosure: A 2017 legislative decree established the Administration on Registration and Assets of Government Officials and Employees (Registration Administration) under the administrative office of the president. All government officials, employees, and elected officials are required to declare their assets. The Registration Administration was responsible for collecting, verifying, and publishing information from high-ranking government officials. Under the law all government officials and employees must submit financial disclosures on all sources and levels of personal income for themselves and their immediate family annually and when they assume or leave office. Individuals who do not submit forms or are late in submission are subject to suspension of employment, salary, and travel bans. The AGO imposed travel bans on individuals who did not submit their forms; however, the bans were not regularly enforced, especially for high-level officials. For instance, although the website of the Administrative Office of the Palace showed several high-ranking government officials failed to register their assets, it was public knowledge they frequently travelled internationally. Employment and salary bans were not imposed.

As of April the Registration Administration successfully registered assets of nearly 17,000 government employees. Verification of assets continued to be slow and problematic for the administration due to lack of organized systems in some government offices. Public outreach by the Registration Administration allowed civil society and private citizen the opportunity to comment on individual declarations. As of April, 141 members of the lower house of parliament declared their assets and 68 members of the upper house of parliament registered their assets.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights activists continued to express concern that human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

The penal code incorporates crimes against humanity provisions from the Rome Statute.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds. The independence of the institution was called into question following the abrupt replacement of all nine commissioners on July 17, immediately prior to the July 28 start of the presidential campaign and after the presidential palace rejected a list of 27 candidates submitted by the AIHRC Appointment Committee nine months prior. UNAMA released a statement calling for a “truly independent national human rights institution.” Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotic, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the law remain a serious challenge. The law criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code also explicitly criminalizes statutory rape and, for the first time, prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always fully enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW including through EVAW prosecution units.

Prosecutors and judges in remote provinces were frequently unaware of the EVAW law or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.

The penal code criminalizes forced virginity testing except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the individual. Awareness and enforcement of this change remained limited. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order virginity tests in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subject to virginity tests.

The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW law. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals, compounded by parallel legal systems and ineffective institutions of state, such as the police and justice systems. Women’s shelter operators in the western province of Herat reported the number of women seeking legal aid and protection in that province increased during the year.

Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a family matter, domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions operated at the primary and appellate levels in at least 22 provinces.

Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.

In June the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head Keramuddin Karim and fined him one million dollars (one million Swiss francs) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players alleged that Karim threatened them with ruin if they did not comply when he sexually assaulted them in a locked room in his office. Women who rebuffed his advances were labeled “lesbians” and expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. In October and December, respectively, FIFA’s Ethics Committee found Sayed Aghazada, former general secretary of the Afghanistan Football Federation, and Mohammad Hanif Sediqi Rustam, the former assistant to Karim, guilty of abuses relating to the sexual abuse, banning them for five years and fining them $10,000 (10,000 Swiss francs), because they determined Aghazada and Rustam were aware Karim abused multiple players but failed to prevent or report the abuse. The AGO indicted Karim on counts of rape, but the court sent the case back to the AGO for further investigation before trial. Police did not execute a June arrest warrant against Karim, a former governor.

At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because the local interpretation of “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the AGO issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs report instances of baad still practiced, often in remote provinces. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not been criminalized and remained widespread.

Honor killings continued throughout the year. According to media reporting, in May a Taliban court in Shahrak District, Ghor Province, shot and killed a boy and girl for allegedly having an extramarital affair.

Sexual Harassment: The Antiharassment Law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. The AIHRC reported more than 85 percent of women and children faced various forms of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families. Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms and customs with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization.

In July media reported on allegations of sexual harassment at the highest levels of the government. Former female government employees accused senior government ministers of repeated harassment and attempted physical assault. Allegations have arisen against close aides of President Ashraf Ghani, although the government denied these accusations. In late July the government formed a special secretariat to deal with reports of sexual harassment, operating within the framework of the AIHRC. Nevertheless, senior officials continued to promote and participate in a culture of sexual harassment. According to media reporting, in August, two senior security officials fled after raping a young woman in central Bamiyan Province during Eid-ul-Fitr.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system.

Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW law, and judges would sometimes replace those charges with others based on the penal code.

The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.

Children

Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not transfer citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.

Education: Education is mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years for primary school and three years for lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that 3.7 million children were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, and continuing conflict, among other reasons, 60 percent of whom are girls. Only 16 percent of the country’s schools are for girls, and many of them lack proper sanitation facilities. UNAMA also noted that armed groups tried to restrict girls’ access to education. In April armed men on motorcycles set fire to two girls’ schools outside Farah City in Farah Province. Both were badly damaged, and the attack ended classes indefinitely for nearly 1,700 girls. Graffiti on the nearby walls championed the “Islamic Emirate,” leading to a suspicion of Taliban ties.

Key obstacles to girls’ education included poverty, early and forced marriage, insecurity, a lack of family support, lack of female teachers, and a lack of nearby schools.

Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, also hindered access to education, particularly in areas controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban and other extremists threatened and attacked school officials, teachers, and students, particularly girls, and burned both boys’ and girls’ schools. There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubt that the judicial system would respond. There were reports that both insurgent groups and government forces used school buildings for military purposes. School buildings were damaged, and students were injured in Taliban attacks on nearby government facilities.

Child Abuse: The penal code criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for conviction of beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child, ranges from a cash fine of 10,000 Afghanis ($130) to one year in prison as long as the child does not sustain a serious injury or disability. Conviction of endangering the life of a child carries a penalty of one to two years in prison or a cash fine of 60,000 to 120,000 Afghanis (approximately $800 to $1,600).

Police reportedly beat and sexually abused children. Children who sought police assistance for abuse also reported being further harassed and abused by law enforcement officials, particularly in bacha bazi cases, deterring victims from reporting their claims. NGOs reported a predominantly punitive and retributive approach to juvenile justice throughout the country. Although it is against the law, corporal punishment in schools, rehabilitation centers, and other public institutions remained common.

In November human rights defenders exposed the sexual abuse of at least 165 schoolboys from six high schools in Logar Province, alleging that teachers, headmasters, and local authorities were implicated in the abuse. Teachers would often film videos of rapes and threaten to post videos if victims spoke out. The release of videos and exposure of the scandal led to at least five honor killings of the victims. Two human rights defenders were subsequently placed in NDS detention after exposing the allegations, forced to apologize for their reporting, and continued to face threats after their release. Several officials rejected the allegations. The AGO investigation into the scandal reportedly suffered from a lack of public and political support, insufficient investigation time, and faulty investigation mechanisms, including public interviews.

There were reports some members of the military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. During the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented credible reports of four cases of sexual violence involving five children carried out by parties to the armed conflict. Two girls were raped by antigovernment elements, and three boys were raped, used for bacha bazi, or both by the ALP and ANP. According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend.

The government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The penal code criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on the 2017 Law to Combat Crimes of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling in Migrants (TIP Law), which includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. Article 660 of the penal code even details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment if convicted of up to 15 years’ imprisonment if convicted. UNAMA reported the convictions of two civilian perpetrators of bacha bazi in Takhar Province. Nevertheless, no police officer has ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi.

The Ministry of Interior operates CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, as CPUs did not oversee the ALP, which also recruited children. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient CPU reporting channels to identify children, prevent them from joining the security forces, and provide shelter, services, and family reintegration.

Early and Forced Marriage: Despite a law setting the legal minimum age for marriage at 16 years for girls (15 years with the consent of a parent or guardian or the court) and 18 years for boys, international and local observers continued to report widespread early and forced marriages throughout the country. By EVAW law those convicted of entering into or arranging forced or underage marriages are subject to at least two years’ imprisonment; however, implementation was limited.

By law a marriage contract requires verification that the bride is 16 years old (or 15 years old with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.

There were reports from Badakhshan Province that Taliban militants bought young women to sell into forced marriage. The UN Development Program Legal Aid Grant Facility reported women increasingly petitioned for divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, the penal code provides that, “[i]f an adult male has intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, his act shall be considered rape and the victim’s consent is invalid.” The penal code also treats nonstatutory rape of a child as an aggravated form of the offense, punishable if convicted by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The EVAW Law prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for conviction of forcing an underage girl into prostitution. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the TIP Law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.

Child Soldiers: In 2016 the Law on Prohibition of Children’s Recruitment in the Military became effective. Under the penal code, conviction of recruitment of children in military units carries a penalty of six months to one year in prison. There were reports the ANDSF and progovernment militias recruited and used children, and the Taliban and other antigovernment elements recruited children for military purposes (see section 1.g.). Media reported that local progovernment commanders recruited children younger than 16 years. The Taliban and other antigovernment groups regularly recruited and trained children to conduct attacks.

Displaced Children: During the year NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee and drought-displaced families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The government utilized a policy and action plan for the reintegration of Afghan returnees and IDPs, in partnership with the United Nations; however, the government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, many of them unaccompanied minors, remained limited, and it relied on the international community for assistance. Although the government banned street begging in 2008, NGOs and government offices reported large numbers of children begging and living in the streets of major cities.

Institutionalized Children: Living conditions for children in orphanages were poor. NGOs reported as many as 80 percent of children between ages four and 18 in orphanages were not orphans but from families unable to provide them with food, shelter, schooling, or all three. Children in orphanages reported mental, physical, and sexual abuse and occasionally were victims of trafficking. They did not have regular access to running water, heating in winter, indoor plumbing, health-care services, recreational facilities, or education. Security forces kept child detainees in juvenile detention centers run by the Ministry of Justice, except for a group of children arrested for national security violations who stayed at the detention facility in Parwan. NGOs reported these children were kept separate from the general population but still were at risk of radicalization.

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 were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination against citizens and requires the state to assist persons with disabilities and to protect their rights, including the rights to health care and financial protection. The constitution also requires the state to adopt measures to reintegrate and provide for the active participation in society of persons with disabilities. The law provides for equal rights to, and the active participation of, such persons in society. Observers reported that both the constitutional provisions and disabilities rights law are mostly ignored and unenforced.

Persons with disabilities faced barriers such as limited access to educational opportunities, inability to access government buildings, lack of economic opportunities, and social exclusion due to stigma.

Lack of security remained a challenge for disability programs. Insecurity in remote areas, where a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities lived, precluded delivery of assistance in some cases. The majority of buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities, prohibiting many from benefitting from education, health care, and other services.

In the Meshrano Jirga, authorities reserved two of the presidentially appointed seats for persons with disabilities. By law 3 percent of all government positions are reserved for persons with disabilities, but government officials acknowledged the law was not enforced.

Disability rights activists reported that corruption prevented some persons with disabilities from receiving benefits. There were reports that government officials redirected scholarship funds for persons with disabilities to friends or family through fraud and identity theft. NGOs and government officials also reported that associations of persons with disabilities attempted to intimidate ministry employees in an effort to secure benefits such as apartments.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic tensions between various groups continued to result in conflict and killings. Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued along class, race, and religious lines in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse, and detention. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara ANP officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country. During the year ISIS-K continued escalating attacks against Shia, predominately Hazara, communities. In August, ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall of a young Hazara couple in a predominately Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons, including 15 children, and wounding 143 others. Although the bride and groom survived, many of their friends and family (most of them women, children, and other civilians) were among the dead and wounded. Hazaras were among the causalities, but most victims were non-Hazara Shias and Sunnis. ISIS-K cited a sectarian motive for the attack.

Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs and harassment in school, as well as verbal and physical abuse in public places. In early March a young Sikh shopkeeper was abducted and killed in Kabul. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council of Afghanistan, there were approximately 550 members of the Sikh and Hindu community in the country, down from 900 members in 2018. According to the council, many families continued to leave the country, going to India and elsewhere due to antigovernment threats and what they perceive to be inadequate government protection.

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under Islamic sharia law, conviction of same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death, flogging, or imprisonment. Under Article 646 of the penal code, conviction of sex between men is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and sex between women with up to one year of imprisonment. There were reports of harassment and violence by society and police. The law does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent. LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government. Even registered organizations working on health programs for men who have sex with men faced harassment and threats by the Ministry of Economy’s NGO Directorate and NDS officials. LGBTI individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape by society at large.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of discrimination or violence against persons with HIV/AIDS, but there was reportedly serious societal stigma against persons with AIDS. While the penal code allows for the distribution of condoms, the government restricted distribution to married couples.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result the application of labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees. The government issued a decree in 2016 mandating the nationalization of property belonging to several trade unions. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not sufficiently criminalize forced labor and debt bondage. Men, women, and children are exploited in bonded labor, where an initial debt assumed by a worker as part of the terms of employment is exploited, ultimately entrapping other family members, sometimes for multiple generations. This type of debt bondage is common in the brickworks industry. Some families knowingly sold their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi (see section 7.c.).

Government enforcement of the law was ineffective; resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate; and the government made minimal efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

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 labor law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years but permits 14-year-olds to work as apprentices, allows children 15 years old and older to do light nonhazardous work, and permits 15- through 17-year-old children to work up to 35 hours per week. The law prohibits children younger than 14 years from working under any circumstances; that law was openly flouted, with poverty driving many children into the workforce. The law also bans the employment of children in hazardous work that is likely to threaten their health or cause disability, including mining and garbage collection; work in blast furnaces, waste-processing plants, and large slaughterhouses; work with hospital waste; drug-related work; security-guard services; and work related to war.

Poor institutional capacity was a serious impediment to effective enforcement of the labor law. Labor inspectors do not have legal authority to inspect worksites for compliance with child labor laws or impose penalties for non-compliance. Other deficiencies included the lack of penalty assessment authorization for labor inspectors, inadequate resources, labor inspector staffing, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations.

Child labor remained a pervasive problem. Child laborers worked as domestic servants, street vendors, peddlers, and shopkeepers. There was child labor in the carpet industry, brick kilns, coalmines, and poppy fields. Children were also heavily engaged in the worst forms of child labor in mining, including mining salt; commercial sexual exploitation including bacha bazi (see section 6, Children); transnational drug smuggling; and organized begging rings. Some forms of child labor exposed children to land mines. Children faced numerous health and safety risks at work. There were reports of recruitment of children by the ANDSF during the year. Taliban forces pressed children to take part in hostile acts (see section 6, Children).

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 https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination and notes that citizens, both “man and woman,” have equal rights and duties before the law. It expressly prohibits discrimination based on language. The constitution contains no specific provisions addressing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, or age. The penal code prescribes a term of imprisonment of not more than two years for anyone convicted of spreading discrimination or factionalism.

Women continued to face discrimination and hardship in the workplace. Women made up only 7 percent of the workforce. Many women faced pressure from relatives to stay at home and encountered hiring practices that favored men. Older and married women reported it was more difficult for them than for younger, single women to find jobs. Women who worked reported they encountered insults, sexual harassment, lack of transportation, and an absence of day care facilities. Salary discrimination existed in the private sector. Female journalists, social workers, and police officers reported they were often threatened or abused. Persons with disabilities also suffered from discrimination in hiring.

Ethnic Hazaras, Sikhs, and Hindus faced discrimination in hiring and work assignments, in addition to broader social discrimination (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rates for workers in the nonpermanent private sector and for government workers were below the poverty line.

The law defines the standard workweek for both public- and private-sector employees as 40 hours: eight hours per day with one hour for lunch and noon prayers. The labor law makes no mention of day workers in the informal sector, leaving them completely unprotected. There are no occupational health and safety regulations or officially adopted standards. The law, however, provides for reduced standard workweeks for children ages 15 to 17, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and miners and workers in other occupations that present health risks. The law provides workers with the right to receive wages, annual vacation time in addition to national holidays, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, health insurance for the employee and immediate family members, and other incidental allowances. The law prohibits compulsory work without establishing penalties and stipulates that overtime work be subject to the agreement of the employee. The law also requires employers to provide day care and nurseries for children.

The government did not effectively enforce these laws. Inspectors had no legal authority to enter premises or impose penalties for violations. Resources, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations were inadequate and insufficient to deter violations.

Employers often chose not to comply with the law or preferred to hire workers informally. Most employees worked longer than 40 hours per week, were frequently underpaid, and worked in poor conditions, particularly in the informal sector. Workers were generally unaware of the full extent of their labor rights under the law. Although comprehensive data on workplace accidents were unavailable, there were several reports of poor and dangerous working conditions. Some industries, such as brick kiln facilities, continued to use debt bondage, making it difficult for workers to remove themselves from situations of forced labor that endangered their health or safety.

Georgia

Executive Summary

The 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 to be elected by popular vote. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers described the first round of the October 2018 presidential elections as competitive and professionally administered but raised concerns, including the lack of a level playing field, voter intimidation, and fear of retribution. OSCE observers repeated these concerns after the second round in November 2018 and assessed that candidates “were able to campaign in a free environment; however, one side enjoyed an undue advantage and the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.” OSCE observers termed the 2016 parliamentary elections competitive and administered in a manner that respected the rights of candidates and voters but stated that the campaign atmosphere was affected by allegations of unlawful campaigning and incidents of violence. They noted election commissions and courts often did not respect the principle of transparency and the right to effective redress between the first and second rounds, which weakened confidence in the election administration.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) 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 SSSG 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.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life by Russian and de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including unlawful or arbitrary killing in Abkhazia; arbitrary detentions by the government and Russian and de facto authorities; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary and investigations and prosecutions widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; inappropriate police force against journalists; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly, including inappropriate police force against protesters; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

The government took steps to investigate some allegations of human rights abuses, but shortcomings remained, including a lack of accountability for the inappropriate police force used against journalists and protesters during June 20-21 demonstrations and the 2017 abduction and rendition from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.

De facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside central government control and were supported by Russian forces. A 2008 ceasefire remained in effect. Russian border guards restricted the movement of local populations. While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted.

De facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia restricted the rights, especially of ethnic Georgians, to vote or otherwise participate in the political process, own property, register businesses, and travel. De facto South Ossetian authorities refused to permit most ethnic Georgians driven out by the 2008 conflict to return to 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 (ABLs) increased, separating residents from their communities and livelihoods.

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. The PDO noted in its 2019 report covering 2018 that a healthy media environment and proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists remained an issue.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to criticize the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, and GPB’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party. The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission reported that during the second round of the 2018 presidential election campaign, the national public broadcaster manifested “a clear bias against the opposition candidate” and did not provide for “editorial independence, fairness and impartiality of programs.” According to the mission, the GNCC did not always conduct oversight transparently and impartially.

By law media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners. While media ownership transparency allowed consumers to judge the objectivity of news, laws obliging broadcasters to disclose information regarding their financial sources were not fully enforced.

Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding media pluralism and political influence in media. Concerns persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. On April 19, for example, Adjara Public Broadcaster (APB) voted to dismiss its general director, citing mishandling of public funds and mismanagement of program priorities, among other things. International monitors, including the ODIHR, had previously considered the APB an impartial media source. On April 13, a group of 13 NGOs and media watchdog organizations released a statement criticizing the outlet’s board for dismissing the general director, stating the decision raised concern for “the country’s democratic development and media freedom record.” On April 22, 10 organizations released another joint statement alleging that the ongoing process at the APB “strengthened doubts about possible political interference” into the board’s decision making. In December journalists protested against the new director, claiming he was interfering in their work and attempting to influence the station’s editorial policy. The PDO stressed that, as a public broadcaster, developments around its reporting affected the country’s general media environment.

In a July 18 judgment on the dispute regarding Rustavi 2’s ownership, the ECHR upheld the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision granting ownership rights to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. Leaders from the ruling Georgian Dream Party welcomed the ruling, while opposition politicians expressed concern, especially in light of Khalvashi’s affiliation with the ruling party. Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, civil society representatives, and media experts urged authorities to analyze carefully the ECHR’s ruling before taking further steps. Shortly after the release of the ECHR decision, however, the National Public Registry approved Khalvashi’s registration as Rustavi 2’s owner. Khalvashi subsequently replaced General Director Nika Gvaramia with Paata Salia, who was Khalvashi’s attorney. On December 10, the ECHR issued a final ruling upholding its July decision.

Many media watchers expressed concern regarding the change in management and ownership of Rustavi 2. On July 24, a group of 20 civil society organizations called upon international watchdog groups to “thoroughly monitor” the developments around the station. Some media experts feared a possible shift in Rustavi 2’s editorial bias that may restrict the freedom of the overall media landscape. The PGO summoned former director general Nika Gvaramia and financial director Kakha Damenia for questioning regarding the station’s financial deals back to 2015. On August 20, Salia fired News Department head Nodar Meladze and said he would begin legal action against Meladze and others for their role in signing an allegedly fraudulent contract with an advertising company, through which they allegedly received a financial benefit. A number of journalists resigned the same day, citing expected changes to the station’s critical editorial policy. Rustavi 2 ceased broadcasting news programs on August 20 and resumed on September 25 with new journalists led by a new News Department head, Irakli Imnaishvili. Gvaramia and many journalists who resigned from Rustavi 2 quickly established a new outlet, Mtavari Arkhi, which began broadcasting on September 10. As of October several watchdog groups and opposition politicians assessed that Rustavi 2 remained critical of the government, although it employed milder language.

Violence and Harassment: While crimes against media professionals, citizen reporters, and media outlets were rare, a number of journalists sustained injuries during the June 20-21 protests (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly), and some NGOs claimed that media professionals were purposefully targeted. For example, in a June 21 statement, the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics alleged that law enforcement officers had engaged in “target-shooting” journalists despite the fact that they were identifiable as journalists. In its October report on the June 20-21 protests, the Human Rights Center particularly criticized what it termed the use of excessive force against media representatives, noting that in specific instances, law enforcement officers could identify journalists based upon their special vests, badges, and special equipment. According to the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, 39 reporters were among the 240 injured. Multiple local and international organizations, including Reporters without Borders and the OSCE media representative, strongly criticized the use of force by police against journalists and issued statements calling for a prompt investigation into the incidents involving journalists. Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stated the journalists’ injuries would need to be assessed separately and called upon the PGO to open an investigation into interference in the journalists’ professional activities. As of October the PGO was investigating the incidents with journalists as part of the overall case of the alleged disproportionate use of force by police. The PGO questioned injured journalists as witnesses and not as victims, despite requests by GYLA and Transparency International.

There were some reports of harassment against media. For example, TV Pirveli owner Vakhtang Tsereteli accused authorities of seeking to control the independent media outlet. In November after the PGO charged his father, Avtandil Tsereteli, with money laundering in connection with a case against TBC Bank, Vakhtang cited this as one in a series of methods authorities employed during the previous three years to pressure the station. In a joint statement on September 9, 16 NGOs described the criminal case as politically motivated.

Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged that the Georgian Dream Party chair and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, exerted a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions related to Rustavi 2.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained regarding unauthorized surveillance. Surveillance laws introduced in 2017 continued to attract criticism for allowing excessive access to user data (see section 1.f.).

Insufficient information was available regarding general internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

In 2017 and 2018, officials applied administrative pressure on the International Black Sea University (IBSU), a leading private institution, citing tax liens on the university’s properties as grounds for blocking it from accepting new students. In December 2018 authorities accepted IBSU’s appeal against the restriction and reauthorized the university to accept new students. New students were enrolled and attending classes in the fall 2019 semester.

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 PDO and NGOs reported that police sometimes restricted, or ineffectively managed, freedom of assembly.

On June 20, parliament hosted the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy during which Russian Duma member Sergey Gavrilov began leading a session in the Russian language while sitting in the Georgian speaker’s seat. In light of Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this sparked outrage, leading to more than 10,000 protesters demonstrating in front of parliament against Russian occupation of Georgian territory. Protests proceeded peacefully until some protesters attempted to force their way into the parliament. While the majority of law enforcement officers held their positions, some fired rubber bullets at protesters from close range, resulting in serious injuries to protesters, including two who lost an eye. In October the Human Rights Center reported that, despite the nonpeaceful conduct of some of the protesters, the “disproportionate and excessive” use of force and the situation before the use of special measures by law enforcement officials created the impression that they wanted to punish the protesters. According to media reports, approximately 160 protesters and 80 law enforcement officers were injured. The Prosecutor’s Office filed charges against one 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 three cases remained pending as of December. The Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to investigate seven additional law enforcement officers for their actions; as of year’s end, the officers remained suspended pending investigation. The Human Rights Center’s report concluded that the insufficient accountability indicated a lack of political will by state officials to depoliticize law enforcement and prevent the use of “excessive” police force.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili’s (see section 1.a.) nephew, Morris Machalikashvili, was arrested following the June 20 protest and charged with “participation in group acts of violence against government officers.” Although investigators published video purporting to show Morris pushing against police officers, Malkhaz Machalikashvili and some NGOs claimed that Morris was in fact only trying to exit the crowd and alleged that the government was using Morris’ arrest to pressure Machalikashvili to drop his campaign for an investigation into his son’s death.

In April protests against the construction of a hydropower plant in Pankisi Gorge led to clashes in which protesters threw stones and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 55 persons (38 police officers and 17 local residents) were injured. The Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an investigation into the violence, but as of December no one had been charged. The then minister of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, visited in a bid to calm tensions and promised the government would not build the hydropower plant until it had secured the support of 90 percent of local residents.

The PDO reported that violence against LGBTI individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem and that the government had been unable to respond to this challenge. In June, LGBTI activists postponed a Pride march planned in central Tbilisi, citing continuing threats of violence from far-right groups and a lack of security provisions from the government.

Freedom of Association

There were reports that some government representatives and supporters of the ruling party pressured political opposition figures and supporters and state employees (see sections 1.d., 1.e., and 3).

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 freedom of internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The majority of the approximately 300,000 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 rights 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. There were reports in 2018 that citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States countries were prohibited from entering Abkhazia except from Russia, which violated Georgian law. These citizens, however, were at times able to enter from Tbilisi-administered territory (TAT) if they were staff members of international organizations or if there was a request from an international organization such as the United Nations. Crossing permits issued by de facto South Ossetian authorities were the only document that allowed movement across the South Ossetia ABL to or from TAT.

Residents of Abkhazia who had Georgian citizenship could not use their Georgian passports to cross the Abkhazia ABL to or from TAT. In August 2018 de facto authorities declared older Soviet-era passports, used by thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, to be no longer valid for crossing, threatening the livelihood of many residents. De facto authorities then blocked some ethnic Georgians who had used Soviet-era passports to cross into TAT from returning to Abkhazia, providing access only on an ad hoc basis. De facto authorities claimed that residents without valid crossing documents would be 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.

The law prohibits entry into and exit from the breakaway regions through the territory of neighboring states (i.e., Russia).

Russia and de facto Abkhaz authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia. Russia and de facto South Ossetian authorities limited international organizations, including humanitarian organizations, access to South Ossetia. The cochairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID)–representing the United Nations, the OSCE, and the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia–visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia approximately quarterly prior to most rounds of the GID. The ICRC office in Tskhinvali was the only international organization representation in South Ossetia.

De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the ABL. 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 TAT for residents in the occupied territories. In October after being prevented from crossing the ABL for medical care in TAT, Margo Martiashvili, a resident of Akhalgori in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, died following a stroke. In November an elderly woman fell into a well in occupied South Ossetia and was transferred to a hospital in Tskhinvali. Although her relatives demanded her transfer to a hospital in Tbilisi, as of December authorities had not allowed her to travel and she remained in the occupied territory. In December de facto authorities allowed a resident of occupied South Ossetia to cross the ABL at the closed Akhalgori crossing point for medical treatment after previously denying permission to cross.

Villagers who approached the ABL or crossings risked detention by Russian Federation “border guards.” Russian border guards along the ABL with Abkhazia typically enforced the boundary-crossing rules imposed by de facto authorities through detentions and fines. Along the South Ossetia ABL, Russian border guards frequently transferred individuals to de facto authorities. The SSSG reported that 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 1, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) was aware of 11 individuals detained along the ABL with Abkhazia and 44 detained along the line with South Ossetia. There were credible reports based on local sources that on several occasions, de facto South Ossetian or Russian “border guards” crossed into TAT to detain an individual. There were also reports of arbitrary arrests of ethnic Georgians by de facto authorities, particularly in the Tskhinvali and Gali regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively. 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 fencing and other physical barriers along the ABL between TAT 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 August borderization activity along the ABL with Russian-occupied South Ossetia at Gugutiantkari village saw newly erected fencing cut residents’ access to the village’s irrigation infrastructure, although they still received water from the system. Several residents also lost access to their property. According to a July Amnesty International report, as of late 2018 at least 34 villages near the South Ossetian ABL had been divided by fences separating residents from critical infrastructure (farms, pasture, irrigation, cemeteries, etc.).

In 2017 Abkhaz de facto authorities closed two crossing points across the ABL, leaving crossing points open only at the Enguri Bridge and Saberio-Pakhulani. In January de facto Abkhaz authorities closed the Enguri Bridge, claiming this was a preventative measure to avoid the spread of the H1N1 virus. On February 5, the checkpoint reopened. On June 27, de facto Abkhaz authorities temporarily closed the ABL in response to the mass protests in downtown Tbilisi, allowing only young children, women, pensioners, and individuals with medical issues to cross the checkpoint. On October 2, the crossing was reopened. As access to TAT became more restricted and visits to family and friends living across the ABL much more difficult to arrange, the closure of crossing points further impoverished and isolated the population in lower Gali and contributed to a growing sense of isolation. The closure also prevented children from attending classes in their native Georgian language across the ABL. The June closure of the ABL affected students who had to take national university entrance exams administered in government areas. According to the Abkhaz government in exile, a group of students attempted to bypass the checkpoint and cross the ABL. One was seriously injured attempting to climb over barbed wire.

In September de facto South Ossetian authorities closed all but one checkpoint along the South Ossetia ABL, claiming it was necessary for “national security.” The cochairs of the Geneva international discussions and other international actors expressed concern that prolonged crossing closures would undermine livelihoods and prevent local residents from getting the food, supplies, and medicine they needed. As of October the crossing points remained closed.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The PDO and NGOs, however, alleged that 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 for these citizens. UNHCR reported concerns regarding applications from citizens of Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and 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 was transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The PDO and local and international NGOs continued to raise concerns regarding the government’s refusal to grant asylum, other protected status, or residency permits to a number of Azerbaijani journalists and activists. They noted, however, that the situation had improved compared with previous years.

The NGOs claimed the individuals were politically persecuted in Azerbaijan and accused the Georgian government of rejecting the asylum and residence permit requests despite continued pressure against activists by the Azerbaijani government. The NGOs reported the government based its refusal of asylum and residence permits on national security interests without giving clear reasons or citing relevant legislation, although they acknowledged that the number of “baseless” rejections had decreased compared with previous years. NGOs continued to report that Azerbaijani dissidents no longer viewed the country as a safe haven.

As of July the PDO reported it did not find any violations of foreign nationals’ rights in the government’s refusal to grant citizenship, asylum or refugee status, or residency permits on national security grounds after reviewing the government’s confidential considerations in some cases.

Employment: Persons under international protection have legal access to the labor market. Foreigners, including persons under international protection, may register at 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. The naturalization process began in 2009, when there were 1,200 Chechen refugees in Pankisi. As of November 2018, 58 percent (699) applied for citizenship. Of these applicants, the government naturalized 78 percent (545) and rejected 22 percent (154). Approximately 18 percent (211) of the initial refugee population remained in Pankisi and had yet to be naturalized, including several whose applications authorities rejected because they failed to pass the required language and history tests. Authorities purportedly denied others naturalization based on national security concerns.

Temporary Protection: The law provides for avenues to temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The law provides temporary residence permits, but these permits are not a form of international protection per se in the meaning of refugee law. The Ministry of Internal Affairs may grant these temporary permits to individuals who meet the criteria for refugee status or humanitarian protection but who were rejected on national security grounds. In 2018 a total of 627 persons applied for asylum, and authorities granted temporary protection (humanitarian status) to 31.

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, among other things. In response to protests June 20-21, Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili committed the ruling party to support constitutional amendments to move to a fully proportional parliamentary electoral system in advance of the 2020 parliamentary elections, and to eliminate a threshold requirement for these elections only. On November 14, however, an insufficient number of Georgian Dream parliamentarians supported the required constitutional amendments. Citing the importance of strengthening the country’s multiparty system, opposition political parties and civil society organizations had advocated for a fully proportional system for a number of years. Parliament’s failure to pass the amendments resulted in a series of demonstrations.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: An OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission assessed that the first round of the 2018 presidential elections “was competitive and professionally administered.” While observers recognized that candidates campaigned freely and voters had a genuine choice, they raised concerns regarding the “misuse of administrative resources,” an “unlevel playing field,” “sharp polarization of the private media, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric,” “legal changes that increased the representation of the ruling party at all election administration levels,” and “insufficient transparency in the selection of nonpartisan members” that “undermined the perception of impartiality.”

The OSCE/ODIHR’s election observation mission stated that the second round of the 2018 presidential election was marked by an undue advantage for the ruling party-backed candidate and that “the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.” The assessment stated the “increased misuse of administrative resources further blurred the line between party and state” and that private media showed sharp polarization while public media did not provide for editorial independence and impartiality and “displayed a clear bias against the opposition.” Among the incidents of the use of administrative resources blurring the line between party and legitimate state purposes, the election observation mission highlighted the government’s announcement of a loan forgiveness plan for 600,000 citizens, paid for by a foundation linked to Georgian Dream Party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili. According to the observation mission, a number of its interlocutors considered this and other initiatives by national and local authorities ahead of the run-off to be forms of vote buying. The observation mission reported the handling of election complaints “often lacked proper consideration of substance, and commissions took narrow or inconsistent interpretations of the law, all of which impacted the right to effective remedy.”

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) stated that reports of intimidation of state employees to vote for the ruling party backed candidate, or not to vote, “were widespread ahead of the run-off, including firsthand accounts from family members of NDI staff.” In a November 2018 joint statement, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, Transparency International Georgia, and GYLA also reported widespread intimidation before the run-off election, with “employees of municipal public institutions, private-sector employees, socially vulnerable voters and voters with previous conviction” pressured. Most reportedly were urged to vote for the ruling party-backed candidate or were threatened because of their support for the opposition candidate. Municipal employees reported dismissal threats.

Concerns regarding the blurring of boundaries between the ruling party and state were amplified following complaints by Zugdidi public school principal Ia Kerzaia of Georgian Dream Party pressure to campaign for the party-endorsed presidential candidate. She died of a stroke within days of a Ministry of Education inspection and recommendation she be fired. In a special March 26 report, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy stated that the inspection and subsequent recommendation to dismiss Kerzaia contained elements of “politically motivated discrimination” against her.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Establishing unbiased accountability for political violence remained a problem. In early December following parliament’s rejection of the proportional election system for the 2020 parliamentary elections and the ensuing protests around parliament, activists from opposition parties and various civil movements began staging protests across the country. These protests were marred by violence and accusations of police negligence as protesters faced off against counterprotesters in Mtskheta, Tbilisi, Zugdidi, Kobuleti, Khulo, Batumi, and Kutaisi, sometimes resulting in violent clashes. Both the ruling party and the opposition accused each other of encouraging their activists, particularly youth wings, to resort to aggression, but both sides denied this. NGOs and opposition representatives accused police of “stepping aside” and allowing aggressive counterprotesters to approach protesters. On December 5, civil movement representatives protested outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs to demand that authorities “protect all citizens.”

Following a June 2018 assault by the then mayor of Marneuli, Temur Abazov, on a citizen whom he forced to apologize to “41” (Georgian Dream’s ballot number) and whose face he smeared with his own urine, the PGO opened an investigation into those involved, including the mayor, UNM Party MP 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. In December 2018 Abazov was released on bail, and in February he resigned as mayor of Marneuli. The case continued as of December.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

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 the 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 cited weak checks and balances and a lack of independence of law enforcement agencies as 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, Transparency International continued to describe corruption as a “serious problem” in the country. The Anticorruption Coordination Council included government officials, legal professionals, business representatives, civil society, and international organizations. On October 3, the minister of justice announced the government had approved its 2019-21 anticorruption strategy.

Corruption: In January, Transparency International described the country’s progress on anticorruption as stalled and noted that authorities had failed to establish independent agencies to investigate cases of alleged corruption and misconduct in the government. In March the OECD reported that the country had made progress in 16 areas, which included implementing its anticorruption action plan and policy coordination. Transparency International continued to describe the country as “vulnerable to high-level corruption,” however, and the OECD reported this required the “urgent attention” of authorities. In June, Transparency International stated that although there was no improvement in government actions to combat high-level corruption, the government was maintaining the fight against petty corruption.

During the pre-election period in 2018, several sets of audio recordings were released purporting to implicate current and former government officials in alleged corruption, torture, and abuse of power. Various parties questioned their authenticity. In one set, former PGO official Mirza Subeliani described himself as the government’s chief “fixer” in the Khorava Street murder case and claimed to have resorted to violence to force witness testimonies in this case and to have employed torture to coerce witness testimony in several other cases. On March 4, the Tbilisi City Court convicted Subeliani of concealing a crime and sentenced him to 13 months in jail, including pretrial detention; he was released on July 8. In another case the head of the Omega Group, a large conglomerate including Iberia TV, alleged that current and former high-level officials had demanded bribes and engaged in violent racketeering, to include the physical abuse of a former minister. As of October the investigation into Omega continued.

As of the end of October, 60 current or former public servants had been convicted of corruption since the beginning of the year.

In July 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 as of December. 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 corruption watchers. As of October 25, the Anticorruption Agency of the SSSG had detained 13 public servants at the local and central levels for taking bribes. NGOs continued to call for an independent anticorruption agency outside the authority of the SSSG, alleging its officials were abusing its functions.

On July 24, the PGO charged TBC Bank cofounders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze with laundering money in 2008. At that time 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 PGO, TBC Bank released Tsereteli’s companies from financial liabilities in 2012 despite their failure to repay the loans. On August 22, the PGO charged Avtandil Tsereteli with providing support to Khazaradze and Japaridze in the alleged money-laundering scheme. A group of 20 NGOs, including Transparency International/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. In a March interview with Imedi TV, for example, Georgian Dream Party Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili accused Khazaradze of directing an assault against the government. The PGO’s July 24 charges came just weeks after Khazaradze’s July 9 announcement of his intent to establish a civil movement. Khazaradze established the political movement, “Lelo,” and on December 22, 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.). On October 10, the trial of Khazaradze and Japaridze began and continued as of December.

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 Transparency International estimated that 16 members of parliament had undeclared assets as of November 2018. 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. Following what NDI described as “aggressive, personalized, and unprecedented attacks by senior state officials against…civil society organizations and their leaders” in advance of the 2018 presidential election, tensions between the government and leading NGOs continued during the year. NGOs continued to highlight what appeared to be coordinated online attacks from accounts repeating the government’s accusations against them, in particular that civil society was associated with the opposition UNM Party. On November 27, Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili accused the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute of political bias in favor of the UNM and criticized the public opinion polls they published.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Russian-occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted. In March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution expressing regret at the refusal of the de facto authorities in the occupied territories to grant unimpeded access to staff members of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and international and regional human rights mechanisms to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2018 the OHCHR reported that de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had not granted them access, despite repeated requests since 2011. The OHCHR stated that the lack of access raised legitimate questions and concerns regarding the human rights of the populations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Government Human Rights Bodies: NGOs viewed the PDO, 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 amended constitution that came into force in December 2018 limits the public defender to one six-year term in office.

The PDO’s authority does not include the power to initiate prosecutions or other legal actions, but the office may recommend action, and the government must respond. While the office generally operated without government interference and was considered effective, the PDO reported that 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 PDO 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.

In April the prime minister relaunched Georgia’s Human Rights Council, a national coordinating mechanism intended to monitor implementation of the national human rights strategy. The council, which had not met since 2015, brought together government officials at the highest level.

By law the PGO is responsible for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights unit of the PGO monitored overall prosecution and supervised compliance with national and international human rights obligations and standards. The unit reviews statistical and analytical activities within the prosecution system and is responsible for examining and responding to recommendations of national and international institutions involving human rights.

The PGO is required to investigate high-profile cases and other criminal offenses. The office may take control of any investigation if it determines 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 PGO–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 an increased number of 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 investigation 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 PGO’s human rights unit has a mandate to monitor and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination.

The PGO 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. In July 2018 parliament passed a law establishing an institutionally independent State Inspectorate charged with investigating alleged misconduct by government officials, including in law enforcement. The inspectorate’s mandate entered into force on November 1.

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, the IPRM meetings in Gali (Abkhazia) have been suspended since June 2018. Regular IPRM meetings in Ergneti (South Ossetia) have also been suspended, although ad hoc, “technical” meetings continued to take place. In August, South Ossetian participants walked out of an IPRM meeting. De facto authorities in the occupied territories did not grant representatives of the PDO access. The government of Georgia 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. As of December the PGO prosecuted 39 individuals with rape charges, compared with 14 in 2018. The government enforced the law effectively.

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 other violence against women remained a significant problem, which the government took several steps to combat.

On June 12, parliament approved amendments to the Law on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that eliminated shortcomings in the law and promoted a prevention-oriented approach to better correct abusers’ behavior and reduce recidivism.

In February the Ministry of Internal Affairs established a Victims and Witness Advocate Program to provide victims and witnesses of crimes against women, domestic violence, hate crimes, sex crimes, and trafficking with psychological and emotional support during legal proceedings. The ministry trained six advocates to help reduce stress, raise awareness of state services and investigative procedures, and facilitate communication between citizens and law enforcement authorities. As of October the ministry was searching for more advocates.

NGOs and the government expanded the services provided to victims of domestic violence in recent years. NGOs claimed public awareness of legal remedies had grown, leading to the quadrupling of reported cases of domestic violence in recent years. As of December authorities had prosecuted 4,185 domestic violence cases, compared with 3,232 in 2018 and 1,986 in 2017. As of December, 51 percent of defendants were placed in pretrial detention in domestic violence cases during the year compared with 54 percent in 2018. In October the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Human Rights Department reported there had been a significant increase in reports of domestic violence, attributing this to increased awareness. The department reported that the rate of violation of restraining orders had decreased due to improved enforcement strategies, and NGOs, including GYLA, reported law enforcement officials and prosecutors in Tbilisi showed improved professionalism in handling domestic violence crimes.

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 victim and from using common property, such as a residence or vehicle, for six months. The PDO stated that victims often reported receiving inadequate responses from law enforcement officers to restraining order violations. As of August 2018, violating a restraining order was considered a criminal offense on the first rather than the second occurrence.

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.

According to the United Nations, domestic violence, early marriage, inadequate reproductive health services, and lack of self-development and economic opportunities were among the most acute problems that women faced in Abkhazia.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and ethnic minority communities, but it was rare. The PDO reported some cases of kidnapping for marriage, forced marriage, and early marriage in its 2018 report. In October the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an investigation into whether a teacher was coerced in the Azerbaijani-majority city of Gardabani after he was reportedly forced to apologize publicly for speaking out against the alleged kidnapping for marriage of one of his students. In response to the incident, youth from the region started a social campaign, “Salam,” against early marriage.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment in the workplace was a problem. The criminal code criminalizes harassment. The PDO identified three cases of sexual harassment in 2018. In October an employee of the Tbilisi City Council accused councilmember Ilia Jishkariani of sexual harassment; as of October the case continued. In May parliament passed legislation strengthening protections against sexual harassment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Civil society organizations continued to report discrimination against women in the workplace. The PDO monitored gender equality cases, in particular those involving domestic violence and workplace harassment.

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 age five.

While IDP returnees were in principle able to get their children’s births registered with de facto authorities, they preferred to have their births registered with Georgian authorities.

Education: Children of noncitizens often lacked the 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 UNICEF, the total enrollment of preschool children between ages four and six was 69.5 percent. Enrollment rates were lower for children of ethnic minorities (33 percent), the socially vulnerable (39.7 percent), and rural communities (46.8 percent). The PDO reported that 94.3 percent of foster children attended preschool and received a basic education. The PDO reported that violence, negligence, and other forms of mistreatment were still acute in educational institutions. According to a UNICEF study released in July 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 of trafficking minors is punishable by eight to 20 years’ imprisonment depending on the specific circumstance.

Authorities referred children who suffered abuse to the relevant community and government services in coordination with stakeholders, including police, schools, and social service agencies.

On September 20, parliament passed the Code on the Rights of Children, which was developed in cooperation with UNICEF and is scheduled to enter into force on June 1, 2020. 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 to dignity, life, survival, and development, and prohibits discrimination.

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. As of December 12, the PDO was reviewing 43 instances of alleged early marriage, compared with 45 cases reviewed in 2018. The PDO noted continued concerns regarding coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and educational institutions. The Ministry of Internal Affairs opened investigations into 180 cases of child marriage in 2018 and launched an information campaign against the practice. Reports of child marriages continued throughout the year. Child marriages reportedly occurred more frequently among certain ethnic and religious groups.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Convictions relating to commercial sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography are 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 classifies sexual intercourse with a juvenile as rape, provided the perpetrator is proven to be aware of the victim’s age. The penalty for conviction of 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 September authorities, in cooperation with Europol and foreign law enforcement bodies, dismantled a child-trafficking ring and arrested 11 persons, including two foreigners, on charges of child trafficking and producing or selling child pornography. On December 5, police arrested an additional 11 individuals suspected of being members of the network. As of December the cases continued.

In July 2018 UNICEF reported street children were particularly vulnerable to violence from caretakers and fellow street youth. According to testimonies from children living on the streets of Tbilisi, internal group dynamics among these children sometimes entailed sexual “reward” structures that exposed primarily girls to abuse at the hands of older group members.

Displaced Children: The PDO reported a lack of information regarding street children and noted the inadequacy of resources devoted to them. It was unclear how many were geographically displaced, and a significant portion belonged to families that migrated seasonally to Georgia from Azerbaijan.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued replacing large-scale orphanages with smaller foster-parenting 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.

UNICEF and a foreign development agency supported the government in developing small-scale facilities for children with severe and profound disabilities with the view to closing the Tbilisi infant home. While this was an improvement, the PDO reported in 2018 that violence among children was a regular occurrence in these facilities and the government lacked an adequate response to provide for the safety, and prevent repeated abuse, of child victims of sexual violence.

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. In September 2018 human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who had Jewish and Yezidi roots, was killed outside a popular bar in central Tbilisi. Human rights NGOs alleged the two men responsible were members of a neo-Nazi group, and a key witness at the trial testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish. In October 2018 the PGO added the charge of “premeditated murder due to racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance due to his nationality and profession.” On June 27, the Tbilisi City Court convicted the two men of killing Safarov but dismissed qualifying the killing as a hate crime.

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 PDO reported that 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 PDO reported that violence, especially sexual violence, was a significant problem for persons with disabilities. Discrimination in employment was also a problem.

The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities and stipulates fines for noncompliance. Very few public facilities or buildings, however, were accessible, and the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. Public and private transportation generally did not accommodate persons with disabilities, and sidewalk and street crossing access was poor.

The PDO continued to report that provision of inclusive education remained a major problem. Despite the introduction of inclusive education in professional and general educational institutions, preschool and higher education were not part of the system. Only a limited number of 165 preschools monitored by the PDO in Tbilisi in 2016 were accessible to children with disabilities. NGOs reported that many of these children were subject to discrimination. The PDO has not monitored preschools since 2016, but it maintained the situation has not changed.

The PDO reported that state-run institutions caring for persons with disabilities lacked the infrastructure, trained staff, psychosocial services, and contact with the outside world and families needed to provide for the delivery of services. The office noted some improvements in living standards at these institutions but criticized the government for lacking a strategy for deinstitutionalization.

In 2018 only 99 of the 6,073 persons with disabilities registered on the public employment portal (Worknet) were employed. Legislation that disqualifies a person with disabilities who is working in the public sector from receiving state disability assistance may be a disincentive to such work, although in January the government passed legislation that would maintain social benefits for one year in case a person finds employment. The PDO reported that, despite the existence of a number of government programs for persons with disabilities, the community continued to lack safeguards and practical support because enforcement of the law was weak.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The PDO and NGOs reported some instances of discrimination against minority communities. As of December 12, the PDO received 15 claims of discrimination based on nationality or ethnic origin. In two cases the PDO reported that commercial banks refused to provide services to individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. The courts had not yet determined whether any had suffered actual discrimination. Despite noting advancements in minority protection and civic integration during the year, the PDO continued to report that government efforts to address remaining gaps were insufficient. NGOs found that with respect to minority rights, victims rarely registered claims due to a lack of knowledge about their rights and criticized authorities for not raising greater awareness in minority communities.

As of October the Prosecutor General’s Office charged three individuals with committing a crime on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.

Media reported numerous cases of hate speech targeting minority groups.

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 that the law requiring “adequate command of the official language” to work as a civil servant excluded them from participating in government. The PDO 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 Azerbaijani 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. According to the official data, however, authorities had not, as of July, approved any of the approximately 3,843 applications for repatriation that were pending as of mid-2017.

De facto Abkhaz authorities enacted policies that threaten 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 have prohibited Georgian language instruction. The PDO 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 undisputed government territory to teach, or send their children across the ABL for Georgian-language lessons. According to the EUMM, some Gali students faced difficulties in crossing the administrative boundary to take university entrance examinations. In autumn 2019 the EUMM noted that a small increase in the number of schoolchildren crossing the ABL, and there were more reports of barriers to studying in their mother tongue.

South Ossetian de facto 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 PDO noted the case of Tamar Mearakishvili, an activist in South Ossetia who alleged persecution by the de facto authorities because of her Georgian ethnicity. On July 10, the 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 prosecutor appealed the decision in September, but on October 17, the court dismissed all charges. The prosecutor then appealed this decision.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The criminal code 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 PDO reported that 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 PDO reported violence against LGBTI individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem and that the government has been unable to respond to this challenge. LGBTI organizations, NGOs, and the PDO reported that 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.

On June 12, 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.

LGBTI activists reported it was common for them to close their offices due to threats to their staff’s safety. In September 2018 four individuals associated with Equality Movement, a prominent LGBTI rights NGO, allegedly came under physical attack motivated by homophobia in their office’s backyard. Facing continuing threats, Equality Movement moved its office to a new location. Prosecutors charged both the attackers and the activists with violence, a decision the Equality Movement strongly criticized. In July the Prosecutor General’s Office released all involved of criminal responsibility.

As of December there were no results in two separate government investigations into the 2017 accusations by two LGBTI organizations’ leaders that Batumi police officers physically abused them after failing to intervene in their physical assault by several persons.

In February some LGBTI activists announced they would host Tbilisi’s first “pride week” in June to highlight the pervasive discrimination the LGBTI community faced in the country. Opponents of LGBTI rights held several rallies in Tbilisi where participants threatened violence against event organizers, the LGBTI community, and law enforcement officials. While the Ministry of Internal Affairs released a statement implying it could not protect individuals from attacks by anti-LGBTI protesters, it later clarified that it would attempt to prevent any violence. Meanwhile, prominent businessman Levan Vasadze threatened to create patrols to attack members of the LGBTI community, encouraged anti-LGBTI protesters to break through police lines if officers protected the march, and called on the government to repeal antidiscrimination legislation. Event organizers postponed a planned pride march several times due to the threats and concern the ministry would be unwilling to protect them. On July 8, as anti-LGBTI protesters faced off against an unrelated group of protesters in front of parliament, Tbilisi Pride organizers held a small march in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ building on the outskirts of Tbilisi. While anti-LGBTI protesters raced to the site once they realized the march was happening, the LGBTI activists marched without incident and left the scene before they arrived. Despite the fact that the ministry was not informed of the march in advance, some police deployed to protect the marchers.

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.

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. Employers are not obliged, however, to engage in collective bargaining, even if a trade union or a group of employees wishes to do so. The law permits strikes only in cases of disputes where a collective agreement is already in place. 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 related to “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 services directed related to human life and health and cited as examples restrictions on all employees in “cleaning municipal departments; natural gas transportation and distribution facilities; and oil and gas production, preparation, oil refinery and gas processing facilities.” The government provided no compensation mechanisms for this restriction.

The government did not effectively enforce laws that provide for workers’ freedom of association and prohibit antiunion discrimination, and violations of worker rights persisted. There were no effective penalties or remedies to address arbitrary dismissal, and legal disputes regarding labor rights were subject to lengthy delays. Without a fully functioning labor inspectorate and mediation services in the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Affairs, the government was unable to enforce collective bargaining agreements (as required by law) or provide government oversight of employers’ compliance with labor laws. Employees who believed they were wrongfully terminated must file a complaint in a local court within one month of their termination.

In February parliament passed a law on occupational safety and health (OSH) that expanded the mandate of the Labor Inspectorate to inspect for OSH in all sectors of the economy, not just the hazardous, harmful, and heavy industries covered by the previous law. On September 1, the law entered into force.

Workers generally exercised their right to strike in accordance with the law but at times faced management retribution. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) reported that the influence of employer-sponsored “yellow” unions in the Georgian Post and Georgian Railways continued and impeded the ability of independent unions to operate. NGOs promoting worker rights did not report government restrictions on their work.

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 for conviction that would be sufficient to deter violations; the low number of investigations into forced or compulsory labor, however, offset the effect of strong penalties and encouraged the use of forced and compulsory labor.

The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported that it found no cases of forced or compulsory labor, although the GTUC claimed this was because the labor inspectorate still 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 reported that, as of August, it had inspected 100 companies on suspicions of human trafficking and forced labor. The Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the 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.

In March 2018 the government adopted a National Human Rights Action Plan that includes a chapter on children’s rights. The Ministry of Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported that it found two cases of child labor law violations as of October. Inspectors referred both cases to the Social Service Agency and suspended activity at the two work sites. The low number of investigations into child labor made it unclear how effectively the government enforced the law. Depending on the offense, conviction of child labor law violations is punishable by fine, removal of operating permits, community service, probation, or imprisonment.

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. Many children younger than 16 worked on small, family-owned farms. In most cases authorities did not consider this work as abusive or categorized 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 on 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 July 2018 UNICEF reported 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 law prohibits discrimination in employment, but it does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status or social origin. The law further stipulates that discrimination is 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 government only sometimes effectively enforced these laws due to the lack of a fully functioning labor inspectorate. In May parliament passed amendments to the labor code that strengthened protections against sexual harassment in the workplace and empowered the PDO to investigate cases upon referral. The country continued to lack a body capable of proactively investigating workplaces to identify discriminatory practices.

Discrimination in the workplace was widespread. The 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. In addition, vacancy announcements often included age requirements as preconditions to apply for a particular position. The GTUC reported widespread instances of harassment in both the public and private sectors based on union affiliation, notably in the railway and postal services.

While the law provides for equality in the labor market, NGOs and the Ministry of 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 and Azerbaijani 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. Shifts must be at least 12 hours apart. Employees are entitled to 24 calendar days of paid leave and 15 calendar days of unpaid leave per year. Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth may not be required to work overtime without their consent. Minors who are 16 to 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 inadequate to deter violations.

Provisions of the OSH law concerning the compulsory insurance of employees by the employer against accidents came into force on January 1. In addition, on September 1, amendments to the OSH law came into force, establishing OSH standards for all sectors of the economy, and providing the labor inspectorate the authority to inspect workplaces and issue fines on employers who do not meet those standards. The Labor Inspectorate reported it inspected 36 companies on labor safety grounds and 100 on forced labor grounds as of October. On October 9, the Labor Inspectorate fined the Chinese Railway 23rd Bureau Group 50,000 lari ($17,000) for violating safety rules that resulted in the death of a worker. In general the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance fully, but the Labor Inspectorate maintained it was actively working on selecting and training new inspectors.

In June 2018 parliament passed legislation on social workers that established a minimum salary of 1,200 lari ($408), provided for an increase in the number of social workers, particularly at the municipal level, and created ongoing training programs for both new and existing social workers. These training sessions commenced in the spring, and on December 10, parliament passed a budget obligating funds for the salary increase and costs of the additional workforce.

Employer violations 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 health or safety would be cause for employers not to renew their contract.

Conditions for migrant workers were generally unregulated. While the government did not keep specific statistics of migrant laborers in the country, the Public Services Development Agency issued up to 5,000 residence permits to migrant workers. According to the International Organization for Migration, a significant number of migrant workers came to the country to work in the tourism industry or on foreign-financed projects, where they lived at the worksite. Migrants who arrived in the country without previously secured jobs were unable to find concrete employment opportunities and had insufficient resources to remain in the country or finance their return home.

NGOs reported that a significant number of workers were employed in the informal economy and were often exploited in part because of the frequent lack of employment contracts. Such conditions, they alleged, were common among those working as street vendors or in unregulated bazaars.

The Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported that 38 persons were killed and 135 injured in the workplace as of December 5, compared with 59 killed and 199 injured in 2018. The mining and construction sectors remained especially dangerous, with reports of injuries, sleep deprivation, and unregulated work hours.

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