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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Internal population movements increased during the year because of armed conflict and an historic drought. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported more than 380,289 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January 1 to November 6. The displacements caused by conflict surpassed by approximately 85,000 the number of those displaced by natural disaster during the year. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. All 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.

Limited humanitarian access because of the deteriorating security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal and physical security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived in constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP camps reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors.

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.

NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children as a significant challenge and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.

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.

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

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.

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.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.

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

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact remained low throughout the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli (see section 1.e. and the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on June 12, the State Security Service arrested the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com websites, Polad Aslanov, on charges of treason. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran. Aslanov remained in the pretrial detention facility of the State Security Service at year’s end.

Other such examples included opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Bakhishli was arrested in May 2018 four days after giving a speech holding President Aliyev responsible for journalist Elmar Huseynov’s 2005 killing. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2018 for alleged blackmail and extortion. On June 3, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years.

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

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on June 25, opposition Popular Front Party member Eldaniz Agayev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after criticizing the government in social media. Authorities also attempted to impede criticism by opening disciplinary proceedings against lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with the media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted on July 12.

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

Journalists reported that, following their coverage of the October 19 police operation, they were summoned to police precincts. Not all journalists responded to the summons, but those who did noted they were intimidated and made to justify their coverage before being released.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country.

Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: Sometimes police used force against journalists and prevented their professional activities. According to the Index on Censorship project, at least three journalists sustained minor injuries from police during an attempted unsanctioned opposition rally in downtown Baku on October 19, and one journalist, Nurlan Gahramanli, was beaten by officers in a police car after being detained.

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

Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to effectively investigate the high-profile killings of journalists in 2015 (Rasim Aliyev), 2011 (Rafiq Tagi), and 2005 (Elmar Huseynov).

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On February 25, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes conditionally sentenced the editor in chief of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, to five and one-half years in prison with two years’ probation on charges of calls against the state, abuse of power, and forgery after republishing articles covering the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. On March 18, Criminal.az editor Anar Mammadov received the same sentence. Both journalists asserted the charges against them were false and meant to intimidate them and others from independent journalistic activity.

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

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

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. The law imposes a fine for libel of 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880); the fine for slander is 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($590 to $1,180). Insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country and forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply.

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

Activists asserted authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs. For example, on April 21, progovernment REAL TV threatened to release intimate photographs of expatriate journalist Sevinj Osmangizi unless she stopped her online television program. Osmangizi also stated that the government intercepted her digital communications with other Azerbaijani expatriates. Activists and journalists also suspected the government was behind the hacking of social media accounts. On January 20, the Facebook page of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was hacked and all posts since 2017 were deleted. In November hackers took control of National Council member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook account for the second time since June 2018, blocking more than 30,000 of her followers. Following both hacks, Hajibeyli lost 130,000 of her 200,000 followers.

On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes charged the editor of the realliq.info website, Ikram Rahimov, with extortion of money and sentenced him to five years and six months in prison. Rahimov stated the case was punishment for his public criticism of then presidential assistant Ali Hasanov.

The government required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.

There were strong indicators the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report covering the period from June 2018 through May showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. As a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” The report stated that the government blocked access to additional news websites and intensified cyberattacks against activists and journalists; and prosecuted online journalists and ordinary social media users, while noting the release of some who had been incarcerated in connection with their online activities.

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($295 to $590) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.

Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in up to 30 days of administrative detention. For example, following an approved opposition-planned rally in support of the release of blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on January 19, authorities detained and sentenced 31 individuals to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days for participating in the planning and execution of the event. Activists asserted the authorities illegally identified thousands of rally participants through facial recognition software and private cell phone data that police then used to threaten them not to associate with the political opposition.

Following the January 19 rally, authorities denied all opposition applications for public demonstrations until September 26, when the Baku mayor’s office authorized a rally in Lokbatan, a site located on the outskirts of the city and unreachable by mass transit. The Baku mayor’s office then allowed the opposition to conduct a “picket” in front of its building on October 8 to protest the unsuitability of the Lokbatan site. Police dispersed the picket when more people than expected showed up to observe.

Opposition leaders called for an unsanctioned October 19 demonstration in the Baku city center after their application was again approved only for the remote Lokbatan site. In response authorities launched a massive police operation to prevent the demonstration, during which the internet was turned off in much of Baku and a large segment of the city center was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Media outlets showed numerous examples of police detaining individuals who were not engaged in protest activity as well as examples of police punching, kicking, and committing other abuses on individuals who were already subdued. Opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli was violently taken into custody. He later reported he was placed in a bus where he was severely beaten by police who were seeking to record a video of him apologizing for political activities, and subsequently choked and beaten unconscious while in police custody. Opposition National Council of Democratic Forces board member Tofig Yagoblu was also taken into custody and sentenced to administrative detention. His family members reported that, after being taken to a Baku police station, he was similarly brutally beaten by police officers who also sought to record him repudiating the opposition. He reportedly suffered a broken rib during his beating. In a November 7 appeal, 21 civil society representatives called on the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT to investigate these and other cases of what they described as politically motivated torture. At least 100 individuals were detained during the October 19 operation, approximately 40 of whom were sentenced to administrative detention.

Opposition leaders again applied for permission to hold a rally on November 2 and again received permission only for the Lokbatan site. After initially calling for members to again attempt to gather in the city center, they canceled the unauthorized rally after credible threats of a higher level of police violence. Earlier that week the progovernment media outlet haqqin.az published an article stating the police would show less restraint than on October 19, and the nationalist “self-sacrificer” group, headed by Fuad Muradov and reputed to have close links to security services, called opposition leaders and threatened the life of Ali Kerimli should the demonstration occur.

Police summoned more than 100 members of the opposition Musavat Party around the country to police stations and warned them not to participate in a planned unsanctioned picket scheduled for November 12 in front of the Baku Executive Authority. On November 12, police prevented the picket from taking place, including by deploying large numbers of officers blocking roads and detaining dozens of party members who attempted to assemble. The government released those who had tried to gather after several hours, with the exception of one organizer who was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.

The government also disrupted events organized by opposition groups. For example, on June 28, police interrupted a fundraising event organized to pay fines for opposition activists at the Baku office of the Musavat Party. Police took Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli into custody from the event and took him to the Binagadi Police Station, where he was warned and then released.

Police also restricted freedom of assembly for events not associated with the opposition. For example, on March 8 and October 20, Baku police roughly dispersed women who had gathered to protest violence against women.

On September 10, Baku municipal authorities announced the closure of Mehsul Stadium, the only location in recent years the government had approved for public demonstrations by the political opposition, for renovation and repurposing as a fitness park. Opposition activists and others stated the project was a pretext for further restrictions on freedom of assembly.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

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

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

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

In 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. Under the procedures, grant registration processes for multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities that authorize it to conduct inspections of NGOs with few provisions protecting their rights and provide the potential of harsh fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result, the bank accounts of the American Bar Association, IREX, and Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen and the organizations were unable to operate.

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

Foreign Travel: While authorities lifted the travel bans of several opposition figures, lawyers, and journalists during the year, travel bans on others remained. Those whose travel bans were lifted included opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, former REAL Party Assembly head Azer Gasimli, 11 freelance journalists who worked with Meydan TV, and human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Emin Aslan.

Authorities continued, however, to prevent a number of other opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

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

The government reported 651,458 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: There were no reports of refoulement, unlike in 2018, when the press reported that Turkish citizens were transferred without due process from Azerbaijan to Turkey, where they were detained by Turkish authorities who alleged they were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

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

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

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,120 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

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

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 291 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

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

For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement within the country. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted to Azerbaijan if they left the country. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped 95 persons of citizenship. In October 2018 the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

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

The OSCE/ODIHR canceled its observation of the 2015 National Assembly elections when the government refused to accept its recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The country’s main opposition parties boycotted the election.

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

Political Parties and Political Participation: While there were 55 registered political parties, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The National Assembly has not included representatives of the country’s main opposition parties since 2010.

The government signaled no change in its unofficial policy of preventing opposition groups from registering as political parties. In April 2018 the Republican Alternative Movement held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party. The group acknowledged the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration, but stated it had no choice after the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group.

Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights defenders estimated that the country’s courts sentenced activists of the Popular Front Party to periods of administrative detention 100 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, at least seven opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Fuad Ahmadli, Mirfeyzulla Seyidov, Babek Hasanov, Agil Mahrramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, and Pasha Umudov.

Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and employing economic pressure on their family members.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs, a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 16.8 percent of members of the National Assembly were women.

Women in opposition political parties often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, National Council of Democratic Forces board member Gultekin Hajibeyli stated authorities instigated a trumped-up civil suit against her and posted her contact information on websites known to facilitate prostitution after an attempted October 19 demonstration in an effort to shame her and her family members.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combatting low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels. Media reported the arrest of the mayor of Agstafa on December 19 for accepting bribes.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody.

Authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. On March 19, the Baku Court of Appeals rejected investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s appeal of the December 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court to hold her accountable for 45,143 manat ($26,600) of RFE/RL’s alleged tax debt, despite RFE/RL’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit entity. On August 7, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Ismayilova’s reporting on elite corruption was widely considered the reason for the targeting, which also included her imprisonment from 2014 to 2016, subsequent travel ban, and the freezing of her bank accounts since 2017.

Corruption: In April 2018 the Council of Europe issued a report of its Independent Investigation Body on allegations of corruption within the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The findings indicated strong suspicion that certain current and former members of PACE had engaged in illicit activities, such as the giving and receiving of bribes, to inappropriately influence processes related to Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe and PACE. PACE censured 13 of its members for accepting gifts and bribes from the government, stripped their voting rights, and removed them from current and future leadership positions on PACE committees.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article on October 15 reporting on a 19-day vacation to the Greek island of Mykonos taken by a group of Azerbaijani young men whose parents were senior officials of the State Oil Company. The group reportedly spent $2.2 million on private helicopters, luxury villas, and extravagant parties. Previous OCCRP publications asserted that the children of government officials used dozens of offshore companies to obscure their investments in luxury properties, businesses, and high-end hotels in Europe and the Middle East. During the year authorities initiated some criminal cases related to bribery and other forms of government corruption, but few senior officials were prosecuted. The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that during the year it opened 25 criminal cases concerning corruption, but no senior officials were prosecuted.

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

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

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

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

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

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office separately summoned human rights defender and former political prisoner Ogtay Gulaliyev on May 6 and May 13. Gulaliyev reportedly informed independent media outlet Turan that the ministry expressed concerns about his Facebook posts on repression and torture, including the July 2018 Ganja case (see section 1.c.). According to a May 13 Turan report, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement that evening accusing Gulaliyev of intentionally spreading untrue information that undermined political stability and cast a shadow on law enforcement measures. According to the statement, officials had warned Gulaliyev that if he continued to do so, more serious measures within the law would be taken against him, including criminal prosecution.

On October 29, Gulaliyev was struck by a car while crossing a Baku intersection on foot, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until October 30. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his recently announced campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the July 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. Other activists said there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received the standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey, where he remained in a coma at year’s end.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the high level of recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result, some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions, it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds.

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies criticizing what authorities called interference in the country’s internal affairs. For example, government officials and members of the National Assembly criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, stating it had been written in advance of the election to smear the country (see section 3).

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

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

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

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

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of the domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, occasionally resulting in the murder of women by their husbands. For example, media outlets reported that on July 27, Shahriyar Aslanov killed his wife in the city of Imishli. While Aslanov was arrested, activists asserted that police intervention after earlier episodes of domestic violence would have prevented the killing. On March 8, Baku police did not allow a rally against domestic violence (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly).

The State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA) tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. For example, on May 23, the SCFWCA and the UN Population Fund presented a joint report on the economic implications of violence against women in the country. The government also provided limited protection to women who were victims of assault. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment. In one case the State Border Service relieved Lieutenant Farid Azizli of his assignment and placed him under investigation following his accusation against a State Border Service colonel of sexual harassment. Azizli reiterated his claim publicly, stating in a YouTube post that he stood behind his claims even after the Border Service had found no wrongdoing in an internal probe.

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

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

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the first 11 months of the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the State Statistics Committee. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of the problem.

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

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

Child Abuse: While there are penalties for sexual violence against children and child labor, the law does assign punishment for domestic and other violence specifically against children. To address the problem of child abuse, the SCFWCA organized multiple events. For example, it held meetings with public servants on combatting gender discrimination and child abuse in Baku, Goranboy, Ujar, and Barda.

Activists reported the Ministry of Education did not effectively address the growing problem of bullying and cyberbullying in schools. On April 3, 14-year-old Elina Hajiyeva committed suicide after being bullied by both students and teachers. According to the media, school administrators initially attempted to cover up the incident, including by not immediately calling an ambulance. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case and put the school principal under house arrest. On October 24, the Sabayil District Court sentenced the principal to two years and two weeks in prison and ordered her to pay 18,500 manat ($10,900) compensation to the mother of Elina Hajiyeva.

Early and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The law provides that a girl may marry at the age of 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at the age of 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam. In July and August, media outlets reported on the suicide of a 17-year-old girl in Zagatala after her family forced her to marry an older man.

In April the SCFWCA organized awareness-raising events on prevention of early marriages in Sumgayit, Masalli, and Absheron.

The law establishes fines of 3,000 to 4,000 manat ($1,770 to $2,360) or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography; its production, distribution, or advertisement is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

Law enforcement agencies prosecuted cases of sexual violence against children. For example, on July 26, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Prosecutor General’s Office announced the arrest of Elsavar Malikov in Baku for sexual acts against minors.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

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.

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

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

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. In May 2018 parliament adopted the “Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” which calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. A local NGO reported there were approximately 60,000 children with disabilities in the country, of whom 6,000 to 10,000 had access to specialized educational facilities, while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into regular classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

No laws mandate access to public or other buildings, information, or communications for persons with disabilities, and most buildings were not accessible. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

During the year the government continued funding construction projects to make large sections of downtown Baku’s sidewalks wheelchair accessible.

Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

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

On April 1 and 2, police detained at least 14 transgender sex workers and forced them to undergo medical examinations. Authorities fined some and sentenced others to 10 or 15 days of administrative detention on charges of minor hooliganism. Following international outcry, the Baku Court of Appeals released those in detention on April 5.

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

The law prohibits discrimination against trade unions and labor activists and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also prohibits retribution against strikers, such as dismissal or replacement. Striking workers who disrupt public transportation, however, could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Administrative penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. There were some additional restrictions in practice, such as increased bureaucratic scrutiny of the right to form unions and conduct union activities.

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except in circumstances of war or in the execution of a court decision under the supervision of a government agency. Penalties for violations, including imprisonment, were generally sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Resources and inspections were inadequate, due in part to a moratorium on all routine and unannounced labor inspections.

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

During the year there were anecdotal reports of workers subjected to conditions of forced labor in agriculture and the construction industry, forced begging by children, and forced domestic servitude. In 2018 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 450 children were identified as being forced by their parents to beg in the streets. Although some children were removed from the exploitative situation, in general it was treated as a family issue rather than a criminal offense.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor and setting a minimum age for employment. The government maintained a moratorium on routine and unannounced inspections, which prevented effective enforcement of child labor laws. Resources and inspections were inadequate to enforce compliance, and penalties for violations were insufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population was only permitted to conduct inspections based on complaints. In 2018 the State Labor Inspection Service received five child-labor complaints in the catering industry but failed to take further action on them.

There were few complaints of abuses of child labor laws during the year, although there were anecdotal reports of child labor in agriculture, in restaurants and wedding halls, forced begging, and street work, such as in bazaars and markets, auto garages and car washes, and selling fruit and vegetables on roadsides throughout the country. In agriculture there were limited, anecdotal reports of children working in the production of fruits, vegetables, and cotton and, to a lesser extent, involved in producing tea and rice. There were also reports of children subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children, and section 7.b.).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. Penalties for discrimination in employment existed under various articles and laws but were patchwork in nature and did not effectively deter discrimination in all its forms. The law excludes women from certain occupations with inherently dangerous conditions, such as working underground in mines. Many of these positions were higher ranked and better paid than positions that women are permitted to occupy in the same industries.

Employers generally hesitated to hire persons with disabilities, and workplace access was limited. Discrimination in employment and occupation also occurred with respect to sexual orientation. LGBTI individuals reported employers found other reasons to dismiss them because they could not legally dismiss someone because of their sexual orientation. Women were underrepresented in high-level jobs, including top business positions. Traditional practices limited women’s access to economic opportunities in rural areas. According to the State Statistics Committee, in 2018 the average monthly salary for women was 53.8 percent of the average monthly salary for men.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was increased on March 1 and again on September 1, and it was higher than the poverty level (minimum living standard), which was increased on January 1. Experts stated government employers complied with the minimum wage law but that it was commonly ignored in the informal economy. The law requires equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, age, or other classification, although women’s pay lagged behind that of men.

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

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on acceptable conditions of work, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

In 2017 the government extended its moratorium on scheduled and unannounced labor inspections until 2021. Although inspectors were still permitted to inspect private-sector workplaces after receiving a complaint and government-owned workplaces, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security did not report any inspections during the year. The ministry reportedly maintained its full staff of inspectors.

Inspection of working conditions by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection’s labor inspectorate was weak and ineffective due to the moratorium. Although the law sets health and safety standards, employers widely ignored them. Violations of acceptable conditions of work in the construction and oil and gas sectors remained problematic.

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

According to official statistics, 63 workers died on the job during the year, including six in the oil and gas sector. Workers may not remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety, as there is no legal protection of their employment if they did so. On July 16, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) reported the death of worker Seymur Valikhanov, stating the cause of death was trauma to the head from a fall in the bathroom. Media outlets reported that the real cause of death was a falling bucket of acid that hit Valikhanov in the head and throat, and that SOCAR had covered up the incident to avoid paying compensation to the family of the deceased.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

Bahrain is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet, consisting of 24 ministers; 12 of the ministers were members of the al-Khalifa ruling family. The king, who holds ultimate authority over most government decisions, also appoints the prime minister–the head of government–who does not have to be a member of parliament. Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, and according to the government, 67 percent of eligible voters participated in the most recent elections, held in November 2018. Two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, did not participate in the elections due to their dissolution by the courts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded authorities administered the elections without significant procedural irregularities.

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for internal security and controls the public security force and specialized security units responsible for maintaining internal order. The Coast Guard is also under its jurisdiction. The Bahrain Defense Force is primarily responsible for defending against external threats, while the Bahrain National Guard is responsible for both external and internal threats. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including restrictions on independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) keeping them from freely operating in the country; restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship; and restrictions on political participation, including banning former members of al-Wifaq and Wa’ad from running as candidates in elections.

The government prosecuted low-level security force members accused of human rights abuses, following investigations by government or quasi-governmental institutions. Human rights organizations claimed investigations were slow and lacked transparency.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” The government limited freedom of speech and the press through prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists.

Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech is curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.”

On May 22, King Hamad ratified amendments to the Protection of the Community against Terrorist Acts law spelling out penalties of up to five years in prison for encouraging or possessing materials that support terrorist activities. The law appeared to give law enforcement and prosecutors greater authority to submit audio, emails, and social media posting as evidence in court. Activists expressed concern the provisions could be used to curtail dissent and criticism, especially in social media forums.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.

The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic, Farsi, and English from countries in the region, including by satellite, without interference. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs also reviewed those books that discussed religion.

Since the 2017 closure of al Wasat newspaper, opposition perspectives were available only via online media sources based outside the country, some of which the government blocked.

Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government brought criminal complaints against journalists who worked without accreditation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine of no more than 200 dinars ($530). Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 172 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” between January and September, compared with 19 cases in 2018. Twenty-four persons were convicted of “insulting a government institution,” and 529 were convicted of “misusing a telecommunications device.”

On March 13, former senior opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif received a six-month suspended sentence and a 500-dinar ($1,300) fine from the Lower Criminal Court for defaming the then president of Sudan Omar al Bashir in a tweet by referring to him as a “despot.” The government maintained that Sharif’s case was about an illegal act, not a narrowing of freedom of expression. The Court of Cassation upheld his conviction on December 31.

National Security: National security-related law provides for fines up to 10,000 dinars ($26,500) and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines of up to 2,000 dinars ($5,300) for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.

The government blocked access to some websites from inside the country, including some opposition-linked websites. The government continued blocking Qatari news websites such as al-Jazeera, al-Sharq, and Raya, an action it began after cutting relations with Qatar in 2017. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.

Several reports alleged the government monitored political and human rights activists’ social media accounts and electronic communications.

Political and human rights activists reported being interrogated by security forces regarding their postings on social media. They sometimes reported repeated interrogations that included threats against their physical safety and that of their families, threats against their livelihood, and threats of denial of social services such as housing and education. Several activists reported shutting down or deciding to cease posting to their social media accounts because of the threats.

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics engaged in self-censorship, avoiding discussion of contentious political issues.

Human rights advocates claimed government officials unfairly distributed university scholarships and were biased against Shia students, for both political and religious reasons, when admitting students into certain programs. The government continued using interviews in the university selection process, partially to correct for grade inflation, as there is no national standardized test to account for different grading practices across secondary schools; however, students reported authorities questioned them on their political beliefs and those of their families during interviews. The government maintained it distributed all scholarships and made all placements based on merit.

On September 17, the Ministry of Youth and Sports banned al Urooba Sports Club from holding a seminar on the 200-year history of United Kingdom-Bahrain relations. Al Urooba cancelled the event after receiving a letter from the ministry stating the event violated a law prohibiting sports clubs from engagement in political activities.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the right of free assembly, but a number of laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations, stating that the purpose was to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. For the fourth year, there were no authorized demonstrations, although the ministry generally did not intervene in peaceful, unauthorized demonstrations, including spontaneous labor demonstrations. For the fourth year, the government declined to issue permits for a “May Day” rally in support of workers’ rights by the more than 45 trade unions affiliated with the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU). According to the government, there were no applications submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.

The law outlines the locations where functions are prohibited, including in areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent a public meeting if it violates security or public order, or for any other serious reason. The law states that mourners may not turn funeral processions into political rallies and that security officials may be present at any public gathering.

The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two members. The committee is responsible for supervising and preventing any illegal acts during the function. According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify why it approves or denies requests to allow protests. The penal code penalizes any gathering “of five or more individuals” that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Lawyers asserted authorities should not prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions that crimes would be committed. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.

Organizers of an unauthorized gathering faced prison sentences of three to six months. The minimum sentence for participating in an illegal gathering is one month, and the maximum is two years’ imprisonment. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. The maximum fine is 200 dinars ($530). The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious community centers), or other religious sites for political gatherings.

The government did not prevent small, nonviolent opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that often protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up some of these protests with tear gas, however. While groups participating in these protests often posted photographs on social media of these events, participants were careful to hide their faces due to fear of retribution.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all groups to register, civil society groups and labor unions with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and political societies with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. The government decided whether a group was social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. A number of unlicensed societies were active in the country (see section 3).

A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Labor and Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the society’s services unnecessary, already provided by another society, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved society. Associations whose applications authorities rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court, which may annul the ministry’s decision or refuse the appeal.

NGOs and civil society activists asserted the ministry routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Local NGOs asserted officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources, and authorities sometimes did not authorize it.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.

Foreign Travel: The law provides the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled, although some persons reported the website was not a reliable source of information. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year authorities prevented a number of activists from leaving the country without providing options for legal recourse.

Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.

Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if a head-of-household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number of such cases at more than 700 since 2012. On June 27, King Hamad declined to finalize the more than 550 revocations in process, effectively cancelling the process and returning full citizenship to individuals named in those cases.

Also on June 27, King Hamad issued Royal Decree-Law No. 16, which ended the practice of automatically recommending citizenship revocation when individuals were convicted of certain terrorism-related crimes. The decree appeared to clarify that the prime minister and the minister of interior, rather than King Hamad and the courts, would now determine citizenship revocations. Some activists expressed concern that the new law reduced the transparency of the citizenship revocation process.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; however, protection was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of September, there were 312 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the agency.

Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may confer or revoke it. Since the government considers only the father’s citizenship when determining citizenship, it does not generally grant children born to a non-Bahraini father citizenship, even if they were born in the country to a citizen mother (see section 6, Children). Likewise, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to Bahraini women, unlike the process by which foreign women married to Bahraini men may become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to pursue citizenship from his country of origin for his children, or when the father himself was stateless, deceased, or unknown. It was unknown how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment. There were reports authorities refused applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose Bahraini fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person (see section 6, Children).

In 2017 the BCHR issued a report documenting 13 cases of children who had not received citizenship because their fathers were dissidents. As of December the government had granted citizenship to all the children named in the report, with the exception of Sarah Ali Salman, daughter of Ali Salman (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens have limited ability to choose their government and their political system. The constitution provides for a democratically elected Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. The constitution permits the king to dissolve the Council of Representatives, but it requires that he first consult the presidents of the upper and lower houses of parliament as well as the head of the Constitutional Court. The king also has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.

Recent Elections: Approximately 67 percent of eligible voters participated in parliamentary elections held in November 2018, according to government estimates.

The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded that authorities administered the elections without significant irregularities. Some observers expressed broader concerns regarding limitations on freedom of expression and association as well as continued concerns over voting district boundaries. The dissolution of the country’s principal opposition societies and laws restricting their former members from running for office, the absence of an independent press, and the criminalization of online criticism created a political environment that was not conducive to free elections, according to Human Rights Watch.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government did not allow the formation of political parties, but some “political societies” developed political platforms, held internal elections, and hosted political gatherings. In 2017 the government dissolved the two most prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, through legal actions.

On January 21, the Court of Cassation rejected a final appeal by Wa’ad, officially dissolving the political society.

To apply for registration, a political society must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, a list of all members and copies of their residency cards, and a financial statement identifying the society’s sources of funding and bank information. The society’s principles, goals, and programs must not run counter to sharia or national interest, as interpreted by the judiciary, nor may the society base itself on sectarian, geographic, or class identity. A number of societies operated outside these rules, and some functioned on a sectarian basis.

The government authorized registered political societies to nominate candidates for office and to participate in other political activities. The law bans practicing clerics from membership in political societies (including in leadership positions) and involvement in political activities, even on a voluntary basis. In 2018 the government passed an amendment to the Exercising Political Rights Law that prohibits “active” members of political societies that had been dissolved by court order to run as candidates in elections. Although the law allows for former members of these societies to ask a court to determine their status, none of them were permitted to run.

Political societies are required to coordinate their contacts with foreign diplomatic or consular missions, foreign governmental organizations, or representatives of foreign governments with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which may elect to send a representative to the meeting. Although this requirement was enforced in the past, there were no reports of the government enforcing the order during the year.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and women did participate. In the November 2018 elections, six women won seats in the 40-member Council of Representatives, doubling the number of women. The royal court appointed nine women during the year to the Shura Council, the appointed 40-member upper house, and the prime minister appointed a woman to the 26-seat cabinet.

Shia and Sunni citizens have equal rights before the law, but Sunnis dominated political life; the majority of citizens are Shia. In November 2018, 11 Shia candidates were elected to the Council of Representatives. The appointed Shura Council included 19 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member. Five of the 24 appointed cabinet ministers were Shia citizens, including one of five deputy prime ministers.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, but the government did not implement the law adequately, and some officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices. The law subjects government employees at all levels to prosecution if they use their positions to engage in embezzlement or bribery, either directly or indirectly. Penalties may be up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The General Directorate of Anticorruption and Economic and Electronic Security held workshops for various ministries throughout the year.

Corruption: The National Audit Office (NAO) is responsible for combating government corruption. The Government Executive Committee, chaired by the crown prince, reviews any violations cited in the NAO’s annual report. In December 2018 the government released the office’s annual report, and the government released some findings to the public; however, the full report was not published or made available online. The government reported that six officials were charged with or jailed on embezzlement or bribery-related charges during the year.

Significant areas of government activity, including the security services and the Bahrain Defense Force, lacked transparency, and the privatization of public land remained a concern among opposition groups.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require government officials to make financial disclosures.

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

Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government.

Domestic human rights groups operated with government restrictions, with some human rights activists imprisoned, exiled, or coerced into silence, according to reporting by international human rights organizations. Domestic human rights groups included the Bahrain Human Rights Society and Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, the primary independent and licensed human rights organizations in the country; the BCHR, although dissolved by the government in 2004, continued to operate and maintain an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization Bahrain Human Rights Observatory also issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs.

Domestic human rights groups faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. The government sometimes harassed and deprived local NGO leaders of due process. Local NGO leaders and activists also reported government harassment, including police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, and “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships. Activists reported forgoing travel, in particular to international human rights events, fearing a reimposition of international travel bans.

Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A 2016 amendment to a royal decree re-established the country’s National Human Rights Organization, now called the NIHR. The decree strengthened the NIHR by giving it the right to conduct unannounced visits to police facilities and increasing its financial independence. Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the PPO. It issued its latest annual report in March 2018 and contributed to PDRC, ombudsman, and SIU investigations. It also operated a hotline for citizens and residents to file human rights-related complaints and offered an in-person walk-in option for filing complaints.

The government reported that between January and August, there were 12 referrals of law enforcement for misconduct and one conviction of a police officer on criminal charges, noting 46 other cases were pending further investigation.

The SIU investigates and refers cases of security force misconduct, including complaints against the police, to the appropriate court, which includes civilian criminal courts, the ministry’s Military Court, and administrative courts (see section 1.c.). As of September the SIU received 53 complaints of police misconduct, one of which was against the Special Security Force Command. The SIU referred one case to the criminal court for prosecution. The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct, although it reported the highest-ranking police officer prosecuted for any crime was a captain.

There was also a BNSA Office for the Inspector General and a Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office, created as a result of the BICI. While both offices were responsible for addressing cases of mistreatment and abuse by the security forces, there was little public information available regarding the BNSA inspector general’s activities. The ombudsman’s sixth annual report, released in September, reported 289 complaints and 778 assistance requests between May 2017 and April from alleged victims of mistreatment by police and civilian staff, their families, or organizations representing their interests. Of these complaints, 70 were referred to the relevant disciplinary body, including police administrative hearing “courts” and the PPO, 50 were still under investigation, and 144 were closed without resolution. The ombudsman reported receipt of 43 complaints against the CID, of which seven cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary proceedings, and 86 complaints against Jaw Prison, of which 40 cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary action. The ombudsman referred 15 of the cases against the CID and 73 against Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary procedures; four and 19 additional cases were still under investigation, respectively.

The PDRC, chaired by the ombudsman, monitors prisons, detention centers, and other places where persons may be detained, such as hospital and psychiatric facilities. The PDRC is empowered to conduct inspections of facilities, interview inmates or detainees, and refer cases to the Ombudsman’s Office or SIU.

The ministry organized various human rights training programs for its employees, including a year-long human rights curriculum and diploma at the Royal Police Academy. The academy regularly negotiates memoranda of understanding with the NIHR to exchange expertise. The academy continued to include a unit on human rights in international law as part of the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics. The NIHR had a memorandum with the BNSA to organize workshops and training sessions for BNSA officers relating to human rights and basic rights and to collaborate on future research.

During the year two women in the police force held the rank of brigadier general and general director.

In part to address concerns about inadequate Shia representation in the demographics of police and security forces, in 2005 the government established the community police program, which recruited individuals to work in their own neighborhoods. Local activists and human rights organizations reported, however, that the demographics of the overall security forces still failed to represent adequately Shia communities. Official statistics documented 1,374 community police officers, of whom 307 were women. The ministry did not keep official statistics on the number of Shia members of the community police force, however, and did not recruit new community police during the year. Community members reported that Shia citizens were among those integrated into the community police and the police cadet programs. Information was not available on recruitment rates of Shia citizens into other security forces.

The government also maintained the Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the PPO, and the PDRC. These organizations worked with each other throughout the year. The Ombudsman’s Office maintained a hotline for citizens to report police abuse via telephone, email, or in person.

Many human rights groups asserted that investigations into police abuse were slow and ineffective and questioned the independence and credibility of investigations by government-sponsored organizations. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations reported that government-affiliated human rights institutions did not fully investigate or follow up on claims of abuse. Furthermore, Amnesty reported that detainees faced reprisals for their or their families’ attempts to engage with the Ombudsman’s Office.

Local and international observers and human rights organizations also continued to express concern the government had not fully implemented BICI recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia citizens into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, although the penal code allows an alleged rapist to marry his victim to avoid punishment. The law does not address spousal rape. Penalties for rape include life imprisonment and execution in cases where the victim is a minor younger than 16, if the rapist is the custodian or guardian of the victim, or when the rape leads to the victim’s death.

The law states violence against women is a crime. Nevertheless, domestic violence against women was common, according to the BCHR. Although government leaders and some members of parliament participated in awareness-raising activities during the year, including debates on additional legislation, authorities devoted little attention to supporting public campaigns aimed at the problem. The government maintained a shelter for women and children who were victims of domestic violence. The law provides that local police officials should be contacted in cases of domestic violence and that the public prosecutor can investigate if information is passed from the police to them. Victims of domestic violence, however, reported difficulty knowing whom to contact or how to proceed when filing a complaint.

The government continued to document and prosecute physical or sexual abuse of women. The Ministry of Justice reported documenting 420 cases of physical or sexual abuse as of September, of which 116 involved children. Of the 420 cases, 47 resulted in conviction. Twelve cases of rape were reported between January and September, one of which was referred to court; proceedings for the case were underway as of November.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was rarely practiced, and instances mostly occurred within immigrant populations. There is no specific law prohibiting the practice, although legal experts previously indicated the act falls under criminal code provisions that prohibit “permanent disability to another person.” There were no cases of prosecuting FGM during the year.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: By law “honor” killings are punishable, but the penal code provides a lenient sentence for killing a spouse caught in the act of adultery, whether male or female. There were no cases of honor killings reported during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including insulting or committing an indecent act towards a woman in public, with penalties of imprisonment and fines. Although the government sometimes enforced the law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem for women, especially foreign female domestic workers.

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

Discrimination: Women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings in family courts, but Shia and Sunni religious courts may refuse the request. In divorce cases the courts routinely granted mothers custody of daughters younger than nine and sons younger than seven for Shia women, with fathers typically gaining custody once girls and boys reached the ages of nine and seven, respectively. Sunni women can retain custody of daughters until age 17 and sons until age 15. Regardless of custody decisions, the father retains guardianship, or the right to make all legal decisions for the child, until age 21. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father “without just cause.” Any woman who remarries loses custody of her children.

The basis for family law is sharia as interpreted by Sunni and Shia religious experts. In 2017 King Hamad ratified the Shia portion of the Unified Family Law codifying the rights of Shia citizens, in particular women, according to the civil code on issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia and Sunni family law was enforced by separate judicial bodies composed of religious authorities charged with interpreting sharia. The revised civil law provides access to family courts for all women, ensuring the standardized application of the law and further legal recourse, since decisions made by family court judges are subject to review by the Supreme Judicial Council. In instances of mixed Sunni-Shia marriages, families may choose which court hears the issue.

Women may own and inherit property and represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shia women may inherit all of their husband’s property, while Sunni women inherit only a portion, with the brothers or other male relatives of the deceased also receiving a share. The government respected wills directing the division of assets according to the deceased.

Labor laws prohibit discrimination against women, but discrimination against women was systemic, especially in the workplace, although the law prohibits wage discrimination based on gender.

Women experienced gains in business. The number of women elected to parliament increased from three to six representatives, and for the first time in the history of the country, the Council of Representatives elected a woman as speaker in December 2018. In the business sector, female-led entrepreneurial ventures constituted more than half of filings for new businesses.

Birth Registration: Individuals derive citizenship from their father or by decree from the king. Women do not transmit their nationality to their children, rendering stateless some children of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers (see section 2.d.).

Authorities do not register births immediately. From birth to the age of three months, the mother’s primary health-care provider holds registration for the children. When a child reaches three months, authorities register the birth with the Ministry of Health’s Birth Registration Unit, which then issues the official birth certificate. Children not registered before reaching their first birthday must obtain a registration by court order. The government does not provide public services to a child without a birth certificate.

Education: Schooling is compulsory for children until age 15 and is provided free of charge to citizens and legal residents through grade 12. Authorities segregated government-run schools by gender, although girls and boys used the same curricula and textbooks. Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim public-school students and are optional for non-Muslim students.

Child Abuse: The Family Courts, established in 2017, have jurisdiction over issues including child abuse. NGOs expressed concern over the lack of consistently written guidelines for prosecuting and punishing offenders and the leniency of penalties in child-abuse-conviction cases in the sharia courts.

There were reports police approached children outside schools and threatened or coerced them into becoming police informants.

Early and Forced Marriage: According to the law, the minimum age of marriage is 15 years for girls and 18 years for boys, but special circumstances allow marriages below these ages with approval from a sharia court.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits exploitation of a child for various crimes, including prostitution. Penalties include imprisonment of no less than three months if the accused used exploitation and force to commit the crime and up to six years if the accused exploited more than one child, as well as penalties of at least 2,000 dinars ($5,300) for individuals and at least 10,000 dinars ($26,500) for organizations. The law also prohibits child pornography. The Ministry of Justice reported prosecuting 113 cases of sexual exploitation of children as of September, a significant increase over the prior year.

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.

According to community members, there were between 36 and 40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country. Some anti-Jewish political commentary and editorial cartoons occasionally appeared in print and electronic media, usually linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without government response.

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

The law stipulates equal treatment for persons with disabilities with regard to employment, and violations of the law are punishable with fines. The constitution guarantees social security, social insurance, and health care for persons with disabilities. The government administered a committee to ensure the provision of care for persons with disabilities that included representatives from all relevant ministries, NGOs, and the private sector. The committee is responsible for monitoring violations against persons with disabilities. During the year the government did not prosecute any cases for violations against persons with disabilities.

Authorities mandated a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental, and religious institutions to support and protect persons with disabilities. In March 2018 a law established a High Commission for Disabled Affairs to develop a social awareness campaign, prepare a national strategy, and develop legislation to address the needs of persons with disabilities. New public buildings in the central municipality must include accessible facilities. The law does not mandate access to other nonresidential buildings for persons with disabilities.

No information was available on the responsibilities of government agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, although building codes required all new government buildings to be accessible. According to anecdotal evidence, persons with disabilities routinely lacked access to education and employment. The sole government school for children with hearing disabilities did not operate past the 10th grade. Some public schools had specialized education programs for children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech disabilities, and intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome.

Eligible voters may vote either in their regular precincts or in a general polling station. The local precincts, which are mostly in schools, sometimes posed problems to voters with mobility disabilities due to lack of physical accessibility. General polling stations in public spaces such as malls allowed for assistive devices. There was no absentee ballot system.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development continued to work with the UN High Committee for Persons with Disabilities in cooperation with the UN Development Program.

The law grants citizenship to ethnic Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 15 years and non-Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 25 years. There were numerous reports that authorities did not apply the citizenship law uniformly. Human rights and civil society groups stated the government allowed foreign Sunni employees of the security services who had lived in the country less than 15 years to apply for citizenship. There were also reports authorities had not granted citizenship to Arab Shia residents who had resided in the country for more than 15 years and non-Arab foreign residents who had resided more than 25 years. Rights groups reported discrimination, especially in employment, against Shia citizens in certain professions such as security forces.

The law does not criminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults at least 21 years old, but it does not extend antidiscrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to Human Rights Watch, the government prosecuted acts such as organizing a “gay party” or cross-dressing under penal code provisions against “indecency” and “immorality.”

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity occurred, including in employment and obtaining legal identity documents. In some cases, however, courts permitted transgender individuals to update identity documents if they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

There were no known cases involving societal violence or discrimination against persons based on HIV/AIDS status, but medical experts acknowledged publicly that discrimination existed. The government mandated screening of newly arrived migrant workers for infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In prior years the government deported migrant workers found to be HIV/AIDS positive, but the status of deportations during the year was unclear.

The Ministry of Interior reported that violent extremists perpetrated one attack against police from January to August and reported two injuries of police officers while on duty. Other unidentified individuals conducted numerous attacks aimed at security personnel during the year, which perpetrators often filmed and posted to social media. These videos showed attackers using Molotov cocktails and other improvised weapons against police patrols and stations, including in close proximity to bystanders. Police usually avoided responding with deadly force.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution and labor code recognize the right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike, with significant restrictions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining.

The law prohibits trade unions in the public sector. Public-sector workers may join private-sector trade unions and professional associations, although these entities may not bargain on their behalf. The law also prohibits members of the military services and domestic workers from joining unions. Foreign workers, composing nearly 80 percent of the civilian workforce, may join unions if they work in a sector that allows unions, although the law reserves union leadership roles for citizens. The law prohibits unions from engaging in political activities.

The law specifies only an official trade union may organize or declare a strike, and it imposes excessive requirements for legal strikes. The law prohibits strikes in 10 “vital” sectors–the scope of which exceeds international standards–including the oil, gas, education, telecommunications, transportation, and health sectors, as well as pharmacies and bakeries. The law makes no distinction between “vital” and “nonvital” employees within these sectors. Workers must approve a strike with a simple majority by secret ballot and provide 15 days’ notification to the employer before conducting a strike.

The law allows multiple trade union federations but prohibits multisector labor federations and bars individuals convicted of violating criminal laws that lead to trade union or executive council dissolution from holding union leadership posts. The law gives the labor minister, rather than the unions, the right to select the federation to represent workers in national-level bargaining and international forums. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, in practice independent unions faced government repression and harassment. The law does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Relations between the main federations and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development were publicly contentious at times. The government sometimes interfered in GFBTU activities, such as preventing public May Day observances, although the ministry supported GFBTU partnership with international NGOs for training workshops.

Some workers and union affiliates complained union pluralism resulted in company management interfering in union dues collection and workers’ chosen union affiliation. They stated that management chose to negotiate with the union it found most favorable–to the detriment of collective bargaining agreements and the legitimate voice of workers.

In 2014, after signing a second tripartite agreement, the International Labor Organization (ILO) dismissed the complaint filed in 2011 regarding the dismissal of workers. During the year the government reported it considered efforts at reinstatement, as reflected in the tripartite agreement, to be completed. The government reported that 154 of the 165 cases had been resolved through either reinstatement or by financial compensation. Human rights organizations and activists questioned the government’s claims and reported continuing, systemic labor discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor except in national emergencies, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. There were reports of forced labor in the construction and service sectors. The labor law covers foreign workers, except domestic workers, but enforcement was lax, and cases of debt bondage were common. There were also reports of forced labor practices that occurred among domestic workers and others working in the informal sector; labor laws did not protect most of these workers. Domestic workers have the right to see their terms of employment.

In many cases employers withheld passports, a practice prohibited by law, restricted movement, substituted contracts, or did not pay wages; some employers also threatened workers and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development reported 2,445 labor complaints from domestic workers and construction workers, mostly of unpaid wages or denied vacation time.

Estimates of the proportion of irregular migrant workers in the country under “free visa” arrangements–a practice where workers pay individuals or companies to sponsor visas for persons who are then “free” to work informally wherever they want–ranged from 10 to 25 percent of the foreign workers in the country. The practice contributed to the problem of debt bondage, especially among low-wage workers. In numerous cases employers withheld salaries from foreign workers for months or years and refused to grant them permission to leave the country. Fear of deportation or employer retaliation prevented many foreign workers from complaining to authorities.

In 2017 the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) launched a flexible work-permit pilot program, which permits an individual to self-sponsor a work permit. It is available only to workers who are out of status and costs approximately 450 dinars ($1,200), in addition to a monthly fee of 30 dinars ($80). Some NGOs expressed concerns regarding the cost of the visa and the fact that it shifts responsibilities, such as health insurance, from the employer to the worker. According to government reports from September, despite significant political opposition, more than 25,000 persons had received the flexi permit since its launch. Governments of origin countries stated it was an important first step in regularizing undocumented workers but also criticized the program for being too expensive. The Philippine government provided some funding to cover application costs for its citizens who were eligible for the program. The LMRA reported that as of September there were approximately 70,000 undocumented workers in the country.

In 2016 the LMRA instituted procedures that allowed workers to change the employer associated with their visa–either without permission from their old employer or without their passport. The LMRA threatened employers who withheld passports with criminal and administrative violations and prohibited at-fault employers from hiring new workers. During the year the government shut down recruitment agencies and revoked licenses of others for infringing on workers’ rights. Recruitment agencies complicit in illegal practices may be subject to license revocation, legal action, shutdown of business operations, or a forfeit of license deposits.

The LMRA employed inspectors who were sworn officers of the court, with the authority to conduct official investigations. LMRA inspector reports may result in fines, court cases, loss of work permits, and termination of businesses. These inspectors focus on the legal and administrative provisions under which individuals fall, including work permits, employer records, and licenses. The Ministry of Labor employed general inspectors and occupational safety inspectors. Their roles are to inspect workplaces, occupational health and safety conditions, and the employer/employee work relationship.

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 age for employment is 15, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than 18 may not work in industries the Ministry of Health deemed hazardous or unhealthy, including construction, mining, and oil refining. They may work no more than six hours a day–no more than four days consecutively–and may be present on the employment premises no more than seven hours a day. Child labor regulations do not apply to family-operated businesses in which the only other employees are family members.

The law requires that before the ministry makes a final decision on allowing a minor to work, the prospective employer must present documentation from the minor’s guardian giving the minor permission to work; proof the minor underwent a physical fitness examination to determine suitability; and assurance from the employer the minor would not work in an environment the ministry deemed hazardous. Generally, the government effectively enforced the law.

The law does not allow expatriate workers younger than 18 to work in the country.

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 .

The constitution provides for equality between men and women in political, social, cultural, and economic spheres without breaching the provisions of Islamic law. The labor law deems dismissal for sex, color, religion, ideology, marital status, family responsibilities, and pregnancy to be arbitrary and illegal, but provides for no right to reinstatement. The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, origin, language, religion, or ideology. There are no other specific protections regarding political opinion, race, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or having other communicable diseases, or social status.

Women continued to face systemic discrimination and barriers to advancement, especially in fields traditionally dominated by men, including leadership positions. They often faced hiring discrimination because of a perception they would become pregnant or their family lives would interfere with their work.

In the business sector, female-led entrepreneurial ventures constituted more than half of filings for new businesses.

The law stipulates equal treatment for persons with disabilities with regard to employment, and violations of the law are punishable with fines (see section 6, Persons with Disabilities). The constitution guarantees social security, social insurance, and health care for persons with disabilities. In 2018 the Ministry of Labor issued an edict that workers with significant disabilities and their first-degree relative caregivers should receive two hours of daily paid rest. In April the government began implementing the policy. The government administered a committee to monitor provision of care for persons with disabilities and violations against them that included representatives from all relevant ministries, NGOs, and the private sector. During the year the government did not prosecute any cases for violations against persons with disabilities.

No information was available on the responsibilities of government agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, although building codes required all new government buildings to be accessible. According to anecdotal evidence, persons with disabilities routinely lacked access to employment.

The law requires the government to provide vocational training for persons with disabilities who wish to work. The law also requires employers of more than 100 persons to hire at least 2 percent of its employees from the government’s list of workers with disabilities. The government did not monitor compliance. Some persons with disabilities were employed in the public sector.

It remained rare for persons with disabilities to find employment in positions of responsibility. Many workplaces remained difficult to access for those needing assistance due to a lack of ramps, narrow doorways, and unpaved parking lots. The Ministry of Labor continued to fund a center offering employment and training services for citizens with disabilities.

Many workers in the country were foreign workers. Although the government asserted the labor code for the private sector applies to all workers, the ILO and international NGOs noted foreign workers faced discrimination in the workplace. There are no provisions to provide for equality in the hiring process. It was common for employers to advertise positions for specific nationalities or languages without justifying why only persons from that specific nationality or language group would be acceptable.

After a Bangladeshi mosque caretaker killed a Bahraini imam in 2018, the government increased scrutiny of foreigners entering the country. In August 2018 the Ministry of Interior announced an indefinite ban on issuing new visas to Bangladeshi workers. NGOs active in migrant worker issues estimated that Bangladeshi workers constituted the majority of undocumented residents.

Lack of transparency in hiring processes, especially for government positions, led to many complaints of discrimination based on sect or ethnicity. Human rights organizations reported that Shia citizens faced widespread employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors. Sunni citizens often received preference for employment in sensitive government positions, notably in the managerial ranks of the civil service, as well as positions in the security services and the military.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national private-sector minimum wage. A standardized government pay scale covers public-sector workers, with a set minimum monthly wage. While the minimum wage for Bahrainis is generally considered a living wage, there is no minimum wage for foreign workers in the public sector; however, the government issued “guidelines” advising employers in the public and private sectors to pay a minimum monthly wage. There was no official poverty level.

Subject to the provisions of the private-sector law, employers may not employ a worker for more than 48 hours per week without including contract provisions for overtime pay. Employers may not employ Muslim workers during the month of Ramadan for more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week.

The Ministry of Labor sets occupational safety and health standards. The labor law and relevant protections apply to citizens and noncitizens alike, with the exception of domestic workers. The revised labor law improved the legal situation for many workers as it pertains to access to contracts and additional holidays, although it excludes domestic workers from most protections.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the labor law and mandating acceptable conditions of work. The labor law stipulates that companies that violate occupational safety standards be subject to fines.

The Ministry of Labor enforced occupational safety and health standards; it also used a team of engineers from multiple specialties primarily to investigate risks and standards at construction sites, which were the vast majority of worksites.

Inspectors have the authority to levy fines and close worksites if employers do not improve conditions by specified deadlines. A judge determines fines per violation, per worker affected, or both. A judge may also sentence violators to prison. For repeat violators, the court may double the penalties.

Despite the improvements, NGOs feared resources for enforcement of the laws remained inadequate for the number of worksites and workers, many worksites would not be inspected, and the regulations would not necessarily deter violations.

A ministerial decree prohibits outdoor work between noon and 4 p.m. during July and August because of heat conditions. Authorities enforced the ban among large firms, but according to local sources, violations were common among smaller businesses. Employers who violated the ban are subject to up to three months’ imprisonment, fines, or both. The ministry documented 156 companies in noncompliance with the summer heat ban during the year.

The government and courts generally worked to rectify abuses brought to their attention. Workers could file complaints with the ministry. The vast majority of cases involving abused domestic workers did not reach the ministry or the public prosecutor. Police referred 40 cases to the National Referral Mechanism in the first half of the year. Individuals with referred cases received a range of services, including shelter provided by the National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons (NCCTIP).

The Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) reported it visited unregistered camps and accommodations, including accommodations of irregular “free visa” workers, who often lived in overcrowded apartments with poor safety standards.

The government continued to conduct workers’ rights awareness campaigns. It published pamphlets on foreign resident workers’ rights in several languages, provided manuals on these rights to local diplomatic missions, and operated a telephone hotline for victims.

Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in sectors employing foreign workers, such as construction, automotive repair, and domestic service. Unskilled foreign workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, constituted approximately 60 percent of the total workforce. These workers were vulnerable to dangerous or exploitive working conditions. According to NGOs, workplace safety inspection and compliance were substandard.

The labor law does not fully protect domestic workers, and this group was particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic employees must have a contract, but the law does not provide for same rights accorded to other workers, including rest days. In 2017 the LMRA announced that all newly arrived domestic workers would be required to use new tripartite work contracts. The recruitment agency, the employer, and the employee must agree upon the contents of the new contracts. According to local press reports, the new contracts include daily working hours, weekly day off, and mandatory wage receipts, among other conditions. Activists reported that usage of the forms among employers and recruitment agencies remained low throughout the year.

There were credible reports employers forced many of the country’s 91,000 domestic workers, most of them women, to work 12- to 16-hour days and surrender their identity documents to employers. Employers permitted very little time off, left female workers malnourished, and subjected them to verbal and physical abuse, including sexual molestation and rape. Reports of employers and recruitment agents beating or sexually abusing foreign women working in domestic positions were common, but most cases involving domestic workers did not reach the Ministry of Labor. The press, embassies, and police received numerous reports of abuse. The MWPS provided female domestic workers with temporary housing and assistance with their cases, although its shelter closed permanently in March. Additionally, the NCCTIP provided workers with shelter. Most women in these cases sought assistance with unpaid wages and complaints of physical abuse.

According to NGO sources, the construction sector employed more Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis than other nationalities. Worker deaths generally were due to a combination of inadequate enforcement of standards, violations of standards, inadequate safety procedures, worker ignorance of those procedures, and inadequate safety standards for equipment. While some workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment, the level of freedom workers enjoyed directly related to the types of work they performed.

A Ministry of Labor order requires employers to register any labor accommodations provided to employees. The order also mandates minimum housing standards for employer-provided accommodations. Many workers lived in unregistered accommodations that ranged in quality from makeshift accommodations in parking garages, to apartments rented by employers from private owners, to family houses modified to accommodate many persons. Conditions in the many unregistered or irregular worker camps were often poor. Inspectors do not have the right to enter houses or apartment buildings not registered as work camps to inspect conditions.

Burma

Executive Summary

Burma has a quasi-parliamentary system of government in which the national parliament selects the president and constitutional provisions grant one-quarter of parliamentary seats to active-duty military appointees. The military also has the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs and one of two vice presidents, as well as to assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. In 2015 the country held nationwide parliamentary elections that the public widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor.

The Myanmar Police Force (MPF), under the Ministry of Home Affairs (led by an active-duty general), is responsible for internal security. The Border Guard Police is administratively part of the MPF but operationally distinct. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security but are also engaged extensively in internal security, including combat against ethnic armed groups. Under the constitution civilian authorities have no authority over the security forces; the armed forces commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Extreme repression of and discrimination against the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State. Intense fighting between the military and the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army (AA) that escalated in January displaced thousands more civilians, further disrupted humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and resulted in serious abuses of civilian populations. Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, as well as fighting there among ethnic armed groups, temporarily displaced thousands of persons and resulted in abuses, including reports of civilian deaths and forced recruitment by the ethnic armed groups.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of extrajudicial and arbitrary killings by security forces; enforced disappearance by security forces; torture and rape and other forms of sexual violence by security forces; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including arrests of peaceful protesters and restrictions on civil society activity; severe restrictions on religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular for Rohingya; significant acts of corruption by some officials; some unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minorities; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although those laws were rarely enforced; and the use of forced and child labor.

There continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the military. In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish officials responsible for abuses, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.

Some armed ethnic groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, unlawful use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect civilians in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists continued during the year.

Freedom of Expression: Freedom of expression was more restricted than in 2018. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, protesting without a permit, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.

The criminal defamation clause under the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression. Several critics of the government and the military faced charges under this law. On August 29, for example, noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was sentenced to one year in prison for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics; he also faced other potential charges.

Five members of the Peacock Generation performance troupe were detained without bail for a satirical performance during the April New Year holiday criticizing the military’s role in politics. On October 30, five members were found guilty of defaming the military and were sentenced to one year of labor. As of November the case for other charges continued.

Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks and the prominent Kachin Baptist reverend, Hkalam Samson. Authorities dropped the complaint against Samson, but the cases against at least two prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Bamar Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta and Myawaddy Sayadaw, remained open as of November.

A variety of laws were used to censor or prosecute public dissent. On June 19 and 21, the military used a privacy law to press charges against 12 individuals, including reporters, for allegedly aiding and abetting trespass on seized land in Kayah State. As of November the case continued.

Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, writers, and diplomats.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of July authorities approved 46 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2018, and the security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those it used in previous years.

Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil conflict, topics not reported widely in state-run media.

The military continued to practice zero tolerance of perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical.

In May the president granted amnesty to two Reuters reporters detained in late 2017 and sentenced in 2018 to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act for their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State.

On September 30, a court ruled a defamation case could again be heard against Myanmar Now editor in chief Swe Win. Charges were dismissed on July 2 after the plaintiff, Wirathu, repeatedly failed to appear in court; as of November the case continued. Swe Win was arrested in 2017 for allegedly sharing a Facebook post suggesting the monk Wirathu, a prominent Ma Ba Tha (a local Buddhist organization) figurehead, violated the monastic code of conduct by making statements commending the 2017 assassination of well known Muslim constitutional lawyer Ko Ni (see section 1.a.).

The government relaxation of its monopoly and control of domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. Many media outlets reported the cost of applying for and maintaining a television channel was prohibitive. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.

Violence and Harassment: Nationalist groups continued to target journalists who criticized government policy on intercommunal and Rakhine State issues. Businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, also harassed and threatened journalists reporting on their activities, including with the threat of legal action. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but incidents of legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government heightened concern among local journalists and increased self-censorship.

Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, which exacerbated already high levels of self-censorship on this topic. Authorities prevented journalists’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.

The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country. On June 15, the screening of a film critical of the military was abruptly pulled from the opening night of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. The founder of the festival, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, was in jail at the time and was later convicted of criticizing the military (see section 2.a.).

Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.

Libel/Slander Laws: Military and civilian government officials used broad defamation statutes to bring criminal charges against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens.

In February a Dawei Township court fined the editor of the Thanintharyi Journal 500,000 kyat ($330) over the journal’s 2017 publication of a satirical article about a regional official. On August 26, six Karenni youths were charged with slander for calling the Kayah State chief minister a traitor over his support for the erection of a statue to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. On November 7, they were sentenced to six months in prison with labor.

In September a local NLD office in Ayeyarwaddy Region brought charges against a cartoonist for allegedly defaming the township and the NLD. On September 19, an NLD official in Mandalay sued two Facebook users, alleging their satiric memes defamed the regional chief minister.

The government did not generally censor online content. The government did, however, restrict access to the internet. On June 20, the Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered mobile phone operators to stop mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” The ban was lifted on August 31 in five of the nine affected townships but remained in effect in four townships in northern Rakhine State as of November.

The Telecommunications Law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued to originate from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.

The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor internet communications without clear legal authority and used defamation charges to intimidate and detain some individuals using social media to criticize the military, government officials, or the ruling party. There were also instances of authorities intimidating online media outlets and internet users. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media.

Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.

The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. On February 13, seven students of Yadanabon University in Mandalay were found guilty of arson and of holding a December 2018 protest without providing proper notification. The students were sentenced to a total of three months’ in prison with hard labor. The seven students were prominent members of the Yadanabon Student Union and were involved in organizing a series of protests beginning on December 28 on Yadanabon University campus, calling for improved campus security. During the protest dozens of students burned a mock coffin containing photos of the university rector, the chief minister of Mandalay Region, the regional minister for electricity, road, and transportation, and the minister for security and border affairs.

The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.

There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. There is a ban on street art.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected in practice. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass as well as provisions which criminalize actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.

Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military. Farmers and social activists continued to protest land rights’ violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.

Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained; others required civil society organizations to request advance permission from the local government to meet with diplomats.

Following a peaceful protest in February against the erection of a statue of the Burmese independence hero (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi) General Aung San in Loikaw, Kayah State, the local government arrested 55 demonstrators, with charges of defamation and illegal protest which were later dropped after negotiations between activists and the local government.

On October 2, the chairwoman of the Karen Women’s Union, Naw Ohn Hla, and two other activists were convicted and sentenced to 15 days in prison for holding an unauthorized Karen Martyr’s Day celebration in Rangoon in August. They had sought approval from authorities before the commemoration, but it was not granted because of the use of the term “martyr,” a term the government tended to associate exclusively with Aung San and the members of his cabinet who were assassinated alongside him.

Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.

In July the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks) again declared Ma Ba Tha an “illegal organization.” The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee had banned Ma Ba Tha from using that name in 2017. Some local branches of the organization continued to use the name on their signs in spite of the ban, and as of October no action had been taken against them.

The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous.

Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and other political problems openly. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued during the year.

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 does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.

The government appeared to restrict informally repatriation by maintaining an opaque “black list” of individuals, including some from the exile community, who were prohibited from entering the country.

In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restrict freedom of movement.

Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya reside. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” for permission to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.

Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department (INRD) and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township INRD office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($20 to $1,320). Extensive administrative measures are imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State, which effectively prevented persons from changing residency.

There were credible reports of hundreds of Rohingya serving prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. In October authorities convicted 30 Rohingya for attempting to travel from Rakhine State to Rangoon without travel permits. The court sentenced 21 of them to two years in prison and sent eight children to a detention center. The youngest, age five, was being held in a Pathein prison with his mother as of November. In January seven Rohingya, including a child, from Kyauktaw Township in Rakhine State were sentenced to two years’ detention for travelling without valid documents after walking 300 miles to western Bago Region.

Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies, although such persons reported encountering far fewer delays and restrictions. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documentation necessary for foreign travel.

As of October an estimated 263,000 individuals were living as IDPs due to violence in Kachin, Rakhine, and northern Shan states. Some 101,000 Rohingya IDPs have been displaced since 2012. The UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 28,000 of the primarily Rohingya IDPs in Rakhine State have been displaced by armed conflict since January and that more than 8,000 persons were displaced in northern Shan State at the height of the violence there in August, although most of these later returned home. Approximately 128,000 Rohingya remained confined to IDP camps in Rakhine State following 2012 intercommunal violence; a small number of Kaman and Rakhine have also lived in IDP camps since 2012. An additional estimated 7,000 Rohingya remained internally displaced following atrocities beginning in 2017 in northern Rakhine State along with a small number of individuals from other ethnic groups. Accurate figures were difficult to determine due to continued poor access to affected areas.

In addition to internal displacement provoked by conflict, a March report by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma highlighted displacement (as well as the loss of livelihood) caused by natural resource extraction and environmental destruction in Kachin, Shan, and Kayin States. The special rapporteur noted increased human rights abuses associated with militarization around resource extraction sites prevented IDPs from returning home.

The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year, and the military blocked access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by nonstate armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). Access to displaced persons in or near conflict zones continued to be a challenge, with the military restricting access by humanitarian actors seeking to provide aid to affected communities.

The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services and schooling. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic-minority states reported the government restricted the travel of IDPs and stateless persons.

Some 101,000 Rohingya IDPs lived in Sittwe’s rural camps, where they relied on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not always cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. For example, the government routinely refused to allow humanitarian organizations access to Rakhine State and other locations.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR did not register any asylum seekers during the year.

The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.

The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.

The law defines “national ethnic group” only as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. In practice the government has granted or withdrawn “national ethnic group” status from ethnic groups throughout the country on various occasions. Because the Rohingya are not on the list, and due to other government action, they are stateless. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.

Some Rohingya are technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and in practice requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not provide for the rights guaranteed to other full citizens. Members of other ethnic groups faced similar challenges.

The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for National Verification Cards (NVC), created in 2015. The government claims that these cards are necessary to apply for citizenship. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Some townships in Rakhine State required Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens limited ability to choose their government through elections held by secret ballot; the electoral system is not fully representational and does not assure the free expression of the will of the people. Under the constitution, active-duty military are appointed to one-quarter of all national and regional parliamentary seats, and the military has the right to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs–which has responsibility for police, prisons, and other domestic security matters–and border affairs. The military can also indefinitely assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. The constitution prohibits persons with immediate relatives holding foreign citizenship from becoming president. Amending the constitution requires approval by more than 75 percent of members of parliament, giving the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments.

Recent Elections: Observers considered the 2015 national election to be generally reflective of the will of the people, notwithstanding some structural shortcomings, and considered subsequent by-elections in 2017 and 2018 basically free and fair. Observers raised concerns that 25 percent of seats in parliament were reserved for unelected military officers; potential Muslim candidates were disqualified by their political parties on an apparently discriminatory basis; almost all members of the Rohingya community, many of whom voted in elections prior to 2015, were disenfranchised; and the government canceled voting in some conflict-affected ethnic minority areas. The NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 77 percent of the contested 1,150 seats at the state, regional, and union levels in the 2015 election.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties and civil society organizations continued to exercise their rights to assemble and protest. New political parties were generally allowed to register and compete in elections, which featured fewer restrictions on party organization and voter mobilization. Only sporadic interference from government officials was reported. Competition was skewed in part by the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party’s systematic support from the military, whose personnel and their families are eligible to vote, casting ballots in military barracks in some cases. Moreover, some legal provisions can be invoked to restrict parties’ operations. The constitution contains a requirement that political parties be loyal to the state, which carries the potential for abuse. Laws allow for penalties, including deregistration, against political parties that accept support from foreign governments or religious bodies, or that are deemed to have abused religion for political purposes or disrespected the constitution.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Nevertheless, women and minorities continued to be underrepresented in government. Aung San Suu Kyi was the only woman in a national cabinet of 24 ministers. Women made up only about 13 percent of national and local elected legislators. Women were chief ministers of Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region, although the latter was dismissed in March following accusations of corruption.

As of October, five chief ministers of the seven ethnic states belonged to the largest ethnic groups of their states, including the chief minister of Rakhine State; one of two union-level vice presidents belonged to the Chin ethnic minority group and one belonged to the Mon ethnic group. Ethnic-minority parliamentarians from ethnic-minority political parties made up about 9 percent of legislators at the national, state, and regional level; this did not include the numerous ethnic-minority members of the NLD, or the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

As noncitizens in the view of the government, Rohingya were excluded from the political process. Most Rohingya-majority areas were represented by an ethnic Rakhine nationalist party. No Muslim candidate won in 2015, resulting in a national parliament that for the first time had no Muslim representatives.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government continued efforts to curb corruption.

Corruption: Corruption remained a problem, particularly in the judiciary. Police reportedly often required victims to pay substantial bribes for criminal investigations and routinely extorted money from the civilian population. The government took some steps to investigate and address corruption of government officials.

On September 9, the Anti-Corruption Commission charged Aung Zaw, general manager of the state-owned Burma Pharmaceutical Industry, with bribery for the improper purchasing of raw materials for the factory. As of November the case continued. On July 26, Industry Minister Khin Maung Cho was forced to resign for failing to open a tender process for the procurement of raw materials worth more than one billion kyats ($660,000) at the same factory.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials were not subject to public financial disclosure laws. The law requires the president and vice presidents to furnish a list of family assets to the speaker of the joint houses of parliament, and the law requires persons appointed by the president to furnish a list of personal assets to the president. The government did not make the reports available to the public.

Civil servants cannot accept gifts worth more than 25,000 kyats ($17). The rules also require civil servants to report all offers of gifts to their supervisors, whether or not they are accepted.

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

The government did not allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently. Human rights NGOs were able to open offices and operate, but there were reports of harassment and monitoring by authorities, and authorities sometimes pressured hotels and other venues not to host meetings by activists or other civil society groups.

Foreign human rights activists and advocates, including representatives from international NGOs, continued to be restricted to short-term visas that required them to leave the country periodically for renewal. The government continued to monitor the movements of foreigners and interrogated citizens concerning contacts with foreigners.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government has not agreed to the opening of an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and has not approved visa requests for OHCHR staff.

In August a UN fact-finding mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published two reports on the country: one on sexual and gender-based violence and the gendered impact of ethnic conflicts and the other on the military’s economic interests and their relation to human rights abuses. The government rejected the mandate of the fact-finding mission and the content of its reports and denied the mission members permission to enter the country.

The government has also refused cooperate with or give the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, created by the UN Human Rights Council, access to the country.

The government continued to refuse entry to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, but permitted the UN secretary-general’s special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener, to open an office in the country and to meet with senior officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The ICRC had access to civilian prisons and labor camps. The government also allowed the ICRC to operate in ethnic-minority states, including in Shan, Rakhine, and Kachin States.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission investigated some incidents of human rights abuses. In some cases it called on the government to conduct investigations into abuses. Its ability to operate as a credible, independent mechanism remained limited. The commission supported the development of human rights education curricula, distributed human rights materials, and conducted human rights training.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry for Rakhine State, formed by the government in July 2018, continued its investigations but had not released any findings as of November. Previous government-led investigations into reports of widespread abuses by security services against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal but remained a significant problem, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Spousal rape is not a crime unless the wife is younger than 14. Police generally investigated reported cases of rape, but there were reports police investigations were not sensitive to victims. Civil society groups continued to report police in some cases verbally abused women who reported rape, and women could be sued for impugning the dignity of the perpetrator.

On July 6, an estimated 6,000 demonstrators protested the alleged sexual assault in May of a two-year-old girl at a nursery school in Nay Pyi Taw and over concerns about the transparency of the trial. Thousands of Facebook users changed their profile pictures to the silhouette of a girl to demand “Justice for Victoria,” the pseudonym of the victim. On July 9, the leader of the campaign was arrested for Facebook posts “defaming” the police officers investigating the case. Both cases continued as of November.

Domestic violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious problem. Abuse within families was prevalent and considered socially acceptable. Spousal abuse or domestic violence was difficult to measure because the government did not maintain comprehensive statistics and victims typically did not report it, although the government attempted to document cases, and reported cases were on the rise. The law prohibits committing bodily harm against another person, but there are no laws specifically against domestic violence or spousal abuse unless the wife is younger than 14. Punishment for violating the law includes sentences ranging from one year to life in prison in addition to possible fines. Overlapping and at times contradictory legal provisions complicated implementation of these limited protections.

Sexual Harassment: The penal code prohibits sexual harassment and imposes a maximum of one year’s imprisonment and a fine for verbal harassment and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine for physical contact. There was no information on the prevalence of the problem because these crimes were largely unreported. Local civil society organizations reported police investigators were not sensitive to victims and rarely followed through with investigations or prosecutions.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. A 2015 law, however, contains provisions that if enforced could impose coercive birth-spacing requirements. Under the law the president or the national government may designate “special regions” for health care following consideration of factors such as population, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. Once a special region is declared, the government may create special health-care organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing regulations related to family-planning methods. The government has not designated any such special regions since the law’s enactment.

A two-child local order issued by the government of Rakhine State pertaining to the Rohingya population in two northern townships remained in effect, but the government and NGOs reported it was not consistently enforced (see section 1.f.).

Discrimination: By law women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men, including property and inheritance rights and religious and personal status, but it was not clear the government enforced the law. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but it was not clear the formal sector respected this requirement. NGOs reported some sectors, such as the garment industry, did not comply. Poverty affected women disproportionately. The law governing hiring of civil service personnel states that nothing shall prevent the appointment of men to “positions that are suitable for men only,” with no further definition of what constitutes positions “suitable for men only.”

Customary law was widely used to address issues of marriage, property, and inheritance; it differs from the provisions of statutory law and was often discriminatory against women.

Birth Registration: The law automatically confers full citizenship to children of two parents from one of the 135 recognized national ethnic groups and to children who met other citizenship requirements. Moreover, the government confers full citizenship to second-generation children of both parents with any citizenship, as long as at least one parent has full citizenship. Third-generation children of associate or naturalized citizens can acquire full citizenship.

A prominent international NGO noted significant rural-urban disparities in birth registration. In major cities (e.g., Rangoon and Mandalay), births were registered immediately because registration is required to qualify for basic public services and to obtain national identification cards. In smaller towns and villages, birth registration often was informal or nonexistent. For the Rohingya community, birth registration was a significant problem (see section 2.d.). The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State noted in its interim report that nearly one-half of all residents in Rakhine State lacked birth documentation.

A birth certificate provides important protections for children, particularly against child labor, early marriage, and recruitment into the armed forces and armed groups. Sometimes a lack of birth registration complicated access to public services in remote communities.

Education: By law, education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fourth grade (up to age 10). This leaves children ages 10 through 13 vulnerable to child labor, since they are not required to attend school but are not legally permitted to work, as the minimum age for work is 14. The government continued to allocate minimal resources to public education, and schools charged informal fees.

Schools were often unavailable in remote communities and access to them for internally displaced and stateless children also remained limited.

Child Abuse: Laws prohibit child abuse, but they were neither adequate nor enforced. NGOs reported corporal punishment was widely used against children. The punishment for child abuse is a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of 10,000 kyats ($6.60). There was anecdotal evidence of violence against children occurring within families, in schools, in situations of child labor and exploitation, and in armed conflict. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement continued its child protection programs in partnership with UNICEF to improve data collection, develop effective laws, provide psychosocial assistance, and combat trafficking. Violence in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin States exposed many children to an environment of violence and exploitation.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law stipulates different minimum ages for marriage based on religion and gender. The minimum age for Buddhists is 18, while the minimum age for non-Buddhists is 16 for boys and 15 for girls. Child marriage still occurred, especially in rural areas. There were no reliable statistics on forced marriage.

The country’s antitrafficking in persons law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child-trafficking offense.

Displaced Children: The mortality rate for internally displaced children in conflict areas was significantly higher than in the rest of the country (see section 2.d.). The United Nations estimated that 53 percent of the 128,000 IDPs in Rakhine State were children; the vast majority of this population was Rohingya. The United Nations estimated that 46 percent of the 100,000 IDPs in Kachin State and 48 percent of the 9,000 IDPs in Shan State were children.

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

There was one synagogue in Rangoon serving a small Jewish congregation. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, hearing, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law directs the government to ensure that persons with disabilities have easy access to public transportation. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions.

Civil society groups reported that children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other persons; many never attended school due to stigma and lack of any accommodation for their needs.

Persons with disabilities reported stigma, discrimination, and abuse from civilian and government officials. Students with disabilities cited barriers to inclusive education as a significant disadvantage.

Military veterans with disabilities received official benefits on a priority basis, usually a civil service job at pay equivalent to rank, but both military and ethnic-minority survivors of conflict in rural areas typically did not have access to livelihood opportunities or affordable medical treatment. Official assistance to civilian persons with disabilities in principle included two-thirds of pay for a maximum of one year for a temporary disability and a tax-free stipend for permanent disability. The law providing job protection for workers who become disabled was not implemented.

Wide-ranging governmental and societal discrimination against minorities persisted, including in areas such as education, housing, employment, and access to health services. Ethnic minorities constituted 30 to 40 percent of the population. The seven ethnic minority states comprised approximately 60 percent of the national territory, and significant numbers of minorities also resided in the country’s other regions.

International observers noted significant wage discrepancies based on religious and ethnic backgrounds were common.

Burmese remained the mandatory language of instruction in government schools. The government’s official education plan does not cover issues related to mother-tongue instruction, but ethnic languages have been taught as extra subjects in government schools since 2013. Outside of Mon State, however, progress has been limited due to resource constraints, the nonstandardization of regional languages, a lack of educational material in minority languages, and varying levels of interest. In schools controlled by armed ethnic groups, students sometimes had no access to the national curriculum.

Tension between the military and ethnic minority populations, while somewhat diminished in areas with cease-fire agreements, remained high, and the military stationed forces in some ethnic groups’ areas of influence and controlled certain cities, towns, and highways. Ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union, and the AA, pointed to the presence of large army contingents as a major source of tension and insecurity. Reported abuses included killings, beatings, torture, forced labor, forced relocations, and rapes of members of ethnic groups by government soldiers. Some groups also committed abuses (see section 1.g.).

The name Rohingya refers to a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that claims to have lived in what is now Rakhine State for generations. In 2016 the government began to refer to the group as “Muslims in Rakhine State.” Many military and government officials, however, continued to use the term “Bengali,” which the Rohingya consider pejorative as it suggests they are not from Burma. The “Bengali” term is also used on identification documents, including as the person’s race on his or her citizenship card if he or she was naturalized.

The Rohingya faced severe discrimination based on their ethnicity and sometimes their religion. Most Rohingya faced extreme restrictions on their ability to travel; use health-care services; engage in economic activity (see section 7.d.); obtain an education; register births, deaths, and marriages (see section 2.d.); freely practice their faith; and participate in political processes (see section 3). Most of those displaced in 2012 remained confined to semipermanent camps with severely limited access to education, health care, and livelihoods.

The government required Rohingya to receive prior approval for travel outside their village of residence and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses, or teachers. Authorities in northern Rakhine State forced Rohingya to work and arbitrarily arrested them. Authorities required Rohingya to obtain official permission for marriage and limited the registration of children to two per family, although local enforcement of the two-child policy was inconsistent. NGOs reported the government resumed issuing birth certificates to Rohingya newborns in northern Rakhine State, although Rohingya born in the last two decades generally did not have birth certificates.

Rohingya were restricted in their ability to construct houses or religious buildings. Authorities continued to prevent Rohingya from accessing mosques in Rakhine State.

The military and other security forces committed widespread atrocities against Rohingya villagers starting in 2017 that were documented during the year, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest, and burning of hundreds of villages, religious structures, and other buildings. These atrocities and associated events have forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh as of October and constituted ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

Consensual same-sex sexual activity remains illegal under the penal code, which contains a provision against “unnatural offenses” with a penalty of a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine. Laws against “unnatural offenses” apply equally to both men and women, but were rarely enforced. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons reported that police used the threat of prosecution to extort bribes. While the penal code was used more for coercion or bribery, LGBTI persons, particularly transgender women, were most frequently charged under so-called shadow and disguise laws. These laws use the justification that a person dressed or acting in a way that is perceived as not being in line with their biological gender is in “disguise.” According to a local NGO, transgender women reported higher levels of police abuse and discrimination than other members of the LGBTI community.

In March 2018 authorities in Rangoon used the “unnatural offenses” law to charge an openly gay restaurant owner for allegedly sexually assaulting a male member of his staff. As of November the case continued.

Political reforms in recent years made it easier for the LGBTI community to hold public events and openly participate in society, yet discrimination, stigma, and a lack of acceptance among the general population persisted. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment. LGBTI persons reported facing discrimination from medical-care providers.

There were continued reports of societal violence and discrimination, including employment discrimination, against persons with HIV/AIDS. Negative incidents, such as exclusion from social gatherings and activities; verbal insults, harassment, and threats; and physical assaults continued to occur. Laws that criminalize behaviors linked to an increased risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS remain in place, directly fueling stigma and discrimination against persons engaged in these behaviors and impeding their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services.

High levels of social stigma and discrimination against female sex workers and transgender women hindered their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and social protection services. Police harassment of sex workers deterred the workers from carrying condoms.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination persisted. Members of Buddhist nationalist groups, including members of Ma Ba Tha, continued to denigrate Islam and called for a boycott of Muslim businesses and the establishment of “Muslim-free” villages.

Muslim communities complained about unequal treatment by police, pressures to practice Islam in private, difficulty in obtaining citizenship cards, close monitoring of their travel or denials of travel requests by local governments, and restrictions on educational opportunities. In addition, some Muslims reported discrimination by private parties in renting housing.

Anti-Muslim hate speech was prevalent on social media, in particular on Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the country. Independent reporting indicated that the military, using false accounts, was also responsible for generating and promulgating hate-speech content.

Multiple sources noted that restrictions on Muslims and Christians impeded their ability to pursue higher education and assume high-level government positions; Muslims also were unable to invest and trade freely.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law permits labor organizations to demand the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity, but it does not explicitly prohibit antiunion discrimination in the form of demotions or mandatory transfers, nor does it offer protection for workers seeking to form a union. The law does not provide adequate protection for workers from dismissal before a union is officially registered.

Laws prohibit civil servants and personnel of the security services and police from forming unions. The law permits workers to join unions only within their category of trade or activity, and the definition of trade or activity lacks clarity. Basic labor organizations must have a minimum of 30 workers and register through township registrars with the Chief Registrar’s Office of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population (Ministry of Labor). Township labor organizations require a minimum of 10 percent of relevant basic labor organizations to register; regional or state labor organizations require a minimum of 10 percent of relevant township labor organizations. Each of these higher-level unions must include only organizations within the same trade or activity. Similarly, federations and confederations also require a minimum number of regional or state labor organizations (10 percent and 20 percent, respectively) from the next lower level in order to register formally. The law permits labor federations and confederations to affiliate with international union federations and confederations.

The law provides for voluntary registration for local NGOs, including NGOs working on labor issues. Organizations that choose to register are required to send organizational bylaws and formation documents to the government. Broader restrictions on freedom of assembly remained in place (see section 2.b.).

The law gives unions the right to represent workers, to negotiate and bargain collectively with employers, and to send representatives to a conciliation body or conciliation tribunal. Union leaders’ rights to organize, however, are only protected after the official registration of the union. The law does not contain detailed measures regarding management of the bargaining process, such as requiring bargaining to be in good faith or setting parameters for bargaining or the registration, extension, or enforcement of collective agreements. The National Tripartite Dialogue Forum (NTDF), with representatives from government, business, and labor unions, met three times during the year. The NTDF consults with parliament on revising legislation on labor.

The law stipulates that disputes in special economic zones be settled in accordance with original contracts and existing laws. The government appointed a labor inspector for each such zone and established zonal tripartite committees responsible for setting wage levels and monitoring the ratio of local and foreign labor.

In May parliament passed an amended law on the settlement of labor disputes; however, the implementing regulations remained under draft. The law continues to provide the right to strike in most sectors, with a majority vote by workers, permission of the relevant labor federations, and detailed information and three days’ advance notice provided to the employer and the relevant conciliation body. The law does not permit strikes or lockouts in essential services. For “public utility services” (including transportation; cargo and freight; postal; sanitation; information, communication, and technology; energy; petroleum; and financial sectors), lockouts are permitted with a minimum of 14 days’ notice provided to the relevant labor organizations and conciliation body. Strikes in public utility services require generally the same measures as in other sectors, but with 14 days’ advance notice and negotiation between workers and management before the strike takes place to determine maintenance of minimum service levels. The law prohibits strikes addressing problems not directly relevant to labor issues.

The amended law no longer defines complaints as “individual” or “collective,” but as “rights-based” or “benefits-based.” A “rights-based” dispute includes violations of labor laws, whereas a “benefits-based” dispute pertains to working conditions. The type of dispute determines the settlement procedure. Under the amended law, “rights-based” disputes do not go through a conciliation process or an arbitration proceeding, but go directly to court proceedings. The amended law significantly increases fines for labor violations, but it eliminates prison terms as punishment for violations.

Labor groups continued to report labor organizations’ inability to register at the national level, a prerequisite for entering labor framework agreements with multinational companies, due to the registration requirements under the law. In addition, the International Labor Organization (ILO), labor activists, and media outlets continued to report employers firing or engaging in other forms of reprisal against workers who formed or joined labor unions. Trade unions reported cases in which criminal charges were filed against workers for exercising their right to strike, and trade union members were arrested and charged with violating peaceful assembly laws when holding demonstrations regarding labor rights generally. Labor organizations also reported that local labor offices imposed unnecessary bureaucratic requirements for union registration that were inconsistent with the law.

Workers and workers’ organizations continued to report they generally found the Ministry of Labor to be helpful in urging employers to negotiate, but there were consistent reports of employers engaging in forms of antiunion discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Laws nominally prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, although it is allowed for use by the military and in penal institutions. Laws also provide for the punishment of persons who impose forced labor on others. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

The law provides for criminal penalties for forced labor violations; penalties differ depending on whether the military, the government, or a private citizen committed the violation. The penalties are insufficient to deter forced labor.

The government established an interim complaints mechanism under the authority of the President’s Office with the aim of having a more fully developed mechanism at a later date. The ILO and unions expressed concerns that the government’s mechanism does not provide for protections for victims.

The ILO reported the number of complaints of forced labor was decreasing. Reports of forced labor occurred across the country, including in conflict and cease-fire areas, and the prevalence was higher in states with significant armed conflict.

The military’s use of forced labor in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States remained a significant problem, according to the ILO. Forced labor reports included forced portering and activities related to the military’s “self-reliance” policy. Under this policy, military units are responsible for procuring their own food and labor supplies from local villagers–a major factor contributing to forced labor and other abuses.

Although the military and the government received complaints logged by the complaints mechanism, no military perpetrators have been tried in civilian court; the military asserted that commissioners and other ranks were subjected to military justice.

Prisoners in the country’s 48 labor camps engaged in forced labor (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).

The ILO did not receive any verified reports of forced labor in the private sector. Domestic workers remain at risk of domestic slavery.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. In July parliament passed the Child Rights Law, which set the minimum age at 14 for work in certain sectors, including shops, establishments, and factories; the law establishes special provisions for “youth employment” for those older than 14. There is, however, no minimum age for work for all sectors in which children were employed, including agriculture and informal work. Some sector-specific laws identify activities that are prohibited for children younger than 18. The law prohibits employees younger than 16 from working in a hazardous environment, and the government has prepared a hazardous work list enumerating occupations in which child labor is specifically prohibited.

Trained inspectors from the Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department monitored the application of these regulations, but their legal authority only extends to factories. In addition, inspectors were hindered by a general lack of resources.

The Ministry of Labor worked with other ministries to collect better data on existing child labor and continued a campaign directed at parents to raise awareness of the risks of child labor and provide information on other education options available to children. The Ministry of Labor engaged with the Ministry of Education on two programs: one to bring children out of the workplace and put them in school, the other to support former child soldiers’ pursuit of classroom education or vocational training. The Labor Ministry supported vocational schools to train young workers for jobs in nonhazardous environments.

The ILO noted the widespread mobilization and recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. Penalties under the law and their enforcement for other child labor violations were insufficient to deter violations.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Child labor remained prevalent and highly visible. Children were at high risk, with poverty leading some parents to remove them from schools before completion of compulsory education. In cities children worked mostly as street vendors or refuse collectors, as restaurant and teashop attendants, and as domestic workers. Children also worked in the production of garments.

Children often worked in the informal economy, in some instances exposing them to drugs and petty crime, risk of arrest, commercial sexual exploitation, and HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (also see section 6).

Children were vulnerable to forced labor in teashops, agriculture, and begging. In rural areas children routinely worked in family agricultural activities, occasionally in situations of forced labor.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report 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

Labor laws and regulations do not specifically prohibit employment discrimination.

Women remained underrepresented in most traditionally male-dominated occupations (mining, forestry, carpentry, masonry, and fishing) and were effectively barred from certain professions.

There were reports government and private actors practiced anti-Muslim discrimination that impeded Muslim-owned businesses’ operations and undercut their ability to hire and retain labor, maintain proper working standards, and secure public and private contracts. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including the denial of promotions and firing of LGBTI persons. Activists reported job opportunities for many openly gay and lesbian persons were limited and noted a general lack of support from society as a whole. Activists reported that in addition to general societal discrimination, persons with HIV/AIDS faced employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors, including suspensions and the loss of employment following positive results from mandatory workplace HIV testing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The official minimum daily wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage covers a standard eight-hour workday across all sectors and industries and applies to all workers except for those in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. The law requires the minimum wage to be revised every two years. Labor unions and activists criticized the May 2018 raise in the minimum wage as too small for workers to keep up with the rising cost of living.

The law requires employers to pay employees on the date their salary is due for companies with 100 or fewer employees. For companies with more than 100 employees, the employer is required to pay employees within five days from the designated payday. Overtime cannot exceed 12 hours per workweek, should not go past midnight, and can exceed 16 hours in a workweek only on special occasions. The law also stipulates that an employee’s total working hours cannot exceed 11 hours per day (including overtime and a one-hour break). The law applies to shops, commercial establishments, and establishments for public entertainment.

The law sets the terms and conditions required for occupational safety, health, and welfare. It was not clear if workers could remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.

The Ministry of Labor’s Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department oversees labor conditions in the private sector. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor-law inspectors and factory inspectors was insufficient to address occupational safety and health standards, wage, salary, overtime, and other issues adequately. In some sectors other ministries regulated occupational safety and health laws (e.g., the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation). Workers’ organizations alleged government inspections were rare and often announced with several days’ notice that allowed factory owners to bring facilities–often temporarily–into compliance. Corruption and bribery of inspectors reportedly occurred.

The public sector was reasonably likely to respect labor laws; frequent violations occurred in private enterprises. Workers continued to submit complaints to relevant government agencies and the dispute settlement mechanism.

Several serious industrial accidents occurred during the year. In April, for example, more than 50 miners died in an accident at a jade mine.

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a presidential republic. Voters elected Professor Faustin-Archange Touadera president in a 2016 run-off election. Despite reports of irregularities, international observers reported the 2016 presidential and legislative elections were free and fair. On February 6, the government and 14 armed groups signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, their eighth peace accord, and President Touadera appointed Firmin Ngrebada as prime minister. An inclusive government was established on March 22 under Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada. National elections are scheduled to take place December 2020.

Police and gendarmes have responsibility for enforcing law and maintaining order. The Central African Armed Forces (FACA) have responsibility for maintaining order and border security. The FACA report to the Ministry of Defense. Police and the gendarmerie report to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security. Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces continued to improve but remained weak. State authority beyond the capital improved with the deployment of prefects and FACA troops in the western and southeastern parts of the country; armed groups, however, still controlled significant swaths of territory throughout the country and acted as de facto governing institutions, taxing local populations and appointing armed group members to leadership roles.

Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary and unlawful killings and forced disappearance by ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups; torture by security forces; arbitrary detention by security forces and armed groups; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; violence against and unjustified arrests of journalists; widespread official corruption; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by armed groups; trafficking in persons; crimes of violence against women and girls by armed groups, to which the government took increased action, but was often still unable to prevent or prosecute; criminalization of same-sex conduct; and use of forced labor, including forced child labor.

During the year the government started to take steps to investigate and prosecute government officials for alleged human rights abuses, including in the security forces. Nevertheless, a climate of impunity and a lack of access to legal services remained obstacles.

Intercommunal violence and targeted attacks on civilians by armed groups continued. Armed groups perpetrated serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law during the internal conflicts. Both ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka armed groups committed unlawful killings, torture and other mistreatment, abductions, sexual assaults, looting, and destruction of property.

Note: This report refers to the “ex-Seleka” for all abuses attributed to the armed factions associated with Seleka, including the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC), the Union for Peace (UPC), and the Patriotic Movement for the Central African Republic (MPC), which occurred after the Seleka was dissolved in 2013.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression and the press. The government generally respected these rights.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. All print media in the country were privately owned. Radio was the most widespread medium of mass communication. There were a number of alternatives to the state-owned radio station, such as Radio Centrafrique. Independent radio stations operated freely and broadcast organized debates and call-in talk shows that were critical of the government, election process, ex-Seleka, and Anti-balaka militias. International media broadcast within the country.

Public discussion and political debates were generally free from state authorities’ influence. Freedom of expression, however, was inhibited due to the risk of retaliation by armed groups for expressing opinions opposing their ideologies.

The government monopolized domestic television broadcasting, with coverage typically favorable to government positions.

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

There were no reports that the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s sole university was open.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, including the right to participate in political protests. The government, however, denied most requests to protest that were submitted by civil society groups, citing insecurity in Bangui.

Between April and June, the government repeatedly denied the right to peacefully demonstrate to a platform of civil society and opposition political parties, known as “E Zingo Biani.” On June 15, “E Zingo Biani” attempted to organize a meeting at the UCATEX stadium located in the Combatant district in the eighth constituency of Bangui near the Bangui M’poko Airport. The group submitted a request to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security; however, the request was denied. The Central African police, supported by MINUSCA forces as well as citizens who were part of a proregime paramilitary group called the “Central African Sharks Movement,” led by Heritier Doneng, prevented the demonstration from taking place. The group attempted to circumvent the ban peacefully with a demonstration and a march. Police fired teargas at the demonstrators, several of whom were severely injured. Former minister Joseph Bendounga and two AFP reporters were arrested by the OCRB.

A law prohibiting nonpolitical organizations from uniting for political purposes remained in place.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights.

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

In-country Movement: Armed groups and bandits made in-country movement extremely dangerous. Government forces, armed groups, and criminals alike frequently used illegal checkpoints to extort funds.

The country continued to face an acute humanitarian crisis. According to UNHCR, there were 613,031 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 606,875 CAR refugees in neighboring countries at the end of August. Targeted violence against civilians by armed groups continued throughout the year. According to the Office of Coordination and Humanitarian Action (OCHA), attacks by armed groups against humanitarian organizations increased during the year. These attacks obstructed delivery of life-saving assistance to persons displaced by conflict.

Armed groups continued to target IDPs and threaten individuals and organizations attempting to shelter IDPs, including churches.

In March, 13 Muslim families that were among the IDPs in Bangassou returned to their homes in the village of Tokoyo.

In May many IDPs returned to their villages of origin due to the perception of improved security following the signature of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR), and a result of deteriorated living conditions in some IDP camps.

In June UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and CAR agreed on the conditions for the voluntary repatriation of 285,000 Central Africans. This convention provided a legal framework for a voluntary return of CAR refugees living in Cameroon.

In July UNHCR and the governments of CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) signed a Tripartite Agreement to facilitate the repatriation of CAR refugees living in the DRC.

Throughout the year clashes among armed groups caused death and destruction of property. According to UNHCR, many newly displaced persons suffered fatal attacks, robberies, lootings, and kidnappings. Even after reaching safe locations, they often risked assault by armed groups if they ventured outside of camps to search for food. In many affected areas, humanitarian assistance was limited to strictly life-saving interventions, due to limited access and insecurity. The presence of armed groups continued to delay or block planned humanitarian deliveries.

Humanitarian organizations remained concerned regarding evidence that members of armed groups continued to hide out in IDP sites and attempted to carry out recruitment activities. This raised concerns for the safety of humanitarian staff and vulnerable displaced individuals residing in these areas.

The humanitarian actors provided assistance to IDPs and returnees and promoted the safe voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. The government allowed humanitarian organizations to provide services, although security concerns sometimes prevented organizations from operating in some areas and targeted attacks on humanitarian operations impeded their ability to access some populations.

During the year three humanitarian workers were killed, and there were 90 reported incidents affecting humanitarian workers, premises, and assets.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Individuals that had fled their countries of origin and had prior criminal records, however, were immediately repatriated.

In June the government celebrated the 36th anniversary of the National Commission for Refugees and gave 42 Rwandan refugees asylum certificates to remain in CAR.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: After several postponements, the country held a constitutional referendum in 2015 followed by the first round of presidential and legislative elections. None of the 30 presidential candidates obtained more than the 50 percent of the votes required to avoid a second round, which was held in February 2016. In January 2016 the Transitional Constitutional Court annulled the December 2015 legislative elections due to widespread irregularities and voter intimidation and fraud and ordered new elections. The rescheduled first-round legislative elections also took place in February 2016, with a second round held in March 2016. The inauguration of President Touadera took place in March 2016.

The National Assembly convened in May 2016; elections for the Senate still had not been held. Central African refugees and members of the diaspora in some neighboring states were able to participate in the elections.

In March the National Assembly convened its first ordinary session and focused on the revision of some provisions within the National Electoral Code. In June the Constitutional Court determined that some provisions of the new Electoral Code were unconstitutional, including the provision on gender parity, and returned it to the National Assembly. In July the National Assembly adopted the new Electoral Code, establishing the legal framework for the presidential, legislative, regional, and municipal elections scheduled for 2020 and 2021.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Five of the 34 cabinet members were women, as was the senior presidential advisor for national reconciliation. There were nine women among the 140 members of parliament. Some observers believed traditional attitudes and cultural practices limited the ability of women to participate in political life on the same basis as men.

In 2019, 12 Muslims and seven women were appointed to the Cabinet. Societal and legal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons prevented them from effectively advocating for their interests in the political sphere.

In March, 14 members of parliament, including three women, were elected to the Executive Bureau for one-year terms. The election of only three women did not comply with the law on parity, which requires there be a minimum of 35 percent representation by women in state and private institutions for a period of 10 years. The 2016 gender equality law also prohibits gender discrimination and provides for an independent National Observatory for Male/Female Equality to monitor compliance. As of year’s end, the National Observatory had not been established.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. In 2017 President Touadera issued a decree appointing members of the High Authority for Good Governance, an independent body mandated by the constitution. It is charged with protecting the rights of minorities and the handicapped, and with ensuring the equitable distribution of natural resource revenues, among other roles.

Corruption and nepotism have long been pervasive in all branches of government, and addressing public-sector corruption was difficult in view of limited government capacity.

Corruption: No corruption cases were brought to trial. There were widespread rumors and anecdotal stories of pervasive corruption and bribery. In July a parliamentary commission released a report with allegations of corruption including bribery among members of parliament, ministers, high-ranking civil servants, and Chinese mining companies operating in the prefectures of Ouham-Pende and Ouham. No legal actions were taken by the government.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires senior members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the beginning of their terms to declare publicly their personal assets and income for scrutiny by the Constitutional Court. The constitution specifies that the law determine sanctions for noncompliance. Declarations are public. The constitution requires ministers to declare their assets upon departing government but is not explicit on what constitutes assets or income.

As of September there was no evidence that any ministers declared their assets.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2017 President Touadera signed into law an act establishing an independent National Commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties (NCHRFL). The commission has the authority to investigate complaints, including the power to call witnesses and subpoena documents. In 2019 the NCHRFL collaborated with the Ministry of Justice, MINUSCA, and the African Union to draft the National Human Rights Policy for CAR. Additionally, the government was setting up the SCC’s victim and witness protection unit with MINUSCA’s assistance (see section 1.e.).

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, although it does not specifically prohibit spousal rape. Rape is punishable by imprisonment with hard labor, but the law does not specify a minimum sentence. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Although the law does not specifically mention spousal abuse, it prohibits violence against any person and provides for penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Domestic violence against women was common, although there are laws and instrument prohibiting violence against women. The government took no known action to punish perpetrators.

Twelve cases of rapes were reported in the city of Berberati. During the year MINUSCA investigated 134 cases of sexual and gender-based violence by armed groups that involved 149 victims. A total of 62 suspected perpetrators were referred to authorities for prosecution. MINUSCA held 13 awareness and sensitization sessions throughout the country that were attended by 675 community members.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of women and girls, which is punishable by two to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 to one million CFA francs ($170 to $1,700), depending on the severity of the case.

Nearly one-quarter of girls and women had been subjected to FGM/C, with variations according to ethnicity and region. Approximately one-half of girls were cut between the ages of 10 and 14. Both the prevalence of FGM/C and support for the practice declined sharply over time.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but the government did not effectively enforce the law in the areas controlled by armed groups, and sexual harassment was common. The law prescribes no specific penalties for the crime.

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

Discrimination: The formal law does not discriminate against women in inheritance and property rights, but a number of discriminatory customary laws often prevailed. Women’s statutory inheritance rights often were not respected, particularly in rural areas. Women experienced economic and social discrimination. Customary law does not consider single, divorced, or widowed women, including those with children, to be heads of households. By law men and women are entitled to family subsidies from the government, but several women’s groups complained of lack of access to these payments for women.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth in the national territory or from one or both parents. Birth registration could be difficult and less likely to occur in regions with little government presence. Parents did not always register births immediately. Unregistered children faced restrictions on access to education and other social services. The lack of routine birth registration also posed long-term problems.

Education: Education is compulsory from six to 15 years of age. Tuition is free, but students have to pay for items such as books and supplies and for transportation. The World Bank estimated 30 percent of children did not attend primary school and 22 percent did not attend secondary school. Girls did not have equal access to primary or secondary education. Few Ba’aka, the earliest known inhabitants of the forests in the south, attended primary school. There was no significant government assistance for efforts to increase Ba’aka enrollment.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes parental abuse of children younger than 15. The Mixed Unit for the Repression of Violence against Women and the Protection of Children (UMIRR) investigated 2,093 cases of child abuse between June 2017 and August 31, 2019.

In May, 105 children, including 48 girls, were released from unidentified armed groups in towns in the Bangassou and Kaga-Bandoro areas.

In June the FPRC armed group signed an action plan to combat serious violations of the rights of the child including, the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts, killing and maiming of children, abduction, and sexual violence. In March, four armed groups released 202 child soldiers. UNICEF and MINUSCA continued efforts to secure the release of all children that were still retained by this armed group.

In July a 13-year-old girl, accused of practicing witchcraft, was tortured by her father in the village of Kere. As of September the girl remained under protective custody with national police in Bambari.

Domestic abuse, rape, and sexual slavery of women and girls by armed groups threatened their security, and sexual violence was increasingly used as a deliberate tool of warfare. Attackers enjoyed broad impunity. Constitutional provisions for women’s rights were rarely enforced, especially in rural areas. Sexual abuses by UN peacekeeping forces had been documented, but many instances had not been investigated or prosecuted.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law establishes 18 as the minimum age for civil marriage. The practice of early marriage was more common in the Muslim community. There were reports during the year of forced marriages of young girls to ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka members. The government did not take steps to address forced marriage. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: During the year the government cabinet drafted the Child Protection Act. The draft legislation has a series of measures that address the exploitation of minors. The legislation was at the National Assembly for approval ratification at year’s end.

There are no statutory rape or child pornography laws to protect minors. The family code prescribes penalties for the commercial exploitation of children, including imprisonment and financial penalties. The minimum age of sexual consent is 18, but it was rarely observed.

Armed groups committed sexual violence against children and used girls as sex slaves (see sections 1.g. and 2.d.).

In April MINUSCA and the NGO Justice Rapid Response sponsored a three-day workshop for 26 child protection workers in Bangui. The workshop provided training to strengthen monitoring, investigating, and reporting skills necessary to address crimes against children.

Child Soldiers: Child soldiering was a problem (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: Armed conflict resulted in forced displacement, with the number of persons fleeing in search of protection fluctuating based on local conditions.

The country’s instability had a disproportionate effect on children, who accounted for 64 percent of IDPs, 48 percent of whom were children younger than five, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration. Access to government services was limited for all children, but displacement reduced it further. Nevertheless, according to a humanitarian NGO, an estimated 110,000 displaced and vulnerable children participated in psychosocial activities. UNICEF stated armed groups released 1,954 children in 2018-19.

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.

There was no significant Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with both mental and physical disabilities but does not specify other forms of disabilities. It requires that in any company employing 25 or more persons, at least 5 percent of staff must consist of sufficiently qualified persons with disabilities, if they are available. The law states that at least 10 percent of newly recruited civil service personnel should be persons with disabilities. There are no legislated or mandated accessibility provisions for persons with disabilities. In addition, there were no available statistics concerning the implementation of this provision.

The government did not enact programs to ensure access to buildings, information, and communications. The Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection’s Labor Inspectorate has responsibility for protecting children with disabilities.

Violence by unidentified persons, bandits, and other armed groups against the Mbororo, primarily nomadic pastoralists, was a problem. Their cattle wealth made them attractive targets, and they continued to suffer disproportionately from civil disorder in the north. Additionally, since many citizens viewed them as inherently foreign due to their transnational migratory patterns, the Mbororo faced occasional discrimination with regard to government services and protections. In recent years the Mbororo began arming themselves against attacks from farmers who objected to the presence of the Mbororo’s grazing cattle. Several of the ensuing altercations resulted in deaths.

Discrimination continued against the nomadic pastoralist Mbororo minority, as well as the forest dwelling Ba’aka. The independent High Authority for Good Governance, whose members were appointed in 2017, is tasked with protecting the rights of minorities and the handicapped, although its efficacy had yet to be proven.

Discrimination against the Ba’aka, who constituted 1 to 2 percent of the population, remained a problem. The Ba’aka continued to have little influence in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and the exploitation of natural resources. Forest-dwelling Ba’aka, in particular, experienced social and economic discrimination and exploitation, which the government did little to prevent.

The Ba’aka, including children, were often coerced into agricultural, domestic, and other types of labor. They were considered slaves by members of other local ethnic groups, and even when they were remunerated for labor, their wages were far below those prescribed by the labor code and lower than wages paid to members of other groups.

Reports made during the year by credible NGOs, including the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, stated the Ba’aka were effectively “second-class citizens,” perceived as barbaric and subhuman and excluded from mainstream society.

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity. The penalty for “public expression of love” between persons of the same sex is imprisonment for six months to two years or a fine of 150,000 to 600,000 CFA francs ($255 to $1,020). When one of the participants is a child, the adult could be sentenced to two to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of 100,000 to 800,000 CFA francs ($170 and $1,360); there were no reports police arrested or detained persons under these provisions.

While official discrimination based on sexual orientation occurred, there were no reports the government targeted LGBTI persons. Societal discrimination against LGBTI persons was entrenched due to a high degree of cultural stigmatization. There were no reports of LGBTI persons targeted for acts of violence, although the absence of reports could reflect cultural biases and stigma attached to being an LGBTI individual. There were no known organizations advocating for or working on behalf of LGBTI persons.

Persons with HIV/AIDS were subjected to discrimination and stigma, and many individuals with HIV/AIDS did not disclose their status due to social stigma.

Violent conflict and instability in the country had a religious cast. Many, but not all, members of the ex-Seleka and its factions were Muslim, having originated in neighboring countries or in the remote Muslim north, a region the government often neglected.

During the worst of the crisis, some Christian communities formed Anti-balaka militias that targeted Muslim communities, presumably for their association with the Seleka. The Interfaith Religious Platform, which includes Muslim and Christian leaders, continued working with communities to defuse tensions and call for tolerance and restraint. Local leaders, including the bishop of Bossangoa, and internationally based academics warned against casting the conflict in religious terms and thus fueling its escalation along religious lines.

Ethnic killings often related to transhumance movements occurred. The major groups playing a role in the transhumance movements were social groups centering on ethnic identity. These included Muslim Fulani/Peul herders, Muslim farming communities, Christian/animist farming communities, and the Kara and Rounga conflict in Birao. Armed group conflict can also devolve into ethnic violence, such as the Kara/Rounga conflict in Birao. In September clashes started between the FPRC fighters from the Goula and Rounga ethnic groups and Movement of Central African Liberators for Justice (MLCJ) fighters from the Kara ethnic group following the killing of the son of the sultan of Birao by unidentified assailants. In retaliation the MLCJ fighters ambushed and killed two FPRC combatants. More than 20 individuals were killed, including civilians, and more than 20,000 inhabitants were displaced.

The law outlaws the practice of witchcraft. Conviction of witchcraft is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine from 100,000 CFA francs to one million CFA francs ($170 to $1,700).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, except for senior-level state employees, security force members, and foreign workers in residence for less than two years, to form or join independent unions without prior authorization. The labor code provides for the right of workers to organize and administer trade unions without employer interference and grants trade unions full legal status. The law requires union officials be full-time, wage-earning employees in their occupation and allows them to conduct union business during working hours if the employer is informed 48 hours in advance and provides authorization. Substantial restrictions hampered noncitizens from holding leadership positions in a union, despite amendments to the labor code.

The labor code provides that unions may bargain collectively in the public and private sectors.

Workers have the right to strike in both the public and private sectors, but the law prohibits security forces, including the armed forces and gendarmes, from striking. Requirements for conducting a legal strike are lengthy and cumbersome. For a strike to be legal, the union must first present its demands, the employer must respond to these demands, labor and management must attend a conciliation meeting, and an arbitration council must find that the union and the employer failed to reach agreement on valid demands. The union must provide eight days’ advance written notification of a planned strike. The law states that if employers initiate a lockout that is not in accordance with the code, the employer is required to pay workers for all days of the lockout. The Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection has the authority to establish a list of enterprises that are required by law to maintain a “compulsory minimum service” in the event of a strike. The government has the power of requisition or the authority to end strikes by invoking the public interest. The code makes no other provisions regarding sanctions on employers for acting against strikers.

The law expressly forbids antiunion discrimination. Employees may have their cases heard in labor court. The law does not state whether employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities, although the law requires employers found guilty of such discrimination to pay damages, including back pay and lost wages.

The government generally enforced applicable laws and respected laws concerning labor actions. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. Workers exercised some of these rights, but only a relatively small part of the workforce, primarily civil servants, exercised the right to join a union. While worker organizations are officially outside government or political parties, the government exerted some influence over the leadership of some organizations.

Labor unions did not report any underlying patterns of discrimination or abuse. The president of the labor court stated the court did not hear any cases involving antiunion discrimination during the year.

Collective bargaining occurred in the private sector during the year, although the total number of collective agreements concluded was unknown. The government was not generally involved if the two parties were able to reach an agreement. Information was unavailable on the effectiveness of collective bargaining in the private sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The labor code specifically prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. The labor code’s prohibition of forced or compulsory labor also applies to children, although the code does not mention them specifically. The penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations because the government did not enforce the prohibition effectively. There were reports such practices occurred, especially in armed conflict zones.

Employers subjected men, women, and children to forced domestic labor, agricultural work, mining, market or street vending, and restaurant labor, as well as sexual exploitation. Criminal courts sentenced convicted persons to imprisonment and forced labor, and prisoners often worked on public projects without compensation. This practice largely took place in rural areas. Ba’aka, including children, often were coerced into labor as day laborers, farm hands, or other unskilled labor and often treated as slaves (see section 6). No known victims were removed from forced labor during the year.

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 code forbids some of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from performing “hazardous work,” but the term is not clearly defined and does not specify if it includes all of the worst forms of child labor. The mining code specifically prohibits child or underage labor. The employment of children younger than 14 was prohibited under the law without specific authorization from the Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection. The law, however, also provides that the minimum age for employment may be as young as 12 for some types of light work in traditional agricultural activities or home services. Additionally, since the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, some children may be encouraged to leave school to pursue work before completion of compulsory education. The law enumerates the types of hazardous work prohibited for children

The government did not enforce child labor laws. The government trained police, military, and civilians on child rights and protection, but trainees lacked resources to conduct investigations. The government announced numerous policies related to child labor, including those to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, but there was no evidence of programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including its worst forms. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Child labor was common in many sectors of the economy, especially in rural areas. Local and displaced children as young as seven years old frequently performed agricultural work, including harvesting peanuts and cassava and helping gather items subsequently sold at markets such as mushrooms, hay, firewood, and caterpillars. In Bangui many of the city’s street children worked as street vendors. Children often worked as domestic workers, fishermen, and in mines, often in dangerous conditions. For example, children were forced to work without proper protection or were forced to work long hours (i.e., 10 hours per day or longer). Children also engaged in the worst forms of child labor in diamond fields, transporting and washing gravel as well as mining gold, digging holes, and carrying heavy loads. Despite the law’s prohibition on child labor in mining, observers saw many children working in and around diamond mining fields. No known victims were removed from the worst forms of child labor during the year.

Children continued to be engaged as child soldiers. There were reports of ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka recruiting child soldiers during the year (see section 1.g.).

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

It is illegal to discriminate in hiring or place of employment based on race, national or social origin, gender, opinions, or beliefs. The government did not effectively enforce the law, however, if they were rigorously enforced, the laws would be sufficient to deter violations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on disability, age, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, social status, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases.

Discrimination against women in employment and occupation occurred in all sectors of the economy and in rural areas, where traditional practices that favor men remained widespread.

Migrant workers experienced discrimination in employment and pay.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor code states the minister of labor, employment, and social protection must set minimum wages in the public sector by decree. The government, the country’s largest employer, set wages after consultation, but not negotiation, with government employee trade unions. The minimum wages in the private sector are established based on sector-specific collective conventions resulting from negotiations between employers and workers’ representatives in each sector.

The minimum wage in the private sector varied by sector and type of work. The minimum wage in all sectors was below the World Bank standard for extreme poverty.

The minimum wage applies only to the formal sector, leaving most of the economy without a minimum wage. The law applies to foreign and migrant workers as well. Most labor was performed outside the wage and social security system in the extensive informal sector, especially by farmers in the large subsistence agricultural sector.

The law sets a standard workweek of 40 hours for government employees and most private-sector employees. Household employees may work up to 52 hours per week. The law also requires a minimum rest period of 48 hours per week for citizen, foreign, and migrant workers. Overtime policy varied according to the workplace. Violations of overtime policy may be referred to the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Protection, although it was unknown whether this occurred during the year. There is no legal prohibition on excessive or compulsory overtime. The labor code, however, states that employers must provide for the health and security of employees who are engaged in overtime work.

There are general laws on health and safety standards in the workplace, but the Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection did not precisely define them. The labor code states that a labor inspector may force an employer to correct unsafe or unhealthy work conditions.

If information exists concerning dangerous working conditions, the law provides that workers may remove themselves without jeopardy to their employment. In such instances the labor inspector notifies the employer and requires that conditions be addressed within four working days. The high unemployment and poverty rates deterred workers from exercising this right.

The government did not effectively enforce labor standards, and violations were common in all sectors of the economy. The Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection has primary responsibility for managing labor standards, while enforcement falls under the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The government did not have an adequate number of labor inspectors to enforce compliance with all labor laws. Penalties were seldom enforced and were insufficient to deter violations. Employers commonly violated labor standards in agriculture and mining. Salary and pension arrears were problems for armed forces personnel and the country’s approximately 24,000 civil servants.

Diamond mines, which employed an estimated 400,000 persons, are subject to standards imposed by the mining code and inspection by the Miners’ Brigade. Nevertheless, monitoring efforts were underfunded and insufficient. Despite the law requiring those working in mines to be at least age 18, observers frequently saw underage diggers. Diggers often worked in open pits susceptible to collapse, working seven days a week during the peak season. Diggers were employed by larger mine operators, worked in dangerous conditions at the bottom of open pits, and lacked safety equipment.

Miners, by contrast, had a share in ownership and participated in the proceeds of diamond sales. Often miners supplemented these earnings with either illegal diamond sales or wages from other sectors of the economy.

The government does not release information on workplace injury and deaths, or other occupational health and safety statistics, and officials failed to respond to International Labor Organization direct requests to provide this information.

Cuba

Executive Summary

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the republic, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite ratifying a new constitution on February 24, Cuba remains a one-party system in which the constitution states the CCP is the only legal political party and the highest political entity of the state.

The Ministry of Interior exercises control over the police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police is the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of abuse of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; political prisoners; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. The government severely restricted freedom of the press, used criminal libel laws against persons critical of leadership, and engaged in censorship and site blocking. There were limitations on academic and cultural freedom; restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement and severe restrictions of religious freedom. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party, and elections were not free and fair. There was official corruption, trafficking in persons, outlawing of independent trade unions, and compulsory labor.

On February 24, the country adopted a new constitution in a coerced referendum marred by violent government repression against those that opposed the proposed constitution. On February 12, for example, 200 police and security agents raided the homes of leaders of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for openly campaigning against the draft constitution, detaining and reportedly beating UNPACU members. Other opponents reported that the government had blocked their email and texts to keep them from disseminating opposition campaign materials. Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the CCP, disallowing for additional political expression outside of that structure. Although the new constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not respect them, nor did the courts enforce them.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses and failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed the abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on condition that it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.

Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. The government passed two additional laws further criminalizing freedom of expression: Decree 349, which came into effect in December 2018, institutionalizes censorship of independent art and culture and establishes violations for art that was not regulated or recognized by the official cultural institutions. The decree also allows “supervising inspectors” to review cultural events and empowers them to immediately close any exhibition they deem violates the law and confiscate the business license of any business hosting the offending event. The National Symbols Law criminalizes the way the national flag may be displayed or used in other creative contexts.

Police arrested several persons who protested these laws during the year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting cultural independence, who was arrested at least 18 times in 2018 and 2019, with the last arrest occurring on December 10, International Human Rights Day. On August 9, police arrested him in front of his privately owned Museum of Dissidence for his performance art protest against the National Symbols Law. His performance consisted of wearing a national flag draped over his shoulders. He was also arrested on September 12, when three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers beat him and took him away in an unmarked vehicle, holding him incommunicado for more than 72 hours. On September 13, he was charged with violating the National Symbols Law and then released on the condition that he not leave his home after midnight, drink alcohol in a public place, or frequent public places. Several other members of the San Isidro Movement were assaulted, arrested, and fined during the year.

State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The fora’s organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.

Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.

In contrast with 2018, some religious groups reported increased restrictions to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings. Most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations in the country.

On October 10, 19 independent media outlets published a joint declaration on the state of independent journalism in the country. They denounced the 183 documented incidents of state aggression against journalists since January 2018, part of a broader wave of repression of independent journalism, and demanded the state respect a more open, transparent, and diverse independent media.

On April 22, journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones was arrested and assaulted while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Quinones was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors who were facing a court sentence because they wanted to homeschool their children when police officers approached to arrest him. Quinones asked why he was being arrested. Rather than answer, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck 65-year-old Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, he was sentenced to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience,” and on September 11, he was taken to prison, after authorities processed and then denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter saying he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, Quinones was reportedly punished and threatened with “disciplinary action.”

Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Among many blocked websites, in September the government blocked Change.org after several petitions critical of the government appeared on the website. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.

The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons for the ambiguous crime of “contempt of authority.”

Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.

The government restricted access to the internet, and there were reports the government monitored without appropriate legal authority citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small but increasing number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and extralegal surveillance to censor information critical to the regime and to silence its critics.

Internet access was limited to a national network that offered only government-run email and government-generated websites, at a fraction of the price of internet available to the public. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers. The government selectively granted highly censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.

During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots, and in December 2018 it launched third generation (3G) mobile service that allowed persons for the first time to access the internet on their cell phones without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi, but the cost was beyond the means of most citizens. In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of websites blocked fluctuated, with approximately 20 websites blocked on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CubaNet and Marti Noticias and websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government also blocked voice ports used by the Session Initiation Protocol, one of the most common protocols used in voice, video, and messaging applications, and any webpage that the government considered contrary to its interests. Public reports revealed that the government used the Avila Link program to route connections to a proxy server, allowing the government to monitor citizens’ internet use and retaliate.

The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a system of user-owned and -operated grassroots wireless community networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. On July 29, new regulations came into effect designed to bring these independent networks under state regulation by transferring SNet services and content to Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A (ETECSA), the government-monopoly internet service provider. Users who protested the decision or merely resisted it were surveilled, threatened, and arrested by state security agents. Ariel Maceo Tellez, one of the SNet coordinators, was arrested on August 16.

While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that would provide uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in August.

The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also illegal. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure challenges, a growing number of citizens maintained blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from foreign supporters, who often built and maintained the blog sites overseas. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition, a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media to report independently on developments in the country, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse.

Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected service for human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, on September 6-7, the internet access of several UNPACU members was suspended ahead of a planned march, and on October 3, the government suspended the internet access of UNPACU national committee member Katherine Mojena Hernandez after she repeatedly tweeted about a government crackdown on the group.

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval and, at times, the presence of a government monitor. Those permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives back home. During the year the government allowed some religious educational centers greater latitude to operate.

Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, at least 30 professors were expelled from universities from 1991 to 2019, and academics and their students faced increased ideological discrimination during the year. For example, on August 20, Martha del Carmen Mesa Valenciano, vice minister of higher education, published an open letter announcing, “Whoever does not feel they are an activist of our Party’s revolutionary politics, an advocate of our ideology, our morality, our political convictions, must resign their position as a university professor.” This statement attempted to justify the firing of university professor Omara Ruiz Urquiola. While it was unclear if the open letter was written government policy, it acknowledged a longstanding practice of firing university professors for their ideology. During a September 16 appearance on Mesa Redonda (Roundtable), a popular program on state television, State Minister of Higher Education Jose Ramon Saborido Loidi confirmed that public universities censored and expelled professors and students who contradicted the CCP or its leaders.

The increasingly public hostility toward dissent had a chilling effect on academic discourse and led some institutions to go even farther, such as Universidad de Oriente, which published a long article on October 2 justifying the termination of law professor Rene Fidel Gonzalez Garcia. The university faulted him for a series of “controversial, contradictory, and disrespectful” articles written from 2012 to 2016 that assumed hypothetical positions in order to examine their intellectual merit. The university alleged the articles “caused teachers, students, and citizens in general to question the contents or sometimes sympathized with the positions in their confusion” and generally generated debate. University officials took offense when Gonzales asserted his free speech rights under the constitution and declared he “did not understand the limits of this right.” They subsequently suspended him from teaching duties and expelled him from the CCP.

During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.

Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so could carry a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported they received warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.

Independent activists, as well as political parties other than the CCP, faced greater obstacles, and state security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrators or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.

On May 11, authorities violently halted an independent march by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists, beating and detaining several participants. In another instance the government suppressed marches planned for September 8, the feast day of the country’s patron saint, organized by UNPACU. The march, named the Sunflower March in honor of the flower that represents the patron saint, prompted the government to ban sales of sunflowers in cities in the days leading up to the march. Several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7, and on September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested. In total, the government arrested at least 130 individuals after raiding several UNPACU offices and homes of UNPACU members as well as accosting others already in the streets, many of whom were beaten during their arrest. Most persons arrested were released within a few days, often after paying a fine, but one organizer, Ovidio Martin Castellano, was sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to pay a 2,000 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($80) fine. On September 10, the government followed up by raiding UNPACU headquarters again. Several UNPACU leaders and their family members were arrested and held incommunicado for days. The government routinely barred independent meetings related to animal rights, gender violence, and other forms of civil society activism not officially sanctioned by the state.

The government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those assembled peacefully. The targets of this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims or respond to victims’ complaints and instead frequently orchestrated the activities or took direct part in physical assaults.

The government routinely denied citizens freedom of association and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings. For example, on August 31, state security agents raided a meeting of the Pena del Jucaro Martiano, a group of intellectuals who met to study and celebrate the life of national writer Jose Marti. Officials prevented persons from entering the house where the meeting was held, entered the house on the pretense of an “electrical meter check,” threatened and photographed persons who arrived, and arrested and then interrogated one member, Alenmichel Aguilo, for several hours.

Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the party’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities and exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons.

Groups must register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities continued to ignore applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups as well as women’s rights and gay rights organizations, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.

The government continued to afford preferential treatment to those who took an active part in CCP activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government, especially when awarding valued public benefits, such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

There continued to be restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government also controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting persons in Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that they were critical of the government or for having “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors or defected athletes. Chess master Jennifer Perez was denied a passport at least four times because, as Cuban authorities in Ecuador told her, she was considered a deserter for deciding to reside abroad to take advantage of better job opportunities.

Some family members of former government employees who emigrated from the island lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 CUP ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were becoming infrequent. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.

Under the terms of the 1994-1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally if they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.

In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, changes of residence to Havana were restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization from these bodies and send them back to their legally authorized place of residence. There were reports authorities limited social services to illegal Havana residents. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.

The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned them to their homes, even though they had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to require several professional and social categories of individuals to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists. It also used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad. According to the NGO Patmos Institute, as of October there were at least 202 citizens whom authorities designated as regulados, meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and in an October 1 interview with the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because citizens are prohibited from leaving without explanation or justification, and the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance, pending third-country resettlement. In addition, the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved. In June, however, 142 Congolese medical students protesting unpaid stipends at their embassy in Havana for several months were arrested and deported to the Republic of the Congo, despite several of them expressing fears for their safety if returned.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While a voting process to choose CCP-approved candidates exists, citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or choose their government through the right to vote in free and fair elections or run as candidates from political parties other than the CCP. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change.

Recent Elections: The government selected candidates for the October 10 election for president of the republic, president of the National Assembly, and membership in the Council of State. Only members of the National Assembly–all of whom were CCP members–were allowed to vote, and candidates ran for office uncontested.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As in previous national elections, for the October election, government-run commissions had to preapprove all candidates for office and rejected certain candidates without explanation or the right of appeal. The few dissident candidates who ran for election reported the government organized protests and town hall meetings to slander their names. The government routinely used propaganda campaigns in the state-owned media to criticize its opponents. Numerous opposition candidates were physically prevented from presenting their candidacies or otherwise intimidated from participating in the electoral process.

On February 24, a national referendum nominally approved a new constitution drafted without public input or debate, although there were several months of controlled public consultation. The independent journalism organization CubaData estimated more than 45 percent of citizens did not participate in the government-controlled consultation process. Some members of independent civil society alleged the official number of public consultations was grossly exaggerated and were not designed to gather public comments, and that some citizens who spoke up or criticized the constitutional draft during this consultation period were harassed. In the weeks preceding the constitutional referendum, there was a sharp increase in repression against those who peacefully opposed the new draft constitution, especially targeting those who advocated abstaining or voting “No,” despite an article of the constitution providing that “sovereignty resides nontransferably with the people…”

The new constitution includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the CCP as the state’s only legal political party and the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” For example, Article 4 states, “Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat when other means are not available, anyone who intends to overthrow the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Because the CCP and its ideology are so entrenched in the document, the article effectively empowers ordinary persons to violently attack those who publicly disagree with the party.

Citizens who live abroad without a registered place of abode on the island lose their right to vote.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s representation increased slightly from previous years in the most powerful decision-making bodies; women held no senior positions in the military leadership.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, and the government was highly sensitive to corruption allegations and often conducted anticorruption crackdowns.

Corruption: The law provides for three to eight years’ imprisonment for “illegal enrichment” by authorities or government employees. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of law enforcement and other official corruption in enforcement of myriad economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently siphoned fuel from government stocks for sale on the black market. As of the end of June, there were 339 criminal proceedings related to fuel theft, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Multiple sources reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owner’s belongings or sought bribes in place of fines or arrests.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require appointed and elected officials to disclose their assets.

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

The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several human rights organizations continued to function outside the law, including UNPACU, the Christian Liberation Movement, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, and the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. The government subjected domestic human rights advocates to intimidation, harassment, periodic short-term detention, and long-term imprisonment on questionable charges.

No officially recognized NGOs monitored human rights. The government refused to recognize or meet with any unauthorized NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of explicit government harassment of individuals who met with these unauthorized NGOs.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny international human rights organizations, including the United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to prisoners and detainees.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law specifically criminalizes rape of women, including spousal rape, and separately criminalizes “lascivious abuse” against both genders. The government often enforced both laws. Penalties for rape are at least four years’ imprisonment. Several reports, however, suggested that crimes against women were underreported and the state failed to investigate many cases. The government recognized the high rate of femicides for the first time in a report released on May 19.

The government specifically targeted activists organizing a campaign called Women United for Our Rights that asked the state to update data on crimes against women, train officials to handle crimes against women, and define gender-based violence in the law. Nancy Alfaya Hernandez, one of the organizers of the group, was detained and threatened by state security officials in August, September, October, and December and warned that because of the “current situation,” activities designed to call attention to gender-based issues would not be allowed “not now, not ever.” Police also targeted small groups of women assembling to discuss women’s rights and gender issues more broadly, including at least once when authorities surrounded a house where such a meeting was about to take place, prevented persons from leaving and arriving freely, and told the homeowner that “we know you aren’t just meeting with your neighbors.” The government opposed any programs not state-sponsored that focused on gender violence.

The law prohibits all threats and violence but does not recognize domestic violence as a distinct category of violence. Penalties for domestic violence range from fines to prison sentences of varying lengths, depending on the severity of the offense.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides penalties for sexual harassment, with potential prison sentences of three months to five years. The government did not release any statistics on arrests, prosecutions, or convictions for offenses related to sexual harassment during the year.

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

Discrimination: The law accords women and men equal rights, the same legal status, and the same responsibilities with regard to marriage and divorce, parental duties, home maintenance, and professional careers. No information was available on whether the government enforced the law effectively.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is normally derived by birth within the country’s territory, and births were generally registered promptly. Those who emigrate abroad and subsequently have children must request a Cuban passport for the child before re-entering Cuba.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of consent for marriage is 18. Marriage for girls as young as 14 and for boys as young as 16 is permitted with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Prostitution is legal for individuals 16 and older. There is no statutory rape law, although penalties for rape increase as the age of the victim decreases. The law imposes seven to 15 years’ imprisonment for involving minors younger than 16 in pornographic acts. The punishment may increase to 20 to 30 years or death under aggravating circumstances. The law does not criminalize the possession of pornography, but it punishes the production or circulation of any kind of obscene graphic material with three months’ to one year’s imprisonment and a fine. The offer, provision, or sale of obscene or pornographic material to minors younger than 16 is punishable by two to five years in prison. Child trafficking across international borders is punishable by seven to 15 years’ imprisonment. The law does not establish an age of consent, but sexual relations with children younger than 16 can be prosecuted if there is a determination of rape. In such cases the law leaves room for consideration of possible consent and the age of the other person, especially if the other person is also a minor. A determination of rape may be made if victims lack the ability to understand the extent of the action or is not in command of their conduct, which could be applied or claimed for a person age 15 or 14. The penalty ranges from four to 10 years’ imprisonment. If the victim is older than 12 and younger than 14, the penalty is seven to 15 years’ imprisonment. The punishment for having sex with a minor age 12 is 15 to 30 years’ imprisonment or death.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of 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.

There were between 1,000 and 1,500 members of the Jewish community. There were several reports of anti-Semitic acts. In December authorities expelled a Jewish group from a hospital during a postcircumcision ceremony, even though the children were still in need of medical care. In another case police interrupted a Jewish ceremony, entering the property with police dogs without a warrant and harassing members of the congregation. Police officers said they were investigating a reported robbery, but no member of the congregation had reported a robbery. There were also several reports of local police refusing to investigate or file reports of threats and harassment against Jews and, in one case, a report of a Jewish child repeatedly beaten at school in the presence of school administration and staff. According to credible media sources, on December 13, municipal officials in Nuevitas, Camaguey, prohibited a 12-year-old child from attending school if he wore a kippah (religious headgear).

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

No known law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security oversees the Employment Program for Persons with Disabilities. The law recommends that buildings, communication facilities, air travel, and other transportation services accommodate persons with disabilities, but these facilities and services were rarely accessible to persons with disabilities.

A large number of persons with disabilities who depended on the state for their basic needs struggled to survive due to lack of resources and inattention. Some persons with disabilities who opposed the government were denied membership in official organizations for the disabled, such as the National Association for the Blind. As a result, they were denied benefits and services, which included 400 minutes of telephone usage, training in the use of a white cane and in Braille, and reduced fares on public transportation.

Afro-Cubans often suffered racial discrimination, and some were subject to racial epithets while undergoing beatings at the hands of security agents in response to political activity. Afro-Cubans also reported employment discrimination, particularly in positions of prominence within the tourism industry, media, and government. Employment advertisements were allowed to be openly sexist and racist. State agents threatened antiracist activists, such as Norberto Mesa Carbonell, founder of The Brotherhood of Black People, who received threatening telephone calls after publishing on August 15 an open letter to the government on structural racism in the country.

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care but does not extend the same protections to transgender or intersex individuals based on gender identity or expression.

The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several unrecognized NGOs that promote LGBTI human rights faced government harassment, not for their promotion of such topics, but for their independence from official government institutions.

Despite a history of state-sanctioned events in support of the LGBTI community, state-funded, the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) canceled its annual conga (gay pride march) against homophobia. Activists, including many trained and supported by CENESEX in the past, quickly organized a peaceful march in support of LGBTI rights on May 11. Despite explicit declarations in the preceding days that the purpose of the march was not a demonstration against the government but rather a call for reforms within the system, the government detained, assaulted, and attempted to intimidate activists participating in the event on the day of the march and in the months that followed, including Iliana Hernandez, Boris Gonzalez, Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, Oscar Casanella, and Yasmany Sanchez. On May 8, the government refused entry into Havana to Washington Blade journalist Michael Lavers as he was traveling to cover the event. Multiple NGOs and international organizations, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, protested the repression from authorities and the violation of freedom of expression and assembly, and three LGBTI activists–Roberto Ramos Mori, Leodan Suarez Quinones, and Yasmany Sanchez (again)–were detained in the days following the event.

The government operated four prisons exclusively for inmates with HIV/AIDS; some inmates were serving sentences for “propagating an epidemic.” Hospitals and clinics sometimes discriminated against HIV-positive patients.

Special diets and medications for HIV patients were routinely unavailable, sometimes resulting in their death from state neglect. On April 12, HIV/AIDS sufferer Ramon Acosta Galeto died, according to his mother, because the state provided insufficient medical assistance, despite her son having been approved for it.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutes, severely restricts worker rights by recognizing only the CCP-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers (CTC) as the paramount trade union confederation. To operate legally, all trade groups must belong to the CTC. The law does not provide for the right to strike. The law also does not provide for collective bargaining, instead setting up a complicated process for reaching collective agreements. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns regarding the trade union monopoly of the CTC, the prohibition on the right to strike, and restrictions on collective bargaining and agreements, including that government authorities and CTC officials have the final say on all such agreements.

The government continued to prevent the formation of independent trade unions in all sectors. The CCP chose the CTC’s leaders. The CTC’s principal responsibility is to manage government relations with the workforce. The CTC does not bargain collectively, promote worker rights, or advocate for the right to strike. The de facto prohibition on independent trade unions limited workers’ ability to organize independently and appeal against discriminatory dismissals. The government’s strong influence over the judiciary and lawyers limited effective recourse through the courts.

During the year, as in the past several years, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, general secretary of the Association of Independent Unions of Cuba, was harassed, beaten, detained, threatened, and fined. After being detained for several hours in July, he was released only to have his house surrounded by security officers.

Several small, independent labor organizations operated without legal recognition, including the National Independent Workers’ Confederation of Cuba, National Independent Laborer Confederation of Cuba, and Unitarian Council of Workers of Cuba; together they constituted the Independent Trade Union Association of Cuba (ASIC). These organizations worked to advance the rights of workers by offering an alternative to the state-sponsored CTC and purported to advocate for the rights of small-business owners and employees. Police reportedly harassed the independent unions, and government agents reportedly infiltrated them, limiting their capacity to represent workers effectively or work on their behalf.

In late 2017 ASIC filed a complaint with the ILO in which the trade union alleged harassment and persecution of independent trade unionists involving aggression, arrests, assaults and dismissals; other acts of antiunion discrimination and interference on the part of the public authorities; official recognition of only one trade union federation controlled by the state; absence of collective bargaining; and no legal recognition of the right to strike. In June 2018 the ILO requested the government ensure ASIC be given recognition to freely operate and carry out its trade union activities, in accordance with freedom of association. ASIC was the first domestic independent trade union in more than 50 years to participate in the International Labor Conference, held in Geneva in June. During the conference the ILO Committee of Experts on the Applications of Conventions requested the government provide statistical data on the number of collective agreements indicating the number of workers covered by sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not explicitly prohibit forced labor. It prohibits unlawful imprisonment, coercion, and extortion, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment, but there was no evidence these provisions were used to prosecute cases of forced labor. The use of minors in forced labor, drug trafficking, prostitution, pornography, or the organ trade is punishable by seven to 15 years’ incarceration. The government enforced the laws, and the penalties appeared sufficient to deter violations.

Compulsory military service of young men was occasionally fulfilled by assignment to an economic entity controlled by the military or by assignment to other government services. Many citizens were employed by state-run entities contracted by foreign entities inside the country and abroad to provide labor, often highly skilled labor such as doctors or engineers. These employees received a small fraction of the salaries paid to the state-run company, often less than 10 percent. For example, in the “Mais Medicos” program run in cooperation with the Pan-American Health Organization in Brazil, of $1.3 billion the Brazilian government paid for the services of Cuban doctors, less than 1 percent–only $125 million–was paid to the doctors who provided the services. The rest went into the Cuban government’s coffers. Doctors in the program complained of being overworked and not earning enough to support their families. Former participants described coercion, nonpayment of wages, withholding of their passports, and restriction on their movement, which the government denied. Similar practices occurred in the tourism sector.

Prisoners were subject to forced labor. The government did not facilitate payment of decent wages to those incarcerated. The government continued to use high school students in rural areas to harvest agricultural products (also see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum working age is 17, although the law permits the employment of children ages 15 and 16 to obtain training or fill labor shortages with parental permission and a special authorization from the municipal labor director. The law does not permit children ages 15 and 16 to work more than seven hours per day, 40 hours per week, or on holidays. Children ages 15 to 18 cannot work in specified hazardous occupations, such as mining, or at night.

There were no known government programs to prevent child labor or to remove children from such labor. Antitruancy programs, however, aimed to keep children in school. Inspections and penalties appeared adequate to enforce the law, because inspections for child labor were included in all other regular labor inspections. The government penalizes unlawful child labor with fines and suspension of work permits. There were no credible reports that children younger than 17 worked in significant numbers.

The government used some high school students in rural areas to harvest agricultural products for government farms during peak harvest time. Student participants were not paid but received school credit and favorable recommendations for university admission. Ministry of Education officials used the “Escuela al Campo” plan to make students ages 11 to 17 work in the agricultural sector with no pay. Students were expected to work 45 days during the first academic quarter. Failure to participate or obtain an excused absence reportedly could result in unfavorable grades or university recommendations, although students were reportedly able to participate in other activities (instead of the harvest) to support their application for university admission. Children who performed agricultural work under the “Escuela al Campo” plan were not given the proper tools, clothing, footwear, or food. Deficient and unsanitary living conditions, coupled with a crumbling infrastructure, exposed them to diseases, such as dengue fever, zika, and chikungunya.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits workplace discrimination based on skin color, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality, “or any other distinction harmful to human dignity,” but it does not explicitly protect political opinion (see section 7.a.), social origin, disability, age, language, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. No information was available on government enforcement of these provisions during the year.

The government continued to use politically motivated and discriminatory dismissals against those who criticized the government’s economic or political model. The government deemed persons “unfit” to work because of their political beliefs, including their refusal to join the official union, and for trying to depart the country illegally. The government also penalized professionals who expressed interest in emigrating by limiting job opportunities or firing them. A determination that a worker is “unfit” to work could result in job loss and the denial of job opportunities. Persons forced out of employment in the public sector for freely expressing themselves were often further harassed after entering the emerging but highly regulated self-employment sector.

Discrimination in employment occurred with respect to members of the Afro-Cuban and LGBTI populations. Leaders within the Afro-Cuban community noted some Afro-Cubans could not get jobs in better-paying sectors such as tourism and hospitality because they were “too dark.” Afro-Cubans more frequently obtained lower-paying jobs, including cleaning and garbage disposal, which had no interaction with tourists, a major source of hard currency.

Hiring practices in the private sector were racist, colorist, and sexist. A job posting for an accounting or finance position usually called for women with lighter or olive skin, blonde, and physically fit. Postings for bodyguards and security jobs normally sought male candidates of color, who were perceived as being stronger than other races.

There were no statistics stating whether the government effectively enforced applicable laws.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Authorities set a national minimum wage at a rate below the poverty line, which even with subsidies did not provide a reasonable standard of living.

The standard workweek is 44 hours, with shorter workweeks in hazardous occupations, such as mining. The law provides workers with a weekly minimum 24-hour rest period and one month of paid annual vacation per 11 months of effective work. These standards apply to state workers as well as to workers in the nonstate sector, but they were seldom enforced in the nonstate sector. The law does not prohibit obligatory overtime, but it generally caps the number of overtime hours at 16 hours per week and 160 per year. The law provides few grounds for a worker to refuse to work overtime below these caps. Compensation for overtime is paid in cash at the regular hourly rate or in additional rest time.

The government set workplace safety standards and received technical assistance from the ILO to implement them. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforced the minimum wage and working-hours standards through offices at the national, provincial, and municipal levels, but the government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health standards. No information was available about the number of labor inspectors. Reports from recent years suggested there were very few inspectors and that health and safety standards frequently were ignored or weakened by corrupt practices.

According to government statistics, approximately 618,000 (36 percent of whom were women) were self-employed by the end of September, a 4.9 percent increase from December 2018. The percentage of the total workforce in the private sector increased from approximately 25 percent in 2012 to 31.6 percent at the end of 2018. In December 2018 the government resumed the issuance of new licenses for self-employed persons and small private businesses that had been frozen since 2017.

Rules implemented in 2018 ban businesses operating under the license of “facilitator of home swaps and home sales-purchases” to operate as real estate or dwelling management companies or to hire employees. The rules also apply to music, art, or language teachers, other teachers, and sport trainers. The rules forbid the creation of schools or academies. They are particularly restrictive for the cultural sector, forbidding artists from dealing directly with the private sector, i.e., avoiding the intermediation and supervision of state-run agencies. The number of economic activities allowed to self-employed persons and small private businesses decreased, mostly due to merging and regrouping activities.

Despite criminal penalties for doing so, a significant number of workers participated in the informal economy, including individuals who actively traded on the black market or performed professional activities not officially permitted by the government.

Self-employed persons, such as fruit sellers, bicycle taxi drivers, and others, were frequently targeted by police for allegedly acting illegally, even when licensed. Police sometimes arbitrarily and violently closed down these businesses and confiscated any goods.

Foreign companies operated in a limited number of sectors, such as hotels, tourism, and mining. Such companies operated via a joint venture in which the government contracted and paid company workers in pesos an amount that was a small fraction of what the company remitted to the state for labor costs. Most formal employment took place only through government employment agencies. Employers, including international businesses and organizations, were generally prohibited from contracting or paying workers directly, although many reportedly made supplemental payments under the table. The Ministry of Labor enforces labor laws on any business, organization, or foreign governmental agency based in the country, including wholly owned foreign companies operating in the country, joint-stock companies involving foreign investors operating in the country, the United Nations, international NGOs, and embassies. Cuban workers employed by these entities are subject to labor regulations common to most state and nonstate workers and to some regulations specific to these kinds of entities. Government bodies, including the tax collection agency and the Ministry of Finance and Prices, enforced regulations. There were no reports about protections of migrant workers’ rights.

After increasing 4 percent in 2016, workplace accidents registered a downward trend, decreasing 10 percent in 2017 and 5 percent in 2018. Deaths related to workplace accidents increased 27 percent in 2016 and then decreased 2 percent in 2017 and 20 percent in 2018. By sector, in 2018 most deaths related to workplace accidents were concentrated in defense and public administration (17 percent), communal services and other services (16 percent), mining and quarries (14 percent), and construction (13 percent).

The CTC provided only limited information to workers about their rights and at times did not respond to or assist workers who complained about hazardous workplace conditions. It was generally understood that workers could not remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect workers facing this dilemma.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a centralized constitutional republic. Voters popularly elect the president and the lower house of parliament (National Assembly). Following a two-year delay, presidential, legislative, and provincial elections were held on December 30, 2018; however, presidential elections were cancelled in Beni and Butembo, nominally due to an ongoing Ebola outbreak and security concerns, and in Yumbi because of intercommunal violence. Legislative and provincial elections in those regions were held in March. On January 10, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) declared Felix Tshisekedi the winner of the December 2018 presidential election. His electoral victory was confirmed by the Constitutional Court on January 20, and he was inaugurated on January 24. The 2018 election was marred by irregularities and criticized by some observers, including the Council of Bishops, who said the results did not match those of their observation mission. Many international actors expressed concern over the CENI decision to deny accreditation to several international election observers and media representatives. Some persons questioned the final election results due to press reports of unverified data leaked from unnamed sources alleging opposition candidate Martin Fayulu received the most votes. The election aftermath was calm, with most citizens accepting the outcome. The January 24 inauguration of President Felix Tshisekedi was the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history. On August 26, the president’s Course for Change (CACH) political alliance entered into a power-sharing agreement to form a government with former president Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) political coalition, which won an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Under the agreement, Tshisekedi’s CACH took 35 percent of ministerial posts, while Kabila’s FCC took 65 percent.

The primary responsibility for law enforcement and public order lies with the Congolese National Police (PNC), which operates under the Ministry of the Interior. The National Intelligence Agency (ANR), overseen by the presidency, is responsible for internal and external intelligence. The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and the military intelligence service operate under the control of the Ministry of Defense and are primarily responsible for external security but in reality focus almost exclusively on internal security. The FARDC suffered from weak leadership, poor operational planning, low administrative and logistical capacity, lack of training, and questionable loyalty of some of its soldiers, particularly in the east. The presidency oversees the Republican Guard (RG), and the Ministry of Interior oversees the Directorate General for Migration, which, together with the PNC, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities did not always maintain control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by government; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests of journalists, censorship, internet blackouts, and criminal libel; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; some restrictions on citizens’ right to change their government through democratic means; serious acts of corruption by the government; trafficking in persons; violence against women and children due in substantial part to government negligence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national/ethnic/racial minorities, or indigenous people; and crimes involving violence or threat of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and forced labor, including by children.

Impunity for human rights violations and abuses was a problem. Despite the occurrence of some notable trials of military officials, authorities often did not investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government.

Government security forces, as well as illegal armed groups (IAGS), continued to commit abuses, primarily in the east and the Kasai region. These abuses included unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, destruction of government and private property, and sexual and gender-based violence. IAGs also recruited, abducted, and retained child soldiers and forced labor. The government took military action against some IAGs but had limited ability to investigate abuses and bring the accused to trial (see section 1.g.).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government did not always respect this right. The press frequently and openly criticized public officials and public policy decisions. Individuals generally could criticize the government, its officials, and other citizens in private without being subject to official reprisals. Public criticism, however, of government officials and corruption sometimes resulted in intimidation, threats, and arrest. Provincial-level governments also prevented journalists from filming or covering some protests. Through June 30, the UNJHRO documented human rights abuses against at least 85 journalists. On May 3, President Tshisekedi was the first head of state from the country to take part in World Press Freedom Day in Kinshasa, declaring the government’s commitment to promote freedom of the press.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits insulting the head of state, malicious and public slander, and language presumed to threaten national security. Authorities sometimes intimidated, harassed, and detained journalists, activists, and politicians when they publicly criticized the government, president, or SSF. On April 9, Radio Television Nsanga in Kasai Province was stormed by nine armed PNC officers on orders of the director of the local telecommunication authority. Journalists were ordered to abruptly interrupt broadcasting and leave the premises. The previous day agents from the telecommunication authority had asked the station to pay 338,000 Congolese francs ($200) in tax without explaining why. Plainclothes and uniformed security agents allegedly monitored political rallies and events.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law mandates the High Council for the Audiovisual and Communications to provide for freedom of the press and equal access to communications media and information for political parties, associations, and citizens. A large and active private press functioned in Kinshasa and in other major cities, and the government licensed a large number of daily newspapers. Radio remained the principal medium of public information due to limited literacy and the relatively high cost of newspapers and television. The state owned three radio stations and three television stations, and the former president’s family owned two additional television stations. Government officials, politicians, and to a lesser extent church leaders, owned or operated the majority of media outlets.

The government required newspapers to pay a one-time license fee of 250,000 Congolese francs ($150) and complete several administrative requirements before publishing. Broadcast media were also subject to a Directorate for Administrative and Land Revenue advertisement tax. Many journalists lacked professional training, received little or no set salary, could not access government information, and exercised self-censorship due to concerns of harassment, intimidation, or arrest.

In November local NGO Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 85 cases of attacks on media from November 2018 to October and attributed 25 percent of these attacks to state security forces. JED reported the number of attacks on media decreased by approximately 30 percent from 2018. JED reported 16 cases of arrests of journalists, a 70 percent decline from the previous year, including several who remained in detention for more than the legal limit of 48 hours without being charged. JED reported 41 instances of authorities preventing the free flow of information, as well as efforts to subject journalists to administrative, judicial, or economic pressure. At year’s end the government had not sanctioned or charged any perpetrator of press freedom violations.

On March 20, Flavien Rusaki, a journalist and owner of the news outlet Tokundola, which broadcasts on several television stations in Kinshasa, was assaulted by activists from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party outside its headquarters in Kinshasa. Rusaki was accompanying opposition figure Franck Diogo, who had just been released from prison following President Tshisekedi’s amnesty order, and was en route to UDPS party headquarters to show his support for the president. UDPS supporters accused Rusaki as a supporter of defeated presidential candidate Martin Fayulu and attacked him.

Violence and Harassment: Local journalists were vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the SSF. JED reported that on August 1, a FARDC soldier assaulted Frank Masunzu, a journalist for Radio Pole FM, in Masisi Territory of North Kivu Province, while trying to interview victims of alleged FARDC abuses.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: While the High Council for Audiovisual and Communications is the only institution with legal authority to restrict broadcasts, the government, including the SSF and provincial officials, also exercised this power.

Media representatives reported they were pressured by provincial government authorities not to cover events organized by the opposition or news concerning opposition leaders.

On June 29, the government forced Radio Television by Satellite (RTVS1), a media company owned by opposition leader Adolphe Muzito, to shut down, allegedly for tax arrears after it broadcast a message encouraging participation in a banned protest. This was the first such instance of forced media closure since President Tshisekedi took office, and the timing was seen as deliberate. The government did not reestablish RTVS1’s signal until August 1. On September 4, JED reported approximately 30 media outlets were closed throughout the country.

Libel/Slander Laws: The national and provincial governments used criminal defamation laws to intimidate and punish critics. On March 1, Radio Television Sarah journalist Steve Mwanyo Iwewe was sentenced by a provincial criminal court to 12 months in prison and a fine of 338,000 Congolese francs ($200) for insulting the governor of Equateur Province. Governor Bobo Boloko Bolumbu ordered Iwewe’s arrest on February 27 after he refused to stop filming a protest by employees of the local environmental department. Iwewe was freed on March 30 after successfully appealing his case. He reported that he was “brutally beaten by the governor’s bodyguards” during his arrest.

Local media reported that on August 1, Michel Tshiyoyo, a journalist for Radio Sozem in Kasai Central Province, was arrested over a social media post in which he discussed a dispute between two regional politicians. Martin Kubaya, the provincial governor, alleged the Facebook post was “hate speech.” On August 23, Tshiyoyo was sentenced to two years in prison. The Congolese National Press Union said Tshiyoyo had not committed any violations and called for his release. As of November he was still in prison.

National Security: The national government used a law that prohibits anyone from making general defamatory accusations against the military to restrict free speech.

Nongovernmental Impact: IAGs and their political wings regularly restricted press freedom in the areas where they operated.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet.

Some private entrepreneurs made moderately priced internet access available through internet cafes in large cities throughout the country. Data-enabled mobile telephones were an increasingly popular way to access the internet.

From December 31, 2018, to January 19, following national elections, the outgoing Kabila government suspended internet access. In December 2018 the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Congo demanded telecommunications companies restrict access for security reasons and to prevent the dissemination of unofficial results of the December 30 elections. Opposition and civil society groups accused the government of preventing them from sharing photographs of results following the vote tabulation, reporting and speaking out against electoral irregularities, and organizing demonstrations. On January 7, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression denounced the government’s action as unjustifiable and a flagrant violation of international law. The regulatory authority restored internet access on January 19, the day the Constitutional Court confirmed President Tshisekedi’s election win.

Authorities continued to reserve the right to implement internet blackouts, citing a 2002 act that grants government officials the power to shut down communications and conduct invasive surveillance. Additionally, at times the Criminal Code of 1940 and Press Freedom Act of 1996 were used to restrict freedom of expression.

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but government authorities restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, especially in Upper Uele, North Kivu, and Tanganyika Provinces. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government maintained public events required advance permission and regularly declined to authorize public meetings or protests organized by opposition parties or civil society groups critical of the government. During the year the SSF beat, detained, or arrested persons participating in protests, marches, and meetings. The SSF also used tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times live ammunition, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.

The United Nations reported an opening of democratic space, including the freedom to peacefully assemble, by the government following Tshisekedi’s inauguration. Local and regional governments, however, continued to prohibit and repress some demonstrations. According to MONUSCO there were 461 violations of democratic space as of June 30, a decrease from the 499 violations recorded during the same period in 2018. These included restrictions on freedom of assembly, the right to liberty and security of person, and of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

On May 10, in Goma, the PNC used excessive force to disperse members of civil society movement Lucha, during peaceful protests against reported poor service by telecommunications providers. Eight persons were taken to the hospital, including three individuals who were beaten to the point of losing consciousness.

On June 30, the country’s Independence Day, the PNC violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration of opposition coalition Lamuka supporters in Goma, North Kivu Province. During the dispersal a man was shot and died of his injuries the next day. On the same day, despite having no legal basis to do so, Kinshasa governor Gentiny Ngobila banned a planned march by Lamuka supporters in the city, citing the day’s symbolic nature in his decision. President Tshisekedi publicly supported the decision to ban all protests across the country on June 30. According to the United Nations, police fired tear gas to prevent the march, and antiriot police intercepted the group’s leader, Martin Fayulu. On June 24, a union of doctors and nurses held a rally in Kinshasa to protest nonpayment of back salaries. According to local media, PNC officers beat and fired tear gas at the protesters. The PNC claimed the assembly was illegal because the association had not received permission from the mayor’s office.

On July 20, Kinshasa governor Ngobila banned all protests from July 22 to July 27 after the youth wing of President Tshisekedi’s UDPS political party announced plans to protest the candidacy of former minister of justice Alexis Thambwe Mwamba for the Senate presidency, and counter protests were organized by the youth wing of former president Kabila’s party.

In Kinshasa opposition parties were often allowed to hold political rallies. On February 2, Martin Fayulu, runner up in the December 2018 presidential election, held a rally with thousands of supporters in Kinshasa, where he called for peaceful resistance against what he described as a rigged election. Police did not intervene in the rally, and the event was covered on state television. On June 23, opposition politician Jean-Pierre Bemba held a large rally in Kinshasa to commemorate his return to the country after a self-imposed exile.

Similarly, when politician Moise Katumbi returned to Lubumbashi on May 22 after three years in exile, he was greeted by thousands of supporters. Katumbi faced difficulty, however, holding rallies in conflict-affected parts of the country (see section 3).

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Civil society organizations and NGOs are required to register with the government and may receive funds only through donations; they may not generate any revenue, even if it is not at a profit. The registration process was burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the LGBTI community, reported the government had denied their registration requests. Many NGOs reported that, even when carefully following the registration process, it often took years to receive legal certification. Many interpreted registration difficulties as intentional government obstacles for impeding NGO activity.

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 sometimes restricted these rights.

Several high-profile opposition figures were allowed to return to the country after years in self-imposed exile. In April the government annulled a prison sentence in absentia for politician Moise Katumbi, enabling him to safely return in May for the first time in three years. Similarly, Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, another opposition politician, was granted a passport in May, allowing him to return to the country after more than a year in exile.

In-country Movement: The SSF established barriers and checkpoints on roads and at airports and markets, both for security reasons and to track movement related to the Ebola outbreak. The SSF routinely harassed and extorted money from civilians for supposed violations, sometimes detaining them until they or a relative paid. The government required travelers to submit to control procedures at airports and ports during domestic travel and when entering and leaving towns. IAGs engaged in similar activity in areas under their control, routinely extorting civilians at checkpoints and holding them for ransom.

Local authorities continued to collect illegal taxes and fees for boats to travel on many parts of the Congo River. There also were widespread reports FARDC soldiers and IAG combatants extorted fees from persons taking goods to market or traveling between towns (see section 1.g.).

The SSF sometimes required travelers to present travel orders from an employer or government official, although the law does not require such documentation. The SSF often detained and sometimes exacted bribes from individuals traveling without orders.

Foreign Travel: Because of inadequate administrative systems, passport issuance was irregular. Officials accepted bribes to expedite passport issuance, and there were reports the price of fully biometric passports varied widely.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, including individuals displaced for longer than 12 months, there were 4.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including 2.7 million children, in the country. The government was unable to consistently protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. The government sometimes closed IDP camps without coordinating with the international humanitarian community. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.

Conflict, insecurity, and poor infrastructure adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. UNHCR estimated that of the 350,000 IDPs displaced by intercommunal violence in Ituri in June, it had access to only 120,000 due to insecurity and inability to travel. Population displacements continued throughout the year, particularly in the east. Many areas continued to experience insecurity, such as North Kivu’s Beni Territory, Ituri Province, South Kivu’s Fizi Territory, and Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the east resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities. International organizations estimated 40 percent of displacements in the country were due to actions of the FARDC.

Due to the remote location, weak civilian authority, and insecurity of the Kasai region, humanitarian access was difficult, and IDPs lived in poor conditions without adequate shelter or protection. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including gang rape. UNHCR representatives said that of the 350,000 Congolese, including 1,941 refugees, who were forcibly repatriated from Angola in October 2018 and were then displaced in the Kasai region, the majority had returned to their areas of origin.

Combatants and other civilians abused IDPs. Abuses included killings, sexual exploitation of women and children (including rape), abduction, forced conscription, looting, illegal taxation, and general harassment.

f. Protection of Refugees

As of August 31, UNHCR reported 538,706 refugees in the country, primarily from seven adjacent countries, of whom 216,018 were from Rwanda. Of the refugees in the country, 63 percent were children.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika Provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the regions, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. UNHCR reported Rwandan refugees in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu were subject to cyclical displacement as a result of FARDC and IAG operations and were forced to relocate to South Kivu.

The government occasionally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. In Bunia, Ituri Province, local authorities granted land for a new IDP site after UNHCR raised concerns the site hosting 11,000 IDPs near the city’s hospital during an Ebola outbreak was unfit.

In August the national government provided 422 million Congolese francs ($250,000) each to the governors of Kasai and Kasai Central to provide protection and transportation assistance to an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 returnees from Angola. Both governors worked with UNHCR, the World Food Program, Doctors Without Borders, and other international partners to facilitate the repatriation.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a rudimentary system for providing protection to refugees. The system granted refugee and asylum status and provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

As of August 31, there were 10,144 asylum seekers in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers with welfare and safety needs. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes by allowing their entry into the country and facilitating immigration processing. In establishing security mechanisms, government authorities did not treat refugees differently than citizens.

Durable Solutions: On July 5, the government signed a tripartite agreement with the Central African Republic (CAR) and UNHCR, allowing CAR refugees to return home. At least 4,000 CAR refugees expressed their intention to return home. In November, 396 refugees returned to CAR from the northern part of the country in the first repatriation convoy.

The country did not invoke the cessation clause effective in 2013 for Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda before the end of 1998. In 2016 the government joined other refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR to commit to facilitating repatriation of Rwandans from countries of asylum. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees who opted to remain in the country. Refugees received long-term, renewable permits to remain in the country. The program included a path to citizenship. Conflict impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation, and between January and August it assisted in repatriating 1,088 Rwandan refugees.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to an undetermined number of individuals who may not qualify as refugees (see section 1.g.).

The country has a population of de facto stateless residents and persons at risk of statelessness, including persons of Sudanese origin living in the northeast, Mbororo pastoralists in the far north, forced returnees from Angola and former Angolan refugees, mixed-race persons who are denied naturalization, and Congolese citizens without civil documentation. There were no accurate estimates of this population’s size. The law does not discriminate in granting citizenship on the grounds of gender, religion, or disability; however, the naturalization process is cumbersome and requires parliamentary approval of individual citizenship applications. Persons whose names are not spelled according to local custom were often denied citizenship, as were individuals with lighter colored skin. Persons without national identification cards were sometimes arbitrarily arrested by the SSF.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: Presidential, legislative, and provincial elections were held on December 30, 2018, and drew criticism grounded in procedural transparency concerns. The CENI cancelled elections in Beni and Butembo in North Kivu Province, reportedly due to health concerns generated by the Ebola crisis, and in Yumbi in Mai Ndombe Province due to insecurity. Although the CENI organized legislative and provincial contests in those areas in March, more than one million voters were disenfranchised from the presidential contest.

On January 10, the CENI announced opposition candidate Tshisekedi won the presidential election, and in accordance with electoral law, on January 20, the Constitutional Court confirmed the CENI’s results. In a statement the council of bishops criticized the outcome, noting “the results of the presidential election as published by the CENI do not correspond to the data collected by our observation mission.”

Many international actors expressed concern over the CENI’s decision to deny accreditation to several international election observers and media representatives. Some persons questioned the final election results due to press reports of unverified data leaked from unnamed sources alleging opposition candidate Martin Fayulu received the most votes. The election aftermath was calm, with most citizens accepting the outcome. On January 24, Tshisekedi was sworn in as president, marking the first peaceful transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1960.

Tshisekedi’s UDPS political party won 32 seats in the National Assembly, whereas the FCC coalition won 335 seats of 500 seats total. Senatorial elections were held on March 15 through an indirect vote by provincial assemblies. On March 18, President Tshisekedi blocked incoming senators from taking their seats in response to widespread allegations provincial assembly members demanded bribes of tens of thousands of dollars for their votes. On March 29, Tshisekedi announced he was lifting the ban on seating the senators after public prosecutors claimed there was no evidence of electoral corruption.

Gubernatorial elections were held on April 10, resulting in Kabila’s FCC alliance winning 25 of 26 governorships and President Tshisekedi’s CACH coalition winning one seat. There were widespread accusations of corruption in opposition strongholds and resource-rich regions.

On June 10, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling invalidating the parliamentary elections of 24 opposition members, awarding their seats to members of the majority coalition. In response President Tshisekedi ordered the creation of a special investigation chamber. On July 3, the special chamber reinstated 10 of the 24 invalidated parliamentarians.

Political Parties and Political Participation: On August 26, President Tshisekedi’s CACH political alliance entered into a power-sharing agreement with former president Kabila’s FCC political alliance. Under the agreement, CACH received 35 percent of ministerial positions in the government, and the FCC took 65 percent. The FCC also enjoyed majority representation in judicial bodies.

State-run media, including television and radio stations, remained the largest sources of information for the public and government (see section 2.a.). There were reports of government intimidation of opposition members, such as denying opposition groups the right to assemble peacefully (see section 2.b.), limiting travel within or outside the country, targeting opposition leaders in politically motivated judicial actions, and exercising political influence in the distribution of media content.

The law recognizes opposition parties and provides them with “sacred” rights and obligations. Government authorities and the SSF, however, prevented opposition parties from holding public meetings, assemblies, and peaceful protests. The government and the SSF also limited opposition leaders’ freedom of movement. At various points during the year, including the election campaign period, the SSF used force to prevent or disrupt opposition-organized events.

Thousands in Lubumbashi welcomed home exiled opposition leader Moise Katumbi on May 22. On June 2, and again on June 10, however, the government prevented Katumbi from landing his plane in Goma, where he was scheduled to hold a political rally. Both times, the government cited “security reasons,” in denying the landing clearance.

In a number of districts, known as chefferies, traditional chiefs perform the role of a local government administrator. Unelected, they are selected based on local tribal customs (generally based on family inheritance) and if approved are then paid by the government.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate, although some ethnic groups in the restive east claimed discrimination. Women held 10 percent of seats in the National Assembly (52 of 500) and 10 percent in the provincial assemblies (72 of 690). In April, Jeanine Mabunda was named president of the National Assembly, the second time a woman has held that position. Of 108 senators, 23 were women. Among the 66 government vice prime ministers, ministers, ministers of state, vice ministers, and minister delegates, 12 were women, an increase in the total number from that of the previous government (from 10 percent of 59 such positions to 17 percent of 65 such positions). Notably, Marie Tumba Nzeza became the second female foreign minister, and Elysee Munembwe Tamukumwe was named vice prime minister for planning. Some observers believed cultural and traditional factors prevented women from participating in political life to the same extent as men.

Some groups, including indigenous persons, claimed they had no representation in the Senate, National Assembly, or provincial assemblies. Discrimination against indigenous groups continued in some areas, such as Equateur, East Kasai, and Upper Katanga Provinces, and contributed to their lack of political participation (see section 6).

The national electoral law prohibits certain groups of citizens from voting in elections, in particular members of the armed forces and the national police.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

Corruption: Corruption by officials at all levels as well as within state-owned enterprises continued to deprive state coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

On July 11, President Tshisekedi stated the country would no longer tolerate “yesterday’s untouchable corrupters,” and he pledged to launch a national anticorruption awareness campaign. Of residents, 80 percent said they had to pay bribes to secure public goods and services such as police protection, water, birth certificates, and identification cards. The survey, conducted from February to March 2018, showed that 82 percent of respondents believed the presidency under Kabila was the most corrupt institution in the country. In September, Vital Kamerhe, President Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, was accused of embezzling 15 million dollars from a state fund established to reimburse petroleum companies for a price freeze. As of October an investigation was underway.

Elements of the SSF were undisciplined and corrupt. PNC and FARDC units regularly engaged in illegal taxation and extortion of civilians. They set up checkpoints to collect “taxes,” often stealing food and money and arresting individuals who could not pay bribes.

Additional revenue losses were due to racketeering and exploitation of minerals in the east by certain FARDC elements and IAGs. Artisanal mining remained predominantly informal and illicit and strongly linked to both armed groups and certain elements of the FARDC. Artisanal mining products, particularly gold, were smuggled into Uganda and Rwanda, often with the connivance of government officials.

As of 2017 research by the NGO IPIS estimated 44 percent of artisanal mine sites in the east were free of illegal control or taxation from either elements of the SSF or IAGs, 38 percent were under the control of elements of the FARDC, and the remainder were under the control of various armed groups. In areas affected by conflict, both IAGs and elements of the SSF regularly set up roadblocks and ran illegal taxation schemes. In April, IPIS published data showing state agents regularly sold tags meant to validate clean mineral supply chains. The validation tags–a mechanism designed to reduce corruption, labor abuses, trafficking in persons, and environmental destruction–were regularly sold to smugglers.

In 2014 the government launched a mechanism to standardize supply-chain processes across the Great Lakes region for artisanally produced cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), and coltan (tantalum ore), the implementation of which continued during the year. On July 26, the government publicly launched an initiative alongside international and local partners to validate tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold mine sites, verifying no armed groups benefited from mining activities. The 2018 mining code mandated membership in mining cooperatives for all artisanal miners and required accreditation to transform, transport, and conduct transactions in artisanal mining products.

In 2013 Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel estimated the country lost $1.36 billion between 2010 and 2012 due to undervalued mining asset sales. In 2018 the NGO Global Witness reported more than 1.3 billion Congolese francs ($750 million) in payments by mining companies to tax agencies and state mining companies between 2013 and 2015 never reached the national treasury. Also in 2018 the Carter Center reported 1.2 trillion Congolese francs ($750 million) in unaccounted for mining revenues earned by the parastatal Gecamines from 2011 to 2014. This constituted more than two-thirds of the 1.75 trillion Congolese francs ($1.1 billion) in mining revenues earned by Gecamines during this period. During the first half of the year, attempts to reform Gecamines by President Tshisekedi were systematically blocked by the holdover Kabila-era appointee in the Ministry of Portfolio, the body responsible for managing state-owned companies.

A June report from the UNGOE found armed groups regularly financed their activities through illegal mining. The report documented cases of government officials involved in the illegal diversion of minerals. According to the report, in December 2018 Isidor Olamba Shoja, head of the Mining Police in North Kivu’s Sake town, accepted a bribe of two million Congolese francs ($1,200) for the release of a smuggler arrested with 373 pounds of illegal coltan. After releasing the prisoner, Shoja kept the coltan. The UNGOE reported Shoja diverted minerals from smuggling groups several times, and that as of June he was in detention. On March 21, two other police officers were arrested for accepting a bribe to facilitate mineral smuggling.

The UNGOE also reported the armed group NDC-R, which they described as a proxy force of the FARDC, financed its activities through the control of artisanal gold and coltan mining sites in North Kivu. In January the NDC-R started to collect monthly taxes of 1,000 Congolese francs ($0.60) per adult. Persons were beaten, fined, and detained if they could not prove they paid the tax. The group also subjected local communities to forced labor. Men in Kalembe, North Kivu Province, were forced to perform construction work in mines controlled by the group.

As in previous years, a significant portion of the country’s enacted budget (approximately 13 percent) included off-budget and special account allocations that were not fully published. These accounts facilitated graft by shielding receipts and disbursements from public scrutiny. The special accounts pertained to eight parastatal organizations that raised revenues that were not channeled through the government’s tax collection authorities. “Special accounts” are subjected to the same auditing procedures and oversight as other expenditures; however, due in large part to resource constraints, the Supreme Audit Authority did not always publish its internal audits, or in many cases published them significantly late. Under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) standard of 2016, the government is required to disclose the allocation of revenues and expenditures from extractive companies. On June 16, the EITI board noted the country had made meaningful progress in its implementation of the 2016 standard but also expressed concern over persistent corruption and mismanagement of funds in the extractive sector.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president and ministers to disclose their assets to a government committee. The president and all ministers and vice ministers reportedly did so when they took office. The committee had yet to make this information public.

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

Elements of the SSF continued to kill, harass, beat, intimidate, and arbitrarily arrest and detain domestic human rights advocates and domestic NGO workers, particularly when the NGOs reported on or supported victims of abuses by the SSF or reported on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the east. In September, Human Rights Watch’s lead analyst for the country, Ida Sawyer, was granted a visa, and returned for the first time in three years. Sawyer–one of the foremost experts on human rights in the country–had been blacklisted under the Kabila regime. She stated she was encouraged by the Tshisekedi administration’s commitment to real change. During the year the government declined to issue or renew visas for some international journalists and researchers. Representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the ANR met with domestic NGOs and sometimes responded to their inquiries.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated at times with investigations by the United Nations and other international bodies but was not consistent in doing so. For example, the government refused to grant the United Nations access to certain detention centers, particularly at military installations such as military intelligence headquarters, where political prisoners were often detained. The government and military prosecutors cooperated with the UN team supporting investigations related to the 2017 killing of two UN experts, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan, in Kasai Central Province.

In August, FARDC Colonel Jean de Dieu Mambweni was formally charged in the killings of the two UN experts, leading to the creation of a higher-level military panel that was hearing the case against him as well as the other defendants, some of whom were being tried in a lower level military court since June 2017. As of August a number of key suspects remained at large, including Evariste Ilunga, one of the few suspects identified in the video of the killings, and several others who were part of a prison escape in Kasai Central Province in May.

On July 8, the ICC convicted Bosco Ntaganda of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ituri between 2002 and 2003. Ntangada’s crimes included murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers in the country. In 2004 the government requested the ICC investigate the situation. On November 7, the ICC sentenced Ntaganda to 30 years in prison for his crimes.

Government Human Rights Bodies: During the year the National Commission on Human Rights published reports on 2018 intercommunal violence in Yumbi Territory, the condition of prisons and other detention facilities, and insecurity due to poaching in Haut Lomami Province. It also visited detention centers, followed up on complaints of human rights violations from civilians, and held a meeting on the right to demonstrate. It continued to lack sufficient funding for overhead costs or to have full-time representation in all 26 provinces.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law on sexual violence criminalizes rape, but the offense was not always reported by victims, and the law was not always enforced. Rape was common. The legal definition of rape does not include spousal rape. It also prohibits extrajudicial settlements (for example, a customary fine paid by the perpetrator to the family of the victim) and forced marriage, allows victims of sexual violence to waive appearance in court, and permits closed hearings to protect confidentiality. The minimum penalty prescribed for conviction of rape is a prison sentence of five years, and courts regularly imposed such sentences in rape convictions. Some prosecutions occurred for rape and other types of sexual violence.

From January to July, the UNJHRO reported at least 556 women and girls were victims of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict-affected areas. The UNJHRO stated perpetrators were primarily IAGs, followed by FARDC, police, and intelligence agents. In June there were 54 cases of sexual violence against women attributed to FDLR combatants. For example, the United Nations reported that on June 17, a woman in Nyiragongo Territory was attacked by eight FDLR combatants and raped while searching for firewood. As of July 31, the United Nations reported the SSF killed 49 women and IAGs killed 116 women.

The SSF, IAGs, and civilians perpetrated widespread sexual violence (see section 1.g.). As of July 31, the United Nations documented 501 adult victims and 64 child victims of sexual violence in conflict. Crimes of sexual violence were sometimes committed as a tactic of war to punish civilians for having perceived allegiances to rival parties or groups. The crimes occurred largely in the conflict zones in North and South Kivu Provinces, but also throughout the country. The 2013-14 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found more than one in four women nationwide (27 percent) had experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives, up from 22 percent in 2007.

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu reported 700 cases of rape occurred near the border of Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces from March to June. Due to armed group activity, however, their planned joint fact-finding mission with the United Nations could not access the area.

In March the PNC launched a nationwide campaign, with support from MONUSCO, to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence by the SSF. On July 7, Colonel Jean Daniel Apanza, head of the military’s internal commission to combat sexual violence, reaffirmed the FARDC’s principle of “zero tolerance for cases of sexual violence.”

MONUSCO reported that, from March 1 to March 15, the military court in Kikwit Province convicted eight PNC agents and two FARDC soldiers of rape, with sentences ranging from three to 12 years in prison.

Most survivors of rape did not pursue formal legal action due to insufficient resources, lack of confidence in the justice system, family pressure, and fear of subjecting themselves to humiliation, reprisal, or both.

The law does not provide any specific penalty for domestic violence despite its prevalence. Although the law considers assault a crime, police rarely intervened in perceived domestic disputes. There were no reports of judicial authorities taking action in cases of domestic or spousal abuse.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law describes FGM/C as a form of sexual violence, provides a sentence of two to five years in prison, and levies fines of up to 200,000 Congolese francs ($125); in case of death due to FGM/C, the sentence is life imprisonment.

For more information, see Appendix C.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: UNICEF and MONUSCO attributed some abuses of children, including sexual violence against young girls, to harmful traditional and religious practices. Perpetrators allegedly targeted children because they believed harming children or having sex with virgins could protect against death in conflict.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment occurred throughout the country. The law prohibits sexual harassment and stipulates a minimum sentence of one year, but there was little or no effective enforcement of the law.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available in Appendix C.

Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, but the law does not provide women the same rights as men. The law provides women a number of protections. It permits women to participate in economic domains without approval of male relatives, provides for maternity care, disallows inequities linked to dowries, and specifies fines and other sanctions for those who discriminate or engage in gender-based abuse. Women, however, experienced economic discrimination.

According to UNICEF, many widows were unable to inherit their late husbands’ property because the law states that in event of a death in which there is no will, the husband’s children, including those born out of wedlock (provided they were officially recognized by the father), rather than the widow, have precedence with regard to inheritance. Courts may sentence women found guilty of adultery to up to one year in prison, while adultery by men is punishable only if judged to have “an injurious quality.”

Birth Registration: The law provides for the acquisition of citizenship through birth within the country or from either parent being of an ethnic group documented as having been located in the country in 1960. The government registered 25 percent of children born in some form of medical facility. Lack of registration rarely affected access to government services. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Education: The constitution provides for tuition-free and compulsory primary education. During the year President Tshisekedi promised to make public primary education universally free. The government, however, was not able to consistently provide it in all provinces. Public schools generally expected parents to contribute to teachers’ salaries. These expenses, combined with the potential loss of income from their children’s labor while they attended class, rendered many parents unable or unwilling to enroll their children.

Primary and secondary school attendance rates for girls were lower than for boys due to financial, cultural, or security reasons, including early marriage and pregnancy for girls. Teachers pressured one in five girls to exchange sexual favors for high grades.

Many of the schools in the east were dilapidated and closed due to chronic insecurity. Schools were sometimes targeted in attacks by both the FARDC and IAGs. Parents in some areas kept their children from attending school due to fear of IAG forcible recruitment of child soldiers.

Child Abuse: Although the law prohibits all forms of child abuse, it regularly occurred. The constitution prohibits parental abandonment of children accused of sorcery. Nevertheless, parents or other care providers sometimes abandoned or abused such children, frequently invoking “witchcraft” as a rationale. The law provides for the imprisonment of parents and other adults convicted of accusing children of witchcraft. Authorities did not implement the law.

Many churches conducted exorcisms of children accused of witchcraft. These exorcisms involved isolation, beating and whipping, starvation, and forced ingestion of purgatives. According to UNICEF some communities branded children with disabilities or speech impediments as witches. This practice sometimes resulted in parents’ abandoning their children.

Early and Forced Marriage: While the law prohibits marriage of boys and girls younger than age 18, many marriages of underage children took place. Bridewealth (dowry) payment made by a groom or his family to the relatives of the bride to ratify a marriage greatly contributed to underage marriage, as parents forcibly married daughters to collect bridewealth or to finance bridewealth for a son.

The constitution criminalizes forced marriage. Courts may sentence parents convicted of forcing a child to marry to up to 12 years’ hard labor and a fine of 92,500 Congolese francs ($58). The penalty doubles when the child is younger than age 15. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18 for both men and women, and the law prohibits prostitution by anyone younger than age 18. The penal code prohibits child pornography, with imprisonment of 10 to 20 years for those convicted. The law criminalizes child sex trafficking, with conviction carrying penalties ranging from 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 800,000 to 1,000,000 Congolese francs ($500 to $625). From January through June, UNICEF assisted 3,318 children (3,193 girls and 125 boys) who were victims of sexual exploitation. Most of these children were provided with a holistic response including psychosocial care, medical care, socioeconomic reintegration, and legal assistance.

There were also reports child soldiers, particularly girls, faced sexual exploitation (see section 1.g.).

Child Soldiers: Armed groups recruited boys and girls (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: According to the 2007 Rapid Assessment, Analysis, and Action Planning Report, which was the most recent data available, there were an estimated 8.2 million orphans, children with disabilities, and other vulnerable children in the country. Of these, 91 percent received no external support of any kind and only 3 percent received medical support. The NGO Humanium estimated 70,000 children lived on the streets, with at least 35,000 in Kinshasa. The families of many of these children forced them out of their homes, accusing them of witchcraft and bringing misfortune to their families.

Between April and August 13, UNICEF registered 1,380 orphans who lost parents to the Ebola virus in the east. During the same period, 2,469 children were separated from their parents–either because they were isolated after being in contact with an Ebola-affected individual or because their parents were undergoing treatment.

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.

The country had a very small Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities and requires the state to promote their participation in national, provincial, and local institutions. The constitution states all persons should have access to national education. The law states private, public, and semipublic companies may not discriminate against qualified candidates based on disability. The government did not enforce these provisions effectively, and persons with disabilities often found it difficult to obtain employment, education, and other government services.

As of November the law did not mandate access to government buildings or services for persons with disabilities including access to health care, information, communication, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services. While persons with disabilities may attend public primary and secondary schools and have access to higher education, no special provisions are required of educational facilities to accommodate their specific needs. Consequently, 90 percent of adults with disabilities did not achieve basic literacy. The Ministry of Education increased its special education outreach efforts but estimated it was educating fewer than 6,000 children with disabilities.

Disability groups reported extensive social stigmatization, including children with disabilities being expelled from their homes and accused of witchcraft. Families sometimes concealed their children with disabilities due to shame. To address these issues, President Tshisekedi created a new Ministry of Social Affairs Charged with People Living with Disabilities and Other Vulnerable Persons, and a new minister, Irene Esambo Diata, was confirmed on September 6.

Ethnic Twa persons frequently faced severe societal discrimination and had little protection from government officials (see section 1.g.).

There were reports of societal discrimination and violence against foreign minority groups. For example, Chinese workers in Kasai Central Province were arbitrarily arrested in August on charges of “illegally staying,” after a spike in local tensions over tolls on the new road being constructed by a Chinese company.

Estimates of the country’s indigenous population (Twa, Baka, Mbuti, Aka, and others believed to be the country’s original inhabitants) varied greatly, from 250,000 to two million. Societal discrimination against these groups was widespread, and the government did not effectively protect their civil and political rights. Most indigenous persons took no part in the political process, and many lived in remote areas. Fighting in the east between RMGs and the SSF, expansion by farmers, and increased trading and excavation activities caused displacement of some indigenous populations.

While the law stipulates indigenous populations receive 10 percent of the profits gained from use of their land, this provision was not enforced. In some areas, surrounding tribes kidnapped and forced indigenous persons into slavery, sometimes resulting in ethnic conflict (see section 1.g.). Indigenous populations also reported high instances of rape by members of outside groups, which contributed to HIV/AIDS infections and other health complications.

While no law specifically prohibits consensual sexual conduct between same-sex adults, individuals engaging in public displays of same-sex sexual conduct, such as kissing, were sometimes subject to prosecution under public indecency provisions, which society rarely applied to opposite-sex couples. A local NGO reported authorities often took no steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed abuses against LGBTI persons, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government, and impunity for human rights abuses was a problem.

Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex remained a cultural taboo, and harassment by SSF and judiciary occurred.

LGBTI individuals were subjected to harassment, stigmatization, and violence, including “corrective” rape. Some religious leaders, radio broadcasts, and political organizations played a key role in perpetrating discrimination against LGBTI individuals.

LGBTI persons in South Kivu reported that in 2018 a coalition of revivalist churches in Bukavu published materials characterizing LGBTI persons as against the will of God. The publications contributed to a deteriorating environment for LGBTI rights in the area. Advocates reported arbitrary detentions, acts of physical violence, including beatings, being stripped naked, sexual abuse in public settings, and rape. In some cases LGBTI persons were forced by threats of violence to withdraw from schools and other public and community institutions.

The law prohibits discrimination based on HIV status, but social stigma continued.

The 2013-14 DHS captured a proxy indicator measuring the level of tolerance of respondents towards an HIV-positive person (either family member, businessperson, or teacher) and the necessity of hiding the HIV-positive status of a family member. A total of 72 percent of respondents said they were ready to take care of an HIV-positive parent, but only 47 percent expressed willingness to purchase produce from an HIV-positive seller. A total of 49 percent of respondents would accept having an HIV-positive teacher teach their children, and 26 percent said it would not be necessary to hide the HIV status of a family member. The study estimated a global tolerance level towards HIV-positive persons at 4 percent in women and 12 percent in men.

According to UNAIDS, the HIV prevalence rate of adults and children between 15 and 49 was 0.7 percent, and an estimated 390,000 persons of all ages in the country had HIV in 2017.

Discrimination against persons with albinism was widespread and limited their ability to marry and obtain employment, health care, and education. Families and communities frequently ostracized persons with albinism. Civil society groups reported albinos were killed and their bodies disinterred and cut up for use in rituals meant to grant special power to anyone, from soccer teams to political campaigns, for example.

Longstanding ethnic tensions also fueled some community violence. Throughout the first half of the year, Hutu populations in North Kivu were subject to forced displacement by both the SSF and IAGs operating in the area. In June intercommunal violence between Hema and Lendu groups in Ituri Province resulted in the deaths of 117 persons (see section 1.g.).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution and law provide all workers, including those in both the informal and formal sectors, except top government officials and SSF members, the right to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively. The law also provides for the right of most workers to conduct legal strikes. It is against the law, however, for police, army, directors of public and private enterprises, and domestic workers to strike. The law gives administrative authorities the right to dissolve, suspend, or deregister trade union organizations. It also grants unions the right to conduct activities without interference, although it does not define specific acts of interference. In the private sector, a minimum of 10 employees is required to form a union within a business, and a single business may include members of more than one union. Foreigners may not hold union office unless they have lived in the country for at least 20 years. Collective bargaining requires a minimum of 10 union committee members and one employer representative; union committee members report to the rest of the workforce. In the public sector, the government sets wages by decree after holding prior consultations with unions. Certain subcategories of public employees, such as staff members of decentralized entities (towns, territories, and sectors), do not have the right under the law to participate in the wage-setting consultations.

Union committees are required to notify company management of a planned strike, but they do not need authorization to strike. The law stipulates unions and employers shall adhere to lengthy compulsory arbitration and appeal procedures before unions initiate a strike. Generally the committee delivers a notice of strike to the employer. If the employer does not reply within 48 hours, the union may strike immediately. If the employer chooses to reply, negotiations, which may take up to three months, begin with a labor inspector and ultimately continue in the Peace Court. Sometimes, employees provide minimum services during negotiations, but this is not a requirement. Unless unions notify employers of a planned strike, the law prohibits striking workers from occupying the workplace during a strike, and an infraction of the rules on strikes may lead to incarceration of up to six months with compulsory prison labor. This rule was not enforced, and no one was reported to have been imprisoned.

The law prohibits discrimination against union employees and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for union activities, but the associated penalties were not adequate to deter violations. The law considers those who have worked for a minimum of three continuous months as “workers” and thereby protected by relevant labor law. Unless they are part of a union, most workers in agricultural activities and artisanal mining, domestic and migrant workers, and workers in export-processing zones were unfamiliar with their labor rights and did not often seek redress when employers breached applicable labor laws.

The government recognizes 12 private-sector and public-enterprise unions at the national level. The public administration sector has a history of organizing, and the government negotiates with sector representatives when they present grievances or go on strike. Of the 15 national unions that represented the public administration sector, five accounted for the majority of the workers.

Workers exercised their right to strike. In January workers in the public and private sectors held a series of strikes over unpaid salaries. The new Tshisekedi administration invited workers’ representatives to negotiate and dismissed two directors of state-owned companies for their role in the embezzlement of workers’ salaries.

On February 26, police from Mbuji-Mayi, the capital of Kasai Oriental Province, went on strike over nonpayment of two months’ salary.

On July 31, magistrates in Kinshasa, Matadi, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka, and Uvira stopped judicial proceedings to protest working conditions and low salaries. Edmond Isofa, the president of the National Magistrates’ Union, said that low salaries were a major cause of corruption within the judicial system.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. In small and medium-sized businesses, workers could not effectively exercise the right to strike. Due to lax enforcement of labor regulations, companies and shops could immediately replace any workers attempting to unionize, bargain collectively, or strike with contract workers to intimidate the workers and prevent them from exercising their rights, despite legal protections. Antiunion discrimination was widespread, particularly in foreign-owned companies. In many instances, companies refused to negotiate with unions and negotiated individually with workers to undermine collective bargaining efforts.

Despite collective agreements on union dues, employers often did not remit union dues or did so irregularly.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

In cases of nonpayment of requisite and applicable taxes, the law allows for arrest and forced labor as a penalty to repay the tax debt. This had not been put into practice, however.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. There were reports forced labor, including forced child labor, regularly occurred throughout the country. Violations included bonded labor, domestic servitude, and slavery. In the artisanal mining sector, individuals took on debt from intermediaries and dealers to acquire food, supplies, and mining equipment, often at high interest rates. Miners who failed to provide sufficient ore to pay their debt were at risk of debt bondage. The government continued to try to formalize the artisanal mining sector but did not attempt to regulate the practice. In the east IAGs continued to abduct and forcibly recruit men, women, and children to serve as laborers, porters, domestic laborers, and combatants (see section 1.g.). In eastern mining regions, there were reports armed groups violently attacked mining communities and surrounding villages and held men, women, and children captive for trafficking, including forced labor and sexual exploitation. In North Kivu and South Kivu Provinces, some members of FARDC units and IAGs taxed or, in some cases, controlled mining activities in gold, coltan, wolframite, and cassiterite mines. There were no reports of FARDC units forcing persons to work in mines. IAGs sometimes forced local communities to perform construction work and other labor at mine sites. The government did not effectively enforce laws banning this practice.

Some police officers arrested individuals arbitrarily to extort money from them (see section 1.d.). There were reports in North and South Kivu Provinces of police forcing those who could not pay to work until they “earned” their freedom.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting forced or compulsory labor and took no action against those who used forced labor and abducted civilians for forced labor. The government did not report any official forced labor investigations, and there were no prosecutions. Little if any information existed on the removal of victims from forced labor.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The government prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for work at 16, and a ministerial order sets the minimum age for hazardous work at 18. The law also stipulates children may not work for more than four hours per day and restricts all minors from transporting heavy items. Penalties for conviction of violations for the worst forms of child labor were insufficient to deter violations.

The Ministry of Labor has responsibility for investigating child labor abuses but had no dedicated child labor inspection service. In 2016 the National Labor Committee adopted a new action plan to fight the worst forms of child labor, slated for implementation during the year; however, as of September it had not been implemented. Other government agencies responsible for combating child labor include the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Children; Ministry of Justice; Ministry of Social Affairs; and National Committee to Combat the Worst Forms of Child Labor. These agencies had no budgets for inspections and conducted no child labor investigations.

World Vision announced it had reduced exploitation and the worst forms of child labor for 1,380 children in the mining sites of North Katanga through the provision of vocational training and schooling opportunities.

While criminal courts continued to hear child labor complaints, neither the courts nor other government agencies effectively enforced these laws. The government did not allocate specific budgetary resources to the relevant ministries and the National Committee to Combat the Worst Forms of Child Labor.

While there was systematic government effort to redirect child labor away from artisanal mines, the government and the African Development Bank launched an $80 million project to provide alternative livelihoods for children engaged in the cobalt sector. The Ministry of Mines prohibits artisanal mines with child labor from exporting minerals; however, the ministry had limited enforcement capacity.

The government undertook a $2.5 million project to boost the capacity of labor inspectors to prevent children younger than age 18 from engaging in hazardous work in mines. The law prohibits violations of child labor laws in the mining sector and imposes fines in cases of violations.

Child labor, including forced child labor, was a problem throughout the country (see section 7.b.). Child labor was most common in the informal sector, including in artisanal mining and subsistence agriculture. According to the Ministry of Labor, children worked in mines and stone quarries, and as child soldiers, water sellers, domestic workers, and entertainers in bars and restaurants. The commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred (see section 6).

Various mining sites, located principally in the eastern regions of North Kivu and Katanga, employed many child workers. The working conditions for children at these mining sites were poor. Treated as adults, children worked without breaks and without any basic protective measures.

Children were also the victims of exploitation in the worst forms of child labor, many of them in agriculture, illicit activities, and domestic work. Children mined diamonds, gold, cobalt, coltan, wolframite, copper, and cassiterite under hazardous conditions. In the mining regions of Upper Katanga, Kasai Oriental, Kasai Central, North Kivu, and South Kivu Provinces, children sifted, cleaned, sorted, transported heavy loads, and dug for minerals underground. In many areas of the country, children between ages five and 12 broke rocks to make gravel.

Parents often used children for dangerous and difficult agricultural labor. Families unable to support their children occasionally sent them to live with relatives who treated them as domestic slaves, subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse.

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 law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on race, gender, language, or social status. The law does not specifically protect against discrimination based on religion, age, political opinion, national origin, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV-positive status. Additionally, no law specifically prohibits discrimination in employment of career public service members. The government did not effectively enforce relevant employment laws, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

Gender-based discrimination in employment and occupation occurred (see section 6). Although the labor code stipulates men and women must receive equal pay for equivalent work, the government did not enforce this provision effectively. According to the International Labor Organization, women often received less pay in the private sector than did men doing the same job and rarely occupied positions of authority or high responsibility. Persons with disabilities, albinism, and certain ethnicities such as Twa faced discrimination in hiring and access to the worksites.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government sets regional minimum wages for all workers in private enterprise, with the highest pay scales applied to the cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. In 2018 the Ministry of Labor was implementing a minimum wage increase in a series of increments. As of November the minimum wage was above the poverty line. Most businesses were not in compliance with this minimum wage but faced few penalties.

In the public sector, the government sets wages annually by decree and permits unions to act only in an advisory capacity.

The law defines different standard workweeks, ranging from 45 hours per week to 72 hours every two weeks, for various jobs and prescribes rest periods and premium pay for overtime. The law establishes no monitoring or enforcement mechanism, and employers in both the formal and informal sectors often did not respect these provisions. The law does not prohibit compulsory overtime.

The average monthly wage did not provide a living wage for a worker and family. Salary arrears became more frequent in both the civil service and public enterprises. Many public-sector employees reported they did not receive their annual bonuses. In 2012 the government began paying some civil servant salaries through the banking system in an effort to stop the practice by which supervisors created fake employees and skimmed off some of their subordinates’ salaries. The Budget Ministry stated 75 percent of civil servants received their pay through the banking system, but some observers believed that figure was grossly inflated. For many, the government delivered cash in large shipments for local authorities and supervisors to distribute.

The labor code specifies health and safety standards. The Ministry of Labor employed 200 labor inspectors, which was not sufficient to enforce consistent compliance with labor regulations. The government did not effectively enforce such standards in the informal sector, and enforcement was uneven in the formal sector. Major international mining companies effectively observed health and safety standards, and the Ministry of Mines validation process includes criteria on minimal safety standards. Nonetheless, the law does not allow workers to remove themselves from hazardous situations without putting their employment in jeopardy. Approximately 90 percent of laborers worked in subsistence agriculture, informal commerce or mining, or other informal pursuits, where they often faced hazardous or exploitive working conditions.

In 2015 the international NGO IPIS estimated there were approximately 300,000 artisanal miners in the 2,000 identified mine sites in the east. It was estimated there were likely an additional 1,000 mine sites that had not been identified.

Iran

Executive Summary

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian theocratic republic with a Shia Islamic political system based on velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). Shia clergy, most notably the rahbar (supreme leader), and political leaders vetted by the clergy dominate key power structures. The supreme leader is the head of state. The members of the Assembly of Experts are nominally directly elected in popular elections. The assembly selects and may dismiss the supreme leader. The candidates for the Assembly of Experts, however, are vetted by the Guardian Council (see below) and are therefore selected indirectly by the supreme leader himself. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the position since 1989. He has direct or indirect control over the legislative and executive branches of government through unelected councils under his authority. The supreme leader holds constitutional authority over the judiciary, government-run media, and other key institutions. While mechanisms for popular election exist for the president, who is head of government, and for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament or majles), the unelected Guardian Council vets candidates, routinely disqualifying them based on political or other considerations, and controls the election process. The supreme leader appoints half of the 12-member Guardian Council, while the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) appoints the other half. Parliamentary elections held in 2016 and presidential elections held in 2017 were not considered free and fair.

The supreme leader holds ultimate authority over all security agencies. Several agencies share responsibility for law enforcement and maintaining order, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and law enforcement forces under the Interior Ministry, which report to the president, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which reports directly to the supreme leader. The Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group with local organizations across the country, sometimes acted as an auxiliary law enforcement unit subordinate to IRGC ground forces. The IRGC and the national army, or “Artesh,” provided external defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

In response to widespread protests that began November 15 after a fuel price increase, the government blocked almost all international and local internet connections for most of a week, and security forces used lethal force to end the protests, killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600, according to international media reports. There was no indication government entities were pursuing independent or impartial investigations into protester deaths.

Significant human rights issues included executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of “most serious crimes” and without fair trials of individuals, including juvenile offenders; numerous reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, as well as systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; hundreds of political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with independence of the judiciary, particularly the revolutionary courts; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminalization of libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on political participation through arbitrary candidate vetting; widespread corruption at all levels of government; unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by government actors to support the Assad regime in Syria; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; harsh governmental restrictions on the rights of women and minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; criminalization of LGBTI status or conduct; and outlawing of independent trade unions.

Despite repeated calls from the international community, including the United Nations, the government effectively took no steps to investigate, prosecute, punish, or otherwise hold accountable officials who committed these abuses, many of which were perpetrated as a matter of government policy. This included abuses and numerous suspicious deaths in custody from previous years. Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.

Government officials materially contributed to human rights abuses in Syria, through their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hizballah forces; in Iraq, through aid to pro-Iran militia groups; and in Yemen, through support for Houthi rebels, who targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”

The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.

The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.

Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted “increasing restrictions” on freedom of expression.

The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.

In June and August, two dozen civil society activists circulated two separate letters calling on the supreme leader to step down and begin a process to develop a new constitution. Authorities arrested nearly all of the signatories to these letters and charged them with “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” Their trials continued before a revolutionary court.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.” According to the Washington Post, the ministry temporarily stopped issuing permits to any foreign correspondents during the summer.

Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials (approximately $2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.

Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.

Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.

In June, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding over Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 28, sentenced Masoud Kazemi, editor in chief of the monthly political magazine Sedaye Parsi, to four and one-half years in prison followed by a two-year ban from working as a journalist for national security charges of spreading misinformation and insulting the supreme leader. In November 2018 authorities arrested Kazemi for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Industry.

Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.

According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 38 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of December.

Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations throughout the year in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. On May 4, authorities arrested Marzieh Amiri, a journalist for Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, at a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran. In reaction to Amiri’s arrest, member of parliament Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar reportedly said to state media, “[J]ournalists don’t have the right to report on anything they want. They are the problem.” Pourmokhtar noted there was nothing wrong with Amiri’s arrest since she had been exposing important information to enemy states. Amiri posted bail of one billion rials ($23,000) and was released from Evin Prison in late October.

In July, Amnesty International called for the release of three reporters for Gam (Step), a Telegram app news channel covering labor issues. According to Amnesty International’s report and other reporting from human rights organizations, authorities arrested Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Gam’s editor in chief; his wife Sanaz Allahyari, a reporter; and Amir Amirgholi, a Gam staff reporter, in January. The journalists reportedly faced national security charges connected to their reporting on workers’ rights protests in Khuzestan Province. Authorities released the journalists on bail in late October.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.

In July the Huffington Post reported that the government had set conditions for the BBC not to share reporting materials it gathered inside the country with BBC Persian, its Persian language channel. According to the report, the agreement was made in exchange for the government to allow a BBC correspondent into the country.

Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.

National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials. In January authorities charged three members of the Iran Writer’s Association with national-security-related crimes, reportedly for publishing information opposing censorship of art and literature, according to CHRI.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to approximately 40 days after the protests began, when the government may be concerned that families of those killed would organize new protests surrounding memorial ceremonies for the victims. Authorities also monitored private online communications and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.

The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems. The Supreme Leader’s Office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.

The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to widespread media and NGO reports, the government shut down nearly all internet access in the country for five days following the outbreak of protests over fuel price increases on November 15. The BBC noted that authorities controlled the country’s two internet connections to the outside world, the state telecommunications firm and the Institute for Physics and Mathematics. Oracle’s internet-monitoring service called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.” Access to mobile networks in parts of the country remained heavily restricted for several weeks after the demonstrations began to diminish.

NGOs reported the government filtered content on the internet throughout the year to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.

Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations.

Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.

The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.

Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April authorities warned citizens they could be prosecuted for posting pictures of major flooding in the country’s southwest under the charge of “disturbing public opinion.” On October 5, authorities reportedly arrested Instagram user Sahar Tabar for “blasphemy” and “encouraging youths to corruption” for posts on her account depicting results of her numerous plastic surgeries. Several weeks later, she appeared to express regret for her actions in a state television broadcast that observers described as a “forced confession.” CHRI reported in August that authorities detained at least 14 Instagram “celebrities” in the previous three months and ordered them to stop their online activities.

The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.

In April, according to a CHRI report, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council’s Committee for the Islamization of Universities passed an amendment to the country’s academic disciplinary regulations, according to which university students could be punished for engaging in online activities deemed as “unethical.” Jamasb Nozari, director of the state-run Academic Affairs Organization, stated in an interview with Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), “Publishing unethical photos or committing immoral acts in cyberspace and on information-sharing networks will result in disciplinary action against students.”

Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. According to a HRANA report in September, authorities denied university admission to at least 22 Bahai students solely based on their religious affiliation despite they passed the national admissions test (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).

The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.

According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.

In July, CHRI reported that a court sentenced filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s persecution of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.

In July a revolutionary court sentenced in absentia Nikan Khosravi and Arash Ilkhani of the metal band Confess to more than 14 years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting the sanctity of Islam,” among other charges.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.

According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.

Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests. Protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws also increased.

On May 13, Basij militia and progovernment plainclothes vigilante groups forcibly dispersed a student demonstration at the University of Tehran, in which hundreds of students peacefully protested the country’s mandatory hijab laws. Videos showed clerics, vigilante groups, and Basij members chanting Islamic slogans, calling for the students to respect the law or leave the university. The vigilante groups later reportedly physically attacked the students after they had retreated to the university auditorium.

On November 14, the government announced a fuel subsidy cut that substantially increased the cost of gasoline. The cut sparked days of protests in nearly three-quarters of the country’s provinces and increasingly included broader expressions of frustration regarding the country’s leadership, according to media and NGO reports. Security forces responded with lethal force, killing approximately 1,500 protesters, according to international media reports (see section 1.a.). Authorities also arrested 8,600 demonstrators. Government officials described the protesters as “rioters” and did not indicate any intent to investigate protester deaths, calling the casualty figures “disinformation.”

There were no government investigations into the killings of at least 20 demonstrators during protests in 2017-18, nor were there any government investigations into the forcible dispersal of February 2018 protests by the Gonabadi Sufi dervish community, during which security forces killed numerous dervishes. Between March 9 and 12, an appeals court upheld convictions of 23 dervishes arrested at the 2018 demonstrations and confirmed sentences ranging from six to 26 years in prison, lashings, social media bans, and travel bans. Dozens of members of the Gonabadi Sufi community remained imprisoned at year’s end.

The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (see section 1.d.).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.

Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.

Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

According to UNHCR, the government granted registration to 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services and facilitate the issuance of work permits. The most recent Amayesh XIV renewal exercise started on May 28. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.

Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to August, more than 219,254 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with many claiming they were pressured to leave. More than 273,089 were deported there throughout the year.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government continued to block many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.

Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with the United Nations as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.

Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They can apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move between those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.

Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards were difficult to renew and were often prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to steep annual renewal fees.

Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees can enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population can enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.

The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, in addition to 103,000 undocumented Afghan children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.

Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.

There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons included those without birth documents or refugee identification cards. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities prohibited stateless persons from receiving formal government support or travel documents.

In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the civil code granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men. Previously, female citizens were not able to transmit citizenship to their children or to noncitizen spouses, and their dependents could not apply for citizenship until they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. The children and spouses of Iranian men were granted citizenship automatically. Under the new law, women must still apply for nationality for their children, and children who turn 18 can apply for nationality themselves. Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government. According to media reports, between 400,000 and one million persons lacked Iranian nationality despite having an Iranian citizen mother, due to prior limitations on citizenship transmission (see section 6, Children).

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose the president, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts and parliament, provided all have been vetted and approved by the Guardian Council. Elections are based on universal suffrage. Candidate vetting conducted by unelected bodies, however, abridged this right in all instances. Reported government constraints on freedom of expression and the media; peaceful assembly; association; and the ability freely to seek, receive, and impart information and campaign also limited citizens’ right to choose freely their representatives in elections.

The Assembly of Experts, which is composed of 86 popularly elected clerics who serve eight-year terms, elects the supreme leader, who acts as the de facto head of state and may be removed only by a vote of the assembly. The Guardian Council vets and qualifies candidates for all Assembly of Experts, presidential, and parliamentary elections based on criteria that include candidates’ allegiance to the state and adherence to Shia Islam. The council consists of six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) and approved by parliament.

The supreme leader exerted significant influence over the activities of elected officials. For example, on November 17, according to press reports, the supreme leader’s office sent a letter to parliament urging members of parliament to end debate on fuel rationing and pricing, which spurred major countrywide protests two days earlier.

Recent Elections: Presidential and local council elections were held in 2017. The country’s electoral system continued to fall short of international standards for free and fair elections primarily because of the Guardian Council’s controlling role in the political process, including determining which individuals could run for office and, in certain instances, arbitrarily removing winning candidates.

In 2017 the Guardian Council approved six Shia male candidates for president from a total candidate pool of 1,636 individuals. Voters re-elected Hassan Rouhani as president.

Candidates for local elections were vetted by monitoring boards established by parliament, resulting in the disqualification of a number of applicants. Observers asserted that reformist candidates such as Abdollah Momeni, Ali Tajernia, and Nasrin Vaziri, previously imprisoned for peacefully protesting the 2009 election, were not allowed to run due to their political views.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides for the formation of political parties, but the Interior Ministry granted licenses only to parties deemed to adhere to the “governance of the jurist” system of government embodied in the constitution. Registered political organizations that adhered to the system generally operated without restriction, but most were small, focused around an individual, and without nationwide membership. Members of political parties and persons with any political affiliation that the regime deemed unacceptable faced harassment and sometimes violence and imprisonment. The government maintained bans on several opposition organizations and political parties. Security officials continued to harass, intimidate, and arrest members of the political opposition and some reformists (see section 1.e.).

Participation of Women and Minorities: Women faced significant legal, religious, and cultural barriers to political participation. According to the Guardian Council’s interpretation, the constitution bars women, as well as persons of foreign origin, from serving as supreme leader or president, as members of the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, or the Expediency Council, and as certain types of judges.

The Guardian Council disqualified all 137 women who registered as candidates for the 2017 presidential election. Almost 18,000 female candidates, or 6.3 percent of all candidates, were permitted to run for positions in the 2017 local elections.

All cabinet-level ministers were men. A limited number of women held senior government positions, including that of vice president for legal affairs and vice president for women and family affairs. According to the World Bank, women make up 6 percent of members of parliament.

Practitioners of a religion other than Shia Islam are barred from serving as supreme leader or president, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council. The law reserves five seats in parliament for members of recognized minority religious groups, although minorities may also be elected to nonreserved seats. The five reserved seats were filled by one Zoroastrian, one Jew, and three Christians. There were no non-Muslims in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.

In 2018 the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, amended the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils to affirm the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government implemented the law arbitrarily, sometimes pursuing apparently legitimate corruption cases against officials, while at other times, bringing politically motivated charges against regime critics or political opponents. Officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. Many expected bribes for providing routine services or received bonuses outside their regular work, and individuals routinely bribed officials to obtain permits for otherwise illegal construction.

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. Government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which are defined under law as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but no government agency is required to approve their budgets publicly.

Numerous companies and subsidiaries affiliated with the IRGC engaged in trade and business activities, sometimes illicitly, including in the telecommunications, mining, and construction sectors. Other IRGC entities reportedly engaged in smuggling pharmaceutical products, narcotics, and raw materials. The domestic and international press reported that individuals with strong government connections had access to foreign currency at preferential exchange rates, allowing them to exploit a gap between the country’s black market and official exchange rates.

Corruption: The judiciary continued an anticorruption campaign that observers viewed as motivated by several factors, including political infighting and replacing lost revenue due to economic challenges. The supreme leader approved a request from the head of the judiciary in 2018 to set up special revolutionary courts to try individuals for economic crimes, seeking maximum sentences for those who “disrupted and corrupted” the economy. He was quoted saying that punishments for those accused of economic corruption, including government officials and those from the military, should be carried out swiftly. Amnesty International criticized the courts’ lack of fair trial and due process guarantees.

In October a court reduced a seven-year prison sentence handed down in May to Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of President Rouhani, to five years. The exact nature of the charges was unclear, but he was convicted of receiving bribes. Some observers asserted the case was motivated by retribution sought by hardline political and judicial figures.

In November, Radio Farda reported that as a part of the judiciary’s drive against corruption, a number of employees of the State Deeds and Properties Organization were arrested on charge including “taking huge bribes, forgery, and cooperation with profiteers to appropriate public and private property.” These arrests came in tandem with the arrest of the Rudehen City Council chairman, Manouchehr Hemmat Najafi, on charges of embezzlement and bribery, and of 25 other individuals in connection to a case of unlicensed construction projects. As of December 9, details of the number of arrested employees and their positions have not been disclosed.

Financial Disclosure: Regulations require government officials, including cabinet ministers and members of the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, and Assembly of Experts, to submit annual financial statements to the government inspectorate. Little information was available on whether the government effectively implemented the law, whether officials obeyed the law, or whether financial statements were publicly accessible.

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

The government restricted the operations of and did not cooperate with local or international human rights NGOs investigating alleged violations of human rights. The government restricted the work of domestic activists and often responded to their inquiries and reports with harassment, arrests, online hacking, and monitoring of individual activists and organization workplaces.

By law NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior and apply for permission to receive foreign grants. Independent human rights groups and other NGOs faced harassment because of their activism, as well as the threat of closure by government officials, following prolonged and often arbitrary delays in obtaining official registration.

During the year the government prevented some human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and scholars from traveling abroad. Human rights activists reported intimidating telephone calls, threats of blackmail, online hacking attempts, and property damage from unidentified law enforcement and government officials. The government summoned activists repeatedly for questioning and confiscated personal belongings such as mobile phones, laptops, and passports. Government officials sometimes harassed and arrested family members of human rights activists. Courts routinely suspended sentences of convicted human rights activists, leaving open the option for authorities to arrest or imprison individuals arbitrarily at any time on the previous charges.

In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed concern about the arrest, arbitrary detention, and sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. He noted acts of intimidation and reprisals in detention, including torture and mistreatment, as well as reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and journalists for engaging the UNSR and cooperating with other UN mechanisms.

According to NGO sources, including HRW and Amnesty International, the government’s rights record and its level of cooperation with international rights institutions remained poor. The government continued to deny requests from international human rights NGOs to establish offices in or to conduct regular investigative visits to the country. The most recent visit of an international human rights NGO was by Amnesty International in 2004 as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with the country.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: During the year the government continued to deny repeated requests by the UNSR on the situation of human rights in Iran to visit the country.

On November 15, for the seventh consecutive year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing serious concern about the country’s continuing human rights violations. The resolution repeated its call for the country to cooperate with UN special mechanisms, citing the government’s failure to approve any request from a UN thematic special procedures mandate holder to visit the country in more than a decade. It drew attention to the government’s continued failure to allow the UNSR into the country to investigate human rights abuses despite repeated requests. The most recent visit by a UN human rights agency to the country was in 2005.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The High Council for Human Rights, headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, is part of the judicial branch of the government and lacks independence. The council continued to defend the imprisonment of high-profile human rights defenders and political opposition leaders, despite domestic and international pressure. Larijani continued to call for an end to the position of the UNSR. There was no information available on whether the council challenged any laws or court rulings during the year.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and subject to strict penalties, including death, but it remained a problem. The law considers sex within marriage consensual by definition and, therefore, does not address spousal rape, including in cases of forced marriage. Most rape victims likely did not report the crime because they feared official retaliation or punishment for having been raped, including charges of indecency, immoral behavior, or adultery, the last of which carries the death penalty. Rape victims also feared societal reprisal or ostracism.

For a conviction of rape, the law requires four Muslim men or a combination of three men and two women or two men and four women, to have witnessed a rape. A woman or man found making a false accusation of rape is subject to 80 lashes. In January, IranWire reported the suspicious death of Zahra Navidpour, a woman who had accused Salman Khodadadi, chairman of the parliament’s Social Affairs Committee and a former IRGC commander, of raping her. On January 6, Navidpour was found dead at her home; after her body was rushed to the hospital, the medical examiner provided no reason for the woman’s death, leading to speculation that she had either committed suicide or been killed. Navidpour died while Khodadadi was on trial for having an illegitimate affair; the court sentenced him to two years’ exile, a two-year ban on serving in public office, and 99 lashes; however, the Supreme Court dismissed the lower court’s verdict.

In May local and international media reported that Mohammad Ali Najafi, a former vice president and mayor of Tehran, had confessed to shooting to death one of his two wives. Najafi resigned as mayor of Tehran in 2018 after he was criticized for attending a dance performance by young girls. He was sentenced to death for the murder, but his wife’s family reportedly waived the death penalty, as allowed by law. He also received a two-year jail sentence for possessing an illegal firearm.

The law does not prohibit domestic violence. Authorities considered abuse in the family a private matter and seldom discussed it publicly. In July, according to a HRANA report, the head of the medical examiner’s officer of Tehran Province announced that more than 16,420 cases of domestic violence had been reported to the office, a rise from 2018.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law criminalizes FGM/C and states, “the cutting or removing of the two sides of female genitalia leads to diyeh (financial penalty or blood money) equal to half the full amount of diyeh for the woman’s life.”

Little current data was available on the practice inside the country, although older data and media reports suggested it was most prevalent in Hormozgan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan Provinces.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: There were no official reports of killings motivated by “honor” or other harmful traditional practices during the year, although human rights activists reported that such killings continued to occur, particularly among rural and tribal populations.

The law reduces punitive measures for fathers and other family members who are convicted of murder or physically harming children in domestic violence or “honor killings.” If a man is found guilty of murdering his daughter, the punishment is between three and 10 years in prison rather than the normal death sentence or payment of diyeh for homicide cases.

On October 23, the Guardian Council reportedly approved a bill increasing sentences for perpetrators of “acid attacks,” in which the perpetrators throw acid generally on women victims for perceived violations of social norms that discriminate against women.

Sexual Harassment: The law addresses sexual harassment in the context of physical contact between men and women and prohibits physical contact between unrelated men and women. There was no reliable data on the extent of sexual harassment, but women and human rights observers reported that sexual harassment was the norm in many workplaces. There were no known government efforts to address this problem.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal protection for women under the law in conformity with its interpretation of Islam. The government did not enforce the law, and provisions in the law, particularly sections dealing with family and property law, discriminate against women. Judicial harassment, intimidation, detention, and smear campaigns significantly challenged the ability of civil society organizations to fight for and protect women’s rights.

In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the country’s civil code that allows Iranian women married to foreign men to transmit citizenship to their children (see section 2.f.). Ahmad Meidari, the deputy of the Ministry of Social Welfare, was reported estimating in January that 49,000 children would benefit if the legislation were enacted. The government does not recognize marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, irrespective of their citizenship. The law states that a virgin woman or girl wishing to wed needs the consent of her father or grandfather or the court’s permission.

The law permits a man to have as many as four wives and an unlimited number of sigheh (temporary wives), based on a Shia custom under which couples may enter into a limited-time civil and religious contract, which outlines the union’s conditions.

A woman has the right to divorce if her husband signs a contract granting that right; cannot provide for his family; has violated the terms of their marriage contract; or is a drug addict, insane, or impotent. A husband is not required to cite a reason for divorcing his wife. The law recognizes a divorced woman’s right to part of shared property and to alimony. These laws were not always enforced.

The government actively suppressed efforts to build awareness among women of their rights regarding marriage and divorce. According to a CHRI report, in September 2018 the IRGC Intelligence Organization arrested Hoda Amid, a human rights attorney, and Najmeh Vahedi, a sociologist and women’s rights activist, three days before they were supposed to host a workshop about the country’s marriage laws, which they had organized with a legal permit. One of the purposes of the workshop was to teach women how to expand their rights with legally binding prenuptial contracts.

The law provides divorced women preference in custody for children up to age seven, but fathers maintain legal guardianship rights over the child and must agree on many legal aspects of the child’s life (such as issuing travel documents, enrolling in school, or filing a police report). After the child reaches the age of seven, the father is granted custody unless he is proven unfit to care for the child.

Women sometimes received disproportionate punishment for crimes such as adultery, including death sentences. Islamic law retains provisions that equate a woman’s testimony in a court of law to one-half that of a man’s and value a woman’s life as one-half that of a man’s. According to the law, the diyeh paid in the death of a woman is one-half the amount paid in the death of a man, with the exception of car accident insurance payments. According to a CHRI report, in July the government declared equality between men and women in the payment of blood money. Per the Supreme Court ruling, the amount paid for the intentional or unintentional physical harm to a woman will still be one-half the blood money as that paid for a man, but the remaining difference will now be paid from a publicly funded trust.

Women have access to primary and advanced education. Quotas and other restrictions nonetheless limited women’s admissions to certain fields and degree programs.

The Statistical Center of Iran reported during the year that the jobless rate among women ages 15 to 19 was 35 percent. All women’s participation in the job market remained as low as 16 percent. Women reportedly earned 41 percent less than men for the same work. Unemployment among women in the country was twice as high as it was among men.

Women continued to face discrimination in home and property ownership, as well as access to financing. In cases of inheritance, male heirs receive twice the inheritance of their female counterparts. The government enforced gender segregation in many public spaces. Women must ride in a reserved section on public buses and enter some public buildings, universities, and airports through separate entrances.

The law provides that a woman who appears in public without appropriate attire, such as a cloth scarf veil (hijab) over the head and a long jacket (manteau), or a large full-length cloth covering (chador), may be sentenced to flogging and fined. Absent a clear legal definition of “appropriate attire” or of the related punishment, women (and men) were subjected to the opinions of various disciplinary and security force members, police, and judges.

In May, CHRI reported that authorities arrested 30 individuals, including both men and women, who were practicing yoga inside a home in the city of Gorgan. The individuals were accused of wearing “inappropriate clothing” and engaging in “indecent activities.” Several individuals reported such arrests were not uncommon but that public officials rarely acknowledged them.

Protests, beating, and arrests continued as security forces cracked down on peaceful nationwide protests against dress restrictions. CHRI reported that since 2018 at least 44 women had been arrested for peacefully protesting the mandatory dress code. According to media reports in June, the government introduced 2,000 new morality police units to manage what officials called “increasing defiance” of the compulsory hijab law.

In April security forces arrested Yasaman Aryani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz after they posted a video for International Women’s Day. In the video the women are seen walking without headscarves through a Tehran metro train, handing flowers to female passengers.

Numerous news outlets reported that in August a revolutionary court sentenced Arabshahi, Aryani, and Keshavarz to 16, 16, and 23 years in prison, respectively, for “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting corruption and prostitution.”

In May, CHRI reported that authorities had released Vida Movahedi eight months after she was arrested for peacefully protesting the hijab law. Movahedi was initially arrested in October 2018 after she stood on a utility box on Revolution Street in Tehran, removed her headscarf, and waved it on a stick in defiance.

On June 22, according to a video posted to Instagram by activist Masih Alinejad, plainclothes police violently dragged a 15-year-old girl into a police car for not obeying a directive to put on a hijab. Tehran police confirmed the arrest two days later, stating that the girl and four of her friends “insulted the agents” after refusing to respect “public moral and civil codes.”

According to international media reports, in June security guards attacked women trying to enter a stadium in Tehran to watch a men’s soccer match between Iran and Syria. In September, Sahar Khodayari, known as “Blue Girl,” died from severe burns caused by self-immolation after police arrested and later released her from Qarchak Prison on bail on charges of “improperly wearing hijab” and defying the country’s ban on female spectators from viewing soccer and other sports in public stadiums. Following Khodayari’s suicide and under pressure from the world soccer governing body (FIFA), the government permitted approximately 3,500 women to attend the October 10 World Cup qualifier match between Iran and Cambodia at Azadi Stadium, which has an estimated capacity of 78,000. Amnesty International labelled the government’s last-minute permission a “cynical publicity stunt” to “whitewash their image” following the death of Khodayari.

As noted by the former UNSR and other organizations, female athletes have been traditionally barred from participating in international tournaments, either by the country’s sport agencies or by their husbands. There were, however, cases throughout the year of female athletes being permitted to travel internationally to compete.

Birth Registration: Prior to October only a child’s father could convey citizenship, regardless of the child’s country of birth or mother’s citizenship. Legislation passed and approved in October provides Iranian mothers the right to apply for citizenship for children born to fathers with foreign citizenship (see section 2.f. and section 6, Women). The new law also includes a stipulation of obtaining a security clearance from the security agencies prior to receiving approval. Birth within the country’s borders does not confer citizenship, except when a child is born to unknown parents. The law requires that all births be registered within 15 days.

Education: Although primary schooling until age 11 is free and compulsory for all, media and other sources reported lower enrollment in rural areas, especially for girls.

Children without state-issued identification cards are denied the right to education. In her March 2018 report, former UNSR Jahangir noted that in Sistan va Baluchestan Province, the Cabinet of Ministers requested the Ministry of Education to issue a special card for children without birth certificates so they could attend school. As a result, more than 20,000 children who had received such cards registered for school, and 19,000 were allowed to attend. In his February report, current UNSR Rehman expressed concern over access to education for minority children, including references to high primary school dropout rates for ethnic minority girls living in border provinces.

Child Abuse: There was little information available on how the government dealt with child abuse. The law states, “Any form of abuse of children and juveniles that causes physical, psychological, or moral harm and threatens their physical or mental health is prohibited,” and such crimes carry a maximum sentence of three months in confinement or a fine of 10 million rials ($230).

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for girls is 13, but girls as young as nine years old may be married with permission from a court and their fathers. In 2018 UNICEF reported that 17 percent of girls in the country were married before reaching age 18 and that approximately 40,000 were married before 15. In March 2018 former UNSR Jahangir stated this number was likely higher, as thousands of underage marriages were not reported. The issue became a subject of national debate in February when a charity group reported on the case of “Raha,” an 11-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by a nearly 50-year-old man she was forced to marry. Authorities reportedly arrested the man on February 11 and nullified the marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age requirements for consensual sex are the same as those for marriage, as sex outside of marriage is illegal. There are no specific laws regarding child sexual exploitation, with such crimes either falling under the category of child abuse or sexual crimes of adultery. The law does not directly address sexual molestation nor provide a punishment for it.

According to CHRI, the legal ambiguity between child abuse and sexual molestation could lead to child sexual molestation cases being prosecuted under adultery law. While no separate provision exists for the rape of a child, the crime of rape, regardless of the victim’s age, is potentially punishable by death.

Displaced Children: There were reports of thousands of Afghan refugee children in the country, many of whom were born in Iran but could not obtain identity documents. These children were often unable to attend schools or access basic government services and were vulnerable to labor exploitation and trafficking.

UNHCR stated school enrollment among refugees was generally higher outside the 20 settlements, where more resources were available and where 97 percent of the refugees reside.

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.

The law recognizes Jews as a religious minority and provides for their representation in parliament. According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews. Members of the Iranian Jewish community are reportedly subject to government restrictions and discrimination. Government officials continued to question the history of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism remained a pervasive problem. In May, President Rouhani implied Jewish control over various Western interests, saying that speeches by foreign officials criticizing Iran were “written by Zionists word for word.” Cartoons in state-run media outlets repeatedly depicted foreign officials as puppets of Jewish control.

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

In October, HRW and CHRI reported persons with disabilities remained cut off from society, a major obstacle being a mandatory government medical test that can exclude children from the public school system. They continued to face stigma and discrimination from government social workers, health-care workers, and others. Many persons with disabilities remained unable to participate in society on an equal basis. The law provides for public accessibility to government-funded buildings, and new structures appeared to comply with these standards. There were efforts to increase access for persons with disabilities to historical sites. Government buildings that predated existing accessibility standards remained largely inaccessible, and general building accessibility, including access to toilets, for persons with disabilities remained a problem. Persons with disabilities had limited access to informational, educational, and community activities. CHRI reported in 2018 that refugees with disabilities, particularly children, were often excluded or denied the ability to obtain the limited state services provided by the government.

The constitution grants equal rights to all ethnic minorities, allowing minority languages to be used in the media. The law grants the right of citizens to learn, use, and teach their own languages and dialects. In practice minorities did not enjoy equal rights, and the government consistently barred use of their languages in school as the language of instruction.

The government disproportionately targeted minority groups, including Kurds, Ahwazis, Azeris, and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, disappearances, and physical abuse. These ethnic minority groups reported political and socioeconomic discrimination, particularly in their access to economic aid, business licenses, university admissions, job opportunities, permission to publish books, and housing and land rights.

Another widespread complaint among ethnic minority groups, particularly among Ahwazis, Azeris and Lors, was that the government diverted and mismanaged natural resources, primarily water, often for the benefit of IRGC-affiliated contractors. According to reports from international media and human rights groups, these practices devastated the local environment on which farmers and others depended for their livelihoods and well-being, resulting in forced migration and further marginalization of these communities.

The law, which requires religious screening and allegiance to the concept of “governance by the jurist,” not found in Sunni Islam, impaired the ability of Sunni Muslims (many of whom are also Baluch, Ahwazi, or Kurdish) to integrate into civic life and to work in certain fields.

Human rights organizations observed that the government’s application of the death penalty disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. Authorities reportedly subjected members of minority ethnicities and religious groups in pretrial detention repeatedly to more severe physical punishment, including torture, than other prisoners, regardless of the type of crime of which they were accused.

The estimated eight million ethnic Kurds in the country frequently campaigned for greater regional autonomy. The government continued to use the law to arrest and prosecute Kurds for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. The government reportedly banned Kurdish-language newspapers, journals, and books and punished publishers, journalists, and writers for opposing and criticizing government policies.

Authorities suppressed legitimate activities of Kurdish NGOs by denying them registration permits or bringing security charges against persons working with such organizations. Authorities did not prohibit the use of the Kurdish language in general but did not offer education in Kurdish in public schools. UNSR Rehman stated in his July report concern regarding the reported persecution of Kurdish language teachers, including Zara Mohammadi, arrested and detained by authorities on May 23 for giving private Kurdish lessons without a permit in Sanandaj.

According to the same UN report, in the first six months of the year, 115 Kurdish citizens were arrested for charges related to membership in Kurdish political parties and 84 for participating in civic activities such as organizing Nowruz celebrations or managing networks on social media. International human rights observers, including the IHRDC, stated that the country’s estimated two million Ahwazi Arabs, representing 110 tribes, faced continued oppression and discrimination. Ahwazi rights activists reported the government continued to confiscate Ahwazi property to use for government development projects, refusing to recognize the paper deeds from the prerevolutionary era.

According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, his office received information that the IRGC was involved in redirecting floodwater in the spring towards local farms to preserve oil reserves and equipment in Khuzestan Province. In April media and NGOs reported that police arrested social media users and Arab flood relief volunteers and charged them with “broadcasting distracting news and flood rumors.” They remained detained in Khuzestan.

Ahwazi human rights groups reported the government rounded up hundreds of Ahwazis following the September 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahwaz (estimates reported in November 2018 ranged from 600 to more than 800 arrests), while the state-run Tasnim news agency reported the arrest of 22 persons in connection with the attack (see section 1.a.). Ahwazi human rights groups also reported instances of torture of detainees in the Intelligence Ministry detention center in Ahwaz.

Ethnic Azeris, who number more than 18 million, or approximately 23-25 percent of the population, were more integrated into government and society than other ethnic minority groups and included the supreme leader. Azeris reported the government discriminated against them by harassing Azeri activists or organizers and changing Azeri geographic names.

UNSR Rehman stated in his July report that there were 82 Azeris arbitrarily detained on national security-related charges with sentences of up to six years. This figure includes activists and supporters of the soccer club Tiraxtur who were arrested and detained on May 2 for leading pro-Azeri chants at a soccer match at Sehend Stadium in Tabriz.

According to reports, the government tried to prevent thousands of mostly Azeri speaking activists from meeting every year at Babak Fortress to celebrate peacefully the birthday of a historic figure, Babak Khorramdin. The annual gathering has general overtones of Azeri nationalism. Amnesty and HRANA reported that Azeri law student and activist Ebrahim Nouri was arrested on 30 occasions, including at Babak Fortress, and accused of promoting propaganda against the government and “separatism in Azerbaijan.”

Local and international human rights groups alleged discrimination during the year against the Baluchi ethnic minority, estimated at between 1.5 and two million persons. Areas with large Baluchi populations were severely underdeveloped and had limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing; Baluchi activists reported that more than 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

According to activist reports, the law limited Sunni Baluchis’ employment opportunities and political participation. Activists reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population. According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchi journalists and human rights activists faced arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and unfair trials.

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, which is punishable by death, flogging, or a lesser punishment. The law does not distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual same-sex intercourse, and NGOs reported this lack of clarity led to both the victim and the perpetrator being held criminally liable under the law in cases of assault. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to international and domestic media reports, there was at least one case during the year in which an alleged criminal was executed for sodomy-related charges. While few details were available for specific cases, LGBTI activists expressed concern that the government executed LGBTI individuals under the pretext of more severe, and possibly specious, criminal charges such as rape. In June the foreign minister appeared to defend executions of LGBTI persons for their status or conduct. After being asked by a journalist in Germany why the country executes “homosexuals,” the foreign minister stated, “Our society has moral principles. And we live according to these principles. These are moral principles concerning the behavior of people in general. And that means that the law is respected and the law is obeyed.”

Security forces harassed, arrested, and detained individuals they suspected of being LGBTI. In some cases security forces raided houses and monitored internet sites for information on LGBTI persons. Those accused of “sodomy” often faced summary trials, and evidentiary standards were not always met. The Iranian LGBTI activist group 6Rang noted that individuals arrested under such conditions were traditionally subjected to forced anal or sodomy examinations–which the United Nations and World Health Organization stated can constitute torture–and other degrading treatment and sexual insults. Punishment for same-sex sexual activity between men was more severe than between women.

The government censored all materials related to LGBTI status or conduct. Authorities particularly blocked websites or content within sites that discussed LGBTI issues, including the censorship of Wikipedia pages defining LGBTI and other related topics. There were active, unregistered LGBTI NGOs and activists in the country, a number of whom were arrested or charged for LGBTI-related activities during the year.

On December 13, Radio Farda reported that Rezvaneh Mohammadi, a gender-equality activist, was sentenced to five years in prison by Branch 28 of the revolutionary court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, under the charge of “collusion against national security by seeking to normalize homosexual relations.” NGOs noted this was the first time an activist had faced such an accusation in the country. According to CHRI, authorities arrested Mohammadi in September 2018 and held her in solitary confinement for several weeks at Evin Prison, where they pressured her, including with threats of rape, to confess to receiving money to overthrow the government. Hate-crime laws or other criminal justice mechanisms do not exist to aid in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes.

The law requires all male citizens older than age 18 to serve in the military but exempts gay men and transgender women, who are classified as having mental disorders. New military identity cards listed the subsection of the law dictating the exemption. According to the NGO 6Rang, this practice identified gay or transgender individuals and put them at risk of physical abuse and discrimination.

NGOs reported authorities pressured LGBTI persons to undergo gender reassignment surgery. According to a July report by the NGO 6Rang, the number of private and semigovernmental psychological and psychiatric clinics allegedly engaging in “corrective treatment” or reparative therapies of LGBTI persons continued to grow. The NGO 6Rang reported the increased use at such clinics of electric shock therapy to the hands and genitals of LGBTI persons, prescription of psychoactive medication, hypnosis, and coercive masturbation to pictures of the opposite sex. According to the NGO 6Rang, one such institution is called The Anonymous Sex Addicts Association of Iran, with branches in 18 provinces.

Despite government programs to treat and provide financial and other assistance to persons with HIV/AIDS, international news sources and organizations reported that individuals known to be infected with HIV/AIDS faced widespread societal discrimination.  Individuals with HIV/AIDS, for example, continued to be denied employment as teachers.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but neither the constitution nor law specifies trade union rights. The law states that workers may establish an Islamic labor council or a guild at any workplace, but the rights and responsibilities of these organizations fell significantly short of international standards for trade unions. In workplaces where workers established an Islamic labor council, authorities did not permit any other form of worker representation. The law requires prior authorization for organizing and concluding collective agreements. Strikes are prohibited in all sectors, although private-sector workers may conduct “peaceful” campaigns within the workplace. The law does not apply to establishments with fewer than 10 employees.

Authorities did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. The government severely restricted freedom of association and interfered in worker attempts to organize. Labor activism is considered to be a national security offense, with severe punishments up to and including the death penalty. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination and does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Antiunion discrimination occurred, and the government harassed trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and journalists during a crackdown on widespread protests. Independent trade unionists were subject to arbitrary arrests, tortured, and subjected to harsh sentences.

According to media and NGO reporting, on May 1, International Labor Day, police violently attacked and arrested at least 35 activists who had gathered for peaceful demonstrations demanding workers’ rights, organized by 20 independent labor organizations, in front of parliament. The government barred teachers from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day. Several prominent teachers and union activists remained in prison or awaited new sentences, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi (see below).

The Interior Ministry; the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare; and the Islamic Information Organization determined labor councils’ constitutions, operational rules, and election procedures. Administrative and judicial procedures were lengthy. The Workers’ House remained the only officially authorized national labor organization, and its leadership oversaw, granted permits to, and coordinated activities with Islamic labor councils in industrial, agricultural, and service organizations with more than 35 employees.

According to CHRI, the labor councils, which consisted of representatives of workers and a representative of management, were essentially management-run unions that undermined workers’ efforts to maintain independent unions. The councils, nevertheless, sometimes could block layoffs and dismissals. There was no representative workers’ organization for noncitizen workers.

According to international media reports, security forces continued to respond to workers’ attempts to organize or conduct strikes with arbitrary arrests and violence. As economic conditions deteriorated, strikes and worker protests were numerous and widespread across the country throughout the year, often prompting a heavy police response. Security forces routinely monitored major worksites. According to CHRI, workers were routinely fired and risked arrest for striking, and labor leaders were charged with national security crimes for trying to organize workers.

According to a CHRI report, in August 2018 security forces violently suppressed protests at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane company in the southeast. Haft Tappeh, the country’s largest sugar production plant, had been the site of continuing protests against unpaid wages and benefits for more than two years. According to CHRI, at least five workers were detained and charged with national security crimes but later released on bail following negotiations between labor representatives and judicial officials. In May the protests resurfaced in response to the announcement of a joint indictment issued against five journalists and two labor rights activists. Sepideh Gholian, Amir Hossein Mohammadifard, Sanaz Allahyari, Ali Amirgholi, Asal Mohammadi, Esmail Bakhski, and Ali Nejati were charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “forming groups with the intention to disturb national security,” and “contacts with antistate organizations.”

According to NGO and media reports, as in previous years, a number of trade unionists were imprisoned or remained unjustly detained for their peaceful activism. Mehdi Farahi Shandiz, a member of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Labor Unions in Iran, continued serving a three-year sentence, having been convicted of “insulting the supreme leader” and “disrupting public order.” There were reports that Shandiz was beaten and tortured in Karaj Prison and kept for prolonged periods in solitary confinement.

The government continued to arrest and harass teachers’ rights activists from the Teachers Association of Iran and related unions. In March media outlets reported continued nationwide teacher strikes demanding better pay, rights to an official union, and the release of teachers’ rights activists who were jailed during protests in 2018. That same month Hashem Khastar, a teachers’ rights activist from Mashhad, was allegedly abducted by unknown individuals, resurfaced shackled to a bed at a psychiatric hospital, was released, and taken into custody.

According to a CHRI report, Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) jailed since 2017, continued a 14-year combined sentence for charges associated with his peaceful defense of labor rights. CHRI reported in July that Beheshti-Langroudi commenced another hunger strike protesting his unjust sentence, the judiciary’s refusal to review his case, and the mistreatment of political prisoners. Esmail Abdi, a mathematics teacher and former secretary general of ITTA, continued a six-year prison sentence for labor rights activism. He was arrested in 2015 and convicted in 2016 for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” CHRI reported in April 2018 that Abdi had written a letter from Evin Prison criticizing the judiciary’s “arbitrary and illegal rulings” and “widespread violations of the rights of teachers and workers in Iran.” He decried the “criminalization of trade unions” and demanded a public trial that he had thus far been denied.

According to reports from international media and human rights organizations, truck drivers launched nationwide strikes over low and unpaid wages and stipends throughout the year. HRANA reported that the government arrested at least 261 drivers in 19 provinces following a round of protests in the fall of 2018. The drivers were threatened with heavy sentences, and Attorney General Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri issued a public statement suggesting that those who initiated the protest should be subject to the death penalty. In October 2018 the International Transport Workers’ Federation expressed concern over the government’s harsh crackdown on labor action by truckers across the country, including the threat of the death penalty against organizers.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law and made no significant effort to address forced labor during the year. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Conditions indicative of forced labor sometimes occurred in the construction, domestic labor, and agricultural sectors, primarily among adult Afghan men and boys younger than age 18. Family members and others forced children to work.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits employment of children younger than age 15 and places restrictions on employment of children younger than 18, such as prohibiting hard labor or night work. The law does not apply to domestic labor and permits children to work in agriculture and some small businesses from the age of 12. The government did not adequately monitor or enforce laws pertaining to child labor, and child labor remained a serious problem. Penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations.

The United Nations in 2016 cited a 2003 law that exempts workshops with fewer than 10 employees from labor regulations as increasing the risks of economic exploitation of children. The UN report also noted serious concerns with the large number of children employed under hazardous conditions, such as in garbage collection, brick kilns, and industrial workshops, without protective clothing and for very low pay.

There were reportedly significant numbers of children, especially of Afghan descent, who worked as street vendors in major urban areas. According to official estimates, there were 60,000 homeless children, although many children’s rights organizations estimated up to 200,000 homeless children. The Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that street children in particular were subjected to various forms of economic exploitation, including sexual abuse and exploitation by the public and police officers. Child labor also was used in the production of carpets and bricks. Children worked as beggars, and there were reports criminals forced some children into begging rings. According to ISNA, Reza Ghadimi, the managing director of the Tehran Social Services Organization, said in 2018 that, according to a survey of 400 child laborers, 90 percent were “molested.”

Also, see 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 bars discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, and social status “in conformity with Islamic criteria,” but the government did not effectively enforce these prohibitions. According to the constitution, “everyone has the right to choose any occupation he wishes, if it is not contrary to Islam and the public interests and does not infringe on the rights of others.”

Despite this constitutional provision, the government made systematic efforts to limit women’s access to the workplace, and their participation in the job market remained as low as 16 percent. Women reportedly earned 41 percent less than men for the same work. Unemployment among women in the country was twice as high as it was among men. Hiring practices often discriminated against women, and the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare guidelines stated that men should be given preferential hiring status. An Interior Ministry directive requires all officials to hire only secretaries of their own gender. Women remained banned from working in coffee houses and from performing music alongside men, with very limited exceptions made for traditional music. Women in many fields were restricted from working after 9 p.m.

Kurds, Ahwazis, Azeris, and Baluchis reported political and socioeconomic discrimination with regard to their access to economic aid, business licenses, and job opportunities.

CHRI reported that, according to the director of the State Welfare Organization, 60 percent of persons with disabilities remained unemployed.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In 2018 the Supreme Labor Council, the government body charged with proposing labor regulations, agreed to raise the minimum monthly wage by 19.8 percent. There were reported complaints that the minimum wage increase was too low in light of the plunging value of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar, which is used to price day-to-day goods. The minimum wage is commonly below the poverty line in rural areas.

The law establishes a maximum six-day, 44-hour workweek with a weekly rest day, at least 12 days of paid annual leave, and several paid public holidays. Any hours worked above that total entitles a worker to overtime. The law mandates a payment above the hourly wage to employees for any accrued overtime and provides that overtime work is not compulsory. The law does not cover workers in workplaces with fewer than 10 workers, nor does it apply to noncitizens.

Employers sometimes subjected migrant workers, most often Afghans, to abusive working conditions, including below-minimum-wage salaries, nonpayment of wages, compulsory overtime, and summary deportation without access to food, water, or sanitation facilities during the deportation process. The government did not effectively enforce the laws related to wages and hours, and occupational safety and health. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

According to media reports, many workers continued to be employed on temporary contracts, under which they lacked protections available to full-time, noncontract workers, and could be dismissed at will. Large numbers of workers employed in small workplaces or in the informal economy similarly lacked basic protections. Low wages, nonpayment of wages, and lack of job security due to contracting practices continued to contribute to strikes and protests, which occurred throughout the year.

According to local and international media reports, thousands of teachers, truckers, and workers from a wide variety of sectors held largescale, countrywide rallies and protests demanding wage increases and payment of back wages throughout the year. During the year authorities increased pressure against these protesters through intimidation, wrongful arrests, and arbitrary charges.

Little information was available regarding labor inspection and related law enforcement. While the law provides for occupational health and safety standards, the government sometimes did not enforce these standards in either the formal or informal sectors. Workers reportedly lacked the power to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.

Labor organizations alleged that hazardous work environments resulted in the deaths of thousands of workers annually. In 2018 the state-run Iran Labor News Agency quoted the head of the Construction Workers Association as estimating there were 1,200 deaths and 1,500 spinal cord injuries annually among construction workers, while local media routinely reported on workers’ deaths from explosions, gas poisoning, electrocution, or similar accidents.

Iraq

Executive Summary

Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The 2018 parliamentary elections, while imperfect, generally met international standards of free and fair elections and led to the peaceful transition of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adil Abd al-Mahdi. On December 1, in response to protesters’ demands for significant changes to the political system, Abd al-Mahdi submitted his resignation, which the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) accepted. As of December 17, Abd al-Mahdi continued to serve in a caretaker capacity while the COR worked to identify a replacement in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.

Numerous domestic security forces operated throughout the country. The regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies generally maintained order within the country, although some armed groups operated outside of government control. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) consist of administratively organized forces within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the Counterterrorism Service. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of order; it oversees the Federal Police, Provincial Police, Facilities Protection Service, Civil Defense, and Department of Border Enforcement. Energy police, under the Ministry of Oil, are responsible for providing infrastructure protection. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for the defense of the country but also carry out counterterrorism and internal security operations in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior. The Counterterrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister and oversees the Counterterrorism Command, an organization that includes three brigades of special operations forces. The National Security Service (NSS) intelligence agency reports directly to the prime minister.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, operated throughout the country. Most PMF units were Shia Arab, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority PMF units generally operated within or near their home regions. All PMF units officially report to the national security advisor and are under the authority of the prime minister, but several units in practice were also responsive to Iran and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each maintained an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the PUK and KDP separately controlled additional Peshmerga units. The constitution also allows for a centralized, separate Asayish internal security service; however, KDP and PUK each maintained Asayish forces. The KDP and PUK also maintained separate intelligence services, nominally under the KRG Ministry of Interior.

Civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned PMF units. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts.

The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority governorates beginning in early October. Demonstrators gathered in the streets to reinforce their demands for an end to corruption and a restructuring of the government. Civilian authorities quickly lost control of the situation. Security and armed groups, including PMF forces, responded with live ammunition, tear gas canisters shot as projectiles, and concussion grenades, in an attempt to suppress the demonstrations. By official accounts, as of December 17, more than 479 civilians were killed and at least 20,000 were injured. While one general and several officers were under investigation, efforts to achieve accountability were limited.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; significant interference with the rights of peaceful assembly; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; threats of violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnee populations perceived to have been affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); widespread official corruption; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Shingal Protection Units (YBS), and the Iran-aligned PMF that operate outside government control; trafficking in persons; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; violence targeting LGBTI persons; and restrictions on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions, discrimination in employment of migrants, women, those with disabilities, and child labor.

The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, investigated allegations of abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the ISF, including a ministerial investigation of the October protests, but the government rarely punished those responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the ISF, Federal Police, PMF, and certain units of KRG Asayish internal security services.

Despite a reduction in numbers, ISIS continued to commit serious abuses and atrocities, including killings through suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The government had ongoing investigations and was prosecuting allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, publicly noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the 2005 counterterrorism law.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press, that does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.

Freedom of Expression: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. In July dozens of journalists in the southern governorate of Basrah staged a vigil in front of the governorate building demanding the right to work free of intimidation and arrest in response to a threat from a military commander to arrest every journalist covering an unlicensed demonstration. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.

Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports. In October Amnesty International reported, based on the accounts of 11 activists, that security forces systematically targeted anyone who criticized their conduct during the protests. Their testimony illustrated how security forces had systematically targeted anyone who was speaking out against the conduct of security forces during the protests. Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.

Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Journalism Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression. For example, a court in Kalar ordered Dang Radio director general Azad Osman to pay a fine equal to approximately $190 and sentenced him to a three-month suspended prison sentence for defamation after he published an article critical of the KRG. In another instance, authorities in Sulaimaniya arrested Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) director and presenter Shwan Adil on December 8 due to a complaint under Article 9 of the KRG’s Journalism Law regarding defamation from Raza Hasan, head of the University of Sulaimani. Raza complained NRT’s reporting on his academic work was inaccurate. In a separate incident, on December 15, authorities ordered Shwan to appear in court due to a complaint under Article 9 by the Sulaimaniya Police Directorate over NRT’s reporting on the murder-suicide of two journalists in October.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and private individuals, including political figures. In November the government closed nine television channels for “publishing content inciting violence” during coverage of countrywide demonstrations. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.

Press and social media accounts reported that the Baghdad offices of six television stations were attacked on October 5 after the news outlets covered antigovernment protests. Al-Arabiya, Dijlah, Al-Ghad, NRT, Al-Hadath, and TRT were ransacked and taken off the air by militiamen from Saraya Ṭalia al-Khurasani (PMF Brigade 18) and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (PMF Brigade 12) for continuing to broadcast imagery of the protests. HRW noted that the attacks came immediately after the central government’s Communications and Media Commission warned the stations to shut down. NRT was overrun after showing an interview with a protester who identified PMF militias responsible for sniper attacks. When a seventh station, Al-Forat, proved too well guarded to overrun, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (PMF Brigades 41, 42, and 43) bombed the building on October 6, damaging cars and other buildings in the area. In September the government suspended the license of Al-Hurra Television after it showed an investigative report alleging corruption within the country’s religious institutions and accused the network of bias and defamation in its report. The station received threats of violence following the broadcast.

The KDP and PUK gave prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds, Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaimaniya Governorate, Kurdsat News and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR. In August Spanish freelance journalist Ferran Barber was detained and eventually deported by authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to the report, the journalist was interrogated about his work while agents searched his cell phone, camera memory cards, and laptop. No charges were brought against Barber, but he was not allowed to contact anyone during his detention.

Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services. In July Reporters without Borders condemned the decision of a judge who ordered the search and arrest of a journalist after the journalist published a report on the misuse of public funds by a Basrah district judge. According to the journalist’s account, the judge allegedly embezzled 96 million dinars ($80,500) to buy a car for his cousin.

Violence and Harassment: According to the CPJ, there were two journalists killed in country during the year. An unidentified assailant shot and killed Iraqi reporter Hisham Fares al-Adhami while he was covering the protests on Baghdad’s Al-Tayyaran Square on October 4. A report by U.S. broadcaster National Public Radio said that Iraqi security forces had opened fire on demonstrators. On December 6, an unidentified individual shot Ahmed Muhana al-Lami, a photographer, in the back while he was covering protests in Baghdad’s Al-Khilani Square. He was transported to Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad, where he later died. Two unidentified Iraqi officials told The Associated Press they believed that the attacks on demonstrators had been orchestrated by Iranian-backed militias.

In the early days of the October protests, violence and threats of violence directed towards media covering the protests was widespread. By mid-October most international media outlets and many local journalists departed Baghdad for Erbil and the Kurdistan region following reports that security forces were circulating a list of journalists and activists to arrest and intimidate.

Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.

Media workers often reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment. In April the Center for Supporting Freedom of Expression issued a report on abuse and attacks recorded during the first quarter of the year. They reported the killing of a novelist and 37 cases of abuse against journalists and demonstrators, more than twice as many as during the same period last year.

In October antiriot police in Basrah prevented several journalists from covering demonstrations in the Al-Ashar area and attacked Associated Press correspondent Haider al-Jourani. Throughout the IKR, there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases, the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular, journalists working for the Kurdish channel NRT were frequently arrested. In July the CPJ reported that KRG counterterrorism forces severely beat Ahmed Zawiti, the head of the Al-Jazeera network in Erbil, when he and his team covered an attack on Turkish consulate staff.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.

Public officials reportedly influenced content by rewarding positive reporting with bribes, providing money, land, access to venues, and other benefits to journalists, particularly to members of the progovernment Journalists’ Syndicate. These restrictions extended to privately owned television stations operating outside of the country.

Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, reportedly threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects.

The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, organize demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.

The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. Since demonstrations began in October, access to 3G networks and Wi-Fi was turned off on multiple occasions in the country, excluding the IKR. While Wi-Fi and 3G access was largely restored, connectivity remained weak, making social media and streaming difficult. Slow speeds, or the “throttling back” of internet access, greatly limited the ability of users to upload video and photographic content.

In other instances, the government sporadically instructed internet service providers to shut down the internet for two to three hours a day during school exams, reportedly to prevent cheating on standardized national exams. On June 26, NetBlocks, an NGO that maps internet freedom, reported that connectivity with several internet providers fell below 50 percent, which coincided with the Education Ministry schedule for physics exams. Impact was regional, with significant disruption in Baghdad, while other cities, including the country’s autonomous Kurdish regions, remained unaffected.

There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Social, religious, and political pressures significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions, various groups reportedly sought to control the pursuit of formal education and the granting of academic positions.

Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.

NGOs in the IKR reported that senior professorships were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government sometimes limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Provincial councils traditionally maintained authority to issue permits. Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations. As demonstrations escalated starting in October, authorities consistently failed to protect demonstrators from violence (see section 1.a.).

The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or Zionist principles.

The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. According to the NGO Directorate at the Council of Ministers Secretariat, there were 4,365 registered NGOs as of September, including 158 branches of foreign organizations. There were also 900 female-focused or female-chaired NGOs registered as of September. The directorate also sanctioned 700 NGOs for committing violations such as providing cover for political parties or suspicious operations against the NGOs code.

NGOs operating in the IKR require a separate registration. As a result, some NGOs registered only in Baghdad could not operate in the IKR, while those registered only in Erbil could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.

In some instances, authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other instances, local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees nor comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.

Successful efforts by the government to regain control of areas previously held by ISIS allowed many returns to take place. Returnees, however, grappled with the destruction of homes, lack of services and livelihoods, and continued concerns for security due to the prevalence of PMF groups. In some cases, this led to secondary displacement or a return to the camp.

Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, and official and unofficial restrictions sometimes limited humanitarian access to IDP communities. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS and PMF groups hindered the movement of international staff of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor programs for a portion of the year.

In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethnosectarian reasons, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.

Humanitarian agencies frequently reported evictions of IDPs from camps and informal displacement sites due to closures and consolidations, which reportedly were often not coordinated among relevant local authorities or with humanitarian actors, and which caused some sudden, involuntary displacements. In an effort to avoid eviction, approximately 15,000 families left camps. Most were considered secondarily displaced, as they were unable to return to their place of origin. Some political actors promoted camp closures in advance of May 2018 parliamentary elections, and authorities reportedly used coercive measures during eviction notifications. IDP camp managers reported government officials did not always give IDPs at closed camps the choice of returning to their governorates of origin or displacement to another site. Some families in camps near Baghdad expressed a desire to integrate locally, having found informal employment, but local government authorities reportedly denied requests.

There were numerous reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Governorates, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to stigmatization of IDPs, particularly those living in camps, who were being isolated and whose movements in and out of camps were increasingly restricted. They also expressed concerns of collective punishment against certain communities for their perceived ties to ISIS. In late January authorities governing the town of Karma, northeast of Fallujah in Anbar Governorate, issued special pink identity cards to at least 200 families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation, a local lawyer and a humanitarian worker told HRW. He said the families were allowed to return home and could use the documents to travel through checkpoints but would be permanently marked by the pink cards. Tribal pacts called for punishing false accusations of ISIS affiliation, but they also prohibited legal defense for those affiliated with ISIS. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than affiliation with ISIS.

Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). For example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Governorate. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th Shabak Brigade, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints.

There were reports some PMF groups harassed or threatened civilians fleeing conflict zones or returning to liberated areas and targeted civilians with threats, intimidation, physical violence, abduction, destruction or confiscation of property, and killing.

The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered. Authorities required nonresidents to obtain permits that authorized limited stays in the IKR. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens who sought to obtain residency permits for KRG-controlled areas required sponsorship from a resident in the region. Humanitarian actors described the sponsorship program as effective in enabling the return of thousands of IDPs. Citizens of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Governorate and the disputed territories.

KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that restrictiveness of entry for IDPs and refugees seeking to return depended upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, forcing IDPs to wait, often resulting in secondary displacement. Officials prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks reportedly were lengthy on occasion. Entry reportedly was often more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.

HRW reported in September that the KRG was preventing an estimated 4,200 Sunni Arabs from returning home to 12 villages east of Mosul. Affected families said they were blocked from their homes and farmland and were unable to earn a living. KRG authorities provided explanations for the blocked returns but allowed only Kurdish residents and Arabs with KRG ties to return, leading to suspicions that the restriction was based on security concerns regarding perceived ISIS ties.

Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, 1,444,500 persons remained internally displaced in the country as of October, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa Governorates. Almost 4.5 million persons returned to areas of origin across the country. In October the IOM reported that 8 percent of IDPs lived in shelter arrangements that did not meet minimal safety or security standards, 25 percent lived in IDP camps and settlements, and 67 percent resided in private accommodations, including host family residences, hotels, motels, and rental housing.

The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors provided support for formal IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.

In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal and ethnosectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements, combined with unresolved problems caused by the uprooting of millions of Iraqis in past decades, strained the capacity of local authorities.

Government assistance focused on financial grants, but payments were sporadic. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some, but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.

All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in recently liberated areas. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each governorate. Low oil prices reduced government revenues and further limited funds available for the PDS. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.

Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. Through the provision of legal aid, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations assisted IDPs in obtaining documentation and registering with authorities to improve access to services and entitlements. The Directorate of Civil Affairs, with the support of UNHCR and the UN Refugee Agency, inaugurated the first national Identification Document Center in Ninewa Governorate in October. The Center allowed many IDPs who lost or were unable to obtain civil status documentation, including birth certificates, as a result of recent conflicts, to obtain documentation that proved their identity and helped gain access to public services and government assistance programs. Humanitarian agencies reported some IDPs faced difficulty with registration. In October UNHCR reported that nearly 2.9 million IDPs across the country were missing at least one form of civil documentation. In April the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that approximately 45,000 IDP children in camps were missing civil documentation.

Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Government officials frequently denied security clearances for displaced households with a perceived ISIS affiliation to return to areas of origin. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camp. Humanitarian organizations reported that female heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.

HRW reported in August that the government was denying thousands of children whose parents had a perceived ISIS affiliation their right to access an education. They reported that officials were instructing school principals and aid groups that undocumented children were barred from enrolling in government schools, despite a September 2018 document signed by senior Education Ministry officials that appeared to support allowing children missing civil documentation to enroll in school.

IKR-based NGOs documented numerous cases of women who were forced to marry ISIS fighters subsequently became widows with children but lacked marriage and birth certificates required to obtain legal documentation for their children. These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters and they were frequently abandoned or placed in orphanages, as reported by Yezidi NGOs and media.

Central government authorities and governors took steps to close or consolidate camps, sometimes in an effort to force IDPs to return to their areas of origin. UNICEF reported that between August and September, the number of formal IDP camps dropped from 89 to 77 because of government-mandated camp closures. In many cases forced returns from camps resulted in secondary or tertiary displacement, often to out-of-camp settings. HRW reported that local authorities forcibly expelled  more than 2,000 individuals from camps for displaced people in Ninewa Governorate from August 23 to September 4.

West Mosul, Ninewa Governorate, along with the historically Christian town of Batnaya north of Mosul, remained in ruins and almost completely uninhabited. Most Christian IDPs refused to return to the nearby town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Babylon Brigade that occupied it. Prior to 2002 there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the region, but during the year that figure had fallen to below 150,000. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plan, lack of public services, and insecurity discouraged them from returning home.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls and lack of capacity. Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported on cases where camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.

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. Syrians made up the vast majority of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR. The KRG generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.

In October Syrian refugees began fleeing into the IKR following the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria. The KRG cooperated with UNHCR in allowing these individuals to seek refuge in camps and receive basic assistance. The KRG allowed Syrian refugees with family in the IKR to live outside of camps. As of mid-November, the number of newly displaced Syrians in Iraq exceeded 16,000.

Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.

Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians, but the KRG does. They are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed in some form of livelihood activity.

Durable Solutions: There was no large-scale integration of refugees in the central and southern regions of the country. Ethnic Kurdish refugees from Syria, Turkey, and Iran generally integrated well in the IKR, although economic hardship reportedly plagued families and prevented some children, especially Syrians, from enrolling in formal school. For the 2018-19 school year, the KRG Ministry of Education began teaching all first- and second-grade classes for Syrian refugees outside refugee camps in Sorani Kurdish in Erbil and Sulaimaniya Governorates and Badini Kurdish in Duhok Governorate instead of the dialects of Kurmanji Kurdish spoken by Syrian Kurds, while offering optional instruction in Sorani and Badini to those inside refugee camps.

UNHCR estimated there were more than 47,000 stateless individuals in the country as of August. An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps were missing civil documentation and faced exclusion from local society, including being barred from attending school, lacking access to healthcare, and being deprived of basic rights. These children, born under ISIS rule, were issued birth certificates that were considered invalid in the eyes of the government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation.

Absent a countrywide, consistent plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness. The government enforced a law requiring any non-Muslim women who bore children of Muslim men to register children as Muslim, no matter the circumstances of the child’s conception or the mother’s religion. The Yezidi community frequently welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community. International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that do not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality.

As of 2006, the latest year for which data was available, an estimated 54,500 “Bidoon” (stateless) individuals, living as nomads in the desert in or near the southern governorates of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding. Prolonged drought in the south of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani (Dom) population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Baha’i religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.

Stateless persons faced discrimination in employment and access to education. Many stateless persons were not able to register for identity cards, which prevented them from enrolling in public school, registering marriages, and gaining access to some government services. Stateless individuals also faced difficulty obtaining public-sector employment and lacked job security.

A UNHCR-funded legal initiative secured nationality for hundreds of formerly stateless families, giving them access to basic rights and services. Since 2017, lawyers worked to help Bidoons, and other stateless people, acquire nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.

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. Despite violence and other irregularities in the conduct of elections, citizens were generally able to exercise this right.

Recent Elections: In May 2018 the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) conducted elections for the COR–the national parliament. The 2018 elections were notable in that the IHEC chose to implement new technologies, including the automated counting and tabulation of votes, and the biometric identification and verification of voters. These new technologies, adopted very late in the electoral cycle, placed considerable strain on the institution. International and local observers monitored the elections. Two hundred and seventy-five members of the country’s outgoing COR, including the speaker, lost their seats in these elections. Although observers declared the elections peaceful, allegations of fraud prompted parliament to order a recount of ballots in areas of Anbar, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and the IKR. Fraud allegations included repeat voting, manipulation of electronic ballot tallies, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation.

Due to problems obtaining or replacing civil documentation, as well as last-minute changes to the IHEC identification requirements, many IDPs were disenfranchised during the May 2018 elections. Although the IHEC made attempts to accommodate the various registration and voting challenges (special absentee voting stations and waiver of the biometric identification card requirement) facing IDPs, the IHEC did not sufficiently inform IDPs in camps about the registration process and the voting procedures for the different categories of IDPs. By the November 2017 cut-off date for voter registration, only 293,000 of an estimated 800,000 IDPs of voting age were registered.

The Kurdistan Independent High Electoral Commission held elections in September 2018 for the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP). Most observers witnessed only minor irregularities and saw no evidence of systemic fraud, but opposition parties alleged voter intimidation and systemic fraud, such as ballot stuffing and falsification of documents. Following national parliamentary elections, the International Crisis Group reported in May 2018 on allegations in Kirkuk Governorate, noting that the Kurdish PUK party won in several non-Kurdish areas with historically low PUK support, and turnout in Kurdish areas was low compared both to past elections and to turnout in Turkmen and Arab areas.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties and coalition blocs tended to organize along either religious or ethnic lines, although some parties crossed sectarian lines. Membership in some political parties, particularly KDP and PUK in the IKR or major parties in central government-controlled territory, conferred special privileges and advantages in employment and education.

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

The constitution mandates that women constitute at least 25 percent of parliamentary and provincial council membership. In parliamentary elections, 19 women received sufficient votes to win seats in the 329-seat COR without having to rely on the constitutional quota, compared with 22 in 2014. Sixty-five additional women were awarded seats based on the quota, raising the total number of seats women held to 84. Nonetheless, political discussions often reportedly marginalized female members of parliament.

In 2018 parliamentary elections for the IKP, 36 women received votes to win seats in the 111-seat parliament. The results also indicated that five candidates representing minority groups won seats, including Turkmen and Assyrians. The IKP elected its first female speaker, Rewaz Fayeq, in July.

Of the 329 seats in parliament, the law reserves nine seats for minorities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Duhok Governorates, respectively; one Yezidi; one Sabean-Mandaean; one Shabak; and, following a parliamentary decision in February, one for Faili Kurds in Wasit Governorate. One Christian was appointed to the new cabinet.

Following complaints by Yezidi activists, the Federal Supreme Court ruled in January 2018 that the Yezidi minority must have more seats in the country’s parliament, reflective of the size of the community, but the decision was not implemented during the year.

The KRG reserves 30 percent of parliamentary and provincial council membership for women. Three women held cabinet level positions as of December.

Of 111 seats in the IKP, the law reserves 11 seats for minorities along ethnic, rather than religious lines: five for (predominantly Christian) Chaldo-Assyrian candidates, five for Turkmen candidates, and one for Armenian candidates. No seats are reserved for self-described groups whom the KRG considers ethnically Kurdish or Arab, such as Yezidis, Shabak, Sabean-Mandaeans, Kaka’i, and Faili Kurds.

Major political parties partnered with, or in some cases created, affiliated minority political parties in both the central government and IKR elections and encouraged other Iraqis to vote for allied minority candidates for quota seats in the COR and IKP. Minority community activists complained that this process disenfranchised them, and they advocated for electoral reform to limit voting for minority quota seats to voters of the relevant minority, as well as for additional quota seats in the COR and IKP.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. The law allows some individuals convicted of corruption to receive amnesty upon repaying money they had obtained by corruption, which had the effect of allowing them to keep any profits from stolen funds. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: According to a statement by a member of the Parliament Services Committee, the number of “sham projects” in the country since 2003 was in excess of 6,000. The estimated cost of these “phantom projects” was approximately 200 trillion dinars ($176 billion) over the past 16 years. Bribery, money laundering, nepotism, and misappropriation of public funds were common at all levels and across all branches of government. Family, tribal, and ethnosectarian considerations significantly influenced government decisions at all levels and across all branches of government. Investigations of corruption were not free from political influence, as evidenced by the arrest warrant issued in November for Talal al-Zubaie, who was previously the chairman of the Integrity Commission. Zubaie was wanted for corruption charges stemming from his time serving as the commission’s chairman.

Anticorruption efforts were hampered by a lack of agreement concerning institutional roles and political will, political influence, lack of transparency, and unclear governing legislation and regulatory processes. Although anticorruption institutions increasingly collaborated with civil society groups, the effect of expanded cooperation was limited. Media and NGOs attempted to expose corruption independently, but their capacity was limited. Anticorruption, law enforcement, and judicial officials, as well as members of civil society and media, faced threats, intimidation, and abuse in their efforts to combat corrupt practices.

In February the prime minister established a High Council for Combatting Corruption, which along with the Parliamentary Integrity Committee, was charged with developing national policies and strategies to confront corruption. Although the Commission of Integrity (COI) investigated several high-profile cases, prosecution and conviction rates were low. In August the COI issued a summary of the commission’s biannual report, finding the commission filed more than 4,783 corruption cases and issued more than 857 arrest warrants. There were almost 442 convictions, including three ministers and 27 senior officials, although the convictions remained anonymous. The report stated that the law allowed more than 986 convicted persons amnesty upon repaying money they had obtained by corruption.

The Central Bank leads the government’s efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Through the Offices of Banking Supervision and Financial Intelligence Unit, the Central Bank worked with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to identify and prosecute illicit financial transactions. The investigatory capacity of authorities remained extremely limited, although they were successful in prosecuting a small number of money-laundering cases linked to ISIS. Political party influence on government institutions and intimidation of government employees made it difficult for authorities to investigate money-laundering cases related to corruption. Numerous mid-level government officials were fired due to involvement in investigations of money-laundering cases linked to influential political party members. The COI, which prosecutes money-laundering cases linked to official corruption, suffered from a lack of investigatory capacity.

The Council of Ministers Secretariat has an anticorruption advisor, and the COR has an integrity committee. The Council of Ministers secretary general led the Joint Anticorruption Council, which also included agency inspectors general. In October the Council dismissed 1,000 civil servants after convicting them of public integrity crimes including wasting public money, deliberately damaging public money and embezzlement. On August 24, the prime minister’s media office announced that the Supreme Council for Combating Corruption had presented 8,824 cases of corruption to the judiciary.

Border corruption was also a problem. In June the Baghdad Post newspaper’s website posted footage that revealed a long line of trucks, believed to be smuggling goods across the border, being allowed to bypass regulations and taxes. Local officials told reporters that the smuggling ring was controlled by government officials and the IRGC.

The KRG maintained its own COI, which issued its first report in 2017. The COI lacked the resources and investigators needed to pursue all potential corruption cases, according to one specialist on the issue.

In August 2018 the KRG formally launched Xizmat (services), a government reform program to document and provide more efficient and transparent government services to citizens in the IKR using an online portal. Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani reported in May that this system, in addition to other digital reforms, helped remove complications, identify unnecessary processes, and expose thousands of “ghost employees.”

Financial Disclosure: The law authorizes the COI to obtain annual financial disclosures from senior public officials, including ministers, governors, and parliamentarians, and to take legal action for nondisclosure. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment. A unified system for enforcing annual financial disclosures does not exist. The COI has no jurisdiction over the IKR, but Kurdish members of the central government were required to conform to the law. The law obligates the COI to provide public annual reports on prosecutions, transparency, accountability, and ethics of public service. According to the COI’s semiannual report, all of the members of parliament (MPs) and half of the 15 governors submitted financial disclosure information, a considerable increase over previous years.

The Kurdistan Commission on Public Integrity is responsible for distributing and collecting financial disclosure forms in the IKR. There was no information available indicating that public officials faced penalties for financial nondisclosure.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated, in most cases with little government restriction or interference, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

Due to the ISIS-driven humanitarian crisis, the majority of local NGOs focused on assisting IDPs and other vulnerable communities. In some instances, these NGOs worked in coordination with central government and KRG authorities. A number of NGOs also investigated and published findings on human rights cases. There were some reports of government interference with NGOs investigating human rights abuses and violations involving government actors.

HRW reported on at least 22 incidents of harassment, intimidation, or assault on aid workers by government officials in Ninewa during the first two months of the year. According to the report, authorities in Ninewa harassed, threatened, and arrested aid workers and brought false terrorism charges against them in some cases. HRW reported that local authorities also compelled organizations to stop providing services to families accused of ISIS ties.

NGOs faced capacity-related problems, did not have regular access to government officials and, as a result, were not able to provide significant protections against failures in governance and human rights abuses. Domestic NGOs’ lack of sustainable sources of funding hindered the sector’s long-term development. The government rarely awarded NGOs contracts for services. While the law forbids NGOs from engaging in political activity, political parties or sects originated, funded, or substantially influenced many domestic NGOs.

NGOs were prevented from operating in certain sectors (see section 6, Women) NGOs registered in Erbil could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories (see section 2.b.).

The IKR had an active community of mostly Kurdish NGOs, many with close ties to, and funding from, the PUK and KDP political parties. Government funding of NGOs legally is contingent upon whether an NGO’s programming goals conform to already-identified KRG priority areas. The KRG NGO Directorate established formal procedures for awarding funds to NGOs, which included a public description of the annual budget for NGO funding, priority areas for consideration, deadlines for proposal submission, establishment of a grant committee, and the criteria for ranking proposals.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government and the KRG sometimes restricted the access of the United Nations and other international organizations to sensitive locations, such as Ministry of Interior-run detention facilities holding detainees suspected of terrorism.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The IHCHR is constitutionally mandated. The law governing the IHCHR’s operation provides for 12 full-time commissioners and three reserve commissioners with four-year, nonrenewable terms; in 2017 new commissioners assumed duties. The law provides for the IHCHR’s financial and administrative independence and assigns it broad authority, including the right to receive and investigate human rights complaints, conduct unannounced visits to correctional facilities, and review legislation. Some observers reported the commissioners’ individual and partisan political agendas largely stalled the IHCHR’s work. The IHCHR actively documented human rights violations and abuses during the demonstrations that started in October but briefly discontinued publishing the number of protest-related deaths, reportedly due to pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The IHRCKR issued periodic reports on human rights, trafficking in persons, and religious freedom in the IKR. The commission reported KRG police and security organizations generally had been receptive to human rights training and responsive to reports of violations. Both the IHRCKR and KHRW conducted human rights training for police and Asayish, mainly for investigators. The IHRCKR worked with the Ministry of Peshmerga to establish an International Human Rights Institute within the ministry during the year.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but not specifically spousal rape, and permits a sentence not exceeding 15 years, or life imprisonment if the victim dies. The rape provisions of the law do not define, clarify, or otherwise describe “consent,” leaving the term up to judicial interpretation. The law requires authorities to drop a rape case if the perpetrator marries the victim, with a provision protecting against divorce within the first three years of marriage. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There were no reliable estimates of the incidence of rape or information on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law.

Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse. UNHCR reported in May that women in IDP camps with alleged ties to ISIS were particularly vulnerable to abuse, including rape by government forces and other IDPs (see sections 1.c. and 2.d.).

Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides reduced sentences for violence or killing if the perpetrator had “honorable motives” or if the perpetrator caught his wife or female relative in the act of adultery or sex outside of marriage. Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem.

The government made some progress on implementation of its 2016 joint communique with UNAMI on the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence, but human rights organizations reported that the criminal justice system was often unable to provide adequate protection for women.

Likewise, NGOs reported that the government made minimal progress in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security despite an implementation plan launched in 2016. The KRG High Council of Women’s Affairs reported that neither the central government nor the KRG had allocated a budget for implementing this resolution.

Harassment of legal personnel who sought to pursue domestic violence cases under laws criminalizing assault, as well as a lack of trained police and judicial personnel, further hampered efforts to prosecute perpetrators.

The government and KRG also struggled to address the physical and mental trauma endured by women who lived under ISIS rule. In April UNHCR reported 10 suicides, mostly by Yezidi women, in six IDP camps in the Dohuk Governorate since the beginning of the year, a number UNHCR believed to be underreported. Doctors Without Borders also reported that during a five-month period, 24 patients who had attempted suicide were brought to one Sinjar area hospital, six of whom died. Almost half were younger than 18, and the youngest victim was 13.

While the law does not explicitly prohibit NGOs from running shelters for victims of gender-based crimes, the law allows the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to determine if a shelter may remain open, and the ministry did not do so. As a result, only the ministry could operate shelters in central government-controlled territory. NGOs that operated unofficial shelters faced legal penalties for operating such shelters without a license (see section 5). NGOs reported that communities often viewed the shelters as brothels and asked the government to close them; on occasion, shelters were subject to attacks. In order to appease community concerns, the ministry regularly closed shelters, only to allow them to reopen in another location later. In the absence of shelters, authorities often detained or imprisoned sexual harassment victims for their own protection. Some women, without alternatives, become homeless.

The Ministry of Interior maintained 16 family protection units under police authority, located in separate buildings at police stations around the country, designed to resolve domestic disputes and establish safe refuges for victims of sexual or gender-based violence. These units reportedly tended to prioritize family reconciliation over victim protection and lacked the capacity to support victims. NGOs stated that victims of domestic violence feared approaching the family protection units because they suspected that police would inform their families of their testimony. Some tribal leaders in the south reportedly banned their members from seeking redress through police family protection units, claiming domestic abuse was a family matter. The family protection units in most locations did not operate shelters.

KRG law criminalized domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse, threats of violence, and spousal rape. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law and maintained a special police force to investigate cases of gender-based violence and a family reconciliation committee within the judicial system, but local NGOs reported that these programs were not effective at combating gender-based violence. In one notable case, Shadiya Jasim’s husband shot and killed her on the steps of a courthouse in Erbil in September after she filed for divorce. Her husband surrendered to police and was taken into custody. The police were investigating the killing.

In the IKR one privately operated shelter and four KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs-operated shelters provided some protection and assistance for female victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Space reportedly was limited, and service delivery reportedly was poor. NGOs played a key role in providing services, including legal aid, to victims of domestic violence, who often received no assistance from the government. Instead of using legal remedies, authorities frequently mediated between women and their families so that the women could return to their homes. Other than marrying or returning to their families, which often resulted in further victimization by the family or community, there were few options for women accommodated at shelters.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): NGOs and the KRG reported the practice of FGM/C persisted in the IKR, particularly in rural areas of Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and Kirkuk Governorates, and among refugee communities, despite a ban on the practice in IKR law. Rates of FGM/C, however, reportedly continued to decline. FGM/C was not common outside the IKR.

During the year UNICEF reported 37.5 percent of women and girls ages 15-49 in the IKR had undergone FGM/C, a decrease from previous years. NGOs attributed the reduction in FGM/C to the criminalization of the practice and sustained public outreach activities by civil society groups.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permitted honor as a lawful defense in violence against women, and so-called honor killings remained a serious problem throughout the country. A provision of the law limits a sentence for conviction of murder to a maximum of three years in prison if a man is on trial for killing his wife, girlfriend, or a female dependent due to suspicion that the victim was committing adultery or engaged in sex outside of marriage. UNAMI reported that several hundred women died each year from honor killings. Some families reportedly arranged honor killings to appear as suicides.

During the year the KRG began prosecuting murders of women, including by honor killings, as homicides, meaning culprits convicted of honor killings were subject to penalties up to and including the death penalty. The KRG Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Combating Violence against Women confirmed that sentences in such cases sometimes reached 20 years.

The KRG Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Combating Violence Against Women confirmed 16 cases of honor killing among 22 female homicide victims in the IKR as of September.

There were reports that women and girls were sexually exploited through so-called temporary, or pleasure marriages, under which a man gives the family of the girl or woman dowry money in exchange for permission to “marry” her for a specified period. A BBC investigation found instances of Shia clerics in Baghdad advising men on how to abuse girls. Young women, widowed or orphaned by the aggressions of ISIS, were especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation, as detailed in the BBC report. In similar cases, NGOs reported some families opted to marry off their underage daughters in exchange for dowry money, believing the marriage was genuine, only to have the girl returned to them months later, sometimes pregnant.

Government officials and international and local NGOs also reported that the traditional practice of nahwa, where a cousin, uncle, or other male relative of any woman may forbid or terminate her marriage to someone outside the family, remained a problem, particularly in southern governorates. In April the newspaper Arab News reported on a 22-year-old from Amarah, who wished to marry a university classmate. The men of her tribe declared nahwa and forced her to marry her cousin. Two weeks after the marriage, the girl died of injuries resulting from self-immolation. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to nahwas and fasliya (where women are traded to settle tribal disputes), but these traditions continued, especially in areas where tribal influence outweighed government institutions.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual relations outside marriage, including sexual harassment. Penalties include fines of up to only 30 dinars (2.5 cents) or imprisonment or both not to exceed three months for a first-time offender. The law provides relief from penalties if unmarried participants marry. The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement, but penalties were very low. In most areas there were few or no publicly provided women’s shelters, information, support hotlines, and little or no sensitivity training for police. Refugees and IDPs reported regular sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR.

In September the COR lifted immunity of MP Faiq al-Shaikh Ali based on a request by the judiciary in order to prosecute him under charges of defamation against Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s adviser for women’s affairs, Hanan al-Fatlawi, head of Erada party.

Female political candidates suffered harassment online and on social media, including posting of fake, nude, or salacious photographs and videos meant to harm their campaigns. In the IKR, New Generation Movement IKP member Shady Nawzad reported that party leader Shaswar Abdulwahid threatened to publish revealing photographs and video of her if she left the party.

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

Discrimination: The Council of Ministers’ Iraqi Women Empowerment Directorate is the lead government body on women’s issues. Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, and inheritance laws discriminate against women. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing.

For example, in a court of law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in some cases and is equal in other cases. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony other than child support or two years’ financial maintenance in some cases; in other cases the woman must return all or part of her dowry or otherwise pay a sum of money to the husband. Under the law the father is the guardian of the children, but a divorced mother may be granted custody of her children until age 10, extendable by a court up to age 15, at which time the children may choose with which parent they wish to live.

All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues, and discrimination toward women on personal status issues varies depending on the religious group. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except recognized religious minorities. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative (see section 2.d.). Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.

NGOs also reported cases in which courts changed the registration of Yezidi women to Muslim against their will because of their forced marriage to ISIS fighters.

Although the KRG provided some additional protections to women, in most respects, KRG law mirrors federal law, and women faced discrimination. Beginning in May, public prosecutors in Kurdistan began accepting the testimony of women in court on an equal basis with that of men. KRG law allows women to set as a prenuptial condition the right to divorce her husband beyond the limited circumstances allowed by Iraqi law and provides a divorced wife up to five years’ alimony beyond childcare.

The KRG maintained a High Council of Women’s Affairs and a Women’s Rights Monitoring Board to enforce the law and prevent and respond to discrimination.

Birth Registration: The constitution states that anyone born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen. Failure to register births resulted in the denial of public services such as education, food, and health care. Single women and widows often had problems registering their children. Although in most cases authorities provided birth certificates after registration of the birth through the Ministries of Health and Interior, this was reportedly a lengthy and at times complicated process. The government was generally committed to children’s rights and welfare, although it denied benefits to noncitizen children. Humanitarian organizations reported a widespread problem of children born to members of ISIS or in ISIS-held territory failing to receive a government-issued birth certificate. An estimated 45,000 displaced children living in camps lack civil documentation, including birth certificates.

Education: Primary education is compulsory for citizen children for the first six years of schooling–and until age 15 in the IKR; it is provided without cost to citizens. Equal access to education for girls remained a challenge, particularly in rural and insecure areas. Recent, reliable statistics on enrollment, attendance, or completion were not available.

In September UNICEF reported that of the 1.55 million displaced persons, 728,000 were children. Those who were displaced had limited access to education; at least 70 percent of displaced children missed at least one year of school. In May UNICEF reported that one-half of schools in the country required repairs following the territorial defeat of ISIS, and more than three million children had their education interrupted.

Child Abuse: Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides protections for children who were victims of domestic violence or were in shelters, state houses, and orphanages, including access to health care and education. Violence against children reportedly remained a significant problem, but up-to-date, reliable statistics on the extent of the problem were not available. Local NGOs reported the government made little progress in implementing its 2017 National Child Protection Policy.

KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse and threats of violence. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating child abuse. The KRG’s Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Education, and Culture and Youth operated a toll-free hotline to report violations against, or seek advice regarding, children’s rights.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but the law allows a judge to permit children as young as 15 to marry if fitness and physical capacity are established and the guardian does not present a reasonable objection. The law criminalizes forced marriage but does not automatically void forced marriages that have been consummated. The government reportedly made few efforts to enforce the law. Traditional early and forced marriages of girls, including temporary marriages, occurred throughout the country. UNHCR reported the continued prevalence of early marriage due to conflict and economic instability, as many families arranged for girls to marry cousins or into polygamous households to prevent forced marriages to ISIS fighters. Others gave their daughters as child brides to ISIS or other armed groups as a means to ensure their safety, access to public services in occupied territories, or livelihood opportunities for the entire family.

In the IKR the legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but KRG law allows a judge to permit children as young as 16 to marry under the same conditions applied in the rest of the country. KRG law criminalizes forced marriage and suspends, but does not automatically, void forced marriages that have been consummated. According to the KRG High Council of Women’s Affairs, refugees and IDPs in the IKR engaged in child marriage and polygamy at a higher rate than IKR residents.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Child prostitution was a problem, as were temporary marriages, particularly among the IDP population. Because the age of legal criminal responsibility is nine in the areas administered by the central government and 11 in the IKR, authorities often treated sexually exploited children as criminals instead of victims. Penalties for commercial exploitation of children range from fines and imprisonment to the death penalty. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement.

Child Soldiers: Certain PMF units, including AAH, HHN, and KH, reportedly recruited and used child soldiers, despite a government prohibition. The PKK, HPG, and YBS Yezidi militias also reportedly continued to recruit and use child soldiers. ISIS was known to recruit and use child soldiers (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: Insecurity and active conflict between government forces and ISIS caused the continued displacement of large numbers of children. Abuses by government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, contributed to displacement. Due to the conflict in Syria, children and single mothers from Syria took refuge in the IKR. UNICEF reported that almost one-half of IDPs were children.

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

A very small number of Jewish citizens lived in Baghdad. According to unofficial statistics from the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, there were approximately 430 Jewish families in the IKR. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts in the country during the year.

The penal code stipulates that any person convicted of promoting Zionist principles, association with Zionist organizations, assisting such organizations through material or moral support, or working in any way to realize Zionist objectives, be subject to punishment by death. According to the code, Jews are prohibited from joining the military and cannot hold jobs in the public sector.

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

The constitution states the government, through law and regulations, guarantees the social and health security of persons with disabilities, including through protection against discrimination and provision of housing and special programs of care and rehabilitation. Despite constitutional guarantees, no laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Persons with disabilities had limited access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

Although the Council of Ministers issued a decree in 2016 ordering access for persons with disabilities to buildings and to educational and work settings, incomplete implementation continued to limit access. Local NGOs reported many children with disabilities dropped out of public school due to insufficient physical access to school buildings, a lack of appropriate learning materials in schools, and a shortage of teachers qualified to work with children with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

The minister of labor and social affairs leads the Independent Commission for the Care of People with Disabilities. Any Iraqi citizen applying to receive disability-related government services must first receive a commission evaluation. The KRG deputy minister of labor and social affairs leads a similar commission, administered by a special director within the ministry.

There is a 5 percent public-sector employment quota for persons with disabilities, but employment discrimination persisted, and observers projected that the quota would not be met by the end of the year (see section 7.d.). Mental health support for prisoners with mental disabilities did not exist.

The Ministry of Health provided medical care, benefits, and rehabilitation, when available, for persons with disabilities, who could also receive benefits from other agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Office. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs operated several institutions for children and young adults with disabilities. The ministry maintained loans programs for persons with disabilities for vocational training.

The country’s population included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Shabaks, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Baha’i, Kaka’i, and a very small number of Jews. The country also had a small Romani (Dom) community, as well as an estimated 1.5 to 2 million citizens of African descent who reside primarily in Basrah and adjoining governorates. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as based solely on ethnic or religious identity.

The law does not permit some religious groups, including Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Kaka’i, to register under their professed religions, which, although recognized in the IKR, remained unrecognized and illegal under Iraqi law. The law forbids Muslims to convert to another religion (see sections 2.d. and section 6, Children).

Government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, and other militias targeted ethnic and religious minorities, as did remaining active ISIS fighters. Discrimination continued to stoke ethnosectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year. Some government forces, including PMF, reportedly forcibly displaced individuals due to perceived ISIS affiliation or for ethnosectarian reasons. In June a Sunni MP warned of forced displacement in Diyala. He said some areas of the governorate had witnessed intimidation of the Sunni population by militias that forced them to leave, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu al-Khanazir in the governorate, killing three members of same family, which led to a wave of displacement from the village. Later in June, armed groups, some of them belonging to the Badr Corps militia, sealed off the district of Tarmiyah, besieged its inhabitants, and caused many to flee, according to the same MP.

Many persons of African descent, some stateless, lived in extreme poverty with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. Located predominately in the southern portions of the country, many lived in extreme poverty with nearly 80 percent illiteracy and reportedly above 80 percent unemployment. They were not represented in politics, and members held no senior government positions. Furthermore, they stated that discrimination kept them from obtaining government employment. Members of the community also struggled to obtain restitution for lands seized from them during the Iran-Iraq war.

According to a September HRW report, ethnic discrimination existed within Iraqi federal court’s judicial process. Victims of ISIS abuse, including Yezidis, were not able to participate in court proceedings due to documentation problems based on ethnicity and religion. Even in cases in which defendants admitted to sexual exploitation of minority women, prosecutors neglected to charge them with rape, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

While the law does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults per se, authorities used public indecency or prostitution charges to prosecute such conduct. Authorities used the same charges to arrest heterosexual persons involved in sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse. The constitution and law do not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals based on their sexual orientation.

Despite repeated threats and violence targeting LGBTI individuals, specifically gay men, the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute attackers or to protect targeted individuals.

In May the Kirkuk police ordered its elements to prevent youth from wearing skinny jeans in public places, to arrest violators, and to monitor and observe cases of what it called “youth effeminacy.” In August Anbar police arrested tens of youth wearing skinny jeans in public places, then began to arrest those who objected to the security decision on social media platforms, including an activist who was placed in Al-Khalidiya prison.

In their September report, an Iraq-based LGBT human rights organization, IraQueer, asserted that government security forces failed to investigate acts of discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons and did not effectively prevent violence against them. IraQueer also criticized militia members, religious leaders, government officials, and health-care workers for failing to prevent discrimination. Data compiled from 2015 to 2018 by IraQueer indicated that government authorities and affiliated armed groups were responsible for 53 percent of crimes against LGBTI persons, family members accounted for 27 percent, ISIS 10 percent; for the remaining 10 percent, responsibility was unclear.

In April IraQueer reported the killing of a transgender woman in Basrah who was killed by her extended family after the discovery of her hormone drugs. In late August another transgender woman was found dead outside Baghdad. Her clothes were ripped, and she was shot twice. The victim had originally gone missing in late April after receiving numerous death threats. Activists reported she was likely killed between early May and mid-August.

LGBTI individuals also faced intimidation, threats, violence, and discrimination in the IKR. An IKR-based human rights NGO director reported that members of his staff refused to advocate for LGBTI human rights based on their misperception that LGBTI persons were mentally ill.

According to NGOs, Iraqis who experienced severe discrimination, torture, physical injury, and the threat of death on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics had no recourse to challenge those actions via courts or government institutions.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution states that citizens have the right to form and join unions and professional associations. The law, however, prohibits the formation of unions independent of the government-controlled General Federation of Iraqi Workers and in workplaces with fewer than 50 workers. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide reinstatement for workers fired for union activity. The law allows workers to select representatives for collective bargaining, even if they are not members of a union, and affords workers the right to have more than one union in a workplace. In June the government ratified International Labor Organization Convention 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.

The law also considers individuals employed by state-owned enterprises (who made up approximately 10 percent of the workforce) as public-sector employees. CSOs continued to lobby for a trade union law to expand union rights.

Private-sector employees in worksites employing more than 50 workers may form workers committees–subdivisions of unions with limited rights–but most private-sector businesses employed fewer than 50 workers.

Labor courts have the authority to consider labor law violations and disputes, but no information was available concerning enforcement of the applicable law, including whether procedures were prompt or efficient. Strikers and union leaders reported that government officials threatened and harassed them.

The law allows for collective bargaining and the right to strike in the private sector, although government authorities sometimes violated private-sector employees’ collective bargaining rights. Some unions were able to play a supportive role in labor disputes and had the right to demand government arbitration.

Media reported that 3,000 contract workers in the electrical industry formed a union in late 2017 after the government failed to pay five months of wages. After the Ministry of Electricity fired 100 union leaders following initial protests in March, thousands of workers reportedly organized sit-ins at power plants. Protesters reportedly demanded the government reinstate the fired workers, include electrical contract workers in the pension and social security system with the same benefits as permanent workers, and pay them a minimum monthly wage of 400,000 dinars ($350). In May the government acquiesced to these demands and agreed to include all 150,000 public-sector contract workers in the pension and social security system.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor–including slavery, indebtedness, and trafficking in persons–but the government did not effectively monitor or enforce the law. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Employers subjected foreign migrant workers–particularly construction workers, security guards, cleaners, repair persons, and domestic workers–to forced labor, confiscation of travel and identity documents, restrictions on movement and communications, physical abuse, sexual harassment and rape, withholding of wages, and forced overtime. There were cases of employers withholding travel documents, stopping payment on contracts, and preventing foreign employees from leaving the work site.

Employers subjected women to involuntary domestic service through forced marriages and the threat of divorce, and women who fled such marriages or whose husbands divorced them were vulnerable to social stigma and further forced labor. Female IDPs, single women, and widows were particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation and discriminatory employment conditions.

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 constitution and law prohibit the worst forms of child labor. In areas under central government authority, the minimum age for employment is 15. The law limits working hours for persons younger than 18 to seven hours a day and prohibits employment in work detrimental to health, safety, or morals of anyone younger than 18. The labor code does not apply to juveniles (ages 15 to 18) who work in family-owned businesses producing goods exclusively for domestic use. Since children employed in family enterprises are exempt from some protections in the labor code with regard to employment conditions, there were reports of children performing hazardous work in family-owned businesses.

The law mandates employers bear the cost of annual medical checks for working juveniles. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 are not required to attend school, but also not permitted to work; thus, they were vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor. Penalties include imprisonment for a period of 30 days to six months and a fine of up to one million dinars ($880), to be doubled in the case of a repeated offense. Data on child labor was limited, particularly with regard to the worst forms of child labor, a factor that further limited enforcement of existing legal protections.

Child labor, including in its worst forms, occurred throughout the country. For example, 12-year-old Mohammed Salem told the French Media Agency in July 2018 that, since his father was killed by ISIS, he supported his mother and himself by selling tissues for 15 hours a day on the street in eastern Mosul. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights documented cases of displaced children forced to migrate with their families and subsequently engaged in child labor (see sections 2.d. and 6, Children).

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs was charged with enforcing the law prohibiting child labor in the private and public sectors, and labor law enforcement agencies took actions to combat child labor. Gaps existed within the authority and operations of the ministry that hindered labor law enforcement, however, including an insufficient number of labor inspectors and a lack of funding for inspections, authority to assess penalties, and labor inspector training. Inspections continued, and resumed in liberated areas, but due to the large number of IDPs, as well as capacity constraints and the focus on maintaining security and fighting terrorism, law enforcement officials and labor inspectors’ efforts to monitor these practices were ineffective. Penalties for violations did not serve as a deterrent.

In the IKR education is mandatory until age 15, which is also the minimum age for legal employment.

In September 2018 a Kurdish human rights group found almost 500 children begging in Sulaimaniyah Governorate and approximately 2,000 children begging in Erbil Governorate, with the majority of these being IDPs and refugees. The group had no data from Duhok Governorate. The majority were from IDP or refugee families. The KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs estimated that 1,700 children worked in the IKR, often as street vendors or beggars, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. The KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs operated a 24-hour hotline for reporting labor abuses, including child labor, that received approximately 200 calls per month.

Local NGOs reported that organized gangs also recruited children to beg. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs continued a grants program to encourage low-income families to send their children to school rather than to beg in the streets.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution provides that all citizens are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, religion, social origin, political opinion, language, disability, or social status. It also prohibits any forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. The government was ineffective in enforcing these provisions. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on age, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, or other communicable diseases. The law allows employers to terminate workers’ contracts when they reach retirement age, which is lower by five years for women. The law gives migrant Arab workers the same status as citizens but does not provide the same rights for non-Arab migrant workers, who faced stricter residency and work visa requirements.

Many persons of African descent lived in extreme poverty and were nearly 80 percent illiterate; more than 80 percent were reportedly unemployed. According to some sources, they make up 15 to 20 percent of the Basrah region’s 2.5 million inhabitants. They were not represented in politics, held no senior government positions, and reported that discrimination kept them from obtaining government employment.

Despite constitutional guarantees, no laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Persons with disabilities had limited access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

Although the Council of Ministers issued a decree in 2016 ordering access for persons with disabilities to buildings and to educational and work settings, incomplete implementation continued to limit access. There is a 5 percent public-sector employment quota for persons with disabilities, but employment discrimination persisted, and observers projected that the quota would not be met by the end of the year. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs maintained loans programs for persons with disabilities for vocational training.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women, foreign workers, and minorities (see section 6). Media reported in February and June that the availability of foreign workers willing to accept longer hours and lower pay in unskilled positions had increased Iraqi unemployment to approximately 23 percent and led foreign workers to commandeer certain undesired industries such as janitorial services and the food industry, resulting in social stigmatization. Economic analyst Anas Morshed told media in February, “For example, Bangladeshis are most favored for cleaning work, whereas trades and shopping centers prefer to hire Syrians and other Arab nationalities.”

There were more than 15 unions, associations, and syndicates in the IKR, all led by all-male executive boards. In response, the Kurdistan United Workers Union established a separate women’s committee, reportedly supported by local NGOs, to support gender equality and advance women’s leadership in unions in the IKR.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage, set by federal labor law, was increased and was above the poverty line. The law limits the standard workday to eight hours, with one or more rest periods totaling 30 minutes to one hour, and the standard workweek to 48 hours. The law permits up to four hours of overtime work per day and requires premium pay for overtime work. For industrial work, overtime should not exceed one hour per day. The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law states that for hazardous or exhausting work, employers should reduce daily working hours. The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from a situation endangering health and safety without prejudice to their employment but does not extend this right to civil servants or migrant workers, who together made up the majority of the country’s workforce.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has jurisdiction over matters concerning labor law, child labor, wages, occupational safety and health topics, and labor relations. The ministry’s occupational safety and health staff worked throughout the country, but the government did not effectively enforce regulations governing wages or working conditions. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties for violations did not serve as a deterrent.

The legal and regulatory framework, combined with the country’s high level of violence and insecurity, high unemployment, large informal sector, and lack of meaningful work standards, resulted in substandard conditions for many workers. Workplace injuries occurred frequently, especially among manual laborers. A lack of oversight and monitoring of employment contracts left foreign and migrant workers vulnerable to exploitative working conditions and abusive treatment. Little information was available on the total number of foreign workers in the country, although some observers reported that large groups of migrant workers, many of them in the country illegally, lived in work camps, sometimes in substandard conditions.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

Lebanon is a parliamentary republic based on the 1943 National Pact, which apportions governmental authority among a Maronite Christian president, a Shia speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (parliament), and a Sunni prime minister. Lebanese law officially recognizes 18 religious sects or confessions. In 2016 parliament elected Michel Aoun to the presidency, ending more than two years of political deadlock. Following the 2017 passage of the country’s new electoral law, the government held parliamentary elections in May 2018, after parliament had extended its legal term three times between 2013 and 2017. The elections were peaceful and considered generally free and fair. President Michel Aoun accepted Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on October 29 following almost two weeks of protests starting October 17. As of the end of the year, no new government had been formed.

The Internal Security Forces (ISF), under the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for law enforcement, while the Directorate of General Security (DGS), also under the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for border control but also exercises some domestic security responsibilities. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for external security but authorized to arrest and detain suspects on national security grounds; they also arrested alleged drug traffickers, managed protests, enforced building codes related to refugee shelters, and intervened to prevent violence between rival political factions. The General Directorate of State Security (GDSS), reporting to the prime minister through the Higher Defense Council, is responsible for investigating espionage and other national security issues. Civilian authorities maintained control over the government’s armed forces and other security forces, although Palestinian security and militia forces, the designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) Hizballah, and other extremist elements operated outside the direction or control of government officials.

The Syrian conflict affected the country economically and socially. Over the past several years, the Syrian conflict has generated an influx of more than one million refugees and strained the country’s already weak infrastructure and ability to deliver social services.

Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary or unlawful killings by nonstate actors; allegations of torture by security forces; excessive periods of pretrial detention by security forces; undue and increasing restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, including laws criminalizing libel and a number of forms of expression; high-level and widespread official corruption; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; and forced or compulsory child labor.

Although the legal structure provides for prosecution and punishment of officials who committed human rights abuses, enforcement remained a problem, and government officials enjoyed a measure of impunity for human rights abuses, including evading or influencing judicial processes.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and stipulates that restrictions may be imposed only under exceptional circumstances. The government generally respected this right, but there were some restrictions, particularly regarding political and social issues.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were generally free to criticize the government and discuss matters of public interest; however, several legal restrictions limited this right. The law prohibits discussing the dignity of the president or insulting him or the president of a foreign country. The military code of justice prohibits insulting the security forces, and the Military Court prosecuted civilians under this statute.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The 1962 Publications Law regulates print media. The law holds journalists responsible for erroneous or false news; threats or blackmail; insult, defamation, and contempt; causing prejudice to the president’s dignity; insulting the president or the president of a foreign country; instigation to commit a crime through a publication; and sectarian provocation. The law further contains detailed rules governing the activities of printing houses, press media, libraries, publishing houses, and distribution companies. This law provides rules and conditions for becoming a journalist and for obtaining licenses for new publications. It also prohibits the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.

There was uncertainty regarding which legal framework is applicable to online news sites in the country. No specific laws regulate online speech. The penal code, however, contains a number of speech offenses, such as defamation of public officials, public entities, and individuals. Accordingly, authorities are able to prosecute individuals, journalists, and bloggers for what they express online.

On March 11, the Military Court sentenced al-Jadeed TV correspondent Adam Chamseddine in absentia to three months in prison for criticizing the GDSS in a Facebook post. On April 12, a military judge ruled that, because Chamseddine is a journalist, the Military Court did not have jurisdiction over the case and returned the file to the military prosecutor who subsequently dropped all charges. Authorities heard these cases in both civil and military courts; they generally carried sentences of between one and three years in prison, although typically they resulted in fines.

The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of unauthorized political gatherings and certain religious events, as well as any broadcast of “any matter of commentary seeking to affect directly or indirectly the well-being of the nation’s economy and finances, material that is propagandistic and promotional, or promotes a relationship with Israel.” Media outlets must receive a license from the Council of Ministers to broadcast any type of political news or programs. The law prohibits broadcasting programs that harm the state or its relations with foreign countries or have an effect on the well-being of such states. The law also prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face intimidation and harassment. Political friction and tension led some outlets to fear entering certain “politically affiliated” areas to report without removing brandings and logos identifying the outlets. For example, MTV reporters have been known to remove their outlet’s logo when entering Hizballah-affiliated areas. Outlets that sought to report in areas under control of Hizballah were required to obtain special permission from Hizballah’s media arm.

Authorities continued to prosecute online, print, and television journalists for violations of the country’s publications law. NGOs and media watchdogs claimed such prosecutions were efforts to intimidate critics. Prosecutors sometimes referred these cases to criminal courts based on both private complaints and their own discretion, but more often they referred such cases to the Publications Court. Publications Court cases typically remained open for a year or more and typically ended with fines or dismissal.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities selectively applied elements of the law that permit censorship of pornographic material, political opinion, and religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders. The DGS may review and censor all foreign newspapers, magazines, and books to determine admissibility into the country, but these reviews are mostly for explicit, pornographic content. Some journalists reported that political violence and extralegal intimidation led to self-censorship.

On September 18, the president of the Lebanese University, Fouad Ayoub, had the judiciary request on his behalf that at least 20 media outlets remove all news and media reports related to him from their websites in an apparent attempt to edit his appearance on search engines. Media outlets were still determining their responses as of December 19.

The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine. Any violation of the guidelines could result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine. Authors could publish books without prior permission from the DGS, but if the book contained material that violated the law, including material considered a threat to national security, the DGS could legally confiscate the book and put the author on trial. Publishing without prior approval a book that contained unauthorized material could put the author at risk of a prison sentence, fine, and confiscation of the published materials.

Authorities from any of the recognized religious groups could request that the DGS ban a book. The government could prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court. According to NGOs, as of September each of the 30 book-banning cases the government registered in the publications court in 2017–mainly from libel suits filed by politicians, political parties, and private citizens–was in the process of being resolved. Authorities occasionally also referred such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.

Libel/Slander Laws: In most cases criminal courts heard libel and defamation complaints, which can carry sentences of one to three years but typically resulted in fines or a promise to remove offending material from the internet. NGOs and activists reported increased prosecutions under such laws, and political figures or their representatives filed several complaints against critics throughout the year. Human rights NGO ALEF (Association Libanaise pour l’Education et la Formation) reported that in several dozen cases this year, criminal defamation suits were filed against journalists, bloggers, political activists, and private citizens, including for posting their opinions in WhatsApp groups or on Facebook. While these cases rarely, if ever, resulted in prolonged detentions or jail sentences, interrogations by police and lengthy, expensive trials created a chilling effect on political speech.

Following publication of intentionally provocative articles on September 12 that criticized President Aoun and sarcastically suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the true leader of Lebanon, editors of the newspaper Nidaa al-Watan were summoned to appear before the Office of the Prosecutor General for the State on charges of defamation of the president. On September 20, the case was referred to the Publications Court. On November 21, the editor was found not guilty.

Private citizens may file criminal complaints, which the law requires an investigating judge to consider, and many defamation cases were initiated via the allegations of private citizens. Politicians at times responded to allegations of wrongdoing leveled at them by filing criminal complaints alleging defamation. The military justice code also prohibits defamation of the army.

The ISF Cybercrimes Bureau reported that, as of May 15, they had received referrals of 432 defamation cases for investigation. The Cybercrimes Bureau reportedly investigated 1,451 defamation cases in 2018, an increase of 81 percent from 2017. In November Human Rights Watch reported a 325 percent increase in the number defamation cases investigated by authorities and noted prison sentences against at least three individuals in defamation cases between 2015 and 2019. On October 5, four lawyers filed a complaint against the Economist, accusing the magazine of damaging the country’s reputation and insulting the Lebanese flag in its article reporting on the country’s dollar shortage that was published the same day.

On May 13, the GDSS arrested social media activist Rasheed Jumblatt and detained him for four days over a Facebook video post that allegedly included provocative and sectarian comments and insults against Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Jumblatt was subsequently released after charges were dropped.

Nongovernmental Impact: Political and religious figures sometimes sought to rally public outcry aimed at inhibiting freedom of expression and the press, including through coercion and threats of violence. This included public statements by some political and religious figures calling for the cancellation of a concert by local indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila due to threats of violence or content of the band’s music they perceived as offensive (see Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).

The law does not restrict access to the internet. The government reportedly censored some websites to block online gambling, pornography, religiously provocative material, extremist forums, and Israeli websites, but there were no verified reports the government systematically attempted to collect personally identifiable information via the internet. On May 24, the Ministry of Telecommunications requested that its internet service provider block Grindr, a networking app used primarily by LGBTI communities, based on a judicial order.

Restrictions on freedom of speech concerning government officials applied to social media communications, which authorities considered a form of publication rather than private correspondence. Human rights groups reported that political parties and their supporters intimidated individuals online and in person in response to online posts deemed critical of political leaders or religious figures, such as in the Mashrou’ Leila case (see Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).

The ISF’s Cybercrime Bureau and other state security agencies summoned journalists, bloggers, and activists to question them about social media and blog posts, especially when they criticized political figures or religious sects. On July 15, Riad el-Assaad was summoned by the ISF Cybercrime Bureau in response to a post on his Facebook page referencing suspicion of corruption within the Syndicate of Lebanese Contractors. El-Assaad removed the post under threat of detention.

NGOs noted the number of known summonses might not be accurate since many individuals chose not to discuss or report their cases.

There were no government restrictions specific to academic freedom, but libel and slander laws apply.

The majority of private universities enjoyed freedom of expression, and students were free to hold student elections and organize cultural, social, and political activities.

On July 30, organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled the performance of indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed” after the band faced criticism from some political and religious figures, as well as some private citizens, for a four-year-old post on Facebook of an image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. According to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, on July 24, security officers interrogated two band members for six hours. The band removed two songs from its playlist and the offending image from Facebook, and it issued a July 31 statement expressing regret that some had been offended. Despite these steps, the concert was canceled by organizers who cited threats of violence as the official reason for the cancellation.

On July 19, the DGS Censorship Bureau requested the ban of two films, Hard Paint (2018) and Damascus Cover (2017), on the premise that they promoted homosexuality and the Israeli intelligence service, respectively. As of September 5, the Ministry of Interior had not issued final judgement. The DGS reviewed all films and plays, and there were complaints among the public that the DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and was influenced by the opinions of religious institutions and political groups.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly with some conditions established by law. Organizers are required to obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry three days prior to any demonstration.

Security forces occasionally intervened to disperse demonstrations, usually when protesters caused property damage or clashes broke out between opposing protesters. Security forces generally allowed demonstrators to protest peacefully during large, widespread protests that began October 17. Security forces predominantly demonstrated restraint and professionalism in interactions with protesters. The ISF occasionally used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who authorities alleged were engaging in violence or vandalism, and the LAF in some instances used nonlethal force to disperse protesters who resisted LAF efforts to clear key thoroughfares. Human Rights Watch reported security forces used excessive force against protesters as well as intimidating and, in some cases, beating those attempting to film abuses. On November 1, ISF officers arrested and allegedly beat Salim Ghadban, a protester who had objected to the officers arresting four protesters occupying the Banks Association building in downtown Beirut. Ghadban was taken into temporary custody overnight at el-Helou police station where he was reportedly unable to contact an attorney, his family, or a physician.

Amnesty International reported that on October 26 the LAF used live ammunition fired in the air to disperse protesters blocking a main road in the northern area of Beddawi, which resulted in the alleged wounding of two protesters. During the same incident, five officers were injured. As of November a military court was investigating the incident. Following Prime Minister Hariri’s October 29 resignation, security forces, under increasing pressure from political leaders and the public, began to clear main roads but otherwise allowed demonstrators to peacefully assemble. Some protesters were detained after altercations with security forces, and as of November 19, at least five protesters who had previously been involved in unrelated criminal activity were referred to the judiciary for investigation. On November 12, a LAF bodyguard opened fire from inside a military vehicle attempting to pass through protesters blocking a road in Khaldeh, killing one protester. The LAF arrested the shooter and an investigation into the incident continued as of December 19. Altercations between protesters and supporters of nonstate actor Hizballah occurred sporadically during the protests, and security forces attempted to separate the conflicting groups with varying levels of success. Confrontations escalated into violence the night of November 25, when Hizballah and Amal supporters on motorcycles threw rocks and intimidated protesters in Beirut and opened fire on protesters and destroyed tents in Tyre. Human Rights Watch reported on November 8 that more than three dozen protesters asserted they had seen or were victims of violent attacks, including in Beirut, Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh and Sour, and that security forces failed to intervene to protect them.

Protesters clashed with ISF riot police on the evenings of December 14 and 15 in Beirut, producing the largest numbers of protest-related injuries to both protesters and security forces recorded during the year. Amnesty International on December 19 reported the Lebanese Civil Defense said it had treated 72 individuals for injuries at the scene and that 20 ISF members were taken to the hospital on December 14. Amnesty International denounced the presence of masked men in civilian clothing who allegedly attacked protesters. A Lebanese lawyer filed a formal complaint with the UN Human Rights Council.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, with some conditions established by law, and the government generally respected the law.

No prior authorization is required to form an association, but organizers must notify the Ministry of Interior for it to obtain legal recognition, and the ministry must verify that the organization respects “public order, public morals, and state security.” In some cases the ministry sent an NGO’s notification papers to the security forces to initiate inquiries about an organization’s founding members. Organizations must invite ministry representatives to any general assembly where members vote on bylaws, amendments, or seats on the board of directors. The ministry must then validate the vote or election. Failure to do so can result in the dissolution of the organization by a decree issued by the Council of Ministers.

The cabinet must license all political parties (see section 3).

In areas under Hizballah’s sway, independent NGOs faced harassment and intimidation, including social, political, and financial pressures. Hizballah reportedly paid youth who worked in “unacceptable” NGOs to leave the groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights for citizens but placed extensive limitations on the rights of refugee populations and asylum seekers, most of whom were from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq (see section 2.f. Protection of Refugees).

In-country Movement: Armed nonstate actors hindered or prevented movement in areas they controlled. Armed Hizballah members controlled access to some areas under Hizballah’s control, and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine prevented access to a border area under its control, according to the security services. Armed supporters of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt sought to block the motorcades of the foreign minister and of a rival Druze minister on June 30, the latter blockade resulting in a shootout and two deaths. Within families, men sometimes exercised considerable control over female relatives, restricting their activities outside the home or their contact with friends and relatives.

Citizenship: Citizenship is derived exclusively from the father. A citizen mother married to a noncitizen father cannot transmit Lebanese citizenship to her children (see section 2.g. Stateless Persons).

Fighting in 2007 destroyed the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, displacing approximately 30,000 residents, of whom some 27,000 were registered Palestinian refugees. Many of the displaced resided in areas adjacent to the camp or in other areas of the country where United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) services were available. As of September approximately 75 percent of the displaced families had returned to newly reconstructed apartments in the camp.

f. Protection of Refugees

As of October there were nearly 920,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the government instructed UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees in early 2015, this total did not include Syrian refugees who arrived after that time. There were no formal refugee camps in the country for Syrians. Most Syrian refugees resided in urban areas, many in unfinished, substandard, or nonresidential buildings. Approximately 20 percent lived in informal tented settlements, often adjacent to agricultural land, according to an October UN assessment. According to a UN study, refugees often took loans to cover even their most basic needs, including rent, food, and health care, putting nearly 90 percent of them in debt and leaving them food insecure.

In early 2015 the government banned the entry of all Syrian refugees except for undefined “humanitarian exceptions.” During the year the Ministry of Social Affairs approved a limited number of Syrian asylum cases, including unaccompanied and separated children, persons with disabilities, medical cases, and resettlement cases under extreme humanitarian criteria.

In addition to nearly 14,000 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees residing in the country, a limited number of additional Iraqis entered during the year to escape violence. As of June 30, UNHCR also registered more than 4,200 refugees or asylum seekers from Sudan and other countries.

During the year the government launched campaigns which limited refugees’ ability to reside or work in the country. These included forced compliance with building codes limiting the use of concrete and hardened materials in refugee shelters, increased arrests for residency-related offenses, and stepped-up enforcement of labor laws that targeted businesses employing refugees–which affected more than 6,600 refugees.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In April the Higher Defense Council (HDC), a body chaired by the president that includes cabinet ministers and security service heads, issued guidance to the security services to increase enforcement of building codes. This resulted in the destruction of thousands of refugee shelters. Security services forced refugees to destroy and replace hardened walls and roofs; alternatively security services did so themselves or entirely demolished noncompliant shelters. Although authorities generally cited violations of building, environmental codes, or both, there was insufficient judicial review or opportunity to legally challenge eviction or demolition actions.

On June 5, residents of an informal refugee settlement in Deir El Ahmar in Northwest Baalbek claimed that a Civil Defense member, responding to a fire in the camp, recklessly drove into the camp putting children’s lives at risk, which resulted in an altercation between camp residents and the driver, who ended up in the hospital. Following the incident, a group of approximately 50 local men, who had previously posted threats against refugees on social media, purportedly to protect the local population, returned to the camp and verbally threatened residents. Later that night the same group entered the camp and set fire to multiple refugee shelters, prompting local authorities to evacuate all 88 refugee families for their safety.

Labor laws were also enforced more strictly to fine employers who employed Syrians or Palestinians and to close illegal refugee-run businesses. Environmental regulations were cited more frequently in the eviction of refugees and bulldozing of dwellings in some locations. Refugee arrests and detentions also increased, and some NGOs funded by international donors to provide water and sanitation services to refugee settlements were sued by the government and fined for allegedly contributing to the pollution of the Litani River.

Multiple NGOs and UN agencies shared reports of sexual harassment and exploitation of refugees by employers and landlords, including paying workers below the minimum wage, working excessive hours, debt bondage, and pressuring families into early marriage for their daughters to relieve economic hardship. There were multiple reports of foreign migrant domestic workers (mainly from East Africa and Southeast Asia) tied to their employers through legal sponsorship, known as the kafala system, who faced physical, mental, and sexual abuse, unsafe working conditions, and nonpayment of wages. According to NGOs who assisted migrant workers in reporting these abuses to authorities, security forces and judges did not always adequately investigate these crimes; victims sometimes refused to file complaints or retracted testimony due to threats and fear of reprisals or deportation.

Refoulement: The government reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement with respect to Syrians. Some political party representatives, however, employed antirefugee rhetoric, stating assistance to Syrian refugees in particular placed additional burden on the state already facing an economic crisis. The DGS coordinated with Syrian government officials to facilitate the voluntary return of approximately 16,000 refugees from 2017 to September 1, 2019. UNHCR did not organize these group returns but was present at departure points and found no evidence that returns were involuntary or coerced in the cases of those refugees whom they interviewed. Human rights groups including Amnesty International questioned government claims that refugee returns were entirely voluntary, calling the environment “coercive” and citing credible risk of persecution or other human rights abuses upon return to areas controlled by the Syrian regime.

An HDC decision in April required the deportation of anyone arrested and found to have entered the country illegally after April 24. As of September the DGS reported it had deported 2,731 individuals under this order. UN officials considered the government’s new deportation policy as creating a high risk of refoulement given the lack of a formal review process to assess credible fear of persecution or torture. Specifically, the HDC decision requiring the deportation of anyone arrested and found to have entered the country illegally after April 24 elevated the risk of refoulement. Human rights groups and the international community all raised concerns about the risk of turning over refugees to Syrian authorities. There were several anecdotal reports of Syrian refugees who were subsequently abused in detention after being turned over to Syrian authorities by Lebanese officials. Government officials maintained their policy only applied to illegal migrants, not refugees, although it did not appear there was sufficient due process to make such a determination. UNHCR and international donors urged the government to provide for a judicial or independent administrative review before carrying out deportations. The government maintained that while the law requires a court hearing on all deportation cases, it did not have the bandwidth to process the existing caseload.

Non-Syrian asylum seekers arrested due to irregular entry or residency faced administrative detention without being sentenced by a court. The DGS held these individuals in a migrant retention facility where officials processed their immigration files before making administrative deportation decisions. Most cases resulted in deportation of the detainee, except for some instances where UNHCR secured their resettlement to a third country. During the year two Sudanese asylum seekers and four Iraqis (three refugees and one asylum seeker) were deported. In addition, one Iraqi refugee and her two children were not allowed re-entry into Lebanon after they briefly returned to Iraq to obtain an official document.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Nonetheless, the country hosted an estimated 1.5 million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian. In an effort to address the low number of refugees obtaining and renewing legal residency, since 2017 residency fees have been waived for refugees who had registered with UNHCR prior to 2015. This ruling excluded unregistered refugees or those who had renewed on the basis of Lebanese sponsorship. DGS implementation of the waiver continued to be inconsistent, and there was minimal improvement in the percentage of refugees with legal status. According to the United Nations, only 20 percent of the refugee population held legal residency as of September.

Due to the slow pace of implementation of residency determinations, the majority of Syrian refugees were unable to renew their legal documents, which significantly affected their freedom of movement owing to the possibility of arrests at checkpoints, particularly for adult men. While authorities released most detainees within a few days, some of the refugees said authorities required them to pay fines before releasing them or confiscated their identification documents (IDs). Syrian refugees faced barriers to obtaining Syrian ID documentation required to renew their residency permits in Lebanon because of the hostility of the Syrian government to the refugee population and because Syrian government embassies and consulates charge exorbitant fees. Obtaining and maintaining legal residency was also a challenge for refugees of other nationalities, particularly Iraqis, due to high renewal fees and sponsorship requirements. There is no official limitation of movement for Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) in the country; however, PRS without legal status faced limitations on their freedom of movement, mainly due to the threat of arrest at checkpoints.

Since 2014 authorities granted entry visas at the border only to PRS with either a verified embassy appointment in the country or a flight ticket and visa to a third country. Additionally, limited numbers of PRS secured visas to Lebanon by obtaining prior approval from the DGS, which required a sponsor in the country and could not be processed at border posts. UNRWA estimated that only 12 percent of the PRS in the country had arrived after 2016.

In 2017 the DGS issued a circular allowing the free, unlimited renewal of PRS residency for six months, with no fees for delayed submission. This circular has been consistently used since its issuance and applies to PRS who entered the country legally or who regularized their status before September 2016. The circular also granted temporary residency documents to PRS who turned 15 years old in the country, allowing them to use available documents such as an individual civil status card, instead of passports or national identity cards. Previously children were required to have an ID or valid travel document to be able to renew their residency. If they did not have one of these two documents, their legal status was revoked, and they became at risk of arrest and detention if they were stopped at any checkpoint. The circular, issued for residency renewal and not regularization, did not apply to PRS who entered the country through unofficial border crossings. Authorities issued a departure order to PRS who entered the country through official border crossings but who overstayed their temporary transit visa or failed to renew their visa.

Since 2017 the government waived the condition of valid residency for birth and marriage registration for PRS, expanding the application of a previous circular issued in September 2017 applicable to Syrians. Since March 2018 the Ministry of Interior waived the costly court proceedings to obtain birth registration of PRS and Syrian refugee children older than one year who were born in Lebanon between January 2011 and February 2018. The proof of marriage requirement remained in effect during the year.

Freedom of Movement: Authorities imposed curfews in a number of municipalities across the country, allegedly to improve security of all communities. Some international observers raised concerns that these measures may be discriminatory and excessive, since authorities typically enforced them for Syrian refugees, who mostly lack legal residency status and could face greater consequences if detained for a curfew violation. Municipalities and neighborhoods hosting Syrian refugee populations continued to impose movement restrictions through curfews, evictions, and threats of evictions. UN agencies reported that local municipal officials frequently used the threat of evictions to exert control over refugees or to appease host communities competing with refugees for jobs and other resources.

Police checkpoints and curfews imposed by municipalities restricted refugees’ movement. Cases of identity document confiscation and fines for breaking curfews continued, and a few violent incidents against refugees occurred. UNHCR staff reported restrictions on movement increasingly forced families to send children and young women, whom authorities are less likely to stop yet who are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, to perform family errands.

Employment: Authorities continued requiring Syrian refugees who wished to obtain residency permits to pledge to abide by the country’s laws, under which Syrians may work only in agriculture, construction, and cleaning. In July the Ministry of Labor stepped up enforcement and fined employers who hired refugees outside these sectors.

The law allows a special account to provide end-of-service indemnities or severance pay to Palestinian refugees who retire or resign. These benefits were available only to Palestinians working in the legal labor market. Palestinians did not benefit from national sickness and maternity funds or the family allowances fund. UNRWA continued to bear the cost of any medical, maternity, or family health-care expenses (excluding worker’s compensation).

Palestinian refugees received partial access to the benefits of the National Social Security Fund. They may not, however, work in at least 33 professions including medicine, law, and engineering and face informal restrictions on work in other industries. According to UN agencies, government officials, and Palestinian advocacy groups, Palestinian refugees consistently reported discrimination in hiring due to excessive bureaucracy and societal stigma. Lack of written contracts, lack of employment benefits, and insecure job tenure contributed to unstable working conditions.

Palestinian refugees were barred from employment in many fields, making refugees dependent upon UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health care, and social services. A 2010 law expanding employment rights and removing some restrictions on Palestinian refugees was not fully implemented, and Palestinians remained barred from working in most skilled professions, including almost all those that require membership in a professional association. A Ministry of Labor effort to restrict Syrian refugee access to employment led to closure of several businesses employing or owned by Palestinians, triggering three weeks of protests in July and August.

Access to Basic Services: The government did not consider local integration of any refugees a viable solution.

The law considers UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees to be foreigners. UNRWA provides health, education, social services, and emergency assistance to registered Palestinian refugees residing in the country. The amount of land allocated to the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in the country has changed only marginally since 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the population. Consequently, most Palestinian refugees lived in overpopulated camps, some of which suffered heavy damage in past conflicts. By agreement with the government, Palestinian security committees provided security for refugees in the camps.

A comprehensive, multi-year plan to rebuild the Nahr el-Bared Camp in eight stages began in 2008; the project continued at year’s end and was approximately 75 percent completed. Remaining reconstruction was not fully funded, with a 99 billion LBP ($66 million) shortfall remaining. Of the 27,000 Palestinians originally displaced following the camp’s destruction, UNRWA expected that approximately 21,000 would return. Many moved into completed apartments this year, and the temporary settlements that housed them near Nahr el-Bared Camp were decommissioned. The government did not permit UNRWA to install individual electricity meters in apartments, preferring that UNRWA pay a single bill rather than collecting from thousands of households, which limited access to electricity for residents.

Palestinian refugees typically could not access public health and education services or own land. A 2001 amendment to the law was designed to exclude Palestinians from purchasing or inheriting property. Palestinians who owned and registered property prior to the 2001 law entering into force could bequeath it to their heirs.

Palestinian refugees residing in the country could not obtain citizenship and were not considered citizens of any other country. Palestinian refugee women married to Lebanese citizens were able to obtain citizenship after one year of marriage. According to the country’s nationality law, the father transmits citizenship to children. Palestinian refugees, including children, had limited social and civil rights and no access to government-provided health, education, or other social services. Children of Palestinian refugees faced discrimination in birth registration, and many had to leave school at an early age to earn an income.

Palestinian refugees who fled Syria for Lebanon since 2011 received limited basic support from UNRWA, including food aid, cash assistance, and winter assistance, such as cash to purchase fuel for heating. Authorities permitted children of PRS to enroll in UNRWA schools and access UNRWA health clinics.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education facilitated the enrollment of more than 200,000 non-Lebanese students, predominantly Syrian refugees, in public schools (basic education from kindergarten to grade nine) in the 2018-19 academic year. Authorities estimated there were almost 338,000 registered Syrians of school age (three to 14 years old) in the country. Donor funding to UN agencies covered school-related expenses, such as school fees, books, and uniforms. Syrian refugees had access to many nonprofit and private health centers and local clinics for primary care services, and UN agencies and NGOs funded the majority of associated costs with international donor support. Syrian refugees had access to a limited number of UNHCR-contracted hospitals for lifesaving and obstetric care.

Iraqi refugees had access to both the public and private education systems. Iraqi refugees also had access to the primary health-care system. UNHCR, through NGOs, provided secondary health care with donor support.

Citizenship is derived exclusively from the father, resulting in statelessness for children of a citizen mother and a noncitizen father when registration under the father’s nationality is not possible. This discrimination in the nationality law particularly affected Palestinians and increasingly Syrians from female-headed households. Additionally, some children born to Lebanese fathers did not have their births registered due to administrative obstacles or a lack of understanding of the regulations. There were no official statistics on the size of the stateless population.

Approximately 3,000-5,000 Palestinians were not registered with UNRWA or the government. These Palestinians began to arrive in the country during the 1960s and do not hold any formal valid identification documentation. The government does not recognize their legal status in the country. Without documentation and legal status, nonregistered Palestinians faced restrictions on movement, risked arrest or detention, and encountered obstacles completing civil registration procedures.

Undocumented Palestinians, not registered in other countries where UNRWA operates such as Syria or Jordan, were not necessarily eligible for the full range of services provided by UNRWA. Nonetheless, in most cases UNRWA provided primary health care, education, and vocational training services to undocumented Palestinians. The majority of these were men, many of them married to UNRWA-registered refugees or Lebanese citizen women, who could not transmit refugee status or citizenship to their husbands or children.

The Directorate of Political and Refugee Affairs is responsible for late registration of children of Palestinian refugees. According to the law, birth registration of children older than one year previously required a court procedure, proof of marriage, an investigation by the DGS, and a DNA test. A March 2 decree issued by the Ministry of Interior facilitated the required documentation for birth registration of PRS and Syrian children more than one year old and born in the country since 2011. In such cases authorities no longer required the court procedure and DNA tests to register these children; however, proof of marriage is still mandatory. This decree does not apply to the registration of Palestinian refugee children more than one year old.

Approximately 1,500 of an estimated 100,000 Kurds living in the country lacked citizenship, despite decades of family presence in the country. Most were descendants of migrants and refugees who left Turkey and Syria during World War I, but authorities continued to deny them citizenship to preserve the country’s sectarian balance. The government issued a naturalization decree in 1994, but high costs and administrative obstacles prevented many individuals from acquiring official status. Some individuals who had previously received official status had their citizenship revoked in 2011 under a presidential decree. Others held an “ID under consideration” document without a date or place of birth.

Stateless persons lacked official identity documents that would permit them to travel abroad and could face difficulties traveling internally, including detention for not carrying identity documents. They had limited access to the regular employment market and no access to many professions. Additionally, they could not access public schools or public health-care facilities, register marriages or births, or own or inherit property.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections conducted by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, lack of government control over parts of the country, defects in the electoral process, previous prolonged extensions of parliament’s mandate, and corruption in public office restricted this ability.

Recent Elections: Michel Aoun was elected president in 2016, ending two and one-half years of political stalemate. Following the passage of a new electoral law, parliamentary elections were held in May 2018 for the first time in nine years. Observers concluded that the elections were generally free and fair. On July 31, President Michel Aoun signed a decree calling for the parliamentary by-election to fill Hizballah MP Nawwaf Moussawi’s seat in Tyre following his resignation. The by-election was scheduled to be held on September 15, but a Hizballah-affiliated candidate ran unopposed after other candidates withdrew their candidacies.

Political Parties and Political Participation: All major political parties and numerous smaller ones were almost exclusively based on confessional affiliation, and parliamentary seats were allotted on a sectarian basis.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. There were, however, significant cultural barriers to women’s participation in politics. Prior to 2004, no woman held a cabinet position, and there have been only seven female ministers subsequently, including current ministers. Four women served in the 30-member cabinet formed in January, one of whom became the Arab world’s first female interior minister. Only six of 128 members of parliament were women, and several of the female members of parliament were close relatives of prominent male politicians. Female leadership of political parties was limited, although three parties introduced voluntary quotas for their membership. Since 2017 women have been able to run in municipal elections in their native towns instead of the municipality of their spouses.

Minorities participated in politics. Regardless of the number of its adherents, authorities allocated every government-recognized religion, except Coptic Christianity, Ismaili Islam, and Judaism, at least one seat in parliament. Voters elected three parliamentarians representing minorities (one Syriac Orthodox Christian and two Alawites) in the 2018 elections. None of the minority parliamentarians were women. Members of these groups also held high positions in government and the LAF.

Since refugees are not Lebanese citizens, they have no Lebanese political rights.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity and on a wide scale. Government security officials, ISF, agencies, customs, and the judiciary were subject to laws against bribery and extortion. The lack of strong enforcement limited the law’s effectiveness. The Ministry of State for Combating Corruption was eliminated when a new government was formed on January 31; the ministry previously had little operational budget or authority.

The Central Inspection Board (CIB), an oversight body within the Office of the Prime Minister, is responsible for monitoring administrative departments, including procurement and financial actions, and remained mostly independent of political interference. The CIB may inspect employees of the national and municipal government, and has the authority to seek their removal or refer cases for prosecution. The CIB’s authority does not extend to cabinet ministers or to municipal executives. The Social Security Fund and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, public entities that managed large funding flows, were outside the CIB’s jurisdiction.

Corruption: Observers widely considered government control of corruption to be poor. There was limited parliamentary or auditing authority oversight of revenue collection and expenditures. During the continuing protests that began October 17, alleged corruption in the government and public sector was a major complaint of protesters and a major impetus for the protests. Within the first month after protests began, there was an increase in the number of corruption-related investigations and prosecution actions.

Types of corruption generally encountered included systemic patronage; judicial failures, especially in investigations of official wrongdoing; and bribery at multiple levels within the national and municipal governments. Corruption led to diversion of resources intended for other objectives. A few judges were suspended from duty pending investigation of allegations of receiving bribes from lawyers and intermediaries; some were released while one judge remained under further investigation as of November 19.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president of the republic, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the president of the Council of Ministers, as well as ministers, members of parliament, and judges to disclose their financial assets in a sealed envelope deposited at the Constitutional Council, but the government does not make the information available to the public. They must also do the same when they leave office. Heads of municipalities disclose their financial assets in a sealed envelope deposited at the Ministry of Interior, and civil servants deposit their sealed envelopes at the Civil Servants Council, which are also not available to the public. If a case is brought to the State Council for noncompliance, the State Council may take judiciary administrative action to remove the offender from office.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were sometimes responsive to these groups’ views, but there was limited accountability for human rights abuses.

There was no information on reports from previous years of international and local human rights groups being targeted by security services for harassment.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The position of State Minister for Human Rights was eliminated in the new cabinet formed in January. Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights struggled to make legal changes to guide ministries in protecting specific human rights. In March 2018 the cabinet appointed the five members of the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture, a body within the 10-member National Human Rights Institute, but as of October the Institute, which was created in 2016, had no budget and had still not commenced its work (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and the use of threats or violence to claim a “marital right to intercourse,” although it does not explicitly outlaw spousal rape. While the government effectively enforced the law, its interpretation by religious courts in cases brought before them, not to civil courts, precluded full implementation of civil law in all provinces, such as in the case of an abused wife compelled to return to her husband under personal status laws, despite battery being outlawed in the penal code. The minimum prison sentence for a person convicted of rape is five years, or seven years for raping a minor. In 2017 parliament repealed the article of the penal code that freed rapists from prosecution and nullified their convictions if they married their victims.

The law criminalizes domestic violence, calls for provision of shelters, gives women the ability to file a restraining order against the abuser, and assigns special units within the ISF to receive domestic violence complaints. NGOs alleged that the definition of domestic violence was narrow and did not provide adequate protection from all forms of abuse. Although the penal code provides for a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for battery, religious courts could cite personal status laws to require a battered wife to return to her home despite physical abuse. Some police, especially in rural areas, treated domestic violence as a social, rather than criminal, matter.

NGOs and activists criticized the domestic violence law, claiming that it does not sufficiently protect victims or punish abusers, who they alleged often received disproportionately light sentences. On July 30, the Mount Lebanon Criminal Court closed the case of a man who shot and killed his wife outside their home in Aramoun in 2015 following a dispute. The final verdict sentenced the husband to 25 years of hard labor and required him to pay LBP 150 million ($100,000) to the victim’s heirs.

Police and judicial officials worked to improve their management of domestic violence cases, but they noted that social and religious pressures–especially in more conservative communities–led to underreporting of cases, while some victims sought arbitration through religious courts or between families rather than through the justice system. There were reports and cases of foreign domestic workers, usually women, suffering from mistreatment, abuse, and in some cases rape or conditions akin to slavery.

According to women’s rights NGO KAFA, victims reported that police response to complaints submitted by battered or abused women improved. During the year ISF and judicial officials received training on best practices for handling cases involving female detainees, including victims of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. NGOs that provided services to such victims reported increased access to potential victims in ISF and DGS custody. The ISF continued its practice begun in 2018 of alerting its human rights unit to all cases involving victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable groups, so officers could track the cases and provide appropriate support to victims.

The Women’s Affairs Division in the Ministry of Social Affairs and several NGOs continued projects to address sexual or gender-based violence, such as providing counseling and shelter for victims and training ISF personnel to combat violence in prisons.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: On March 2, hundreds of protesters, including some lawmakers, marched on parliament to demand raising the minimum age of marriage to 18. Marriage is governed by 18 different sect-based personal status laws, and all sects allow girls to be married before age 18.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but authorities did not enforce the law effectively, and it remained a widespread problem.

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

Discrimination: Women suffered discrimination under the law and in practice, including under the penal and personal status codes. The constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. In matters of marriage, child custody, inheritance, and divorce, personal status laws provide unequal treatment across the various confessional court systems but generally discriminate against women. All 18 recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling these issues, and laws vary depending on the religious group. For example, Sunni religious courts applied an inheritance law that provides a daughter one-half the inheritance of a son. Religious law on child custody matters favors the father in most instances, regardless of religion. Sharia courts weigh the testimony of one man as equal to that of two women. Nationality law also discriminates against women, who may not confer citizenship to their spouses and children, although widows may confer citizenship to their minor children born of a citizen father. Since August 2018 divorced women have been allowed to include the names of their children on their civil records.

By law women may own property, but they often ceded control of it to male relatives due to cultural norms and family pressure.

The law does not distinguish between women and men in employment and provides for equal pay for men and women, although workplace gender discrimination, including wage discrimination, exists in practice.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived exclusively from the father, which may result in statelessness for children of a citizen mother and noncitizen father who may not transmit his own citizenship (see section 2.d.). If a child’s birth is not registered within the first year, the process for legitimizing the birth is long and costly, often deterring families from registration. Syrian refugees no longer need legal residency to register the birth of their child. Authorities also waived several requirements for late birth registration by Syrian refugees. Birth registration still remained inaccessible to some, because the government required proof of legal residence and legal marriage, documentation which was often unavailable to refugees.

Some refugee children and the children of foreign domestic workers also faced obstacles to equal treatment under the law. NGOs reported discrimination against them including bullying linked to race, skin color, religion, and nationality, although some could attend public school. Syrian refugee children are not legally entitled to enroll in public schools at regular hours, although they may attend schools’ second shifts.

Religious courts ruled on civil cases involving family matters such as child custody in the case of divorce.

Education: Education for citizens is free and compulsory through the primary phase. Noncitizen and stateless children, including those born of noncitizen fathers and citizen mothers and refugees, lacked this right. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education directed that non-Lebanese students could not outnumber Lebanese in any given classroom during the regular school shift, which sometimes limited enrollment.

Child Abuse: The country lacked a comprehensive child protection law; however, the law on the Protection of at-Risk Children or Children Violating the Law, provided some protection to children who were victims of violence.

As of August 27, the child protection NGO Himaya reported assisting with more than 914 cases of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse as well as exploitation and neglect. The Ministry of Social Affairs had a hotline to report cases of child abuse. In a typical example, representatives of a local shelter for abused women and children described a case of a father who sexually and physically abused a child in the shelter’s care. According to the organization, the father escaped punishment through religious courts, as many families chose to handle such cases through these courts rather than the national justice system.

Early and Forced Marriage: There is no legal minimum age for marriage, and the government does not perform civil marriages, although Minister of Interior Raya al-Hassan in February publicly voiced her support for reintroducing the debate on whether or not to allow civil marriage in Lebanon. Most religious leaders opposed civil marriage, despite the fact that Lebanon recognizes civil marriages conducted outside the country. The various sects each have their own religious courts governing issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. The minimum age of marriage varies from age 14 to age 18 depending on the sect. UN agencies, NGOs, and government officials noted high rates of early marriage among the Syrian refugee population. They partially attributed this circumstance to social and economic pressure on families with limited resources.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penal code prohibits and punishes commercial sexual exploitation, child pornography, and forced prostitution. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18 for both men and women, and statutory rape penalties include hard labor for a minimum of five years and a minimum of seven years’ imprisonment if the victim is younger than 15 years old. The government generally enforced the law.

The ISF, DGS, and judicial officials improved enforcement of the country’s antitrafficking law, which prohibits the sexual exploitation of children. NGOs provided training throughout the year to increase police and judicial officials’ sensitivity to the issue and reported increased numbers of potential victims that authorities referred to NGO-run shelters and victim protection programs. This included a training for DGS officers focused on behavioral psychology and effective communication skills with victims with trainees selected from departments that specialize in direct communication with citizens, migrants, refugees, travelers, and those at the airport and at the administrative retention center. Separately, four trainings were conducted for DGS officers on countertrafficking and identification of victims of human trafficking.

Displaced Children: Some refugee children lived and worked on the street. Given the poor economic environment, limited freedom of movement, and little opportunity for livelihoods for adults, many Syrian refugee families often relied on children to earn money for the family, including by begging or selling small items in the streets. Refugee children were at greater risk than Lebanese children for exploitation, gender-based violence, and child labor, since they had greater freedom of movement compared to their parents, who often lacked residency permits.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education facilitated enrollment of almost 200,000 non-Lebanese children in the 2018-19 academic year. More than one-half of refugee children ages three to 18 were out of school, according to UNHCR. The government and some NGOs offered a number of informal education programs to eligible students.

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.

In a May interview with al-Joumhouria, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri used an anti-Semitic slur when explaining Israel’s position on its maritime border with Lebanon.

At year’s end there were an estimated 70 Jews living in the country and 5,500 registered Jewish voters who lived abroad but had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

The Jewish Community Council reported that throughout the year a construction site adjacent to the Jewish cemetery in Beirut regularly dumped trash and rubble into the cemetery. Council members said municipal authorities agreed to speak with the construction company but that dumping continued as of September 11. On September 18, the ISF called in for questioning a member of the Jewish Community Council who manages the cemetery, questioning him about the number and type of visitors to the cemetery and local synagogues over the summer. The council member was not detained, but his phone was temporarily confiscated.

Rooms, shops, and a gas station were built on the land of the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli, and a lawsuit was filed in 2011. While the suit was still pending, authorities had taken no action by year’s end.

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

According to the law, persons with disabilities have the right to employment, education, health services, accessibility, and the right to vote; however, there was no evidence the government effectively enforced the law. Although prohibited by law, discrimination against persons with disabilities continued. On February 11, the minister of foreign affairs appointed Joe Rahhal, who himself has a physical disability, as his advisor of persons with special disabilities.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and the National Council of Disabled are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. According to the president of the Arab Organization of Disabled People, little progress had occurred since parliament passed the law on disabilities in 2000. Resource limitations restricted the ability of the government to investigate adequately abuses against persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education stipulated that for new school building construction “schools should include all necessary facilities in order to receive the physically challenged.” Nonetheless, the public-school system was ill-equipped to accommodate students with disabilities.

Depending on the type and nature of the disability, children with a disability may attend mainstream school. Due to a lack of awareness or knowledge, school staff often did not identify a specific disability in children and could not adequately advise parents. In such cases children often repeated classes or dropped out of school. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, children with disabilities lacked access to education, as both public and private schools often improperly refused to admit them or charged additional fees, citing a lack of appropriate facilities or staff.

The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, but the government failed to amend building codes to implement these provisions. The law does not mandate access to information or accommodations for communication for persons with disabilities.

Lebanese of African descent attributed discrimination to the color of their skin and claimed harassment by police, who periodically demanded to see their papers. Foreign Arab, African, and Asian students, professionals, and tourists reported being denied access to bars, clubs, restaurants, and private beaches at the direction and discretion of venue owners or managers.

Syrian workers, usually employed as manual laborers and construction workers, continued to suffer discrimination. Many municipalities enforced a curfew on Syrians’ movements in their neighborhoods in an effort to control security.

Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits sexual relations “contradicting the laws of nature” and effectively criminalizes consensual, same-sex sexual conduct among adults. The law was occasionally enforced in civilian and military courts, and it carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. On April 1, a civilian court in Saida ruled on a 2017 case, convicting two men accused of homosexual activity under Article 534. The initial sentence of jail time was replaced with a fine of LBP 500,000 ($333). On March 30, a military prosecutor in Beirut acquitted four military personnel accused of “sodomy.” The judge cleared the group of charges of committing sexual acts “contrary to nature” and declined to issue warrants for their arrest, commenting that the penal code does not specify what kind of relationship can be considered “contrary to nature.” The ruling was the first of its kind by a military prosecutor. Some government and judicial officials, along with NGOs and legal experts, questioned whether the law actually criminalizes same-sex sexual conduct.

No provisions of law provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI persons based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. NGOs continued to report employment discrimination faced by transgender women due to the inconsistency between official documentation and gender self-presentation.

NGOs stated that official and societal discrimination against LGBTI persons persisted. Observers received reports from LGBTI refugees of physical abuse by local gangs, which the victims did not report to the ISF. Observers referred victims to UNHCR-sponsored protective services.

During the year government agents interfered with or restricted events focused on LGBTI rights. On January 31, prominent LGBTI rights NGO Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) confirmed that it would move regional programs outside the country beginning in 2019. The decision followed a DGS attempt to shut down the September 2018 Networking, Exchange, Development, Wellness, and Achievement (NEDWA) sexual-health conference through intimidation of AFE’s executive director and the threat of DGS or other agencies exposing attendees from LGBTI-hostile countries to their governments. (Ultimately the conference continued at a different Beirut venue.) The DGS implemented a continuing travel ban on foreign attendees of NEDWA, including Human Rights Watch’s regional LGBTI researcher and other nationals of Canada, Egypt, and Iraq.

The government did not collect information on official or private discrimination in employment, occupation, housing, statelessness, or lack of access to education or health care based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Individuals who faced problems were reluctant to report incidents due to fear of additional discrimination or reprisal. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination.

HIV/AIDS is stigmatized due to sensitivities about extramarital relations and LGBTI identities. NGOs reported that resources to direct patients to clinics where they can receive tests without stigma or discrimination were limited. In addition to stigma and discrimination, many persons with HIV/AIDS were unable to pay for routine tests that the Ministry of Public Health does not cover, including the blood test that must be completed and submitted to the Ministry of Public Health before any treatment can begin. The law requires the government to provide treatment to all HIV-positive citizens and to Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Nonetheless, treatment was only available at one hospital in Beirut, making it difficult for patients outside of Beirut to receive treatment easily.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike but places restrictions on these rights. The Ministry of Labor must approve the formation of unions, and it controlled the conduct of all trade union elections, including election dates, procedures, and ratification of results. The law permits the administrative dissolution of trade unions and bars trade unions from political activity. Unions have the right to strike after providing advance notice to and receiving approval from the Ministry of Interior. Organizers of a strike (at least three of whom must be identified by name) must notify the ministry of the number of participants in advance and the intended location of the strike, and 5 percent of a union’s members must take responsibility for maintaining order during the strike.

There are significant restrictions on the right to strike. The labor law excludes public-sector employees, domestic workers, and agricultural workers. Therefore, they have neither the right to strike nor to join and establish unions. The law prohibits public-sector employees from any kind of union activity, including striking, organizing collective petitions, or joining professional organizations.

The law protects the right of workers to bargain collectively, but a minimum of 60 percent of workers must agree on the goals beforehand. Two-thirds of union members at a general assembly must ratify collective bargaining agreements. The Association of Banks in Lebanon renewed the collective sectoral agreement with the Federation of Lebanese Bank Employees Unions on December 6 after nearly three months of mediation between the two parties led by the minister of labor. The Association of Banks in Lebanon had initially refused to renew the agreement.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Under the law, when employers misuse or abuse their right to terminate a union member’s contract, including for union activity, the worker is entitled to compensation and legal indemnity and may institute proceedings before a conciliation board. The board adjudicates the case, after which an employer may be compelled to reinstate the worker, although this protection was available only to the elected members of a union’s board. Anecdotal evidence showed widespread antiunion discrimination in both the public and private sectors, although this issue did not receive significant media coverage. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the most flagrant abuses occurred in banking, private schools, retail businesses, daily and occasional workers, and the civil service. Prime Minister Hariri warned civil servants in May against striking or expressing their opinion about the national budget discussions.

By law foreigners with legal resident status may join trade unions. According to the ILO, however, in practice most unions do not encourage or accept the participation of foreign workers. The migrant law permits migrant workers to join existing unions (regardless of nationality and reciprocity agreements) but denies them the right to form their own unions. They do not enjoy full membership as they may neither vote in trade union elections nor run for union office. Certain sectors of migrant workers, such as migrant domestic workers, challenged the binding laws supported by some unions by forming their own autonomous structures that acted as unions, although the Ministry of Labor has not approved them.

Palestinian refugees generally may organize their own unions. Because of restrictions on their right to work, few refugees participated actively in trade unions. While some unions required citizenship, others were open to foreign nationals whose home countries had reciprocity agreements with Lebanon.

The government’s enforcement of applicable laws was weak, including with regard to prohibitions on antiunion discrimination.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not always respected. The government and other political actors interfered with the functioning of worker organizations, particularly the main federation, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL). The CGTL is the only national confederation recognized by the government, although several unions boycotted and unofficially or officially broke from the CGTL and no longer recognized it as an independent and nonpartisan representative of workers. Since 2012 the Union Coordination Committee (UCC), a grouping of public and private teachers as well as civil servants, played a major role in pushing the government to pass a promised revised salary scale, largely overshadowing the CGTL. While the UCC is not formally recognized by any government body, it acts as an umbrella organization and guides several recognized leagues of workers in demonstrating and in negotiating demands. During the 2019 national budget debate, both CGTL and UCC failed to successfully take leadership of worker protest actions or to coherently voice the demands and aspirations of working people. CGTL was further weakened when in January union president Antoine Bechara was interrogated by the ISF Anti-Cybercrime Bureau over a complaint filed by Minister of Economy Raed Khoury. In May, Bechara was arrested and pressured to resign after a video was leaked showing him insulting and making offensive comments against the late Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. The National Federation of Workers and Employees in Lebanon emerged as another alternative to represent the independent trade union movement.

On April 30, health workers at Saida Public Hospital began a strike that lasted four days, demanding payment of overdue salaries and denouncing the lack of basic materials in the facility. Police used force to end the strike and arrested the leaders of the trade union committee. Antiunion discrimination and other instances of employer interference in union functions occurred. Some employers fired workers in the process of forming a union before the union could be formally established and published in the official gazette.

There was widespread anecdotal evidence of arbitrary dismissals of Lebanese, and their replacement by non-Lebanese, across economic and productive sectors. This action was mainly in the form of Syrian refugees allegedly replacing Lebanese in some sectors. There were no official statistics to quantify the scale of these dismissals.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, but there is no legislative provision that provides criminal penalties for those employing forced labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law, although the government made some efforts to prevent or eliminate forced labor. The law does not criminally prohibit debt bondage.

Children, foreign workers employed as domestic workers, and other foreign workers sometimes worked under forced labor conditions. The law provides protection for domestic workers against forced labor, but domestic work is excluded from protections under the labor law and vulnerable to exploitation. In violation of the law, employment agencies and employers routinely withheld foreign workers’ passports, especially in the case of domestic workers, sometimes for years. According to NGOs assisting migrant workers, in some instances employers withheld salaries for the duration of the contract, which was usually two years.

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

Child labor occurred, including in its worst forms. While up-to-date statistics on child labor were unavailable, anecdotal evidence and the accounts of NGOs suggested the number of child workers may have risen during the year and that more children worked in the informal sector. UNHCR noted that commercial, sexual exploitation of refugee children continued to occur.

The minimum age for employment is 14, and the law prescribes the occupations that are legal for juveniles, defined as children between ages 14 and 18. The law requires juveniles to undergo a medical exam by a doctor certified by the Ministry of Public Health to assure they are physically fit for the type of work employers ask them to perform. The law prohibits employment of juveniles for more than seven hours per day or between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and it requires one hour of rest for work lasting more than four hours. The law prohibits specific types of labor for juveniles, including informal “street labor.” It also lists types of labor that, by their nature or the circumstances in which they are carried out, are likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children younger than 16, as well as types of labor that are allowed for children older than 16, provided they are offered full protection and adequate training.

Overall, the government did not enforce child labor laws effectively, in part due to inadequate resources. Advocacy groups did not consider penalties for those who violate laws on the worst forms of child labor as sufficient deterrents.

Child labor, including among refugee children, was predominantly concentrated in the informal sector, including in small family enterprises, mechanical workshops, carpentry, construction, manufacturing, industrial sites, welding, agriculture, and fisheries. UN agencies and NGOs reported that Syrian refugee children were vulnerable to child labor and exploitation. According to the ILO, child labor rates have at least doubled since the Syrian refugee influx. The ILO reported that instances of child labor strongly correlated with a Syrian refugee presence. The ILO equally highlighted that the majority of Syrian children involved in the worst forms of child labor–especially forced labor–worked primarily in agriculture in the Bekaa and Akkar regions and on the streets of major urban areas (Beirut and Tripoli). Anecdotal evidence also indicated child labor was prevalent within Palestinian refugee camps.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor requirements through its Child Labor Unit. Additionally, the law charges the Ministry of Justice, the ISF, and the Higher Council for Childhood (HCC) with enforcing laws related to child trafficking, including commercial sexual exploitation of children and the use of children in illicit activities. The HCC is also responsible for referring children held in protective custody to appropriate NGOs to find safe living arrangements.

A Ministry of Labor unit responsible for inspections of all potential labor violations also investigates child labor issues when a specific complaint is reported or found in the course of their other inspection.

The Ministry of Labor’s Child Labor Unit acts as the government’s focal point for child labor issues, and it oversees and implements the ministry’s national strategy to tackle child labor. The National Steering Committee on Child Labor is the main interministerial body coordinating on child labor across the government.

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 law provides for equality among all citizens and prohibits employment discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status. The law does not specifically provide for protection against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV status, or other communicable diseases. Although the government generally respected these provisions, they were not enforced in some areas, and aspects of the law and traditional beliefs discriminated against women. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women, persons with disabilities, foreign domestic workers, and LGBTI and HIV-positive persons (see section 6).

The law does not distinguish between women and men in employment, and it provides for equal pay for men and women. On wage equality for similar work, the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report indicates that the overall situation in the country remained largely unchanged, despite slight progress on the ratio of women in parliament.

According to the UN Population Fund, the labor law does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace; it merely gives an employee the right to resign without prior notice in the event that the employer or representative committed an indecent offense towards the employee or a family member. There are, however, no legal consequences for the perpetrator.

Employment law defines a “disability” as a physical, sight, hearing, or mental disability. The law stipulates that persons with disabilities fill at least 3 percent of all government and private-sector positions, provided such persons fulfill the qualifications for the position. There was no evidence the government enforced the law. Employers are legally exempt from penalties if they provide evidence no otherwise qualified person with disabilities applied for employment within three months of advertisement.

Migrant workers and domestic workers faced employment hurdles that amounted to discrimination (see section 7.e.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The legal minimum wage was last raised in 2012. There was no official minimum wage for domestic workers. Observers concluded that the minimum wage is lower than unofficial estimates of the poverty income level. Official contracts stipulated monthly wages for domestic workers, depending on the nationality of the worker. A unified standard contract, which was registered with the DGS for the worker to obtain residency, granted migrant domestic workers some labor protections. The standard contract covered uniform terms and conditions of employment, but not wages.

The law prescribes a standard 48-hour workweek with a weekly rest period that must not be less than 36 consecutive hours. The law stipulates 48 hours work as the maximum per week in most corporations except agricultural enterprises. The law permits a 12-hour day under certain conditions, including a stipulation that overtime pay is 50 percent higher than pay for normal hours. The law does not set limits on compulsory overtime. The law includes specific occupational health and safety regulations and requires employers to take adequate precautions for employee safety.

Domestic workers are not covered under the labor law or other laws related to acceptable conditions of work. Such laws also do not apply to those involved in work within the context of a family, day laborers, temporary workers in the public sector, or workers in the agricultural sector.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing regulations related to acceptable conditions of work, but it did so inconsistently. The ministry’s enforcement team handled all inspections of potential labor violations, but suffered from a lack of staff, resources, legal tools, and political support for its work. Interference with inspectors affected the quality of inspections and issuance of fines for violators was common. The law stipulates that workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, although government officials did not protect employees who exercised this right.

Workers in the industrial sector worked an average of 35 hours per week, while workers in other sectors worked an average of 32 hours per week. These averages, however, were derived from figures which included part-time work, including for employees who desired full-time work. Some private-sector employers failed to provide employees with family and transportation allowances as stipulated under the law and did not register them with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

Some companies did not respect legal provisions governing occupational health and safety in specific sectors, such as the construction industry. Workers could report violations to the CGTL, Ministry of Labor, NSSF, or through their respective unions. In most cases they preferred to remain silent due to fear of dismissal.

Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards were most common in the construction industry and among migrant workers, particularly with foreign domestic workers.

Foreign migrant workers arrived in the country through local recruitment agencies and source-country recruitment agencies. Although the law requires recruitment agencies to have a license from the Ministry of Labor, the government did not adequately monitor their activities. A sponsorship system tied foreign workers’ legal residency to a specific employer, making it difficult for foreign workers to change employers. If employment was terminated, a worker lost residency. This circumstance made many foreign migrant workers reluctant to file complaints to avoid losing their legal status.

Some employers mistreated, abused, and raped foreign domestic workers, who were mostly of Asian and African origin. Domestic workers often worked long hours and, in many cases, did not receive vacations or holidays. Victims of abuse may file civil suits or seek other legal action, often with the assistance of NGOs, but most victims, counseled by their embassies or consulates, settled for an administrative solution that usually included monetary compensation and repatriation. In a typical example, one victim explained that, when she escaped from an employer who was withholding her wages, an NGO helped her file charges against her employer. Authorities reached an administrative settlement with her employer to pay back wages and finance return to her home country but did not seek criminal prosecution of her employer.

Authorities typically did not prosecute perpetrators of abuse against foreign domestic workers for a number of reasons, including the victims’ refusal to press charges and lack of evidence. Authorities settled an unknown number of cases of nonpayment of wages through negotiation. According to source-country embassies and consulates, many workers did not report violations of their labor contracts until after they returned to their home countries, since they preferred not to stay in the country for a lengthy judicial process.

While licensed businesses and factories strove to meet international standards for working conditions with respect to occupational safety and health, conditions in informal factories and businesses were poorly regulated and often did not meet these standards. The Ministry of Industry is responsible for enforcing regulations to improve safety in the workplace. The regulations require industries to have three types of insurance (fire, third party, and workers’ policies) and to implement proper safety measures. The ministry has the authority to revoke a company’s license if its inspectors find a company noncompliant, but there was no evidence this occurred.

The law requires businesses to adhere to safety standards, but authorities poorly enforced the law, and it did not explicitly permit workers to remove themselves from dangerous conditions without jeopardy to their continued employment. Workers may ask to change their job or be removed from an unsafe job without being affected, as per the labor code. The government only weakly implemented the law due to lack of governance, the weak role of the trade union movement, corruption, and lack of trade union rights.

Libya

Executive Summary

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) is a transitional government, created by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. The 2011 Constitutional Declaration envisions a parliamentary democracy that allows for the exercise of political, civil, and judicial rights. Citizens elected an interim legislature, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), in free and fair elections in 2014. The country is in a state of civil conflict. The GNA, headed by Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, governed only a limited portion of the country. Parallel, unrecognized institutions in eastern Libya, especially those aligned with the self-styled “Libyan National Army” (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, continued to challenge the authority of the GNA.

During the year the GNA had limited effective control over security forces, and these forces consisted of a mix of semi-regular units, tribal nonstate armed groups, and civilian volunteers. The national police force, which reports to the Ministry of Interior, has official responsibility for internal security. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense have the primary mission for external defense, but they also supported Ministry of Interior forces on internal security matters. Civilian authorities had only nominal control of police and the security apparatus, and security-related police work generally fell to disparate informal armed groups, which received salaries from the government and exercised law enforcement functions without formal training or supervision and with varying degrees of accountability.

Conflict heightened during the year among GNA-aligned armed nonstate armed groups and other nonstate actors. The LNA exercised varying levels of control over the majority of Libyan territory at various points during the year. Informal nonstate armed groups filled security vacuums across the country, although several in the west aligned with the GNA as a means of accessing state resources. ISIS-Libya attempted to maintain a presence, although limited, primarily in the southwestern desert region. The UN and international partners were leading efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities in Tripoli and urged stakeholders to return to a UN-mediated political process.

Significant human rights issues included arbitrary and unlawful killings, including of politicians and members of civil society, by armed groups including some aligned with the GNA and the LNA, criminal gangs, and ISIS-Libya; forced disappearances; torture perpetrated by armed groups on all sides; arbitrary arrest and detention; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prison and detention facilities, some of which were outside government control; political prisoners held by nonstate actors; unlawful interference with privacy, often by nonstate actors; undue restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence against journalists and criminalization of political expression; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; threats of violence against ethnic minorities and foreigners; criminalization of same-sex sexual orientation; and use of forced labor.

Impunity from prosecution was a severe and pervasive problem. Divisions between political and security apparatuses in the west and east, a security vacuum in the south, and the presence of terrorist groups in some areas of the country severely inhibited the government’s ability to investigate or prosecute abuses. The government took limited steps to investigate abuses; however, constraints on the government’s reach and resources, as well as political considerations, reduced its ability or willingness to prosecute and punish those who committed such abuses. Although bodies such as the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General issued arrest warrants and opened prosecutions of abuses, limited policing capacity and fears of retribution prevented orders from being carried out.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The Constitutional Declaration provides for freedom of opinion, expression, and press, but various armed groups, including those aligned with the GNA, exerted significant control over media content, and censorship was pervasive. Unidentified assailants targeted journalists and reporters for political views.

Freedom of Expression: Freedom of speech was limited in law and practice. The law criminalizes acts that “harm the February 17 revolution of 2011.” The HoR, since its election in 2014, and the GNA, since taking its seat in Tripoli in 2016, have done little to lessen restrictions on freedom of speech. Civil society organizations practiced self-censorship because they believed armed groups would threaten or kill activists. Widespread conflict in major urban areas deepened the climate of fear and provided cover for armed groups to target vocal opponents with impunity.

International and local human rights organizations claimed that human rights defenders and activists faced continuing threats–including physical attacks, detention, threats, harassment, and disappearances–by armed groups, both those aligned with and opposed to the GNA.

Observers reported that individuals censored themselves in everyday speech. Armed groups reportedly used social media to target political opponents, incite violence, and engage in hate speech. According to UNSMIL, various news publications and television stations published calls to violence, spread intentionally false news, and permitted ad hominem attacks.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Press freedoms were limited in all forms of media, creating an environment in which virtually no independent media existed. International news agencies reported difficulties obtaining journalist visas, e