According to its constitution, Egypt is a republic governed by an elected president and unicameral legislature. Presidential elections were held in March 2018. Challengers to the incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pulled out ahead of the election, citing personal decisions, political pressure, legal troubles, and unfair competition; in some cases they were arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules. Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on association, assembly, and expression severely constrained broad participation in the political process. Domestic and international observers concluded that government authorities professionally administered parliamentary elections in 2015 in accordance with the country’s laws, while also expressing concern about restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression and their negative effect on the political climate surrounding the elections.
The Interior Ministry supervises law enforcement and internal security, including the Public Police, the Central Security Force (CSF), the National Security Sector (NSS), and Customs and Immigration. The Public Police are responsible for law enforcement nationwide. The CSF protects infrastructure and is responsible for crowd control. The NSS is responsible for internal security threats and counterterrorism along with other Egyptian security services. The armed forces report to the minister of defense and are responsible for external defense, but they also have a mandate to “assist” police in protecting vital infrastructure during a state of emergency. Military personnel were granted full arrest authority in 2011 but normally only use this authority during states of emergency and “periods of significant turmoil.” Defense forces operate in the Sinai as part of a broader national counterterrorism operation with general detention authority. The Border Guard Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
In April the country held a national referendum that approved new constitutional amendments, which among other outcomes extended President Sisi’s current term from four years to six years and allowed the president to run for a third six-year term in 2024. Domestic and international press reported multiple violations of the elections law by the government in the referendum process, including arrests of opponents. The State Council blocked all legal challenges to the referendum and amendments.
President Sisi requested that parliament approve a nationwide state of emergency (SOE) after the 2017 terrorist attack on Coptic churches. Since then, the government has requested, and parliament has renewed, SOEs with one- or two-day gaps between every two SOE periods to meet the legal requirement that SOEs may only be renewed once. In North Sinai, a partial SOE has been in effect since 2014. The government regularly renews that SOE every three months and has imposed partial curfews on parts of North Sinai.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of unenforced criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence involving religious minorities; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; use of the law to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute LGBTI persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.
The government inconsistently punished or prosecuted officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government. In most cases the government did not comprehensively investigate allegations of human rights abuses, including most incidents of violence by security forces, contributing to an environment of impunity.
Attacks by terrorist organizations caused arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life. Terrorist groups conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including places of worship. Authorities investigated terrorist attacks and prosecuted alleged perpetrators. Terrorists and other armed groups abducted civilians in North Sinai, some of whom they beheaded. There were incidents of societal sectarian violence against Coptic Christian Egyptians.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to political protests in other countries, such as Mohamad Ramadan who remained in pretrial detention after his December 2018 arrest for “inciting social unrest” by posting a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and June, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 138 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. One example cited by The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) is the June 25 arrest of several political figures after they met to form a new political alliance (Alliance of Hope) to run in 2020 parliamentary elections. On August 6, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (no. 930/2019). On September 3, board members of the Journalists’ Syndicate, journalists, and families of the detainees submitted three official complaints to NCHR claiming that the detainees were experiencing poor detention conditions and medical negligence. The next hearing on the renewal of the detention of the defendants was scheduled for January 8, 2020.
On September 24, authorities arrested Hazem Hosni and Hassan Nafaa, both political science professors at Cairo University who were outspoken critics of President Sisi. Hosny was also a spokesman for the 2018 presidential campaign of Sami Anan (see section 3). According to media, Nafaa’s arrest came minutes after a local channel aired a leaked conversation between Nafaa and an al-Jazeera producer in which Nafaa demanded LE 16,500 ($1,000) for conducting an interview with al-Jazeera. On December 17, the State Security Prosecutor ordered the renewal of Hosni and Nafaa’s detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
In a November 19 report, HRW claimed it had documented 28 cases from 2016 to 2019 in which authorities harassed or threatened one or more family members of journalists, media workers, and political and human rights activists who have criticized the government and now live abroad.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. Independent media reported that entities wholly or partially owned by the intelligence services assumed control of several independent media companies throughout the year. The constitution, penal code, and media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) broad discretion to block their content. According to media reports, the SCMR fined the weekly newspaper al-Mashhad LE 50,000 ($3,030) in March and blocked its website for six months for allegedly publishing sexually explicit material. Al-Mashhad claimed it did not publish illicit material and that the censorship was due to its reports claiming that a police station in Cairo extorted business owners to fund food to be given to voters in the April referendum. According to media reports, the SCMR also prevented al-Mashhad from sending 30 journalists to report from polling stations during the referendum.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 26 imprisoned journalists in the country.
On June 23, the al-Tahrir news agency stated it was shutting down operations after authorities blocked its website on May 9. According to a June 25 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the SCMR issued a bylaw in March stating that websites in violation of Egypt’s media laws would be blocked.
On November 24, unidentified security officials raided the office of news site Mada Masr, seized documents and electronic equipment, and detained three staff members. Detained staff members were taken to a police station before being released several hours later. On November 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that Mada Masr was investigated because it was operating without a permit. No additional information was available on the status of the investigation as of December 16.
On May 21, a court ordered the release of al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been held for 880 days in pretrial detention for allegedly disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. Before processing his release, authorities rearrested Hussein, who remained in pretrial detention awaiting formal charges.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
According to media reports, on February 20, authorities detained David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, in the Cairo International Airport and prevented him from entering the country. Kirkpatrick was the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015 and is the author of a book on Egypt, Into the Hands of the Soldiers.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The SOE empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses.
According to media reports, authorities blocked 34,000 websites prior to the April referendum, including sites gathering signatures to oppose the amendments. On June 23, AFTE reported that authorities censored three issues of the leftist Al Tagammaa Party’s weekly Al Ahly newspaper that discussed presidential pardons, corruption, and a planned government cabinet reshuffle. The AFTE report noted the government had previously censored Al-Dostour, Al-Mesryoon, Sawt Al Ummah, Al-Sabah, and Al-Bawaba newspapers.
Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the overall anti-MB and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.
On March 22, the Musicians’ Syndicate banned famous singer Sherine Abdel Wahab from performing and summoned her for questioning for “insulting Egypt.” The syndicate lifted the ban in early June after she publicly apologized.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported several cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims.
On January 29, atheist video blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to aid him in purchasing another nationality. On March 29, he posted on Twitter that there were two warrants for his arrest for treason and receiving funding from unknown sources. Gaber was arrested for denigration of Islam-related charges in 2018, 2015, and 2013. As of December 16, the government had not detained him.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In March 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
Judges may issue restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
Authorities have held blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers, in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
The constitution protects the right to privacy, including on the internet. The constitution provides for the confidentiality and “inviolability” of postal, telegraphic, and electronic correspondence; telephone calls; and other means of communication. They may not be confiscated, revealed, or monitored except with a judicial order, only for a definite period, and only in cases defined by law. The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Despite legal protections, the government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority including cyberattacks to gain access to devices and accounts belonging to critics of the government. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period.
The cybercrime law of August 2018 states, “the relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government had not issued implementing regulations for the law as of September.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications. On March 5, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology denied reports that the government monitored social media sites. On March 14, there were reports that authorities blocked Facebook and other social media platforms.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest LGBTI individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
A local news site reported in April that the government blocked its website and 500 more in Egypt. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 15, NetBlocks.org reported that the government blocked 34,000 internet domains to stop an online campaign to gather signatures to oppose the April constitutional referendum. On May 22, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech reported the government blocked 26,175 websites to block the Batel “Void” Campaign launched on April 8 to petition against the April referendum. After September 20 street protests (see section 2.b.), internet users throughout the country reported difficulty accessing Facebook Messenger and the news websites of the BBC, al-Jazeera, and al-Hurra. A spokesperson for the Supreme Council for Media Regulation said the BBC and other news websites may have been blocked because of their “inaccurate” coverage of the protests.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In September 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end. Defense lawyers claimed it could take years to examine the case.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. A March 6 report from AI documented a wave of digital attacks that likely originated from government-backed bodies, starting from early January and involving multiple attempts to gain access to the email accounts of prominent Egyptian human rights defenders, media, and civil society organization staff.
In October, The New York Times reported that a series of cyberattacks targeting journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights activists, in which attackers installed software on the targets’ phones that enabled them to read the victims’ files and emails and track their locations, was traced to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and that geographic coordinates embedded in one of the applications used to track the targeted individuals corresponded to the headquarters of the General Intelligence Service.
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, similar to that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. Faculty members needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason.
On August 14, the Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom requested the government to lift the travel ban on University of Washington doctoral student Walid Salem. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probation pending trial.
According to a local human rights organization, authorities released Helwan University science professor Yehia al-Qazzaz from prison on May 23, following his 2018 arrest based on a complaint filed against him by the university’s dean of the faculty of sciences for comments al-Qazzaz made on Facebook critical of President Sisi. According to the organization, after al-Qazzaz’s release, the president of Helwan University continued to harass al-Qazzaz with investigations over his 2018 political comments and by referring him to university disciplinary procedures for being absent from work while he was in prison.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in June 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Ministry of Interior and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On May 26, after remaining in pretrial detention since his arrest in February 2018, authorities released film editor Ahmed Tarek on probationary measures pending trial. According to his lawyer, authorities held Tarek incommunicado at National State Sector headquarters three days. Tarek faced charges of spreading false news and joining a group established contrary to the provisions of the law. The charges stemmed from his work on a documentary, Minus 1,095 Days, which sought to rebut claims in a state-produced film highlighting President Sisi’s accomplishments called 1,095 Days.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly “according to notification regulated by law.” The demonstrations law includes an expansive list of prohibited activities, giving a judge the authority to prohibit or curtail planned demonstrations after submitting an official memorandum. Domestic and international human rights organizations asserted the law did not meet international standards regarding freedom of assembly. In 2017 a local human rights organization filed a lawsuit challenging the 1914 law, arguing that it was passed by an incompetent body and repealed in 1929. The court was expected to issue a ruling in the case on January 4, 2020. In 2017 the government imposed an exclusion zone of 2,600 feet (790 meters) around vital governmental institutions in which protests are prohibited.
There were protests throughout the year, mostly small, and some occurred without government interference. In most cases the government rigorously enforced the law restricting demonstrations, in some cases using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.
In September local NGOs reported police arrested more than 4,000 individuals after small protests erupted in several cities over accusations of corruption against President Sisi. Many of the individuals detained reportedly had no connection to the protests and happened simply to be in the vicinity of the protests. Police and prosecutors subsequently released more than 2,500 of those detained. Local human rights organizations claimed that, in some instances, detainees were tortured or subjected to other abuses.
The cumulative number of persons arrested under the protest law was not publicly available. On May 13, authorities arrested political activist Haytham Mohamadeen, who police had surveilled since his October 2018 release following five months in pretrial detention. On May 14, authorities arrested political activist Mostafa Maher, the brother of political activist Ahmed Maher, who co-founded the April 6 movement. On December 25, Mostafa Maher received a release order that was immediately appealed by the prosecutor. Both remained in pretrial detention pending charges of “colluding with a terrorist group.”
On April 22, the final day of voting for the referendum, authorities arrested Ahmed Badawi, an engineer and member of the liberal Dostour Party, after he raised a sign saying “No to the constitutional changes” outside a polling station in Cairo. According to local media, authorities arrested four members of the Dostour Party in February after they reportedly voiced objection to the proposed constitutional amendments.
According to a local human rights organization, thousands of persons whom authorities arrested during 2013 and 2014 due to their participation in demonstrations (some of which were peaceful) remained imprisoned; however, authorities released others who had completed their sentences and some through presidential pardons. Authorities reportedly held such individuals under charges of attending an unauthorized protest, incitement to violence, or “blocking roads.”
Human rights groups claimed authorities inflated or used these charges solely to target individuals suspected of being members of groups in opposition to the government or those who sought to exercise the rights to free assembly or association.
On March 29, authorities conditionally released prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, whom a court convicted of participating in a protest in 2013. The conditions of a Court of Cassation sentence in 2017 require Abdel Fattah to report to the Dokki police station from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day for the next five years, but he may report at 7:30 p.m. during Ramadan. Abdel Fattah was appealing the nightly sentence and requesting that he be allowed to fulfill its terms from home. On September 29, police detained Abdel Fattah as he prepared to leave after spending the night in the police station and charged him with belonging to a terrorist organization, funding a terrorist group, spreading false news to undermine national security, and using social media to commit a publishing offense. Local NGOs reported he was tortured or subjected to other abuses while in custody in Tora Prison. As of year’s end, Abdel Fattah, along with his attorney Mohamed Elbakr, remained in detention on charges of “joining a banned group” and “spreading false news.”
Since their release from prison in 2017 after completing three-year sentences for violating the protest law, activists Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel remained on probation with terms requiring them to reside in the local police station from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. In May authorities rearrested Maher and released him a few days later on charges of beating a citizen and damaging his car outside a police station. Authorities also rearrested Adel in another case. On December 16, an administrative court ruled that the order to compel Adel to spend every night inside a police station as part of his probation was invalid. The court ruled that Adel could spend the daily probationary period from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. inside his home, according to a lawyer.
On May 21, authorities arrested several high school boys who protested in front of the Ministry of Education building regarding the repeated failures of new electronic systems in their schools; they were released the following day.
The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.
President Sisi signed a new NGO law on August 19. The law replaced a 2017 law which local and international NGOs stated could make it impossible for them to operate independently; the 2017 law was never implemented. According to International Center for Not-Profit Law (ICNL), the new law includes noteworthy improvements from the 2017 law in several respects, such as by eliminating individual prison sentences for violations and by removing the previous formal oversight role for security and intelligence authorities over foreign funding and foreign organizations. However, ICNL also assessed that the new law preserves the former law’s overall restrictive regulatory approach and continues to impose significant barriers to civil society activity.
Pending the promulgation of implementing regulations for the new law, the Ministry of Social Solidarity continued to apply the previous NGO law on international and domestic organizations receiving international funding. Rights groups reported fewer incidents of security services ordering cancellation of planned training programs or other events. On February 2, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional several articles of the previous NGO law, which gives the minister of social solidarity the right to dissolve NGOs.
The penal code criminalizes the request for or acceptance of foreign funds, materiel, weapons, ammunition, or “other things” from states or NGOs “with the intent to harm the national interest.” Those convicted may be sentenced to life in prison (or the death penalty in the case of public officials) for crimes committed during times of war or with “terrorist purpose.”
On October 16, a local NGO announced that authorities arrested lawyer Amr Emam after he announced on October 14 that he intended to go on a hunger strike and begin a sit-in to protest the arrests and alleged abuse of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and his attorney Mohamed Elbakr. As of year’s end, Emam remained in detention pending investigations in case no. 488 of 2019 on charges of “colluding with a terrorist organization,” “publishing fake news,” and “misusing social media to spread false information.”
On May 2, Cairo Criminal Court renewed the pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared. Authorities arrested him in 2017 at the Cairo International Airport and initially held him incommunicado. Hegazy was traveling to Geneva to participate in the WGEID. The charges against him included “communicating with a foreign body to harm the Egyptian national interest.” On May 20, the WGEID stated that it “remains concerned” that the measures against Hegazy “constitute acts of reprisals against him for cooperating with the Working Group.” On October 15, the Cairo Criminal Court ordered Hegazy’s release. On November 5, Hegazy appeared in front of the State Security Prosecution accused in a new case of “belonging to a terrorist group” and “funding a terrorist group.” On November 20, UN human rights rapporteurs criticized Hegazy’s continued detention.
Following the December 2018 acquittal of 41 mostly foreign NGO workers sentenced in 2013 for operating unlicensed organizations and receiving foreign funding without government permission, a court acquitted the remaining two defendants in May.
The MB, the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the MB was listed as a designated terrorist organization.
Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. The Cairo Criminal Court postponed until February 15, 2020, a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on eight defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO.
A court case brought by el-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (also registered under the name el-Nadeem for Psychological Rehabilitation) challenging a 2016 closure order remained pending an expert report ordered by the court. The organization asserted the closure was politically motivated, targeting el-Nadeem because of its work investigating torture, deaths in detention, and impunity for these crimes. The organization continued to operate in a limited capacity.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.
In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai, stating it was to protect their safety, although it began organizing some supervised visits for journalists to North Sinai in July.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.”
Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.
Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, , and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country.
The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders, including individuals connected with NGOs facing investigation as part of the reopened NGO foreign-funding case. A September 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”
Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country as a result of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).
Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: From April to June, 413 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) were reported to UNHCR and CARE International, which provided SGBV prevention activities and counseling to 1,750 refugee and asylum seekers.
Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.
According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.
Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.
Compared with previous years, fewer Palestinian refugees from Syria entered the country illegally, intending to travel to Europe. In a number of cases, in the absence of valid travel documents or inability to confirm their identities they faced more difficulties, including higher chances of detention or deportation.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR as of June 30, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. The number of African refugees increased during the year, according to UNHCR, particularly those from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Since 2013 the government has applied a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR high commissioner’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.
Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following parliament’s passage and enforcement of a law that dramatically increased patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.
UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed the majority of detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently did not do so for detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Detained migrants–as unregistered asylum seekers–did not have access to UNHCR. Authorities often held them in in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent them to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.
The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. According to UNHCR, refugees can fully access public-health services, although many did not have the resources to do so, and prices were often higher for refugees due to discrimination. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools, private schools, or were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care. As of March 19, UNHCR reported 10 protests and two suicides committed by refugees in response to the lack of adequate services. In response to the influx of Syrians, the government allowed Syrian refugees and asylum seekers access to public education and health services. The Ministry of Education estimated that 35,000 school-age Syrian children (approximately 90 percent) enrolled successfully in the public-school system.
Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in April 2018, the Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with OSCE commitments” and noted that “the widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.
The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center (known by its Hungarian acronym “TEK”) is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts. It is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. This state of emergency was most recently renewed in September for another six months. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; criminal penalties for libel (although court decisions limited their impact); and trafficking in persons.
The government took some steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not 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 members of the press, and the media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.” At the end of 2018, allies of the ruling Fidesz party consolidated what experts estimated to be between 80 and 90 percent of all media outlets into the hands of the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), established and managed by Fidesz allies.
Freedom of Expression: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech. The media law, which was amended in June and entered into force on August 1, also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The new law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.
A law approved in July 2018 imposes a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). At year’s end no entity had paid any tax under the law, and no known Tax Office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.
In December 2018 the ECHR unanimously ruled in favor of the publisher of a large domestic independent news site in a 2013 case. The site had previously been found guilty of disseminating defamatory information by including a hyperlink to a YouTube video that featured inaccurate allegations against the Jobbik party. While the Supreme Court found that the website was at fault, the ECHR stated “…objective liability for using a hyperlink could undermine the flow of information on the Internet, dissuading article authors and publishers from using such links if they could not control the information they led to. That could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression on the Internet.”
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices, primarily in print and broadcast media. Mertek Media Monitor and other independent organizations estimated that KESMA controlled between 80 and 90 percent of the country’s media outlets. An August 2018 report by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom and commissioned by the European Commission concluded that KESMA “poses a risk to the diversity of the Hungarian press, as one type of editorial position characterizes a large number of outlets.” The reports also found that some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, the government “…avoids censorship, force, or outright intimidation of journalists, and instead… resorts to tools designed to co-opt the media.” These tools include “legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones.”
The new media law that entered into force on August 1 allows individual broadcasters to operate an unlimited number of radio stations in the same city. The law provides that radio frequencies will be awarded for 10 instead of seven years and that licenses be extendable without a bid for an additional seven years, as opposed to the earlier five. According to independent analysts, these changes further consolidate media, benefiting progovernment outlets and hindering media independence. Independent and opposition media were often excluded from government-organized events and press conferences.
The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating the media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties.
The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Opposition politicians complained that they rarely were able to appear on state-run broadcasts and noted that state media outlets underreported large antigovernment protests that took place in Budapest in December 2018.
Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists or media as the “Soros media” or “foreign agents.” At the end of November 2018, an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information for using publicly available information in an article on a person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. On September 4, another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.
The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by the public media. A former reporter at the M1 public news station stated in an August interview that public broadcaster reporters were informally instructed by their superiors to interview only government-friendly public figures and to portray the political opposition as ridiculous.
The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.
As of September 1, the Media Council had issued 101 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, imposing fines totaling nearly 28.4 million forints ($94,600) on 68 media service providers. The most common citations were for unlawful advertising methods, breaching broadcasting regulations, and violating the dignity of a person or group. In a prominent case, the Media Council concluded in July that a government-friendly commercial television station had violated the obligation to provide balanced reporting in a segment shown in September 2018. The Media Council made that decision only after being compelled to do so by two binding court rulings and imposed no fine. Instead, the station was instructed either to make the Media Council resolution public or allow the plaintiff, an opposition member of the European Parliament, to present his views in the same program.
Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.
Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters. In a milestone ruling in July, the Constitutional Court rejected the complaint of a high-profile informal advisor to the prime minister, who had sued an independent news website for publishing compromising photographs taken during his vacation, which he alleged violated his privacy rights. The Constitutional Court ruled that the advisor was a public figure and declared that “without the freedom and diversity of public debate there is no free public opinion and there is no rule of law.” In another prominent case, the Supreme Court ruled in January that a pundit working for a government-affiliated outlet had to apologize and pay 300,000 forints ($1,000) in compensation to an opposition politician for calling him a degrading name in public.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the Internet and generally did not censor online content. There were no substantiated reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
In cooperation with Internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation. The system also blocked websites suspected of violating such laws, based on preliminary court rulings.
A 2017 amendment to the higher education law regarding the operation of foreign universities introduces a provision requiring universities from non-EU countries operating in the country to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the other country of accreditation, and ensure that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. Three U.S.-accredited universities active in the country were found to violate the new requirements: Central European University (CEU), McDaniel College, and Boston University. Boston University decided to leave based on the new requirements.
In 2017 the Venice Commission issued a legal opinion that called on the government to exempt foreign universities already operating in the country from the obligation to provide education in their country of origin and challenged other provisions of the law. The European Commission referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), arguing that the higher education amendment violates EU rules on the freedom of education and enterprise, provision of services, and scientific activity. The first hearing before the ECJ took place in June. Opposition members of parliament also filed a suit challenging aspects of the law in the Constitutional Court, which postponed its review of the legislation to wait for the ECJ to rule.
In 2018 the CEU established a presence at Bard College in New York, and the Hungarian government and the State of New York negotiated the required intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the agreement that would allow it to stay in the country. In December 2018 CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna. In July, CEU was accredited as an Austrian private university under the name of Central European University, and in November it officially opened its campus in Vienna.
On July 2, parliament passed a law that effectively gives the government control over the funding of 15 research institutes. Under the new law, the institutions, which until then had been funded and managed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, were to be brought under a new government-run entity. The changes, which took effect in September, give the government influence over two-thirds of the nation’s research institutions’ budget and gives the prime minister the final say over personnel decisions for the governing board of the new entity. On July 17, the Conferences of Rectors of Germany, Austria, and Poland criticized the law as infringing upon the principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, with some exceptions.
The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right of assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the dignity of the nation or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.
The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
The European Commission brought an infringement procedure challenge in the ECJ against the law requiring NGOs that receive more than 7.2 million forints ($24,000) per year from abroad to register as foreign-funded organizations; as of August the challenge remained pending. The Commission asserted the law unduly interferes with freedom of association (see section 5).
In late 2017 the Fidesz-dominated city assembly of Pecs called on local residents, businesses, and organizations not to rent or provide any space to the NGO With the Strength of Humanity, which received a grant of approximately $490,000 from the Open Society Foundations to support community building in the region. The NGO sued the city mayor for libel but lost the case in a 2018 trial court ruling. In May the appeals court ordered the municipality to pay a fine but did not condemn the mayor for his public statements.
A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. On April 15, an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights they had before 2011.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the European Commission criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Specifically, these organizations reported that migrants and asylum seekers were pushed back to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia. In September 2018 the CPT published a report on the treatment and conditions of detention of foreigners in transit zones at the border and other establishments with irregular migrants, based on its 2017 visit to the country. The report noted that many detainees alleged police officers had physically mistreated them during their “push-back” to Serbia, and several displayed recent traumatic injuries as a result of alleged police mistreatment.
During the year domestic and international human rights organizations reported receiving fewer complaints of excessive use of police force and abuse against refugees and migrants, as the number of asylum seekers decreased from previous years. Human rights organizations asserted, however, that in most cases, the government did not take formal action against alleged police perpetrators and noted that few victims were willing to lodge formal complaints.
Refoulement: On May 8, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi issued a statement calling the forced expulsion of two Afghan asylum-seeking families from the country deeply shocking and a flagrant violation of international and EU law.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for persons in the country to apply for it, but often authorities afforded little or no opportunity to apply. In 2017 and 2018, asylum and border management laws underwent significant legal modifications that limited access to the country’s territory and asylum procedures and deterred asylum seekers from applying for protection. Police are allowed to push back to the Serbian side of the border any migrants who cannot prove their right to stay in the country, regardless of whether or not they entered the country from Serbia. According to UNHCR observations published in November 2018, these legislative amendments failed to draw the necessary distinction between the situation of refugees and asylum seekers and that of other aliens.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government issued lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. In 2018 parliament modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in Hungary directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk. Since asylum applications can only be filed in either of the two transit zones at the Hungary-Serbia border, anyone who wants to submit an asylum claim can do so only by entering a transit zone from Serbia. Because Hungary considers Serbia as a safe third country, the new inadmissibility provision triggered the automatic rejection of any asylum claim. Since the new rules entered into force in 2018, NGOs were aware of only three positive decisions concerning asylum applications filed after July 2018 by asylum seekers passing through Serbia. The immigration authority declared all other applications inadmissible.
Freedom of Movement: The asylum law requires mandatory placement of all asylum seekers other than unaccompanied minors younger than 14 in two guarded transit zones (Roszke and Tompa) on the Serbia-Hungary border, which they may leave only by entering Serbia. If the asylum seekers leave the zones, they forfeit their asylum claims.
The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers for a maximum of 12 months (30 days in cases of families with children). Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers. Since July 2018 rejected asylum seekers were placed under alien policing procedure (no longer the asylum procedure), and the designated compulsory place of stay was the transit zone.
In April 2018 the ECHR’s Grand Chamber heard the case of two Bangladeshi asylum seekers, Ilias and Ali Ahmed, who in 2015 filed a lawsuit against the government seeking their release from a transit zone and a stay of their deportation to Serbia. The chamber found the applicants’ confinement in the Roszke border zone violated their rights because it had amounted to detention without formal, reasoned decision and without appropriate judicial review. The chamber also found their deportation to Serbia was unlawful. Authorities kept the men in the transit zone for more than three weeks before sending them back to Serbia. Following the government’s appeal, the chamber on November 21 ruled that Hungary had violated the ECHR prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment by expelling them without assessing the risks of not having proper access to asylum procedures in Serbia or being subjected to chain refoulement, but that their stay in the transit zone was not deprivation of liberty because they had entered it on their own initiative and in practice were able to return to Serbia.
Access to Basic Services: Services for persons under an alien policing procedure included only basic health care but not the provision of food, with the exception of children younger than 18 and pregnant or nursing mothers. As of August 1, the immigration authority had declined in a total of 17 cases to provide food to 27 individuals detained in the transit zones after August 2018. In each case the Hungarian Helsinki Committee successfully requested interim measures from the ECHR ordering Hungarian authorities to immediately start providing food to the individuals concerned. On July 25, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against the country for the nonprovision of food to persons awaiting deportation who were detained in a transit zone.
In 2016 parliament amended the law to reduce benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than Hungarian citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The two transit zones for asylum seekers provided clothes, soap, meals, water, and shelter. Charities provided some educational and social activities in English or Hungarian as well as supplemental nutrition for children. The government also provided basic medical assistance on site. The authorities hired a psychologist and a psychiatrist who visited the transit zones once per week for four hours per zone. Officials denied transit zone access to certain NGOs and a UNHCR contractor, which prevented several asylum seekers arriving to Hungary from war-affected countries who had previously suffered torture and posttraumatic stress disorder from receiving specialized care.
The government provided UNHCR and the International Federation of the Red Cross access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in the alien policing sectors in the transit zones. A few domestic charities were allowed access to the transit zones; attorneys contracted by an NGO were allowed access only when asylum seekers specifically requested their assistance.
On October 8, the ECHR ruled that refusing a journalist access to a reception center for asylum seekers in order to report on living conditions there was a violation of freedom of expression and may discourage the sharing of accurate information that is in the public interest, particularly regarding the situation of vulnerable groups. The case involved a local journalist who requested access to the Debrecen Reception Center to conduct interviews but was rejected on the grounds that press coverage would interfere with the private lives of persons accommodated there.
On July 17, after an official visit to the Hungary-Serbia border, UN Rapporteur Felipe Gonzalez Morales described prison-like conditions in the transit zones, with asylum seekers chained to hospital beds. Morales stated general hygiene conditions were acceptable but that medical care was insufficient. He added that doctors were available for only a couple of hours a day, and there were no gynecologists or pediatricians, even though the majority of asylum seekers were women and children. Interpreters were scarce and communication with doctors could be difficult.
On July 25, the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations (see section 2.b.).
Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections were allowed. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states. Domestic media reported at the beginning of the year that since 2018, the country had admitted approximately 300 individuals with Hungarian ancestry from Venezuela under a special government program involving a local charity that is different from the standard asylum procedures.
Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.
On July 29, the ECJ ruled that judges may grant international protection status to asylum seekers if an administrative body has overruled their decision without establishing new elements in the case. A 2015 regulation had stripped the courts of the right to overrule immigration authorities on asylum applications.
Israel, West Bank, and Gaza
Read A Section: Israel
West Bank and Gaza →
Israel is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Although it has no constitution, parliament, the unicameral 120-member Knesset, has enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights. Certain fundamental laws, orders, and regulations legally depend on the existence of a “state of emergency,” which has been in effect since 1948. Under the Basic Laws, the Knesset has the power to dissolve the government and mandate elections. Following the nationwide Knesset elections in April and September, which were generally considered free and fair, Israeli political parties failed to form a coalition government. Therefore, the Knesset voted on December 11 to dissolve itself and set March 2, 2020, as the date for a third general election within a year.
Under the authority of the prime minister, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) combats terrorism and espionage in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The national police, including the border police and the immigration police, are under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities and reports to the Ministry of Defense. ISA forces operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem fall under the IDF for operations and operational debriefing. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security services.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including targeted killings of Israeli civilians and soldiers; arbitrary detention; restrictions on non-Israelis residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses within Israel regardless of rank or seniority.
This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority exercises no authority over Jerusalem.
As stated in Appendix A, this report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses; academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases. We have sought and received input from the government of Israel and we have noted responses where applicable.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law generally provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
The law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the “anti-boycott” legislation. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits.
In 2017 the Knesset passed an amendment barring entry to the country of visitors who called for boycotts, and in January 2018 the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry to Israel. The government also used this law to deport Human Rights Watch director of Israel and Palestine Omar Shakir (see section 5).
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender.
The maximum penalty for desecrating the Israeli flag is three years in prison and a fine of 58,400 shekels ($16,900).
In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.
A 2018 law “prohibit[s] individuals or organizations that are not part of the education system from engaging in activities within an educational institution when the nature of the activity undermines the goals of state education.” Both supporters and opponents of the bill said it targeted the NGO Breaking the Silence, which described its activities as collecting and publishing “the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories in order to generate public discourse on the reality of the occupation, with the aim of bringing it to an end.” Breaking the Silence criticized the law as a violation of freedom of political expression. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law.
Security officials prohibited groups affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or Palestinian Authority (PA) from meeting in Jerusalem based on a 1995 law banning the PA from engaging in political, diplomatic, security, or security-related activities in Israel, including Jerusalem.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.
In October 2018 police issued a new regulation regarding the work of journalists in areas experiencing clashes, which authorities claimed balanced freedom of the press and security requirements. According to the Seventh Eye media watchdog group, the regulation grants police broad authorities to prevent journalists’ access to public incidents involving violence (i.e., riots, demonstrations, protests) if there exists a concern that the entry of journalists would lead to “special circumstances,” such as injury or the loss of life, further violence, disrupting investigative procedures, serious violation of privacy, or violation of a closure order. According to the regulation, however, police must also consider alternatives to minimize the violation of press freedom, for instance by escorting journalists in and out of dangerous situations.
Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. According to a January 23 Foreign Press Association statement, “Arab journalists [are] needlessly hassled by Israeli security in what we believe is clear ethnic profiling.” This included reports of alleged harassment by Israeli soldiers and acts of violence against Palestinian and Arab-Israeli journalists that prevented them from covering news stories. According to the Journalists Support Committee, 26 Palestinian journalists were detained in Israeli prisons as of August. In April the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement criticizing the government for holding Palestinian journalists in its jails, noting “Israel’s use of administrative detention to hold journalists without charge runs completely contrary to its professed values of democracy and rule of law.”
The Ministry of Interior sought to deport stateless photojournalist Mustafa al-Haruf from East Jerusalem to Jordan, after he was unable to obtain residency status in Jerusalem, and held him in administrative detention between January and October. In March the Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to either clarify the reasons for al-Haruf’s detention and deportation order or release him immediately. After Jordan refused to accept al-Haruf, on October 24, a court reviewing border-control decisions released him, due to the Ministry of Interior’s inability to deport him. The court ordered al-Haruf to regularize his status by February 12, 2020. While the government classified the reasons for the denial of al-Haruf’s status for security reasons, in an appeal of his deportation a Supreme Court justice stated al-Haruf “crossed the line between his journalistic work and assisting terrorist organizations” but also mentioned “reports that are not sympathetic to the State of Israel,” according to +972 Magazine.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters criticized journalists, media channels, and media owners for reporting on investigations into a series of allegations (see section 4) involving the prime minister, for which the attorney general decided to indict him. In January the Likud Party published billboards with photographs of four journalists saying, “they will not decide,” according to media reports. Following attacks in media and social media by the prime minister and his son, Yair Netanyahu, against Channel 12 News legal correspondent Guy Peleg, who covered the Netanyahu investigations, Peleg received a series of threats on WhatsApp and social media, which led the channel to provide him with a private security guard on August 30. On August 31, Netanyahu criticized the heads of Channel 12 News for their coverage of his office, called for a boycott of the channel, and said they were carrying out a “terror attack against democracy,” while treating rival political parties more gently than Likud. Netanyahu argued that he was working to increase competition in the domestic television market.
On October 26, a group of ultra-Orthodox men physically attacked an Israel Hayom reporter near Haifa. The attackers severely assaulted the journalist, breaking his nose and resulting in a concussion. The attackers called him a “traitor” and a “leftist” after confirming he was a journalist. On October 31, police arrested a suspect in the attack, and the investigation of the case was pending as of December.
On September 2, the state attorney issued a directive instructing prosecutors to consider requesting increased sentences of three to five years’ imprisonment for violent offenses committed against journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment.
News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations and required foreign correspondents, as well as local media, to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces through a Freedom of Information Act request by +972 Magazine, in 2018 the censor intervened in 2,721 articles of 10,938 submitted to it and banned 363 articles.
While the government retained the authority to censor the printing of publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” In 2018 the Knesset amended the law to authorize restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.” The government issued 53 indictments and courts convicted 39 persons under the law during the year. On May 16, the Nazareth District Court partially accepted the appeal of Dareen Tatour, who was convicted by the local magistrate’s court due to poems, pictures, and other media content she posted online in 2015. The court reversed lower court verdicts on charges of “incitement to violence” and “support of a terrorist organization” related to her poetry, but it upheld convictions related to her other publications. The ruling stated that when examining freedom of expression, the fact that Tatour’s words were part of an artistic piece had to be taken into consideration.
The government monitored electronic communications for security purposes. The law authorizes district court judges to restrict access to internet sites to prevent the commission of crimes. The end-of-year report for 2018 by the state attorney’s Cyber Unit stated that requests to digital services companies to remove content based on its assessment that the content is illegal under the law led to the removal of 13,140 online postings, compared with 10,500 in 2017. According to the report, 80 percent of the requests were due to offenses related to a terror organization, and 19 percent were due to incitement offenses. On November 26, Adalah and ACRI petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the Ministry of Justice’s Cyber Unit process of requesting that digital services companies voluntarily remove contents prior to a formal legal review, arguing these requests infringe on the rights of freedom of expression and due process. The state prosecution argued the Cyber Unit approached companies only after investigative authorities identified the contents as violating the law. On August 19, a district court judge rejected a request by ACRI to review the 1,700 websites for transparency purposes, arguing that a publication of domains would contradict the reason for their removal.
The “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
On July 25, the Supreme Court issued an injunction demanding that Science and Technology minister Ofir Akunis explain why he blocked the appointment of an Israeli professor to an official Israeli-German scientific committee. In 2018 Akunis had claimed he blocked the appointment because years earlier the professor had signed a petition by faculty members in universities, expressing “support and appreciation to the students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories.”
On November 7, following a demand from Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev, the mayor of Ma’alot-Tarshiha decided not to show the documentary film Advocate, about attorney Lea Tsemel’s defense of Palestinian prisoners, in the city’s cultural center as a part of a DocAviv film festival. Following a letter from ACRI arguing the decision was illegal, the deputy attorney general informed the mayor he had no authority to cancel the showing of a film. In protest DocAviv presented the film in a nearby Kibbutz and outside the Ma’alot-Tarshiha cultural center. In June, after the film was selected as the winning film in the DocAviv Documentary Film Festival, Mifal Hapayis (the country’s state lottery), announced it would stop funding the award for the winning film in the festival but later retracted its announcement.
The government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and Orient House, which had been the de facto PLO office. The government renewed a military closure order for these and other institutions on the grounds they violated the Oslo Accords by conducting political activities or otherwise operating on behalf of the PA in Jerusalem. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem due to PA participation or support. According to Haaretz, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan approved 10 such orders during the year.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
There were reports that police used excessive force in response to protests by certain groups, including members of the ultra-Orthodox community, Arab citizens and residents, Israelis of Ethiopian origin, and persons with disabilities. For example, on May 23, military police officers reportedly forced to the floor an autistic boy at an ultra-Orthodox demonstration. According to police, the boy allegedly hit a police officer prior to the incident.
In June authorities implemented a new procedure granting police the ability to impose conditions on outdoor gatherings of 50 or more persons. NGOs expressed concern that this restriction was a violation of freedom of expression and assembly and criticized police for creating obstacles to free speech and assembly in cases where demonstration permits were not required. On August 14, police arrested seven activists who protested against the killing of an Ethiopian-Israeli by a police officer (see section 6), and on August 16, authorities arrested an additional nine anticorruption activists, arguing they violated the new conditions.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
The law prohibits registration of an association or a party if its goals include denial of the existence of the State of Israel or of the democratic character of the state.
The law requires NGOs receiving more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments to state this fact in their official publications, applications to attend Knesset meetings, websites, public campaigns, and any communication with the public. The law allows a fine of 29,200 shekels ($8,400) for NGOs that violate these rules. As of October the government had not taken legal action against any NGO for failing to comply with the law.
Local NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights problems and critical of the government, asserted the government sought to intimidate them and prevent them from receiving foreign government funding (see section 5).
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 for citizens.
In-country Movement: The security barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on residents who were patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted movement within these neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, or public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
Foreign Travel: Citizens generally were free to travel abroad provided they had no outstanding military obligations and no administrative restrictions. The government may bar citizens from leaving the country based on security considerations, due to unpaid debts, or in cases in which a Jewish man refuses to grant his wife a Jewish legal writ of divorce. Authorities do not permit any citizen to travel to any state officially at war with Israel without government permission. This restriction includes travel to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.
The government requires all citizens to have a special permit to enter Area A in the West Bank (the area, according to the Interim Agreement, in which the PA exercises civil and security responsibility), but the government allowed Arab citizens of Israel access to Area A without permits. The government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. Some non-Israeli citizens who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status, but the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintain an “affinity to Israel” will not be revoked and that former residents who wish to return to Israel may receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Non-Israeli citizens possessing Jerusalem identity cards issued by the Israeli government needed special documents to travel abroad.
Exile: In 2018 the Knesset passed an amendment to the Entry Into Israel Law granting the minister of interior authority to revoke the permanent resident status of individuals who have committed acts that constitute “breach of trust” or terrorism. On August 22, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri revoked the residency of two East Jerusalemites who were convicted of being involved in terrorist attacks and sentenced to life in prison, based on the amendment. HaMoked appealed against the law and one of the revocations, and the case continued at year’s end.
Citizenship: The law allows revocation of citizenship of a person on grounds of “breach of trust to the State of Israel” or following a conviction for an act of terror.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Communities with large concentrations of African migrants were occasionally targets of violence. Additionally, the nature of government policies on the legality of work forced many refugees to work in “unofficial” positions, making them more susceptible to poor treatment and questionable work practices by their employers. According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) inspectors used violence against imprisoned migrants during their deportation during the year. According to Hotline, PIBA, unlike police or the IPS, did not have an external body to which migrants could file complaints if subjected to violence.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, except as noted below.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement.
As of September 30, there were 32,090 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom 29,141 were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to PIBA.
In October 2018 PIBA announced the government ended a policy that provided temporary protection for citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and requested those without a visa to depart the country by January 5. The Supreme Court issued an injunction in December 2018 temporarily halting the deportation following a petition by NGOs. On March 7, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri halted the deportation based on a recommendation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs due to “recent developments in the DRC.” According to PIBA, there were 311 asylum seekers from the DRC in the country in 2018.
The government offered irregular migrants incentives to “depart” the country to an unspecified third country in Africa, sometimes including a $3,500 stipend (paid in U.S. dollars). The government claimed the third-country government provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel. The government provided most returnees with paid tickets, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived at the destination did not receive residency or employment rights. From January 1 until September 30, 2,024 irregular migrants departed the country under pressure, compared with 2,677 in 2018. NGO advocates for irregular migrants claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement.
In February 2018 an administrative appeals tribunal ruled that an Eritrean asylum seeker had a well-founded fear of persecution after he fled military conscription in his home country and that PIBA should not have rejected his asylum application arbitrarily. The Ministry of Interior appealed the ruling to a district court and then requested to reexamine the individual’s request for asylum, but the judge refused. The case continued at year’s end.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it rarely did so. In 2008 authorities began giving the majority of asylum seekers a “conditional release visa” that requires frequent renewal. Only two Ministry of the Interior offices in the country, located in Bnei Brak and Eilat, renew such visas. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and informal access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that the policies and legislation adopted in 2011 were aimed at deterring future asylum seekers by making life difficult for those already in the country and that these actions further curtailed the rights of this population and encouraged its departure.
Refugee status determination recognition rates remained extremely low. From 2009 to 2017, the government approved only 52 of 55,433 asylum requests, according to a 2018 report from the State Comptroller’s Office. Of these, 13 were for Eritrean citizens and one was for a Sudanese citizen. The government approved six asylum requests during the year. As of May there were 15,000 asylum applications awaiting examination, according to a government response to a Supreme Court petition.
Irregular migrants subject to deportation, including those claiming but unable to prove citizenship of countries included in Israel’s nonrefoulement policy, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. In 2018 at year’s end, there were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention.
On January 2, PIBA stopped examining asylum requests of Eritrean citizens following a request by the attorney general in order to reevaluate the criteria for approving asylum requests. In July the government announced it would reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down, based on new criteria that require asylum seekers to prove they would be persecuted if returned home and they did not flee to avoid compulsory military service. On July 9, the government informed the Supreme Court that it stopped examining asylum claims of Sudanese citizens from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile due to the “dynamic political situation in Sudan.” On July 28, the Supreme Court overturned the revocation of residency permits of three asylum seekers.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex Palestinians were able to obtain a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), but without authorization to work. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis.
The government did not accept initial asylum claims at its airports.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: In 2017 PIBA announced a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants whose country of citizenship the Ministry of the Interior determined was safe for return and began applying it to Georgian and Ukrainian applicants.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from the closed the Holot detention facility and Saharonim Prison from residing in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak–cities that already had a high concentration of asylum seekers.
Employment: On July 9, the government informed the Supreme Court that it would remove text from the visas of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers stipulating “this is not a work visa,” a restriction that had not been enforced since 2011 due to a government commitment to the Supreme Court. The government also stated it would grant work permits to 300 asylum seekers from Sudan. According to NGOs, these steps did not change the asylum seekers’ ability to work. According to UNHCR, beginning in October asylum seekers from countries not listed under Israel’s nonrefoulement policy were restricted from working for three to six months after submitting their requests if they did not have a visa before applying. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers are included as “foreign workers,” a category prohibited by Finance Ministry regulations from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.
The law requires employers to deduct 20 percent of irregular migrants’ salaries for deposit in a special fund and adds another 16 percent from the employer’s funds. Some vulnerable populations, including individuals recognized as human trafficking victims, are eligible for a reduced rate of 6 percent, but many of them either still paid the full deduction or did not receive reimbursements for previously paying the full deduction, according to PHRI and UNHCR. On December 8, PIBA announced all recognized victims of trafficking would receive retroactive reimbursements and would pay a deposit of 6 percent without having to declare their status to their employers. Employees can access the funds only upon departure from the country, and the government may deduct a penalty for each day that the employee is in the country without a visa.
NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Hotline for Refugees and Migrants criticized the law for pushing vulnerable workers’ already low incomes below minimum wage, leading employers and employees to judge it to be more profitable to work on the black market, increasing migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking and prostitution. According to government officials and NGOs, some Eritrean women entered prostitution or survival sex arrangements in which a woman lives with several men and receives shelter in exchange for sex. The NGO Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) reported significant increases in homelessness, mental health concerns, and requests for food assistance following implementation of the law. In a June 26 response to a NGO coalition petition against the law to the Supreme Court, the government stated that only 68 asylum seekers received the full amount deducted from their salaries in their deposits, and no money was deposited for 45 percent of the migrants to which the law applied, despite deductions having been taken from their salaries, according to Haaretz. The petition was pending at year’s end.
The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits the amount they may take with them when they leave to the minimum wage for the number of months they resided in the country, and defines taking money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.
Access to Basic Services: The few legally recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government for the most part did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits. Asylum seekers who were either unemployed or whose employers did not arrange a private insurance policy for them as required by law had access only to emergency care, either in emergency rooms or in one refugee clinic in south Tel Aviv. The establishment of three additional refugee clinics throughout the country was postponed. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($35) per month, but in September 2018 it began excluding children of undocumented migrants from this program. The ministry stated an interministerial team was assessing this change in response to a Supreme Court petition. The government sponsored a mobile clinic and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay, according to PHRI. Until September the Ministry of Health funded one provider of mental health services for approximately 700 irregular migrants that in the past year was unable to accept new patients due to budget and staffing shortages. On December 9, the Ministry of Welfare stated that local authorities must treat asylum seekers of three groups–women who suffered from domestic violence, persons with disabilities, and the homeless–pending the regularization of insurance issues with the Ministry of Health, which did not take place by year’s end. Asylum seekers who were recognized as victims of trafficking were eligible for rehabilitation and care. The same eligibilities did not apply for victims of torture.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees, or who may not qualify as refugees–primarily to Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants, as described above.
Despite being eligible for Israeli citizenship since 1981, an estimated 23,000 Druze living in territory captured from Syria in 1967 largely refused to accept it, and their status as Syrian citizens was unclear. They held Israeli identification cards, which listed their nationality as “undefined.”
In 2017 media reported the Ministry of Interior had retroactively canceled the citizenship of 2,600 Bedouin citizens, alleging that a “registration error” had mistakenly granted citizenship to their ancestors between 1948 and 1951. Cancellation of their citizenship left these individuals stateless.
Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. In the parliamentary elections held on October 13, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party retained its majority in the Sejm but lost its majority in the Senate. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted elections observation. Finding there was overall confidence in the election administration, it admitted polls occurred amid “deep political polarization” and stated that “media bias and intolerant rhetoric in the campaign were of significant concern.”
The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency (ABW) has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the head and deputy heads of the CBA and ABW, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.
The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature and the public promotion of fascist, communist, or other totalitarian systems, and intentional offense of religious feelings.
Violence and Harassment: On February 14, the Katowice regional prosecutor’s office discontinued its investigation into Piotr Wacowski, a cameraman for private television news channel TVN, who was suspected of propagating fascism. The case was related to an investigative report by the journalist showing members of the Pride and Modernity Association dressed in Nazi uniforms and celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 2017. The prosecutor’s office stated it could find no evidence Wacowski had committed a crime.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. Nevertheless, laws regulating broadcasting and media prohibit, under penalty of fines, license revocation, or other authorized sanctions, the promotion of activities endangering health or safety, or the promotion of views contrary to law, morality, or the common good. The law also requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.”
Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense and includes publicly insulting or slandering the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, and other state symbols. Defamation outside the media is punishable by a fine and community service. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation generally faced only fines or imprisonment of less than one year. The maximum sentence for insulting the president is three years’ imprisonment.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Association of Polish Journalists reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the association, however, the criminal defamation law may have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, since local authorities may use the law against journalists. Media owners, particularly of small local independent newspapers, were aware that potentially large fines could threaten the financial survival of their publications. According to Ministry of Justice statistics for 2018, the most recent data available, courts convicted one person of insulting the president and three persons for insulting constitutional organs of the government. In 2018 the courts fined two persons for public defamation through media using the public prosecution procedure, when a private person presses criminal charges against another person. In 2018 there were 116 convictions for criminal defamation through media using the private prosecution procedure.
On November 26, the Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office discontinued its prosecutorial investigation into a historian, stemming from a 2015 newspaper interview where the historian alleged that Poles killed more Jews than Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II. The Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office stated it was not its role to settle issues of an historical nature.
On February 12, the Lodz District Court fined investigative reporter Wojciech Biedron 3,000 zloty ($762) on charges of public insult of a judge for inaccurately reporting that a court had initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge. Several journalists criticized the judgment as overly harsh and disproportionate to the offense.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications or email without appropriate legal authority. The 2016 antiterrorism law authorizes the ABW to block websites without a prior court order in cases relating to combating, preventing, and prosecuting terrorist crimes; shut down telecommunications networks when there is a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals for up to three months without a court order. During the year there were no reports by media or NGO sources that the ABW blocked websites.
The law against defamation applies to the internet as well.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
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. The 2015 antiterrorism law permits restrictions on public assemblies in situations of elevated terrorist threats. During the year there were no cases of the prohibition of a public assembly due to an elevated terrorist threat.
In December the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office decided to discontinue its investigation into an attack on counterdemonstrators during the November 2017 Independence March. The office stated that continuing the case was not in the public interest and that it was unable to identify the perpetrators of the attack. On February 13, the Warsaw Regional Court struck down an earlier decision by the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office to discontinue the investigation and ordered the office to reopen the case. The Prosecutor’s Office had previously asserted the attackers’ intention was to show dissatisfaction and not to physically harm the 14 counterdemonstrators they confronted.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
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. In addition to guarded centers for foreigners, the government operated 11 open centers for asylum seekers with an aggregate capacity of approximately 2,000 persons in the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lublin areas.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Some incidents of gender-based violence in the centers for asylum seekers occurred, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these cases. UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in the centers.
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.
On April 17, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Warsaw-based NGO, published a report criticizing the government for restricting access to the asylum procedure. The report covered the situation on the country’s eastern border between 2015 and 2019 and stated the Border Guard at times arbitrarily refused the right to submit an application for international protection at border crossing stations.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The EU’s Dublin III Regulation, to which the country is subject, recognizes all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. The regulation also authorizes the governments of EU member states to return asylum seekers to the countries where they first entered the EU. The law permits denial of refugee status based on safe country of origin or safe country of transit but includes provisions that allow authorities to consider the protection needs of individuals in exceptional cases.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities placed some asylum seekers in guarded centers for foreigners while they awaited deportation or decisions on their asylum applications. Border guards may place an individual in a guarded center only by court order. The law prohibits the placement of unaccompanied minors younger than 15 in guarded centers. Border guards typically sought to confine foreigners who attempted to cross the border illegally, lacked identity documents, or committed a crime during their stay in the country.
Employment: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months of the asylum procedure. If the asylum procedure lasts longer than six months, they may work until the asylum decision is final.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers faced language and cultural barriers and had limited access to higher education. Children in centers for asylum seekers had free access to public education, but those placed with relatives in guarded centers for foreigners did not.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees.
The law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality. The UNHCR report noted, however, that the government’s lack of a formal procedure of identifying stateless persons led to protection gaps and exposed stateless persons to many negative consequences, including detention.
The UNHCR report noted several problems resulting from stateless status, including the inability to undertake legal employment or to access social welfare and health care. Stateless persons often lack identity documents, which limits their ability to perform many legal actions, such as opening a bank account or entering into a marriage. According to UNHCR, such problems made this group particularly vulnerable to poverty and marginalization.
The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2016 State Duma elections and the 2018 presidential election were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The FSB is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the FSB Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally reported to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities, however, had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russia-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; coerced abortion and sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, LGBTI persons, and members of ethnic minorities.
The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of December the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,003 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 450 items from 2018. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,200 extremism cases in 2018, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
At the same time, in December 2018, President Putin signed legislation that partially decriminalized the expression of “extremist” views, stipulating that speech that “incited hatred or enmity” or denigrated a person or group be treated as an administrative misdemeanor, not a crime, for a first-time offense. Several persons were previously charged with extremism under criminal law for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. Following the amendment to the antiextremist legislation, however, courts dropped charges against some of the defendants. On January 15, for example, authorities dropped charges against Eduard Nikitin, a doctor in the Khabarovsk region who faced up to five years in prison on extremism charges. He was accused of “liking” an image condemning the country’s aggression in eastern Ukraine posted on the Odnoklassniki social network in 2015.
Although the amendment was expected to have a retroactive effect, not all individuals imprisoned on extremism charges saw charges dropped or sentences commuted. For example, on August 28, a court in the Belgorod region denied a request for parole from 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze. In February 2018, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced him to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on October 28, the Moscow branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an administrative case for suspected “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” against the producers and participants of a YouTube video in which children interviewed a gay man, Maksim Pankratov, about his life. The video contained no discussion of sex, but included questions on Pankratov’s sexual orientation, how he would like other individuals to treat him, and his vision for his life in the future. On November 2, the Moscow Region Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation into the video’s producers and participants on suspicion of “violent sexual assault of a minor” younger than age 14, a crime punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison. According to press reports, the parents of the children in the video have experienced pressure from authorities to testify against the video’s producers and received visits from child protective services, which they interpreted as a threat to terminate their parental rights. Pankratov reported receiving threats of physical violence from unknown persons following the opening of the criminal case. As of December Pankratov was in hiding in an undisclosed location in Russia, while the video’s producer, popular online celebrity Victoria Pich, had fled the country.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, on September 30, a court in Irkutsk sentenced Dmitriy Litvin to 100 hours of community service for social media postings in 2015 of caricatures that allegedly offended the feelings of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and shamanists.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” For example, on April 5, the Investigative Committee for the Chuvash Republic opened a criminal case against opposition blogger Konstantin Ishutov for material he had posted on social media in 2010 criticizing authorities’ poor maintenance of local cemeteries and contrasting it with the maintenance of cemeteries in Germany. Investigators claimed this material attempted to justify the actions of Nazis during World War II and diminish the significance of the Soviet victory. Ishutov was charged under the same statute in 2018 for posting a photo of a Nazi leaflet with the phrase, “When the Third Reich treats the Soviet people better than Putin treats the Russian people.” As he awaited trial, a court prohibited Ishutov from using the internet, traveling, or leaving his home after 10 p.m. On November 8, the Supreme Court of the Chuvash Republic started reviewing Ishutov’s case. On December 18, the Chuvash Supreme Court found Ishutov guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism” and other charges. He faces up to seven years in prison.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On July 30, a district court in St. Petersburg sentenced Fyodor Belov to five days’ administrative arrest for publicly displaying a tattoo of a swastika.
On March 18, a new law entered into force that stipulated fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, in the first six months after the law’s entry into force, authorities opened 45 cases, 26 of which dealt with insults against President Putin. For example, on April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined unemployed machinist Yuriy Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles ($471) for posting insulting comments about President Putin on social media.
On March 18, a new law, commonly characterized as a ban on “creating and spreading fake news,” also came into force. It prohibits “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and/or health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and/or public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” The fine for violating the law is up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for individuals, up to 200,000 rubles ($3,140) for officials, and up to 500,000 rubles ($7,850) for legal entities. In the event of repeated violations or violations with grave consequences, fines may go up to 1.5 million rubles ($23,600).
The law on “fake news” was applied multiple times during the year. For example, on July 29, a court in Nazran, Ingushetia, fined Murad Daskiyev, the head of the Council of Clans of the Ingush People, 15,000 rubles ($236). According to the court, Daskiyev knowingly distributed false information indicating that the head of the Republic of Ingushetia was preparing to sign a border agreement with the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia. Daskiyev maintained that the information he published was true. According to free expression watchdogs, authorities were motivated by a desire to suppress this information, following a large protest movement that emerged in Ingushetia in late 2018 after it signed a border agreement ceding land to the Republic of Chechnya.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, on August 19, Roskomnadzor threatened to block access to independent media outlet Meduza unless it deleted an August 8 article debunking myths about drug use, which Roskomnadzor claimed promoted drug use. Meduza restricted access to the article for its users in the country.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of suicide” to prosecute or threaten to block independent media outlets. In August, Roskomnadzor issued three letters threatening to block access to the independent outlet Batenka, da vy Transformer unless it deleted several articles about the problem of suicide in the country. According to Roskomnadzor, the articles, which discussed the prevalence of and motivations behind suicide, promoted suicide. The outlet complied with the demands.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, on June 27, a court in the city of Saransk fined Idris Yusupov 6,000 rubles ($94) for organizing a screening of a film about Anastasiya Shevchenko, an activist under criminal prosecution for purported “cooperation” with the Open Russia movement, which had been declared an “undesirable foreign organization.” The court considered the film screening to be evidence of Yusupov’s own “cooperation” with Open Russia.
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which were permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through funding, either directly or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of December there were 10 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
On December 2, President Putin signed a law allowing authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this situation would further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual would also have to be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the new law range from 10,000 ($157) and five million rubles ($78,500).
On August 19, the State Duma created a commission to investigate alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. On September 27, the commission determined that German media outlet Deutsche Welle violated the law by reporting on unauthorized protests in Moscow and allegedly calling on individuals to take part in them. The commission urged the government to revoke Deutsche Welle’s license to operate in Russia, although as of December it continued to operate in the country. The commission also accused other foreign media outlets, such as Radio Liberty, BBC, Voice of America, and others, of violations during the “day of silence” that preceded the Moscow City Duma elections on September 8.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included three killings, 62 attacks, 169 detentions by law enforcement officers, 28 prosecutions, 30 threats, 14 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. According to press reports, on May 5, Sergey Zaytsev, head of the Shirinskiy region of the Republic of Khakasia, shoved and body-slammed Ivan Litoman, a journalist from the state Rossiya-24 television channel. Litoman was interviewing Zaitsev and had asked him about allegedly poor-quality housing provided to persons left homeless by the 2015 wildfires. On May 27, the local Investigative Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the incident.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, during protests in Moscow on July 27 and August 3, police threatened journalists, obstructed their work, damaged their equipment, and forcefully detained them. According to freedom of assembly monitor OVD-Info, 14 journalists were detained in Moscow on August 3 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists called these detentions, “a clear attempt to intimidate journalists and censor coverage.”
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes, such as drug possession, in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. In one such incident, on June 7, Moscow police detained investigative journalist Ivan Golunov and charged him with possessing and attempting to sell illegal drugs after purportedly finding amphetamines in his backpack. Following his arrest, officers reportedly beat Golunov and denied him access to his lawyer for 14 hours. Police also purportedly found drugs in Golunov’s apartment, which they searched following his arrest. Police posted nine photos of the alleged narcotics, but then took all but one of the photos down after evidence emerged indicating that the photos were taken in places other than Golunov’s apartment. Golunov and human rights advocates maintained that the drugs were planted on him in an attempt to imprison him in retaliation for his coverage of corruption, particularly in the funeral business. Following significant public outcry, police on July 11 dropped charges, released Golunov, and announced an investigation into the fabrication of charges against him. On December 19, during his annual year-end press conference, President Putin announced that five police officers who arrested Golunov were being investigated on felony charges. According to Meduza, the outlet for which Golunov worked, the investigation began on December 18.
There were reports of journalists being fired for their political views or unfavorable reporting about powerful political figures. For example, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on May 20, the leadership of the Moscow business daily Kommersant fired journalists Maxim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov for writing an article predicting that the influential speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, would soon be replaced. Eleven other journalists at the newspaper resigned in protest, and more than 200 others issued a joint statement warning that its readers would as of then be denied unbiased coverage. The newspaper denied that its owner, progovernment oligarch Alisher Usmanov, played a role in the decision, but sources that spoke to RSF and other media outlets indicated that Usmanov had made the decision. Human Rights Watch called the firing “the latest episode in the gutting” of the country’s independent media.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, on April 18, police raided the St. Petersburg office of the independent news website Rosbalt and seized several computers. According to the newspaper’s lawyer, the search was purportedly in connection with a libel allegation made by Usmanov, although the lawyer maintained that Rosbalt had not published anything about Usmanov. The newspaper’s editor noted that the computers seized were the ones used in a continuing investigation into a crime boss named Young Shakro. Police also searched the home of Rosbalt reporter Aleksandr Shvarev the same day.
There were reports of authorities using “tax inspections” that observers believed were intended to punish or pressure independent outlets. For example, on August 1, the editor of the independent media outlet Dozhd announced that it had received a notice of an unscheduled tax inspection, which she feared may have been in retaliation for the outlet’s extensive coverage of election-related protests in Moscow on July 27.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by unknown persons. On August 9, an unknown assailant in St. Petersburg attacked photojournalist Georgiy Markov, who specialized in photographing opposition protests. The assailant sprayed him with pepper spray and hit him on his head and chest. Law enforcement officials had detained Markov several times while he was photographing opposition protests, beating him at one in May.
There were reports of unidentified individuals or groups of individuals attacking the offices of independent media outlets. For example, on April 1, unknown persons ransacked the office of the newspaper Kommersant in Yekaterinburg, smashed the computers of the chief editor and accountant, took several hard drives, and left a message containing a death threat on the desk of the director of the newspaper. The journalists believed the attack was related to a book published with the participation of the newspaper’s staff about local criminal groups.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. For example, in late February a relative of Anatoliy Popov, the head of the Dobrovskiy region administration in Lipetsk oblast, threatened local journalist Dmitriy Pashinov over his critical reporting about Popov. On May 11, Pashinov was arrested and charged with “insulting a representative of the state” for allegedly cursing at a regional prosecutor in 2017, remarks Pashinov denied making.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, on September 24, Izvestiya published online but subsequently removed an article by military reporter Ilya Kramnik critical of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Within two days the newspaper removed Kramnik from its editorial staff and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. The country’s charge d’affaires in Great Britain accused the Ministry of Defense press service of pressuring Izvestiya to fire Kramnik.
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on August 7, press reports indicated that police in St. Petersburg had distributed notices to local printing presses, informing them that it is unacceptable to fulfill orders for materials that discredit the government or political figures, that offend a person’s honor and dignity, or that promote unsanctioned demonstrations during the pre-electoral period. The printing presses were instructed to turn over orders for any such materials to police.
On January 28, after allegedly receiving information that the business was about to print “extremist” material, police arrived at the St. Petersburg printing house where activist Mikhail Borisov worked. It later became known that Borisov had been preparing to print posters criticizing acting governor Aleksandr Beglov. Police seized four computers but did not detain Borisov since he had not yet printed the posters. The printing house later fired him from his job.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread. For example, on January 21, the Yaroslavl affiliate of the radio station Ekho Moskvy canceled a planned interview with LGBTI activists after receiving threats, including from local officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on March 23, the press reported that the head of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had filed a libel complaint against two websites with the Prosecutor General’s Office, which referred the matter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministry opened a criminal libel investigation into the two websites, RusPress and Kompromat-Ural, which had alleged in late 2018 that Rogozin had used money from the Roscosmos budget to pay for public relations campaigns to burnish his personal reputation and had bribed the heads of media outlets to remove unfavorable coverage of him.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, on June 14, security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik, at his home. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. The charges carry up to a 20-year prison term. Human rights defenders emphasized that the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case, and they maintained that the case against him was fabricated. As of December Gadzhiev remained in detention awaiting trial after a court in Makhachkala extended his pretrial detention through January 13, 2020. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” On September 20, authorities charged Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva with “public justification of terrorism in the media.” She faced up to seven years in jail for comments she made on a local radio station in November 2018 about a suicide bombing at an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. Although she never voiced approval of the bomber’s actions, she suggested that the government’s restrictions on peaceful expressions of dissent may make individuals more likely to resort to violence. In July before these charges were brought, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) added Prokopyeva to its list of terrorists and extremists because of her comments, resulting in the freezing of her bank accounts and the seizure of her passport. According to press reports, in early October officials at the Pskov Investigative Committee summoned for interrogation several journalists and public figures who had spoken out in support of Prokopyeva and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements about the contents of their conversation.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
On May 1, President Putin signed a new law on internet sovereignty, the provisions of which mostly took effect on November 1. The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. Internet advocates asserted the measure would allow for greater surveillance by intelligence agencies and increase the ability of state authorities to control information and block content. Authorities in the Ural Federal District in central Russia began carrying out tests of such equipment in September (with the goal of covering the entire region by the end of the year), but media noted both that the tests resulted in network failures and slower web traffic, and that prohibited services like the Telegram messaging service remained accessible. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. Telecom operators were expected to have until January 1, 2021, to start using the country’s DNS; those who refuse would be disconnected from data exchange points.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing penalties on companies that refuse to localize Russian users’ data from 5,000 rubles ($78) to 6 million rubles ($94,200), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($283,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In April a Moscow court fined Facebook and Twitter 3,000 rubles ($47) each in separate proceedings for failing to inform authorities where they stored the personal data of users.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing fines on companies that refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. Previously the fine was up to 1 million rubles ($15,700), but the new law raised it to 6 million rubles ($94,200). The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of four million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On July 18, Roskomnadzor fined Google 700,000 rubles ($11,000) for not removing links to sites banned by the government from its search results.
The law requires owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.” On April 19, the Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge to the law brought by the human rights NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In June Roskomnadzor announced that it would block nine VPN services that refused its March demand to register with authorities. At least some of these services remained effective within the country as of September.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. For example, individuals who were detained during the August 3 protests in Moscow and whose cell phones police confiscated told Novaya Gazeta about repeated attempts to hack their email accounts in the days following their release. One protester, whose cell phone was tracking its geolocation, reported that his cell phone had apparently been transported to a location in the Moscow suburbs while he was in detention.
There were reports of the disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, authorities in Ingushetia restricted access to mobile internet on numerous occasions during mass protests in March against a land swap with the Republic of Chechnya. During the July 27 and August 3 protests over the Moscow City Duma elections, authorities switched off mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks and curricula. For example, on February 6, the press reported that economics professor Igor Lipsits was informed by his publisher that the economics textbook he had authored had been banned for use in the country’s schools. An expert review by the Russian Education Academy (a government body) had reportedly concluded that examples used in the textbook did not “promote love for the Motherland.” In order to have his book approved for use in schools, the academy suggested that Lipsits add information about the government’s “plans for the next economic breakthrough” and discuss how other government economic policies improve a person’s “sense of pride in the country.”
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, political views, or all. During the summer the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) combined the departments of political science and public administration, resulting in layoffs for a number of professors who reportedly held views sympathetic to the opposition. The university also decided not to renew contracts for several staff members; political analyst and HSE lecturer Aleksandr Kynev said he believed this was for purely political reasons. Yelena Sirotkina, another HSE professor, stated that she resigned voluntarily but under pressure from the university administration. In May the university shut down a student talk show after students invited opposition activist Lyubov Sobol to appear as a guest. According to Meduza, the university administration had made prior attempts to censor the show’s content.
There were reports that authorities restricted academic travel or contacts. On July 13, the Ministry of Education and Science issued new rules obliging academics working at institutions under the ministry to seek approval for any meetings with foreigners. The rules call for institutions to notify the ministry five days in advance of such meetings, a minimum of two academics to be present during meetings, and participants to file a written report that includes passport scans of their foreign interlocutors. Under the rules noncitizens are not allowed to use any notetaking or recording equipment during meetings without prior authorization from the state.
On February 27, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy sent a letter to the heads of the country’s regions, ordering them to ensure that exhibits at museums under their purview “embody the state’s priorities.”
During the year authorities in the Republic of Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. On July 15, the Chechen Minister of Culture announced that the songs of local singers Ayub and Askhab Vakharagov “violate the norms of Chechen culture.” In August, Chechen security forces detained and reportedly held them without charge for two weeks.
On September 24, a Moscow court returned the case against well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov to the prosecutor over errors in the indictment. The prosecutor appealed this decision, however, and submitted new materials to the court, which the court accepted. Serebrennikov had been on trial since November 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov was released on bail on April 8. As of December the date for his new trial had not been announced.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. For example, on October 7, authorities in Moscow disrupted the opening of a modern art exhibit on police violence against protesters that took place during election-related demonstrations in July and August in Moscow. Shortly before the opening, regular Moscow police, officers from Moscow’s “antiextremism” police, city authorities, the state consumer protection service, the fire department, and members of a progovernment extreme nationalist organization arrived at the gallery and blocked individuals from entering the exhibit.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, in May activists from two progovernment nationalist movements tried to disrupt the annual LGBTI film festival Side-by-Side in Moscow. They blocked the entrance to the venue, shouted homophobic slurs, and threw ammonia on a Canadian diplomat. According to festival organizers, police officers observed all the disruptions but did nothing to intervene. The venue also received multiple bomb threats over the course of the festival, which led police to evacuate the buildings and delay the start of each film screening by several hours.
There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” they cancel the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, media reported that authorities visited the music venues at which the rapper Face was to perform in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in late August, after which the organizers canceled both concerts. The venues cited low ticket sales, although the rapper’s team claimed the tickets had sold quite well. Face had performed during an August 3 opposition protest in Moscow and had also published lyrics critical of the government. Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Center, claimed that the FSB had made a “blacklist” of musicians whose concerts are supposed to be disrupted.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Penalties may be up to 300,000 rubles ($4,710) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,420) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,700) for groups or entities. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,700) or imprisoned for up to five years.
A December 2018 law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($471 to $785), 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For example, on July 27 and August 3, security forces detained an estimated 2,500 persons during unsanctioned protests in support of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma. Although the majority were detained briefly and received no criminal or administrative charges, several hundred protesters received fines, jail sentences, or both.
Following the July 27 unsanctioned protest in Moscow, authorities charged 18 individuals with “inciting and participating in mass riots.” The Investigative Committee then changed the charges in several of the cases to “causing harm to law enforcement officers.” Although the charges of “inciting and participating in mass riots” were dropped against eight of the accused, all of these eight individuals received jail sentences of up to 3.4 years after being found guilty of other charges (including “causing harm to law enforcement officers”). As of December the court had not sentenced the other individuals initially charged.
On September 5, a Moscow court sentenced computer programmer Konstantin Kotov to four years in prison for “repeated violations” of protest regulations. The court found that Kotov had “disregarded basic constitutional principles” by taking part in several unsanctioned demonstrations within a 180-day period. Kotov had been detained at several peaceful protests since March, the last being on August 10 as he was exiting a metro station to attend a protest. Memorial considered Kotov to be a political prisoner.
Authorities charged individuals with protest-related offenses for their social media posts about protests. On August 14, police charged blogger Andrey Trofimov from Sergiyev Posad with organizing an unsanctioned demonstration because he retweeted two protest announcements made by opposition leaders. Trofimov maintained he played no other role in organizing the protests.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 18, police beat protesters demonstrating against the construction of a landfill in Likino-Dulyovo in the Moscow region. Eyewitnesses claimed that at least four persons sustained serious injuries as a result, including a broken arm and fractured ribs.
Participants in demonstrations and even bystanders were at times subjected to threats and physical violence. On July 27, members of the National Guard, who had been deployed to the unsanctioned protest in Moscow, detained graphic designer Konstantin Konovalov, a local resident who had been on a run in his neighborhood before the protest began. In so doing they broke one of his legs. On September 17, a Moscow court fined Konovalov 10,000 rubles ($157) for taking part in an unsanctioned protest, despite the fact that the event was set to begin several hours after his detention.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on September 19, Omsk police briefly detained Moscow activist Vera Oleynikova, who had staged a single-person picket calling for freedom for prisoners of conscience in front of the Omsk FSB headquarters. She claimed that police took her to a police station and refused to allow a defense lawyer to see her.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of rights of free assembly. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In November 2018 the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI matters could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On August 3, police and the National Guard in St. Petersburg forcefully dispersed approximately 50 single-person picketers advocating for the LGBTI community after city authorities turned down their request to hold a pride parade. Law enforcement authorities detained 12 persons, three of whom were hospitalized due to injuries that human rights activists said were the result of police brutality.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 14th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 76 NGOs. NGOs designated “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. On December 16, President Putin signed a law raising the fine for noncompliance from 10,000 rubles ($157) to 50,000 rubles ($785) for individuals and from 500,000 rubles ($7,850) to 1 million rubles ($15,700) for legal entities. “Serious violations” may result in fines of 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for citizens and up to 5 million rubles ($78,500) for legal entities.
Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev’s three NGOs received fines totaling more than one million rubles ($15,700) for not marking their materials as originating from a “foreign agent.” On November 1, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Ponomaryov’s NGO “For Human Rights” due to purported violations of the law, including the law on “foreign agents.”
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 19 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the Free Russia Foundation, the Ukrainian World Congress, People in Need, and the Atlantic Council. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
During the year authorities began for the first time to impose criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On January 21, authorities raided the home of Open Russia activist Anastasiya Shevchenko, arrested her, and charged her with “cooperation” with an “undesirable foreign organization.” (Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017.) She faced up to seven years in prison. On January 23, she was placed under house arrest. Shevchenko was prevented from visiting her 17-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized in critical condition, until hours before she died on January 30. As of December her trial had not begun, and she remained under house arrest. Memorial considered Shevchenko to be a political prisoner. Several other Open Russia activists were also under criminal investigation.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of December, nine members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had received jail sentences of up to six years for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization, and between 200 and 300 individuals were under criminal investigation (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, the NGO Russian Socio-Ecological Union documented seven physical attacks on environmental activists the first five months of the year. On March 10, an unknown assailant stabbed environmentalist Denis Shtroo in Kaluga, who died of his wounds four days later. Shtroo had opposed the construction of a landfill in a nearby village, and his friends and relatives believed that he was attacked due to his activism. As of December his killing remained unsolved.
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
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, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 3.5 million citizens are unable to leave the country because of debts.
Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. On June 4, the Supreme Court upheld this policy.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary basis. For example, according to human rights groups, on January 29, Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant citizenship to Blagoveshchensk resident Evgeniy Kim, rendering him stateless since he had given up his Uzbek citizenship earlier. Kim was serving a 3-year, 9-month prison sentence for “extremism” for studying the works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and was considered by Memorial to be a political prisoner. Upon his release from prison on April 10, Kim was notified that he was present in the country in violation of migration law. As of September he was held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, the country of his birth, although Uzbek authorities refused to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2018. Of the 5,900 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 3,600 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the First Chechen War in 1994-96.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. Media reports indicated that not all individuals displaced by weather-related events received the assistance that the federal government initially promised them. For example, a RIA Novosti report in August concluded that authorities rejected 15 percent of the applications of those who applied for housing assistance after they were displaced by flooding in the Irkutsk region in August, leaving them with no shelter at the onset of winter.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
UNHCR reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems.
NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated within the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had a reasonable ground to fear persecution. There were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin. UNHCR reported several cases of refoulement during the year but could not provide data on its extent.
In one example of clandestine detention and repatriation, on February 14, officials arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Tajikistan opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who had been living as a refugee in the Netherlands since 2015. He traveled to Moscow to attend a conference but claimed authorities acting at the behest of the Tajik government detained him and put him on a plane to Dushanbe. According to Human Rights Watch, Tajik security services were present at his detention, and during the flight they put a bag over his head and beat him. After two weeks in Tajikistan, authorities released Gadoyev and allowed him to return to the Netherlands after the intervention of European governments and human rights activists.
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. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($520) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. Except for Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin. Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. The NGO Civic Action Committee reported that approximately a third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection in the form of temporary asylum to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 6,000 persons during the year. A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality.
West Bank and Gaza
Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza
The Palestinian Authority (PA) basic law provides for an elected president and legislative council. There have been no national elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006. President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office despite the expiration of his four-year term in 2009. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) has not functioned since 2007, and the PA Constitutional Court dissolved it in 2018. President Abbas called in September for the PA to organize PLC elections within six months, but elections did not take place by year’s end. The PA head of government is Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. President Abbas is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and general commander of the Fatah movement.
Six PA security forces (PASF) agencies operate in the West Bank, and the PA maintained effective civilian control. Several are under PA Ministry of Interior operational control and follow the prime minister’s guidance. The Palestinian Civil Police have primary responsibility for civil and community policing. The National Security Force conducts gendarmerie-style security operations in circumstances that exceed the capabilities of the civil police. The Military Intelligence Agency handles intelligence and criminal matters involving PASF personnel, including accusations of abuse and corruption. The General Intelligence Service is responsible for external intelligence gathering and operations. The Preventive Security Organization (PSO) is responsible for internal intelligence gathering and investigations related to internal security cases, including political dissent. The Presidential Guard protects facilities and provides dignitary protection.
In Gaza the terrorist organization Hamas exercised de facto authority. The security apparatus of the Hamas de facto government in Gaza largely mirrored the West Bank. Internal security included civil police, guards and protection security, an internal intelligence-gathering and investigative entity (similar to the PSO in the West Bank), and civil defense. National security included the national security forces, military justice, military police, medical services, and the prison authority. The “Islamic Resistance Movement”–a group with some affiliation to the Hamas political movement–maintained a large military wing in Gaza, named the Izz ad-din al-Qassam Brigades. In some instances the Hamas de facto “civilian” authorities utilized the Hamas movement’s military wing to crack down on internal dissent.
The government of Israel maintained a West Bank security presence through the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the Israeli Security Agency, the Israeli National Police, and the Border Guard. Israel maintained effective civilian control of its security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Area A, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements. The PA has formal responsibility for security in Area A, but Israeli security forces (ISF) regularly conducted security operations there, at times without coordinating with the PASF. The PA and Israel maintain joint security control of Area B in the West Bank. Israel retains full security control of Area C and has designated the majority of Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.
Significant human rights issues included:
- With respect to the PA: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, torture, and arbitrary detention by authorities; holding political prisoners and detainees, including as reprisal for participation in foreign investment conferences; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); restrictions on political participation, as the PA has not held a national election since 2006; acts of corruption; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and reports of forced child labor.
- With respect to Israeli authorities: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including allegations that deaths of Palestinians in the course of Israeli military operations were due to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force; reports of torture; reports of arbitrary detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of NGOs; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including the requirement of exit permits.
- With respect to Hamas: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, systematic torture, and arbitrary detention by Hamas officials; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation, as there has been no national election since 2006; acts of corruption; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; violence and threats of violence targeting LGBTI persons; the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and forced or compulsory child labor.
- With respect to Palestinian civilians: five reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, and violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism.
- With respect to Israeli civilians: two reports of unlawful or arbitrary killing of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
The PA took some steps to address impunity or reduce abuses, but there were criticisms that senior officials made comments glorifying violence in some cases and inappropriately influenced investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank took steps to address impunity or reduce abuses, but there were criticisms they did not adequately pursue investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. There were no legal or independent institutions capable of holding the Hamas de facto authority in Gaza accountable.
As stated in Appendix A, this report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses; academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and NGOs concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases. We have sought input from the government of Israel and the PA and have noted responses where applicable.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The PA basic law generally provides for freedom of expression but does not specifically provide for freedom of the press. The PA enforced legislation that NGOs claimed restricted press and media freedom in the West Bank, including through PASF harassment, intimidation, and arrest.
In Gaza, Hamas restricted press freedom through arrests and interrogations of journalists, as well as harassment and limitations on access and movement for some journalists. These restrictions led many journalists to self-censor. During the March Bidna Na’eesh (We Want to Live) protests, Hamas arrested 23 journalists, according to rights groups.
Israeli civil and military law provides limited protections of freedom of expression and press for Palestinian residents of the West Bank. NGOs and Palestinian journalists alleged that Israeli authorities restricted press coverage and placed limits on certain forms of expression–particularly by restricting Palestinian journalists’ movement, as well as through violence, arrests, closure of media outlets, and intimidation, according to media reports and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms. The Israeli government stated it allows journalists maximum freedom to work and investigates any allegations of mistreatment of journalists.
Freedom of Expression: Although no PA law prohibits criticism of the government, media reports indicated PA authorities arrested West Bank Palestinian journalists and social media activists who criticized or covered events that criticized the PA.
On February 24, the PASF detained photojournalist Mohammad Dweik while he filmed a protest against the National Social Insurance Law, according to media reports; he was later released after deleting the content from his camera.
The law restricts the publication of material that endangers the “integrity of the Palestinian state.” The PA arrested West Bank journalists and blocked websites associated with political rivals, including sites affiliated with political parties and opposition groups critical of the Fatah-controlled PA. Websites blocked during 2018 continued to be blocked throughout the year.
According to HRW, the PA arrested 1,609 individuals between January 2018 and April 2019 for insulting “higher authorities” and creating “sectarian strife.” HRW stated these charges “criminalize peaceful dissent.” The PA arrested more than 750 persons during this period for social media posts, according to data provided to HRW.
In Gaza, Hamas authorities arrested, interrogated, seized property from, and harassed Palestinians who publicly criticized them. Media practitioners accused of publicly criticizing Hamas, including civil society and youth activists, social media advocates, and journalists, faced punitive measures, including raids on their facilities and residences, arbitrary detention, and denial of permission to travel outside Gaza. In January, Hamas arrested the Palestinian comedian Ali Nassman after he released a song on YouTube mocking a Hamas policy, according to media. He was released later that day. In April, Hamas arrested Palestinian comedian Hussam Khalaf for mocking the same Hamas policy, and he was released the next day.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent Palestinian media operated under restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA Ministry of Information requested that Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank register with the ministry. According to the PA deputy minister of information, the ministry provides permits to Israeli journalists only if they do not live in a settlement. While officially the PA was open to Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank, at times Palestinian journalists reportedly pressured Israeli journalists not to attend PA events.
Hamas de facto authorities permitted broadcasts within Gaza of reporting and interviews featuring PA officials. Hamas allowed, with some restrictions, the operation of non-Hamas-affiliated broadcast media in Gaza. For example, the PA-supported Palestine TV continued to operate in Gaza.
On May 26, the Hamas de facto government Ministries of Interior and Information in Gaza prevented PA-owned newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadida from distributing its paper based on the claim that the outlet published provocative material that incited violence and disrupted the civil peace.
In March, Hamas security arrested Rafat al-Qedra, the general manager of Palestine TV in Gaza. According to media outlets, they confiscated his mobile telephone and personal laptop before releasing him.
In areas of the West Bank to which Israel controls access, Palestinian journalists claimed Israeli authorities restricted their freedom of movement and ability to cover stories. The ISF does not recognize Palestinian press credentials or credentials from the International Federation of Journalists. Few Palestinians held Israeli press credentials.
There were reports of Israeli forces detaining journalists in the West Bank, including the August 6 detention in Burqin of Muhammed Ateeq, who was held for 10 days, and the August 29 detention of photojournalist Hasan Dabbous in his village near Ramallah. According to Israeli authorities, Ateeq was arrested on suspicion of endangering the security of the area.
On June 10, an Israeli military court indicted Palestinian journalist Lama Khater, who was arrested alongside five other journalists in July 2018, for incitement to violence through her writing and sentenced her to 13 months in prison, including time already served, according to media reports. She was released on July 26. Khater claimed she was mistreated during interrogation, including being chained to a chair for 10 to 20 hours a day for more than a month, according to media reports. According to Israeli authorities, Khater admitted to membership in Hamas, an illegal organization, and was sentenced as part of a plea bargain.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous reports that the PA harassed, detained (occasionally with violence), prosecuted, and fined journalists in the West Bank during the year based on their reporting.
The PA occasionally obstructed the West Bank activities of media organizations with Hamas sympathies and limited media coverage critical of the PA.
The PA also had an inconsistent record of protecting Israeli and international journalists in the West Bank from harassment by Palestinian civilians or their own personnel.
In Gaza, Hamas at times arrested, harassed, and pressured, sometimes violently, journalists critical of its policies. Hamas reportedly summoned and detained Palestinian journalists for questioning to intimidate them. Hamas also constrained journalists’ freedom of movement within Gaza during the year, attempting to ban access to some official buildings.
Throughout the year there were reports of Israeli actions that prevented Palestinian or Arab-Israeli journalists from covering news stories in the West Bank and Gaza. These actions included alleged harassment by Israeli soldiers and acts of violence against journalists. Palestinian journalists also claimed that Israeli security forces detained Palestinian journalists and forced them to delete images and videos under threat of violence, arrest, or administrative detention. On August 2, ISF detained AP photojournalist Eyad Hamad for several hours while he was reporting on house demolitions in the Wadi al-Hummous area of East Jerusalem, according to rights groups and media reports. The government of Israel stated it could find no record of this incident.
On July 24, Reporters without Borders alleged the IDF was intentionally targeting the media after five Palestinian journalists were injured in the span of four days while covering events in the West Bank and Gaza. At least two of the injured journalists were wearing vests marked “press” when the IDF allegedly fired at them with live rounds, according to media reports. One of the journalists, Sami Misran of Al-Aqsa TV, allegedly lost the use of an eye, according to the Times of Israel. The IDF stated it does not target journalists. According to the government of Israel, allegations of misconduct regarding the Gaza protests were being examined by the Fact Finding Assessment Mechanism, which will be reviewed by the MAG to determine whether there are reasonable grounds for criminal investigations.
On May 4, the Israeli air force shelled and destroyed a Gazan building that included the offices of local and regional media agencies and institutes, including the Turkish Anadolu Agency, the Prisoners Media Center, the Hala Media Training Center, and the Abdullah Hourani Studies Center, according to media reports. The IDF stated it targeted the building because it housed other offices related to Hamas and that it did not intend to destroy the media offices.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The PA prohibits calls for violence, displays of arms, and racist slogans in PA-funded and -controlled official media. There were no confirmed reports of any legal action against, or prosecution of, any person publishing items counter to these PA rules. Media throughout the West Bank and Gaza reported practicing self-censorship. There were reports of PA authorities seeking to erase images or footage from journalists’ cameras or cell phones.
According to media reports, the PASF confiscated equipment from journalist Thaer Fakhouri in Hebron and arrested him for posting “incitement information” on social media platforms. He was held for four days and obliged to pay a fine before being released.
In Gaza civil society organizations reported Hamas censored television programs and written materials, such as newspapers and books.
The Israeli government raided and closed West Bank Palestinian media sources, primarily on the basis of allegations they incited violence against Israeli civilians or security services. Acts of incitement under military law are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. NGOs and other observers said Israeli military regulations were vaguely worded and open to interpretation. The ISF generally cited two laws in its military orders when closing Palestinian radio stations–the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations and the 2009 Order Concerning Security Provisions. These laws generally define incitement as an attempt to influence public opinion in a manner that could harm public safety or public order.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were some accusations of slander or libel against journalists and activists in the West Bank and Gaza.
A case continued in Ramallah Magistrate’s Court in which London-based al-Arabi al-Jadeed disputed a 2016 closure order by the PA following an investigative report about torture in PA prisons.
HRW reported that Gazan authorities charged journalist Hajar Harb with slander for an investigative piece she wrote in 2016 accusing doctors in Gaza’s health ministry of writing false reports to allow healthy people to leave Gaza for treatment in return for payment. She was convicted in absentia in 2017. She returned to Gaza in 2018 and was granted a new trial. In March she was acquitted on appeal.
National Security: Human rights NGOs alleged that the PA restricted the activities of journalists on national security grounds.
Internet was generally accessible throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Frequent power outages in Gaza interrupted accessibility.
The PA blocked access to at least 59 news sites sympathetic to Hamas or political factions critical of Abbas. The PA monitored social media actively, pressuring and harassing activists and journalists. There were instances when the PA arrested or detained Palestinians because of their posts on social media.
According to media reports, on January 6, the PASF arrested journalist Mahmoud Hreish at his house in Betunia city and detained him for 23 days. The PASF interrogated him about a Facebook post in which he criticized the PA’s insufficient response to Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians.
Gaza-based Palestinian civil society organizations and social media practitioners stated Hamas de facto authorities monitored the internet activities of Gaza residents and took action to intimidate or harass them. On April 13, Hamas intelligence detained and interrogated journalist Hamza Hammad, according to media reports. He was reportedly released after 24 hours after signing a pledge to no longer post on Facebook about the political and economic situation in Gaza.
According to HRW, between January 2018 and March 2019, both the PA and Hamas arrested dozens of persons based on social media posts on charges of “harming revolutionary unity” and “misuse of technology.” The PA arrested and brought to trial Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro for a social media post critical of the PA’s arrest of a Palestinian journalist, according to media reports.
The PA did not restrict academic freedom in the West Bank, and there were no known reports of PA censorship of school curricula, plays, films, or exhibits. Palestinian law provides for academic freedom, but individuals or officials from academic institutions reportedly self-censored curricula. Faculty members reported PA security elements were present on university campuses among the student body and faculty, which may have contributed to self-censorship. HRW claimed that authorities closely monitored criticism of the PA by university students and professors.
Public schools as well as UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools in Gaza followed the same curriculum as West Bank schools. Palestinians in Gaza reported interference by Hamas in public schools at the primary, secondary, and university levels. Hamas reportedly interfered in teaching methodologies or curriculum deemed to violate Islamic identity, the religion of Islam, or “traditions,” as defined by Hamas. Hamas also interfered if there were reports of classes or activities that mixed genders. UNRWA reported no Hamas interference in the running of its Gaza schools.
Students and faculty from Gaza participating in certain cultural and education programs (including programs sponsored by foreign governments and international organizations) faced questioning from de facto Hamas authorities. On February 19, Hamas’ General Intelligence Service arrested the head of the Birzeit University Center for Development Studies, Ghassan Abu Mata, for conducting a survey on “youth reality” in Gaza without a permit from the Hamas-led Ministry of the Interior, according to the PCHR and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights.
Israeli restrictions on movement (see section 2.d.) adversely affected academic institutions and access to education and cultural activities for Palestinians.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza limited and restricted Palestinian residents’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
PA law permits public meetings, processions, and assemblies within legal limits. It requires permits for rallies, demonstrations, and large cultural events. Both the PA and Hamas security forces selectively restricted or dispersed peaceful protests and demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza during the year.
After a new social security law was passed and published in the official gazette, the United Movement against the Social Security Law called for a commercial strike in Hebron on January 15 in opposition to the law, according to the Human Rights and Democracy Media Center (SHAMS) and media reports. PA police arrested and investigated several of the protesters and held them overnight, according to SHAMS.
According to a Hamas decree, any public assembly or celebration in Gaza requires prior permission. Hamas used arbitrary arrest to prevent some events from taking place, particularly the Bidna Na’eesh (We Want to Live) protest (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest) and political events affiliated with Fatah. Hamas also attempted to impede criticism of Hamas policies by imposing arbitrary demands for the approval of meetings on political or social topics.
A 1967 Israeli military order stipulates that a “political” gathering of 10 or more persons requires a permit from the regional commander of military forces, which Israeli commanders rarely granted. The penalty for a breach of the order is up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a heavy fine. Israeli military law prohibits insulting a soldier, participating in an unpermitted rally, and “incitement” (encouraging others to engage in civil disobedience). Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro faced 16 charges in a trial underway in an Israeli military court that began in 2016. The charges include participation in a march without a permit, assaulting a soldier, and incitement, according to rights groups. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International stated Amro’s actions during these incidents were consistent with nonviolent civil disobedience. The latest hearing in his case took place in September. Ha’aretz reported the IDF detained Amro at least 20 times at various checkpoints from May to July 2018. In August, IDF soldiers detained Amro at a checkpoint in Hebron and released him two hours later with no explanation, according to rights groups.
The IDF Central Command declared areas of the West Bank to be “closed military zones” in which it prohibited Palestinian public assembly. It maintained the same designation on Fridays for areas adjacent to the security barrier in the Palestinian villages of Bil’in and Ni’lin during hours when Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists regularly demonstrated there. There were frequent skirmishes between protesters and ISF personnel.
PA law allows freedom of association. PA authorities sometimes imposed limitations in the West Bank, including on labor organizations (see section 7.a.). NGOs said a regulation subjecting “nonprofit companies” to PA approval prior to receiving grants impeded their independence and threatened the ability of both local and international nonprofits to operate freely in the West Bank.
In Gaza, Hamas attempted to prevent various organizations from operating. These included some it accused of being Fatah-affiliated, as well as private businesses and NGOs that Hamas deemed to be in violation of its interpretation of Islamic social norms. The Hamas de facto Ministry of Interior claimed supervisory authority over all NGOs, and its representatives regularly harassed NGO employees and requested information on staff, salaries, and activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
PA law provides for freedom of internal movement within the West Bank, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions.
Hamas authorities restricted some foreign travel into and out of Gaza and required exit permits for Palestinians departing through the Gaza-Israel Erez crossing. Hamas also prevented some Palestinians from exiting Gaza based on the purpose of their travel or to coerce payment of taxes and fines. There were some reports unmarried women faced restrictions on travel out of Gaza.
Citing security concerns and frequent attempted terrorist attacks, Israel imposed significant restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli authorities often prohibited travel between some or all Palestinian West Bank towns and deployed temporary checkpoints for that purpose. Palestinians who lived in affected villages stated that “internal closures” continued to have negative economic effects, lowering their employment prospects, wages, and days worked per month. During periods of potential unrest, including on some major Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, Israeli authorities enacted “comprehensive external closures” that prevented Palestinians from leaving the West Bank and Gaza. For example, Israeli authorities enacted a comprehensive closure for the West Bank and Gaza for eight days during Pesach from April 19-26, according to B’Tselem. B’Tselem reported 13 such days in total during the year.
The Israeli travel permit system restricts Palestinians’ ability to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, including travel to pursue higher education opportunities. Palestinian higher education contacts reported that permits for Gazans to attend West Bank universities were seldom granted.
Israel has declared access restricted areas (ARAs) on both the coastal and land borders around Gaza, citing evidence that Hamas exploited these areas at times to conduct attacks or to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza. The lack of clear information regarding the ARAs created risks for Palestinians in Gaza who lived or worked either on the Mediterranean Coast or near the perimeter fence. No official signage indicating the line of demarcation exists, and official policy changed frequently. Likewise, the permitted maritime activity area for Palestinians along the coastal region of Gaza changed between zero and 15 nautical miles 19 times throughout the year, according to the Gisha, an Israeli organization that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement. Human rights NGOs asserted this confusion led to multiple instances of Israeli forces firing upon farmers and fishermen. According to the United Nations, regular electrical outages often made it necessary for Gazan farmers to work their fields after dark; in some instances, IDF soldiers shot at farmers near the ARA while they irrigated their fields at night.
On February 20, Israeli naval forces arrested five fishermen and confiscated three boats off the Gaza coast, according to the PCHR. The Israeli forces used live fire during the arrests, damaging one of the boats, and one of the fishermen was injured when an Israeli naval vessel hit him after he jumped off his boat when it was fired on. Also on February 20, Israeli naval forces allegedly shot Gaza fisherman Khader al-Saaidy with rubber-coated bullets in the face and chest at close range, and he lost sight in both eyes as a result. According to the government of Israel, the case was referred to the MAG to determine whether there were reasonable grounds for a criminal investigation.
A key barrier to Palestinian movement was the security barrier that divides the majority of the West Bank from Israel, including Jerusalem, and some parts of the West Bank. Israeli authorities constructed the barrier to prevent attacks by Palestinian terrorists. In some areas it divides Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. At its widest points, the barrier extends 11 miles (18 kilometers) into the West Bank. B’Tselem estimated that 27,000 Palestinians resided in communities west of the barrier who were required to travel through Israeli security checkpoints to reach the remainder of the West Bank. Other significant barriers to Palestinian movement included internal ISF road closures and Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian persons and goods into and out of the West Bank and Gaza. Major checkpoints, such as Container and Za’tara, caused major disruptions in the West Bank when closed, according to media reports. When Container (near Bethlehem) is closed, it cuts off one-third of the West Bank population living in the South, including Bethlehem and Hebron, from Ramallah and the North. Similarly, Za’tara checkpoint blocks traffic in and out of the entire northern part of the West Bank, including Nablus, Tulkarem, and Jenin, according to media reports. UNOCHA reported there were 705 permanent obstacles throughout the West Bank, a 3 percent increase from their previous survey in 2016. Israeli restrictions on movement affected virtually all aspects of Palestinian life, including attendance at weddings and funerals, access to places of worship, employment, access to agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. There were also reports of patients dying in traffic before reaching hospitals and ambulances en route to accidents or scenes of attacks being stopped by the IDF for hours at a time. In October the Israeli government denied a travel request for an Amnesty International employee from the West Bank to accompany his mother to a chemotherapy treatment in Jerusalem citing “security concerns,” according to Amnesty.
Israeli officials imposed restrictions on movement of materials, goods, and persons into and out of Gaza based on security and economic concerns. Amnesty International and HRW reported difficulties by foreign workers in obtaining Israeli visas, which affected the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. Amnesty International and HRW also reported that the Israeli government denied their employees permits to enter Gaza from Israel. The United Nations and several international NGOs reported that the Israeli government denied their local Gazan staff permits to exit Gaza into Israel, and UNOCHA reported that more than 130 local UN staff were under travel bans prohibiting them from exiting Gaza. The Israeli government stated all Gaza exit requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with security considerations arising from Hamas’s de facto control of Gaza.
PA-affiliated prosecutors and judges stated that ISF prohibitions on movement in the West Bank, including Israeli restrictions on the PA’s ability to transport detainees and collect witnesses, hampered their ability to dispense justice.
UNRWA reported its West Bank Headquarters staff lost 79 workdays during the year, mostly due to increased Israeli demands to search UNRWA vehicles at checkpoints between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
In-country Movement: Hamas authorities did not enforce routine restrictions on internal movement within Gaza, although there were some areas of Gaza to which Hamas prohibited access. Pressure to conform to Hamas’s interpretation of Islamic norms generally restricted movement by women.
The ISF routinely detained for several hours Palestinians residing in Gaza who had permits to enter Israel for business and subjected them to interrogations and strip searches at Israeli-controlled checkpoints, according to rights groups. UNOCHA and several NGOs working on freedom of movement issues noted that frequently changing protocols and unofficial, unwritten policies at checkpoints have resulted in the forfeiture of personal property including money, electronics, and clothing of those attempting to exit Gaza with valid travel permits.
Israeli authorities allegedly damaged Palestinian property in the West Bank while conducting raids, sealed off entries and exits to homes and other buildings, and confiscated vehicles and boats. The Israeli government stated that it imposed collective restrictions only if an armed forces commander believed there was a military necessity for the action and that the imposition on the everyday lives of Palestinian civilians was not disproportionate.
Restrictions on access to Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach six hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care unavailable in the West Bank. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), IDF soldiers at checkpoints at times harassed and delayed ambulances from the West Bank or refused them entry into Jerusalem, even in emergency cases. The PRCS and World Health Organization reported hundreds of such actions impeding humanitarian services during the year. Most included blocking access to those in need, preventing their transport to specialized medical centers, or imposing delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. According to the Israeli government, security considerations and lack of advanced coordination on the part of Palestinian medical teams often caused delays.
Israeli authorities restricted or prohibited Palestinian travel on 29 roads and sections of roads (totaling approximately 36 miles) throughout the West Bank, including many of the main traffic arteries, according to B’Tselem. The ISF also imposed temporary curfews confining Palestinians to their homes during ISF arrest operations. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli authorities eased restrictions on Palestinians entering Israel, including Jerusalem, allowing West Bank Palestinians to use Ben Gurion Airport, to visit family, and visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for religious services. Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians in Gaza to visit Jerusalem.
Israeli authorities extended the security barrier in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem and began land clearing to extend the barrier through Walajah village, also near Bethlehem. Israel continued to restrict movement and development near the barrier, including access by some international organizations. In response to a freedom of information act request from HaMoked in 2018, the IDF reported that during the year it had denied 72 percent of permit requests by Palestinian farmers to access their land blocked by the security barrier, of which 1 percent of the denials were for security reasons. HaMoked asserted many of these refusals were due to arbitrary claims by Israeli authorities that the farmer’s land was too small to cultivate.
Private security companies employed by the Israeli government controlled many points of access through the security barrier. International organizations and local human rights groups claimed these security companies did not respond to requests to allow movement of goods or NGO representatives through the barrier.
Palestinian farmers continued to report difficulty accessing their lands in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. NGOs and community advocates reported numerous Palestinian villages owned land rendered inaccessible by the barrier. A complicated Israeli permit regime (requiring more than 10 different permits) prevented these Palestinians from fully using their lands.
Israeli restrictions allowed fishing only within three nautical miles of Gaza land during specific periods. The Israeli government stated these restrictions were necessary for security reasons. Israeli and Egyptian naval forces regularly fired warning shots at Palestinian fishermen entering the restricted sea areas, in some cases directly targeting the fishermen, according to UNOCHA. Israeli armed forces confiscated fishing boats intercepted in these areas and detained the fishermen. In August the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories returned 22 seized fishing boats to their owners; all the boats had holes in them and the fishermen were forced to pay the cost of moving the boats from government of Israel custody back to the docking area, according to the United Nations.
In the West Bank, Israeli military authorities continued to restrict Palestinian vehicular and foot traffic and access to homes and businesses in downtown Hebron, citing a need to protect several hundred Israeli settlers resident in the city center. The ISF continued to occupy rooftops of private Palestinian homes in Hebron as security positions, forcing families to leave their front door open for soldiers to enter. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated that freedom of movement is not an absolute right but must be balanced with security and public order.
The Israeli government, citing security concerns, continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to certain religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli officials cited security concerns when imposing travel restrictions, including limiting access to Jerusalem during major Jewish holidays as well as continuing construction of Israel’s security barrier, which impeded the movements of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.
UNOCHA reported Palestinians in Gaza considered areas up to 984 feet (300 meters) from the perimeter fence to be a “no-go” area, and up to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) to be “high risk,” which discouraged farmers from cultivating their fields. UNOCHA estimates nearly 35 percent of the Gaza Strip’s cultivable land is in these areas.
Foreign Travel: Hamas authorities in Gaza occasionally enforced movement restrictions on Palestinians attempting to exit Gaza to Israel via the Erez Crossing and to Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. Palestinians returning to Gaza were regularly subject to Hamas interrogations about their activities in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.
Citing security concerns, Israeli authorities often denied or did not respond to Palestinian applications for travel permits through the Erez Crossing. Israel largely limited entry and exit from Gaza at the Erez Crossing to humanitarian cases and limited permits to businesspersons and day laborers working in Israel. These limitations prevented some Palestinians from transiting to Jerusalem for visa interviews; to Jordan (often for onward travel) via the Allenby Bridge; and to the West Bank for work or education. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated there were no new restrictions on items that could be brought through Erez into Israel, but Gazans reported additional restrictions, including not being allowed to carry phone chargers or more than one pair of shoes. Israel approved 40 percent of exit permit requests from Gaza to Jordan, 56 percent from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, and 50 percent from the West Bank to Israel, according to the Israeli government.
During the year the Israeli Supreme Court continued to uphold with few exceptions the ban imposed in 2000 on students from Gaza attending West Bank universities. Students in Gaza generally did not apply to West Bank universities because they understood Israeli authorities would deny permits.
Delays in permit approvals by Israeli officials caused some Palestinians to miss the travel dates for exchange programs abroad, and for matriculation in foreign universities. In some cases authorities asked students to submit to security interviews prior to receiving permits. Israeli authorities detained some students indefinitely without charge following their security interview, which caused other students to refuse to attend these interviews for fear of detention.
According to Gisha, Israel denied some exit permit applications by residents of Gaza on the grounds that the applicants were “first-degree relative[s] [of] a Hamas operative.” UNOCHA reported that some of their staff members were denied exit permits out of Gaza due to security blocks because UNOCHA coordinates with Hamas as the de facto government in Gaza to facilitate the entry, exit, and transportation of UN personnel.
UNOCHA estimated that during the year 700 persons in Gaza were displaced by three instances of hostilities between armed Palestinian groups and Israel. Additional persons in Gaza remained displaced due to the destruction caused by the 2014 war.
UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations provided services to IDPs in Gaza and the West Bank, with some limitations due to Israeli restrictions on movement and border access.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Israeli security operations in the West Bank led to 11 Palestinian UNRWA beneficiary fatalities, three of whom were killed allegedly while conducting an attack on the ISF or Israeli civilians. Israeli use of live ammunition caused most injuries. There were 62 Palestinians reported injured by Israeli authorities in West Bank refugee camps, according to UNRWA, of whom live ammunition injured 17, including four UNRWA beneficiary minors.
The most recent fatality in Deheisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem was in July, when the ISF fatally shot 14-year-old Arkan Thaer Mizher. According to the Israeli government, the investigation has concluded and the MAG was reviewing the findings.
UNRWA provided education, health care, and social services to areas of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza; however, the agency continued to experience funding shortfalls throughout the year. During the year Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations urged international donors to suspend funding to the agency amid a UN Office of Internal Oversight Services investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement by UNRWA’s senior management team. Several international and Israeli NGOs called for the UN to strengthen oversight of UNRWA and improve transparency to address the allegations.
Access to Basic Services: Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza were eligible to access UNRWA schools and primary health care clinics, although in some cases, movement restrictions limited access to UNRWA services and resources in the West Bank (see section 1.d.).
All UNRWA projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip required Israeli government permits, but UNRWA does not apply for permits in refugee camps.
The deterioration of socioeconomic conditions during the year in Gaza severely affected refugees. UNRWA reported that food security continued to be at risk.
Israeli import restrictions on certain commodities considered as dual use continued to impede humanitarian operations in Gaza, including those directed toward refugees. In 2016 Israeli authorities introduced a requirement whereby approval of UNRWA projects remained valid for one year. As project implementation timelines often exceeded one year, this requirement necessitated applications for reapproval of projects, which hampered implementation and increased transaction costs for multiple UNRWA projects.
According to NGOs, 40,000 to 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza lacked identification cards recognized by Israel. Some were born in Gaza but never recognized by Israel as residents; some fled Gaza during the 1967 war; and some left Gaza for various reasons after 1967 but later returned. A small number lacking recognized identification cards were born in the Gaza Strip and never left, but had only Hamas-issued identification cards. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA administers the Palestinian Population Registry, although status changes in the registry require Israeli government approval. The Israeli government has not processed changes to the registry since 2000.
There was no process for foreign spouses or foreign-born children of Palestinians to obtain permanent legal status in the West Bank. As a result many Palestinian children and young adults, especially those born abroad, are without legal status in the region where they have spent most or all of their lives. In September a court granted 24-year-old Maen Abu Hafez a one-year visitor’s permit to stay in the West Bank. Abu Hafez reportedly lived in the Jenin refugee camp since he was three, when he moved there with his Palestinian father and Uruguayan mother. His family reunification request has been on hold for several years. In 2017 he was detained at a checkpoint and was held for more than two and one-half years in an Israeli prison for illegal aliens in Ramle. The Israeli government sought to deport him to Brazil, where he was born, although he has no ties there and does not speak Portuguese.