Kazakhstan

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

There were several well-publicized reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings or beatings that led to deaths. Activists noted that deadly abuse in prisons, particularly abuse carried out by so-called voluntary assistants–prisoners who receive special privileges in exchange for carrying out orders of prison staff, remained frequent.

On October 17, police detained local herdsman Azamat Orazaly and took him to the police station in Makanchi village on suspicion of cattle theft. Later that same day, Orazaly died, allegedly while police tried to beat out a confession of the theft. On October 19, police confirmed that Azamat died in the police office in Makanchi. The investigation led to charges of torture, and three police officers were arrested.

Some human rights organizations also considered the February 24 death of civil society activist Dulat Agadil, while in police custody, an unlawful killing. Police had arrested Agadil in his house near Nur-Sultan on February 24 and placed him in the capital’s pretrial detention facility following a contempt of court decision related to insults directed at a judge in a separate case. Early the next morning, police reported Agadil had died from a heart attack. After human rights activists demanded an impartial investigation, medical authorities examined Agadil’s body the following day with the participation of two independent doctors, who did not find evidence of forced death, although they did find signs of bruising. On February 29, President Tokayev stated that he had studied the case materials and was confident Agadil died of a heart attack. On May 28, the Nur-Sultan Prosecutor’s Office announced it had dropped its investigation into Agadil’s death after finding no signs of criminal acts, as Agadil’s arrest and detention were in full compliance with the law.

The legal process continued in the killing of a human rights defender from 2019. In May 2019 the body of activist Galy Baktybayev, who was shot with a rifle, was found in the Karaganda region’s Atasu village. Baktybayev was a civil activist who raised problems of corruption, embezzlement, and other violations by local government. A special investigation group created by the Minister of Internal Affairs detained four suspects, including one former police officer. The investigation was completed and submitted to court in May, and an ongoing jury trial began on August 17.

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

The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, there were reports that police and prison officials tortured and abused detainees. Human rights activists asserted the domestic legal definition of torture was noncompliant with the definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture.

The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPM) was established by law as part of the government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. According to public statements by Ombudsman Azimova in September, the number of prisoner complaints about torture and other abuse increased in comparison to 2019. During the first 10 months of the year, her office received 125 complaints about torture and cruel treatment, compared to 84 throughout 2019. The NPM reported that 121 criminal cases were registered from those complaints and 23 individuals were convicted of torture. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported 136 complaints of torture in the first six months of the year, of which five were forwarded to courts following investigation.

The ombudsman also criticized what she termed “the widely practiced GULAG-style treatment” of prisoners and suggested that the lack of education and monitoring were the reasons for that lingering problem. She called for regular training of the staff of penitentiary institutions and an update of the penitentiary system’s rules to provide for more effective interaction with the NPM to make it impossible for prison staff to conceal incidents of torture.

Cases of prison officers being brought to justice for torture were rare, and officers often received light punishment.

On February 3, the Kapshagay district court convicted seven officers of Zarechniy prison of torture. The court sentenced Deputy Director for Behavioral Correction Arman Shabdenov and Deputy Director for Operations Jexenov to seven years in jail, and the others received sentences ranging from five to six years in jail.

On April 1, Yerbolat Askarov, director of the operations unit of a prison in Shakhtinsk near Karaganda, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ probation for torturing prisoners in addition to a three-year ban on work in penitentiary institutions. On January 23, more than 200 prisoners in Uralsk prison RU-170/3 were severely beaten by National Guard soldiers brought in by prison administrators to search for contraband. A prisoner’s relative contacted human rights activists about the incident, and the next day NPM representatives led by a local human rights activist visited the prison and listened to prisoners describe their treatment. Prisoners stated that the soldiers beat prisoners, kept them outdoors in frigid temperatures for three hours with inadequate clothing, destroyed personal items, and verbally abused them. After the raid prison officials did not let prisoners visit the infirmary. NPM representatives collected 99 written complaints, and the Penitentiary Committee and prosecutors promised to investigate all allegations. A similar incident occurred in that same prison a year prior, but no one was held responsible for either incident.

Prison conditions were generally harsh and sometimes life threatening, and facilities did not meet international health standards. Health problems among prisoners went untreated in many cases, or prison conditions exacerbated them. Prisons faced serious shortages of medical staff.

Physical Conditions: The NPM reported many concerns including poor health and sanitary conditions; poor medical services, including for prisoners suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes; high risk of torture during search, investigation, and transit to other facilities; lack of feedback from prosecutors on investigation of torture complaints; lack of communication with families; discrimination against prisoners in vulnerable groups, including prisoners with disabilities and prisoners with HIV/AIDS; censorship; and a lack of secure channels for submission of complaints.

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded prisons’ poor health and sanitary conditions, particularly in cases where prisoners had added vulnerability to infection. On August 1, Human Rights Ombudsman Azimova reported on social media that the number of complaints about insufficient health care for individuals in police custody and prisoners increased during the country’s public-health lockdown.

Activists continued during the lockdown to raise alarm about health conditions in prisons and detention facilities. Human rights defenders and observers criticized authorities for ignoring recommendations of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which reiterated the state’s responsibility for ensuring those in custody enjoy the same standards of health that are available in the community, and urged all states to reduce prison populations through early, provisional, or temporary release when possible.

On June 1, three men died, and two required intensive care as a result of an alleged poisoning in a Kokshetau detention facility, according to press accounts. Most of those affected were detained for traffic violations. Activists criticized authorities for failure to apply alternatives to incarceration for such minor offenses.

There were multiple complaints from prisoners’ relatives that prison administrators ignored prisoners’ complaints about symptoms clearly consistent with COVID-19. When such complaints reached the public, prison officials denied there were COVID-19 cases among prisoners and reported that prisoners had tested negative for the virus.

Prisoner rights activists expressed concern that authorities used COVID-19 restrictions to block access to information about treatment in prisons. After an order from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all administrators banned in-person meetings between prisoners and relatives. In order to compensate for the lack of visits, however, administrators of some prisons increased the number of prisoners’ telephone calls and allowed prisoners to have online meetings with relatives.

According to Prison Reform International (PRI), although men and women were held separately, and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners, during transitions between temporary detention centers, pretrial detention, and prisons, youth often were held with adults.

Abuse occurred in police cells, pretrial detention facilities, and prisons. Observers cited the lack of professional training programs for administrators as the primary cause of mistreatment.

The NPM and members of public monitoring commissions (PMCs) (quasi-independent bodies that also carry out monitoring) reported continuing infrastructure problems in prisons, including unsatisfactory hygiene conditions such as poor plumbing and sewage systems and unsanitary bedding. PMC members reported that some prisoners with disabilities did not have access to showers for months. They also reported shortages of medical staff and insufficient medicine, as well as mobility problems for prisoners with disabilities. In many places the NPM noted restricted connectivity with the outside world and limited access to information regarding prisoner rights. The PRI and NPM reported that there was widespread concern about food and nutrition quality in prisons. Prisoners and former prisoners complained about their provisions and reported that they were served food past its expiration date.

The government did not publish statistics on the number of deaths, suicides, or attempted suicides in pretrial detention centers or prisons during the year. PRI and PMC members reported that many suicides and deaths occurred in prisons.

Administration: Authorities typically did not conduct proper investigations into allegations of mistreatment. Human rights observers noted that in many cases authorities did not investigate prisoners’ allegations of torture or did not hold prison administrators or staff accountable. The NPM’s 2018 report emphasized the problem of voluntary assistants who are used to control other prisoners and carry out additional duties.

The law does not allow unapproved religious services, rites, ceremonies, meetings, or missionary activity in prisons. By law a prisoner in need of “religious rituals” may ask his relatives to invite a representative of a registered religious organization to carry them out, provided they do not obstruct prison activity or violate the rights and legal interests of other individuals. PMC members reported that some prisons prohibited Muslim prisoners from fasting during Ramadan. According to the NPM, prayer is permitted so long as it does not interfere with internal rules. Prayers are not allowed at nighttime or during inspections.

Independent Monitoring: There were no independent international monitors of prisons. The PMCs, which include members of civil society, may undertake monitoring visits to prisons. Human rights advocates noted that some prisons created administrative barriers to prevent the PMCs from successfully carrying out their mandate, including creating bureaucratic delays, forcing the PMCs to wait for hours to gain access to the facilities, or allowing the PMCs to visit for only a short time. Some advocates said that the PMCs are not effective because the PMCs do not have any enforcement powers, and justice-sector institutions, including prisons, are not truly interested in reform.

Authorities continued pressure on activist Elena Semyonova, the chair of the PMC in Pavlodar. Prison authorities in Almaty region, Taraz, and Kostanay filed seven lawsuits against her on charges of damaging their dignity and honor through dissemination of false information. In July courts issued rulings in favor of authorities and ordered Semyenova to refute her claims publicly on social media and also pay litigation costs. As of September complainants withdrew three lawsuits, and Semyenova lost four litigations.

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but such incidents nevertheless occurred. In August the prosecutor general reported to media outlets that prosecutors released 500 unlawfully detained individuals.

Human rights observers reported arbitrary detentions during the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law reported that Almaty authorities built a tent facility and involuntarily confined all homeless citizens picked up in the city during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in March. Some individuals who live near the facility alleged that, in addition to homeless citizens, others who happened to be on site during police raids were also among those locked up in the facility. The few individuals who managed to escape the police-controlled facility complained about hunger, cold, and brutal beatings. Journalists and human rights observers who tried to verify allegations were denied access to the facility.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

A person apprehended as a suspect in a crime is taken to a police office for interrogation. Prior to interrogation, the accused should have the opportunity to meet with an attorney. Upon arrest the investigator may do an immediate body search if there is reason to believe the detainee has a gun or may try to discard or destroy evidence. Within three hours of arrest, the investigator is required to write a statement declaring the reason for the arrest, the place and time of the arrest, the results of the body search, and the time of writing the statement, which is then signed by the investigator and the detained suspect. The investigator should also submit a written report to the prosecutor’s office within 12 hours of the signature of the statement.

The arrest must be approved by the court. It is a three-step procedure: (1) the investigator collects all evidence to justify the arrest and takes all materials of the case to the prosecutor; (2) the prosecutor studies the evidence and takes it to court within 12 hours; and (3) the court proceeding is held with the participation of the criminal suspect, the suspect’s lawyer, and the prosecutor. If within 48 hours of the arrest the administration of the detention facility has not received a court decision approving the arrest, the administration should immediately release him or her and notify the officer who handles the case and the prosecutor. The duration of preliminary detention may be extended to 72 hours in a variety of cases, including grave or terrorist crimes, crimes committed by criminal groups, drug trafficking, sexual crimes against a minor, and others. The court may choose other forms of restraint, including house arrest or restricted movement. According to human rights activists, these procedures were frequently ignored.

Although the judiciary has the authority to deny or grant arrest warrants, judges authorized prosecutorial warrant requests in the vast majority of cases.

The law allows conditional release on bail, although use of bail procedures is limited. Prolonged pretrial detentions remain commonplace. The bail system is designed for persons who commit a criminal offense for the first time or a crime of minor or moderate severity, provided that the penalties for conviction of committing such a crime contain a fine as an alternative penalty. Bail is not available to suspects of grave crimes, crimes that led to death, organized crime, and terrorist or extremist crimes, or to situations in which there is reason to believe the suspect would hinder investigation of the case or would escape if released.

Persons detained, arrested, or accused of committing a crime have the right to the assistance of a defense lawyer from the moment of detention, arrest, or accusation. The law obliges police to inform detainees concerning their rights, including the right to an attorney. Human rights observers stated that prisoners were constrained in their ability to communicate with their attorneys, that penitentiary staff secretly recorded conversations, and that staff often remained present during the meetings between defendants and attorneys.

Human rights defenders reported that authorities dissuaded detainees from seeing an attorney, gathered evidence through preliminary questioning before a detainee’s attorney arrived, and in some cases used defense attorneys to gather evidence. The law states that the government must provide an attorney for an indigent suspect or defendant when the suspect is a minor, has physical or mental disabilities, or faces serious criminal charges, but public defenders often lacked the necessary experience and training to assist defendants. Defendants are barred from freely choosing their defense counsel if the cases against them involve state secrets. The law allows only lawyers who have special clearance to work on such cases.

Arbitrary Arrest: The government frequently arrested and detained political opponents and critics, sometimes for minor infractions, such as unsanctioned assembly, that led to fines or up to 10 days’ administrative arrest. During the year authorities detained many who participated in unsanctioned antigovernment rallies, including some who happened to be passing by.

Pretrial Detention: The law allows police to hold a detainee for 48 hours before bringing charges.

Once charged, detainees may be held in pretrial detention for up to two months. Depending on the complexity and severity of the alleged offense, authorities may extend the term for up to 18 months while the investigation takes place. The pretrial detention term may not be longer than the potential sentence for the offense. Upon the completion of the investigation, the investigator puts together an official indictment. The materials of the case are shared with the defendant and then sent to the prosecutor, who has five days to check the materials and forward them to the court.

On June 10, Almaty police arrested the activist Asiya Tulesova for assaulting a policeman during a protest gathering after she knocked the police officer’s hat off. The court authorized a two-month arrest, despite the legal stipulation that an individual shall only be placed in police custody if he or she is suspected of a criminal offense punishable by five or more years of imprisonment. (The maximum potential sentence for Tulesova’s actions was three years.) The court also denied her bail, despite the risk of increasing her potential exposure to COVID-19.

The law grants prisoners prompt access to family members, although authorities occasionally sent prisoners to facilities located far from their homes and relatives, thus preventing access for relatives unable to travel.

Human rights observers stated that authorities occasionally used pretrial detention to torture, beat, and abuse inmates to extract confessions.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law spells out a detainee’s right to submit a complaint, challenge the justification for detention, or seek pretrial probation as an alternative to arrest. Detainees have 15 days to submit complaints to the administration of the pretrial detention facility or a local court. An investigative judge has 10 days to overturn or uphold the challenged decision.

The law does not provide for an independent judiciary. The executive branch has sharply limited judicial independence. According to the NGO Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2020 report, the country’s judiciary remained heavily dependent upon the executive branch, judges were subject to political influence, and corruption was a problem throughout the judicial system. Prosecutors enjoyed a quasi-judicial role and had the authority to suspend court decisions.

On July 15, the Medeu district court in Almaty sentenced activist Sanavar Zakirova to one year of imprisonment for inflicting harm to another person’s health. Zakirova had been ordered by a court to pay restitution to a Nur Otan Party member stemming from a case in November 2019, after she and two other activists had posted criticisms of the party member online. Human rights observers stated that the investigation and court trial of the case were marred with numerous serious irregularities. They also criticized the harsh sentence given to Zakirova, a vocal opponent of the government who had tried to form an opposition political party in March 2019, as an attempt to silence her.

According to Freedom House, corruption was evident at every stage of the judicial process. Although judges were among the most highly paid government employees, lawyers and human rights monitors stated that judges, prosecutors, and other officials solicited bribes in exchange for favorable rulings in many criminal and civil cases.

According to Freedom House, court decisions were often driven by political motives. On May 21, Prosecutor General Gizat Nurdauletov submitted a petition to the Supreme Court claiming that the January 2019 guilty verdict handed down by the Atyrau regional court in the case of former governor Bergey Ryskaliyev and his accomplices should be overturned because of procedural irregularities. Nurdauletov demanded that a portion of confiscated property be returned to Ryskaliyev and his alleged accomplices. The Supreme Court approved the Prosecutor General’s petition. A long list of property and large sums of money in foreign accounts were returned to Ryskaliyev, who had been convicted in absentia in 2019 to 17 years in prison for leading an organized criminal group. Freedom House stated the ruling marred the judiciary’s image.

During a January 13 meeting with President Tokayev, Chairman of the Supreme Court Zhakip Asanov reported that 37 judges were dismissed in 2019 for issuance of unlawful decisions, violation of judicial ethics, and failed tests of professional aptitude.

According to the 2019 report of the Supreme Judicial Council, an additional 83 judges were disciplined for violating the law and judicial ethics and for poor performance of official duties, a 40 percent increase from 2018. Three judges were convicted for corruption, and four were under investigation at the time of the report.

Supreme Court Judge Yelena Maxuta told journalists on August 5 that the number of judges dismissed for ineptitude in 2019 was close to the number dismissed during the previous 10 years. She further stated that 10 percent of judgeships were vacant, and one of five district courts (the lowest level of trial courts) lacked a chairperson due to lack of qualified candidates.

On July 29, the Auezov district court in Almaty convicted a former judge of the Bostandyk district court, Elvira Ospanova, for taking an approximately 1.2 million tenge ($3,000) bribe. Ospanova received four years in prison and a life ban on state service.

Military courts have jurisdiction over civilian criminal defendants in cases allegedly connected to military personnel. Military courts use the same criminal law as civilian courts.

The law provides for the right to a fair trial.

All defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and by law are protected from self-incrimination. Trials are public except in instances that could compromise state secrets or when necessary to protect the private life or personal family concerns of a citizen.

Jury trials are held by a panel of 10 jurors and one judge and have jurisdiction over crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment, as well as grave crimes such as trafficking and engagement of minors in criminal activity. Activists criticized juries for a bias towards the prosecution as a result of the pressure that judges applied on jurors, experts, and witnesses.

Observers noted the juror selection process was inconsistent. Judges exerted pressure on jurors and could easily dissolve a panel of jurors for perceived disobedience. The law has no mechanism for holding judges liable for such actions.

Indigent defendants in criminal cases have the right to counsel and a government-provided attorney. By law a defendant must be represented by an attorney when the defendant is a minor, has mental or physical disabilities, does not speak the language of the court, or faces 10 or more years of imprisonment. The law also provides defendants the rights to be present at their trials, to be heard in court, to be provided with an interpreter if needed, to confront witnesses against them, and to call witnesses for the defense. They have the right to appeal a decision to a higher court. According to observers, prosecutors dominated trials, and defense attorneys played a minor role. Defense attorneys in human rights-related cases said that they experienced harassment from authorities. Attorneys also sometimes complain they and the defendants do not always have adequate time or facilities to prepare.

On the night of July 1, officers of the Anticorruption Agency in Aktau (Mangystau region) detained attorney Karshiga Kushkinov and held him for 14 hours. Investigator Aset Izbasar forced the attorney to give a confession and threatened to place him under arrest. The investigator also tried to force Kushkinov to bribe a judge of the Aktau city court. Izbasar’s supervisor then threatened Kushkinov with arrest if he went public about their actions. Kushkinov contacted human rights defenders and posted messages about the incident on social media, alleging that he was targeted for defending victims of police abuse (specifically in the case of a young man who had to have his kidney removed after being beaten by police).

Domestic and international human rights organizations reported numerous problems in the judicial system, including lack of access to court proceedings, lack of access to government-held evidence, frequent procedural violations, denial of defense counsel motions, and failure of judges to investigate allegations that authorities extracted confessions through torture or duress.

During COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, courts worked remotely. Attorneys complained that during this time, courts made more mistakes and arbitrary decisions than usual and failed to follow procedures and deadlines.

In its September 6 amicus brief in activist Ilyashev’s court trial, the Clooney Foundation for Justice stated that Ilyashev’s court proceedings, held entirely online through video-conferencing software, violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial defense. The amicus brief stated that the defendant and his counsel were “periodically either unable or limited in their ability to participate in the proceedings,” were continuously prevented “from making motions, presenting arguments, and questioning witnesses,” and that the defendant’s right to communicate with counsel was breached. Ilyashev “was only able to speak to his lawyers in a handful of instances, during short breaks in the trial…[and] almost never confidentially,” according to the amicus brief.

Lack of due process remained a problem, particularly for cases arising from civil protests.

Human rights activists and international observers noted investigative and prosecutorial practices that emphasized a confession of guilt over collection of other evidence in building a criminal case against defendants. Courts generally ignored allegations by defendants that officials obtained confessions through torture or duress.

The civil society alliance Tirek maintained a list of approximately 23 individuals it considered detained or imprisoned based on politically motivated charges. These included activist Aron Atabek, land law activist Maks Bokayev, and individuals connected to the banned political party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), which is led by fugitive banker and opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov. Additionally, more prisoners were connected to the Koshe Party, also banned and labeled by the government as the successor of the DCK, as well as others connected to Mukhtar Ablyazov. Convicted labor union leader Larisa Kharkova remained subject to restricted movement, unable to leave her home city without permission of authorities. Human rights organizations have access to prisoners through the NPM framework.

Bokayev was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison for his role in organizing peaceful land reform protests. He was convicted of “instituting social discord,” “disseminating knowingly false information,” and “violating the procedure of organization and holding of meetings, rallies, pickets, street processions and demonstrations.” Although the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his imprisonment was arbitrary, he remained in jail at year’s end.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

In March Rustam Ibragimov, the former managing director of BTA Bank, was extradited to the country from the United Arab Emirates. As an alleged associate of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading opposition figure residing in France, Ibragimov was allegedly suspected of helping Ablyazov illegally transfer money from BTA Bank to foreign financial institutions. His extradition occurred after joint efforts from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Emirati authorities found a passport he had used to be illegal.

On September 29, France’s National Court of Asylum Issues granted political asylum to Mukhtar Ablyazov. In its ruling the court deplored direct pressure from the government of Kazakhstan and “the obvious attempts by outside agents to exert influence on the asylum authorities.”

On October 12, an Italian court sentenced six Italian law enforcement officers on abduction charges and one justice of the peace for forgery. According to the Italian authorities, Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of Kazakhstani opposition leader and political refugee Mukhtar Ablyazov, and her six-year-old daughter Alua were abducted by certain Italian officers and officials in the framework of interstate cooperation in criminal matters. After a meeting between Giuseppe Procaccini, then head of cabinet of the Ministry of the Interior, and Andrian Yelemesov, the Kazakhstani ambassador to Italy, Alma and Alua were detained by Italian police in 2013 during a raid on Ablyazov’s residence in Rome. While Ablyazov was not home, two days after the raid, Alma and Alua were forced onto a private plane provided by Kazakhstani authorities and flown to Kazakhstan after being charged with alleged passport fraud. Due to mounting international criticism, Alma and Alua were returned to Italy at the end of 2013. The court did not provide a full explanation of the verdict but announced that all the accused received higher sentences than those requested by prosecutors. The head of Rome’s Immigration Office, Maurizio Improta, and the head of the police flying squad, Renato Cortese, were convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and disqualification from holding any public office. Similarly, Francesco Stampacchia and Luca Armeni, the officers of Rome’s flying squad, were sentenced to five years in prison. Stefano Leoni and Vincenzo Tramma, the officers of Rome’s Immigration Office, were given three years and six months and four years, respectively.

Activists and media regularly noted the government targets political opponents, in particular those with business or family connections to Ablyazov, using INTERPOL red notices. On May 14, Ukraine’s Supreme Court revoked a lower court’s ruling in favor of Kazakhstani journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmet’s asylum request. The Supreme Court’s decision made possible the extradition to Kazakhstan of Akhmet, who was wanted there for fraud and was an active supporter of Ablyazov, because Ukraine had ratified an extradition agreement with Kazakhstan. The journalist’s supporters alleged that Ukraine’s Supreme Court decision was a result of cooperation between Ukrainian and Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies. The Open Dialogue Foundation, Freedom House, and Ukrainian and Kazakhstani human rights NGOs called on Ukraine’s authorities not to extradite Akhmet.

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Economic and administrative court judges handle civil cases under a court structure that largely mirrors the criminal court structure. Although the law and constitution provide for judicial resolution of civil disputes, observers viewed civil courts as corrupt and unreliable. During COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, these courts worked remotely, leading to complaints of increased disregard for procedures and deadlines.

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

The constitution and law prohibit violations of privacy, but the government at times infringed on these rights.

The law provides prosecutors with extensive authority to limit citizens’ constitutional rights. The National Security Committee (KNB), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other agencies, with the concurrence of the Prosecutor General’s Office, may infringe on the secrecy of private communications and financial records, as well as on the inviolability of the home. Consistent with previous years, human rights activists reported incidents of alleged surveillance, including KNB officers visiting activists’ and their families’ homes for “unofficial” conversations regarding suspect activities, wiretapping and recording of telephone conversations, and videos of private meetings being posted on social media.

Courts may hear an appeal of a prosecutor’s decision but may not issue an immediate injunction to cease an infringement. The law allows wiretapping in medium, urgent, and grave cases.

Human rights defenders, activists, and their family members continued to report the government occasionally monitored their movements.

On June 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on the regulation of digital technologies. Human rights defenders expressed concern the amendments were adopted without any public dialogue or explanation on the part of the government and that some portions of the amendments were too broad and could be used to infringe on privacy rights and freedom of speech. According to critics, the law did not firmly provide for protection of personally identifiable data or access to such data, and lacked sufficient mechanisms for oversight of the national system. Additionally, it was unclear what the limits and purposes were for the use of biometric data and video monitoring. Under the law the agency authorized to protect personal data is a part of the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry. Those who saw the amendments as insufficient pointed to the data breach in June 2019, when the personal data of 11 million citizens were leaked by the Central Election Commission. Critics said that the lack of proper oversight was highlighted when the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced in January that it had dropped its investigation into the incident, citing a lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.

On December 5, the government announced a cybersecurity drill in which local internet service providers would block residents from accessing foreign sites unless they had a certificate of authority (CA) issued by the government and installed on their devices. The CA allowed a “man-in-the-middle” function that intercepted and decrypted hypertext transfer protocol secure traffic and allowed security forces full access to online activity. While users were able to access most foreign-hosted sites, access was blocked to sites like Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, unless they had the certificate installed. The government-mandated CA was rejected by foreign-hosted sites due to security and privacy concerns. Officials claimed the exercise was being carried out to protect government agencies, telecoms, and private companies, and that increased use of the internet during COVID-19 and the threat of cyberattacks necessitated the actions. Previously, officials had urged adoption of a similar CA in August 2019 but withdrew it after significant public outcry. On December 7, the KNB announced that the certificate rollout was simply a test that had been completed.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including detention, imprisonment, criminal and administrative charges, law, harassment, licensing regulations, and internet restrictions.

After her 2019 visit to the country, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionualla Ni Aolain, expressed deep concern at the use of counterterrorism and extremism laws to target, marginalize, and criminalize the work of civil society. “Nonviolent criticism of State policies can effectively constitute a criminal offense,” she wrote, “as the provisions on extremism and terrorism have been applied to criminalize the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and of thought, which is incompatible with a society governed by rule of law and abiding by human rights principles and obligations.”

Media activists raised concerns about the wide use of the legal provision imposing liability for dissemination of false information. They highlighted its use to pressure or silence journalists and civil society activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 17, authorities arrested and charged activist Alnur Ilyashev for dissemination of false information during a state of emergency. Police stated that Ilyashev’s posts on Facebook critical of the Nur Otan Party and its leader, First President Nazarbayev, contained false information and presented a danger to public order. On June 22, after holding Ilyashev in a pretrial detention facility for more than two months, the Medeu district court in Almaty found him guilty and sentenced him to three years of probation. The court also imposed on Ilyashev a five-year ban on public activity, 100 hours per year of compulsory work during his probation, and a fine of approximately 54, 000 tenge ($130). On September 15, Iliyashev appealed the court ruling but lost the case.

Freedom of Speech: The government limited individual ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in local media. The law prohibits insulting the first president, the sitting president, or their families, with penalties up to five years’ imprisonment, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.63 million tenge ($32,800) and imprisonment for up to five years.

On February 6, the Mangistau regional court of appeals upheld the Munailinski district court’s verdict and sentence of local activist, blogger, and vocal political critic Zhambyl Kobeisinov to six months of incarceration for libel. The case was initiated by the local police chief, who sued Kobeisinov and his wife for defaming him on Kobeisinov’s YouTube channel.

On April 13, the KNB in Karaganda arrested Arman Hasenov on charges of insulting First President Nazarbayev with the posting of a video in which he criticized Nazarbayev. On April 30, the Kazybek Bi district court in Karaganda convicted Hasenov and sentenced him to three years of probation, 100 hours a year of compulsory labor, and an administrative fine of 41,670 tenge ($100).

Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev were sentenced in 2018 to eight and seven years’ imprisonment, respectively, for advocating terrorism. Supporters and human rights advocates called the case against them politically motivated and asserted that the video of masked figures calling for jihad that served as the primary evidence for their convictions was fabricated by the government. Zhumagulov was a supporter of the banned DCK opposition organization. Abishev, who denied any connection to the DCK, was an advocate for land reform and other political matters. On April 29, a court in Kapshagay granted Kenzhebek Abishev’s request of early release by replacing the remaining time of his sentence with probation. Prosecutors challenged this decision, and on July 8, the Almaty regional court of appeals overturned the Kapshagay court’s decision to release Abishev. The Almaty regional court also upheld on November 24 a Kapshagay district court decision of October 5 to deny a subsequent request by Abishev for early release. Separately, on July 1, the Kapshagay city court declined Almat Zhumagulov’s request for early release.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were severely limited. Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. The lack of transparency in media ownership and the dependence of many outlets on government contracts for media coverage are significant problems.

Companies allegedly controlled by members of First President Nazarbayev’s family or associates owned many of the broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the nationwide television broadcasters. Regional governments owned several frequencies, and the Ministry of Information and Social Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system.

All media are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Social Development, although websites are exempt from this requirement. The law limits the broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 50 percent of a locally based station’s weekly broadcast time. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to create programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision. Foreign media broadcasting does not have to meet this requirement.

Violence and Harassment: Independent journalists and those working in opposition media or covering stories related to corruption and rallies or demonstrations reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors.

On March 16, 101TV.kz YouTube channel journalist Botagoz Omarova went to the Eurasia Building Company in Karaganda to submit a formal information request for the investigative journalism report she was preparing on the company’s reportedly poor performance. While waiting for a representative to receive her letter, Omarova was attacked by a guard, who dragged her out of the building, assaulted her, and seized her smartphone. Police are reviewing her complaint.

On April 11, KTK TV reporter Beken Alirakhimov and cameraman Manas Sharipov were detained by police on the premises of the Atyrau regional hospital. They were recording interviews with a group of doctors and nurses who spoke about difficulties they faced during the COVID-19 emergency situation. The journalists were taken to a police station where they were forced to submit a written statement explaining the incident. They then were placed under quarantine because they had contacted doctors who could potentially have been infected.

Human rights activists criticized the country’s chief health officer Aizhan Yesmagambetova’s July decision to ban taking photos and videos in hospitals. Yesmagambetova explained the restrictions were necessary to protect the privacy of patients and to protect medical workers from unwarranted pressure. Media watchdog Adil Soz stated that by law the chief health officer does not have the power to restrict media freedom. On social media, activists said the ban was intended to restrict information about a general lack of personal protective equipment and other health-care supplies. In its analytical report entitled, Freedom of Speech in Conditions of the Emergency Situation and Quarantine, Adil Soz stated that “the freedom of expression, of obtaining and dissemination of information was unreasonably restricted” during the emergency situation, and the constitutional guarantees of those rights were violated. Authorities did not provide full and accurate information about the rationale and adequacy of the quarantine restrictions.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law enables the government to restrict media content through amendments that prohibit undermining state security or advocating class, social, race, national, or religious discord. Owners, editors, distributors, and journalists may be held civilly and criminally responsible for content unless it came from an official source.

Journalists and media outlets exercised self-censorship to avoid pressure by the government. The law provides for additional measures and restrictions during “social emergencies,” defined as “an emergency on a certain territory caused by contradictions and conflicts in social relations that may cause or have caused loss of life, personal injury, significant property damage, or violation of conditions of the population.” In these situations the government may censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to authorities 24 hours before issuance or broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations may be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. Regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and to seize temporarily sound-enhancing equipment.

In May Irina Volkova, a reporter of the government-controlled Zvezda Priirtyshia newspaper in Pavlodar, requested information from the regional education department as part of her work on an article she was writing for a part-time job at another newspaper. The reporter requested information about the local boarding school for children with mental disabilities. The managers of Zvezda Priirtyshia pressured her to check all her requests with her supervisor and not to pose controversial questions. She was told that the restrictions also applied to her work for other media outlets.

By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Authorities continued to charge bloggers and social media users with criminal violations due to their online posts.

On May 15, the Petropavlovsk city court convicted blogger Azamat Baikenov for participation in the banned DCK. The prosecutors presented Baikenov’s posts in social media and messengers as evidence of Baikenov’s participation in the DCK based on the conclusions of experts who were contracted by investigators. These contracted experts found that Baikenov’s posts “formed Kazakhstani citizens’ negative attitude to the authorities and encouraged them to take actions aimed at changing the government.” The defendant argued that he was not an extremist and not a single fact of his affiliation with the DCK or propaganda of its ideas was proved. He also criticized the judge for not examining materials objectively and for merely supporting the prosecutor. The judge sentenced Baikenov to one year of probation and payment of an administrative fine of 27,000 tenge ($65).

On April 6, Bagdat Baktybayev, an activist in Zhambyl province, was sentenced to 10-days administrative arrest for violation of public order during the emergency situation. According to the court verdict, Baktybayev was found guilty for livestreaming long lines of individuals at the local post office where they were submitting documents for a social allowance that the government paid to those who lost incomes because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He made loud comments, audible on the livestream, expressing dissatisfaction with how the government worked.

Libel/Slander Laws: On June 27, the president signed amendments into legislation that removed liability for libel from the law. Human rights activists and observers welcomed the decriminalization of libel but remained concerned that the law continues to impose serious punishment for libel. Several articles in the law remained that could also be applied against individuals insulting officials. These included the following: “Public insult or other infringement on the honor and dignity of the First President,” “Infringement on the honor and dignity of the President,” “Infringement on the honor and dignity of a Member of Parliament,” “Insulting a representative of authority,” “Libel in regard to a judge, juror, investigator, expert, court bailiff,” and “Dissemination of knowingly false information.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple complaints that authorities used the legal provision on the spreading of false information to put pressure on journalists and civil society activists.

The law includes penalties for conviction of defamatory remarks made in mass media or “information-communication networks,” including heavy fines and prison terms. Journalists and human rights activists feared these provisions would strengthen the government’s ability to restrict investigative journalism.

National Security: The law criminalizes the release of information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the first president, as well as economic information, such as data on mineral reserves or government debts to foreign creditors. To avoid possible legal problems, media outlets often practiced self-censorship regarding the president and his family.

The law prohibits “influencing public and individual consciousness to the detriment of national security through deliberate distortion and spreading of unreliable information.” Legal experts noted the term “unreliable information” was overly broad. The law also requires owners of communication networks and service providers to obey the orders of authorities in case of terrorist attacks or to suppress mass riots.

The law prohibits publication of any statement that promotes or glorifies “extremism” or “incites discord,” terms that international legal experts noted the government did not clearly define. As part of the president’s reform agenda, the government in June enacted amendments to the criminal code’s Article 174, “Incitement of Social, Ethnic, Tribal, Racial and Religious Discord.” Many observers criticized those amendments as insignificant. The term “incitement” was replaced with “inflaming,” and new types of punishment for violation of article 174 were added. Some amendments were made in the law on money laundering and financing of terrorism to mitigate punishment for persons who were convicted under article 174. These included changes that made more convicts eligible to be removed from the list of those who were designated as terrorists or as supporting terrorism. Another provision in the amendment was the ability for former convicts to seek access to limited banking operations for themselves and their family members. Provisions were also included to allow former convicts to have access to more types of previously proscribed income, such as annual leave compensation and travel expenses.

The government subjected to intimidation media outlets that criticized the president, the first president, and their families; such intimidation included law enforcement actions and civil suits. Although these actions continued to have a chilling effect on media outlets, some criticism of government policies continued. Incidents of local government pressure on media continued.

Internet Freedom

The government exercised comprehensive control over online content. Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believed the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakh Telecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government.

Media law prohibits citizens from leaving anonymous comments on media outlet websites, which must register all online commenters and make the registration information available to law enforcement agencies on request. As a result most online media outlets chose to shut down public comment platforms.

The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry controlled the registration of .kz internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.

The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandate surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, require visitors to present identification to use the internet, demand internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorize law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users.

In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites.

The cabinet has the power to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. By law and a cabinet decree, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the KNB, and the ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, and Emergency Situations are authorized to suspend communication networks and communication means in emergency situations or when there is a risk of an emergency situation.

Observers continued to rate the country as a “not free” country that practices disruption of mobile internet connections and throttles access to social media. During protest actions access to internet was often blocked to eliminate the potential to livestream and share live updates from the events. Authorities also blocked access to some independent websites.

On May 16, authorities blocked kuresker.org, which reported on the repression of activists and abuse of prisoners’ rights. Kuresker.org is not included in the government’s official list of websites that are blocked based on court decisions. In response to requests for an explanation of the blocking of kuresker.org, authorities denied involvement.

The website panorama.pub was blocked on July 3 after it posted a news story (which appeared to be satire because the website is satirical) that the country was developing a COVID-19 antitoxin serum derived from antibodies extracted from First President Nazarbayev’s blood, claiming that he had recovered from the disease. The Ministry of Information and Social Development rebuffed the news as fake and warned about liability for the dissemination of false information. The ministry stated that relevant agencies were examining the post and taking measures to stop its further dissemination.

International observers remained concerned about authorities’ pressure on journalists and bloggers. In April Jeanne Cavelier, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said the government was harassing journalists and bloggers who strayed from the official line on the COVID-19 pandemic, on the pretext of forestalling panic, and that this exploitation of the state of emergency harmed press freedom in the country.

Government surveillance of the internet was prevalent. According to Freedom House’s report, “the government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored internet traffic and online communications. The report stated, “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”

On February 13, the Almaty city court rejected the appeal of Aset Abishev, who was sentenced in 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for supporting an extremist organization on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote or shared in support of the banned DCK opposition movement. Media reported that Abishev told the court he did not believe it was a crime to express opinions critical of the government. He said, “If the desire for teachers to receive a decent salary or for children to study and be fed for free in schools is extremism, then I am guilty. But I have not committed any illegal or violent actions.” On June 5, the Kapshagay city court declined Abishev’s request for early release on probation.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although general restrictions, such as the prohibition on infringing on the dignity and honor of the first president, president, and their families, also applied to academics. Many academics practiced self-censorship.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right. On May 25, President Tokayev signed the law on peaceful assembly in the country. The government praised it as a step forward in the liberalization of the country’s legislation. Opponents criticized it as restrictive and falling short of international standards for the freedom of peaceful assembly. Serious restrictions remained. Organizers must submit advance notification to the local government and wait for its response. The law states all gatherings except single-person pickets may only be held in areas designated by authorities, spontaneous gatherings are banned, and foreigners and stateless persons are denied the right to peaceful assembly.

Two opposition groups–the Democratic Party and the DCK–made separate calls to their supporters to rally on June 6. Despite authorities’ warnings against mass gatherings during the pandemic and police blocking roads that led to the venues of rallies, protesters in several cities demanded release of political prisoners, debt forgiveness, a ban on the sale of land to foreigners, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Police stated that 53 protesters were detained, seven of whom were punished by administrative fines, one protester was given a reprimand, and the rest were released after receiving an explanation of the law. Activists claimed that hundreds of protesters were detained by police, with some placed in jail and fined the day of the protest and others arrested afterwards.

On September 13, large peaceful protests were held in six cities after Democratic Party leaders prenotified local authorities in 12 cities of the planned protests. Protesters were allowed to gather and were only observed by police in most cities. Party leaders said that small groups of supporters were reportedly held in administrative detention before and then released just after the protests in some cities.

On September 25, the DCK organized small protests that were met by an energetic law enforcement response. Video on social media showed peaceful DCK protesters being arrested and carried away physically by large units of security forces. Social media posts and news sources indicated at least 43 persons were detained temporarily in connection with the September 25 event.

The law provides for limited freedom of association, but there were significant restrictions on this right. Any public organization set up by citizens, including religious groups, must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, as well as with the local departments of justice in every region in which the organization conducts activities. The law requires public or religious associations to define their specific activities, and any association that acts outside the scope of its charter may be warned, fined, suspended, or ultimately banned. Participation in unregistered public organizations may result in administrative or criminal penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, the closure of an organization, or suspension of its activities.

NGOs reported some difficulty in registering public associations. According to government information, these difficulties were due to discrepancies in the submitted documents (see section 5, Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights).

Membership organizations other than religious groups, which are covered under separate legislation, must have at least 10 members to register at the local level and must have branches in more than one-half the country’s regions for national registration (see sections 3, Political Parties and Political Participation, and 7.a., Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining).

By law all “nongovernment organizations, subsidiaries, and representative offices of foreign and international noncommercial organizations” are required to provide information on “their activities, including information regarding the founders, assets, sources of their funds and what they are spent on….” An “authorized body” may initiate a “verification” of the information submitted based on information received in mass media reports, complaints from individuals and entities, or other subjective sources. Untimely or inaccurate information contained in the report, discovered during verification, is an administrative offense and may carry fines up to 63,125 tenge ($164) or suspension for three months if the violation is not rectified or is repeated within one year. In extreme cases criminal penalties are possible, which may lead to a large fine, suspension, or closure of the organization.

The law prohibits illegal interference by members of public associations in the activities of the government, with a fine of up to 404,000 tenge ($1,050) or imprisonment for up to 40 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 505,000 tenge ($1,310) or imprisonment for no more than 50 days. The law did not clearly define “illegal interference.”

By law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The law was not clear regarding the delineation between actions an NGO member may take in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization.

The law establishes broad reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets; it also requires labeling all publications produced with support from foreign funds. The law also sets out administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.

In November a group of 13 NGOs that receive foreign funds reported heightened scrutiny by tax authorities, which some of the NGOs stated was likely motivated by the NGOs’ planned activities around parliamentary elections on January 10, 2021. The NGOs reportedly received notifications from tax authorities about discrepancies in their 2017-18 foreign grants reports, which the NGOs claimed were typographical errors and minor technical inaccuracies. The penalties the tax authorities proposed, administrative fines of 555,600 tenge ($1,300) and suspension of activities, were not commensurate with the alleged errors. None of the NGOs was accused of evading taxes, inappropriate spending of funds, or other unlawful tax-related actions.

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Despite some regulatory restrictions, the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government required foreigners who remained in the country for more than five days to register with migration police. Foreigners entering the country had to register at certain border posts or airports where they entered. Some foreigners experienced problems traveling in regions outside their registration area. The government’s Concept on Improving Migration Policy report covers internal migration, repatriation of ethnic Kazakh returnees, and external labor migration. In 2017 the government amended the rules for migrants entering the country so that migrants from Eurasian Economic Union countries may stay up to 90 days. There is a registration exemption for families of legal migrant workers for a 30-day period after the worker starts employment. The government has broad authority to deport those who violate the regulations.

Since 2011 the government has not reported the number of foreigners deported for gross violation of visitor rules. Individuals facing deportation may request asylum if they fear persecution in their home country. The government required persons who were suspects in criminal investigations to sign statements they would not leave their city of residence.

Authorities required foreigners to obtain prior permission to travel to certain border areas adjoining China and cities in close proximity to military installations. The government continued to declare particular areas closed to foreigners due to their proximity to military bases and the space launch center at Baikonur.

A state of emergency was declared by the president from March 16 to May 11 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The government set stringent restrictions on the freedom of movement. Movement within cities and towns was restricted, and checkpoints were established to control the flow of traffic into and out of cities, where most of the early virus cases occurred. Special permission was granted to essential workers to pass the checkpoints. Many measures were implemented with short notice. All flights were stopped initially, and then were gradually allowed to resume, as the state of emergency ended and restrictions were gradually eased. Citizens’ mobility within cities was also restricted and required advance permission, but information about who had been granted permission was often incomplete, which initially limited mobility even for those with permission.

During the most stringent lockdown period, individuals were allowed to leave home only to go to grocery stores or pharmacies within 1.2 miles of their homes. All playgrounds were shut down. Children could not be outdoors without parents, and parks were closed. In localized cases authorities locked down whole apartment buildings if one tenant tested positive for COVID-19. In several extreme cases, local authorities welded shut entrance doors to the buildings. Police cordons surrounded the buildings. Residents were required to remain in their homes, often without sufficient food and other essential supplies. Human Rights Commissioner Elvira Azimova spoke up against locks put on apartment buildings. She stated that she believed it was enough to put fences and police cordons around buildings. Subsequent government responses to COVID-19 outbreaks in specific regions were less severe, but the government continued to employ time-limited travel restrictions and roadblocks to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic also had severe impacts on labor migrants. During the state of emergency period, many lost jobs or were forced to take unpaid leave. As a result, many could not afford housing, health services, or food. Migrants remained ineligible to seek government support, and they could not return to their home countries because air flights and railways stopped and borders were closed. Human rights activists reported that courts continued to issue rulings on deportation of migrants who did not have the relevant work permissions.

In May the government adopted a resolution to allow through January 5, 2021, the exit, without administrative penalties, of foreign citizens with expired or expiring identification documents or permits (visas, registration cards, work or residence permits). The government, with the assistance of local NGOs, negotiated with neighboring governments for the return of migrant laborers to their home countries. Migration Service Centers in all regions provided services for migrant laborers at one-stop express windows. As of November, according to government statistics, 149,217 foreign citizens had returned home from the country (including 30,801 Russian citizens), and the government had legalized the status of 146,970 foreign citizens (of whom 94,405 received temporary work permits, 1,966 received authorization for family reunion, 872 to study, 148 to receive medical care, and 6,501 for visa extensions).

Foreign Travel: The government did not require exit visas for temporary travel of citizens, yet there were certain instances in which the government could deny exit from the country, including in the case of travelers subject to pending criminal or civil proceedings or having unfulfilled prison sentences or unpaid taxes, fines, alimony, or utility bills, or compulsory military duty. Travelers who presented false documentation during the exit process could be denied the right to exit, and authorities controlled travel by active-duty military personnel. The law requires persons who had access to state secrets to obtain permission from their employing government agency for temporary exit from the country.

Exile: The law does not prohibit forced exile if authorized by an appropriate government agency or through a court ruling.

Not applicable.

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.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were 510 recognized refugees in the country as of July. Both the number of refugee applications and the approval rate by the government declined considerably compared with prior years.

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. UNHCR legal partners may appeal to the government and intervene on behalf of individuals facing deportation. The law, several implementing regulations, and bylaws regulate the granting of asylum and refugee status.

The Refugee Status Determination outlines procedures and access to government services, including the right to be legally registered and issued official documents. The Department of Migration Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducts status determination procedures. Any individual located within the country who seeks asylum in the country has access to the asylum procedure. According to UNHCR, the refugee system falls short of the international standard regarding access to asylum procedures and access to the country’s territory. Authorities remained reluctant to accept asylum applications at the border from persons who lacked valid identity documents, citing security concerns. A person who crossed the border illegally may be prosecuted in criminal court, and subsequently may be viewed as a person with criminal potential, a negative factor in the asylum decision.

On August 17, authorities extradited Uzbek opposition activist Hurram Berdiyev to Uzbekistan, which had listed him as wanted for human trafficking in 2013. Activists alleged that the charges were fabricated and Berdiyev was persecuted for his opposition political activity as a member of the opposition Erk party. In February, following the request of Uzbek colleagues, police in Sairam arrested Berdiyev. When he was in custody, Berdiyev’s lawyers helped him apply for refugee status, but the government denied his application.

In October the government granted asylum to the following four ethnic Kazakhs who had fled China: Kaster Musakhan, Murager Alimuly, Malik Bashagar, and Kaisha Khan. On January 21, the Zaisan city court in East Kazakhstan province had sentenced both Musakhan and Alimuly to one year of imprisonment for illegally crossing into the country from China. Credited with time served in pretrial detention, Musakhan and Alimuly had been released from prison on June 22, pending the completion of their asylum application process.

A legislative framework does not exist to manage the movement of asylum seekers between the country’s borders and authorities in other areas. There are no reception facilities for asylum seekers. The government does not provide accommodation, allowances, or any social benefits to asylum seekers. The law does not provide for differentiated procedures for persons with specific needs, such as separated children and persons with disabilities. Asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs are not entitled to financial assistance. There are no guidelines for handling sensitive cases, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) cases.

Employment: Refugees faced difficulties in gaining employment and social assistance from the government. By law refugees have the right to work but may not engage in individual entrepreneurship. Refugees faced difficulties in accessing the labor market due to local employers’ lack of awareness of refugee rights, with the result that most refugees worked on the informal economy.

Access to Basic Services: All refugees recognized by the government receive a refugee certificate that allows them to stay in the country legally. The majority of refugees have been residing in the country for many years. Their status as “temporarily residing aliens” hinders their access to the full range of rights stipulated in the 1951 Convention and the law. Refugee status lasts for one year and is subject to annual renewal. In 2018 it became possible for refugees to apply for permanent residency if they have a valid passport. Some refugees received permanent residency in 2018 and 2019, and they are eligible to become Kazakhstani citizens after five years of residency. The law also lacked provisions on treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs. Refugees have access to education and health care on the same basis as citizens, but they have no access to social benefits or allowances.

UNHCR reported cordial relations with the government in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

The government was generally tolerant in its treatment of local refugee populations.

Consistent with the Minsk Convention on Migration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the government did not recognize Chechens as refugees. Chechens are eligible for temporary legal resident status for up to 180 days, as are any other CIS citizens. This temporary registration is renewable, but local migration officials may exercise discretion over the renewal process.

The government has an agreement with China not to tolerate the presence of ethnic separatists from one country on the territory of the other.

The constitution and law provide avenues to deal with those considered stateless, and the government generally took seriously its obligation to ease the burden of statelessness within the country. The country contributes to statelessness because application for Kazakhstani citizenship requires renunciation of citizenship of the country of origin, with no stipulation that Kazakhstani citizenship would be granted. As of July 1, a total of 7,757 persons were officially registered by the government as stateless, according to UNHCR. The majority of individuals residing in the country with undetermined nationality, with de facto statelessness, or at heightened risk of statelessness, are primarily those who have no identity documents, have invalid identity documents from a neighboring CIS country, or are holders of Soviet-era passports. These individuals typically resided in remote areas without obtaining official documentation.

The law allows the government to deprive individuals of citizenship if convicted of a range of grave terrorism and extremism-related crimes, including for “harming the interest of the state.” According to UNHCR and the government, no one has been deprived of citizenship under this law. Instead, during the year the government repatriated hundreds of citizens who joined international terrorist organizations and their families, prosecuting the fighters in criminal court and providing social services to family members.

According to UNHCR, the law provides a range of rights to persons recognized by the government as stateless. The legal status of officially registered stateless persons is documented, and they are considered as having permanent residency, which is granted for 10 years in the form of a stateless person certificate. According to the law, after five years of residence in the country, stateless persons are eligible to apply for citizenship. Children born in the country to officially recognized stateless persons who have a permanent place of residence are recognized as nationals. A legal procedure exists for ethnic Kazakhs; those with immediate relatives in the country; and citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan, with which the country has agreements. The law gives the government six months to consider an application for citizenship. Some applicants complained that, due to the lengthy bureaucratic process, obtaining citizenship often took years. In summary the law does not provide a simplified naturalization procedure for stateless persons. Existing legislation prevents children of parents without identity documents from obtaining birth certificates, which hindered their access to education, free health care, and freedom of movement.

Persons whose citizenship applications are rejected or whose status as stateless persons has been revoked may appeal the decision, but such appeals involved a lengthy process.

Officially recognized stateless persons have access to free medical assistance on the level provided to other foreigners, but it is limited to emergency medical care and to treatment of 21 contagious diseases on a list approved by the Ministry of Health Care and Social Development. Officially recognized stateless persons have a right to employment, although not with the government. They may face challenges when concluding labor contracts, since potential employers may not understand or be aware of this legal right.

UNHCR reported that stateless persons without identity documents may not legally work, which led to the growth of illegal labor migration, corruption, and abuse of authority among employers. Children accompanying stateless parents were also considered stateless.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Although the government took some steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, impunity existed, especially where corruption was involved or personal relationships with government officials were established.

Corruption: Corruption was widespread in the executive branch, law enforcement agencies, local government administrations, the education system, and the judiciary, according to human rights NGOs. According to the Anticorruption Agency, the largest number of officials held liable for corruption in the first six months were in police, finance and agriculture areas. They also reported a three-fold increase in the number of corruption cases among military officers.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Agency on Combatting Corruption, KNB, and economic investigations service of the Finance Ministry are responsible for combating corruption. The KNB investigates corruption crimes committed by officers of the special agencies, anticorruption bureau, and military. During the first nine months of the year, the government recorded 2,140 corruption crimes across all agencies. In addition to administrative and disciplinary penalties, 195 officials had cases submitted to the courts and were held criminally liable. The most frequent crimes were bribery, abuse of power, and embezzlement of property. The government charged 442 civil servants with corruption crimes.

On May 27, a court found the governor of Pavlodar province, Bulat Bakauov, guilty of abuse of power. As a result of a plea bargain reached by the defendant and prosecutors, the court sentenced Bakauov to 3.5 years of restricted freedom of movement (probation) and to a life ban on government service. The court did not rule on confiscation of any property because it did not find any property obtained by unlawful means.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials, applicants for government positions, and those released from government service to declare their income and assets in the country and abroad to tax authorities annually. The same requirement applies to their spouses, dependents, and adult children. Similar regulations exist for members of parliament and judges. Tax declarations are not available to the public. The law imposes administrative penalties for noncompliance with the requirements.

Kyrgyzstan

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

There were no reports during the year that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating any killings involving law enforcement. Military prosecutors are responsible for investigating killings involving the military. In cases where there may be a conflict of interest, the Ministry of Internal Affairs can transfer a criminal investigation and prosecution to a military prosecutor, at their discretion.

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

The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Nevertheless, physical abuse, including inhuman and degrading treatment, reportedly continued in prisons. Police abuse reportedly remained a problem, notably in pretrial detention.

Defense attorneys, journalists, and human rights monitoring organizations, including Golos Svobody, Bir Duino, and the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch (HRW), reported incidents of torture by police and other law enforcement agencies. Authorities reportedly tortured individuals to elicit confessions during criminal investigations. Through June the Antitorture Coalition reported 54 allegations of torture. The police accounted for 52 of the allegations, while the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) accounted for the remaining two cases. According to the Antitorture Coalition, 21 of the 54 investigations into torture were dropped on administrative grounds. As of the end of 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) had not brought criminal charges in any of the alleged cases of torture, though investigations continue in 33 cases. NGOs stated that the government established strong torture-monitoring bodies but that influence from some parts of the government threatened the independence of these bodies.

The NGO Golos Svobody (The Voice of Freedom) played a central role in monitoring allegations of torture. Golos Svobody served as the main organizer of the Antitorture Coalition, a consortium of 18 NGOs that continued to work with the PGO to track complaints of torture. The Antitorture Coalition also accepted complaints of torture and passed them to the PGO to facilitate investigations. According to members of the Antitorture Coalition, the cases it submitted against alleged torturers did not lead to convictions.

In cases where prosecutors tried police on torture charges, prosecutors, judges, and defendants routinely raised procedural and substantive objections. These objections delayed the cases, often resulting in stale evidence, and ultimately led to case dismissal.

During the year NGOs reported that courts regularly accepted as evidence confessions allegedly induced through torture. The human rights NGO Bir Duino reported that the police continued to use torture as a means to elicit confessions, and that courts often dismissed allegations of torture, claiming that the defendants were lying in order to weaken the state’s case. Defense lawyers stated that, once prosecutors took a case to trial, a conviction was almost certain. In a report on torture in the country, Bir Duino highlighted ongoing issues, including the implementation of the new legal code creating gaps in an already weak system for investigating torture, and the failure of legal institutions, including investigatory judges, to investigate torture in a timely manner. Bir Duino also reported that ethnic Uzbeks composed 51 percent of torture cases, despite only representing 18 percent of the population. According to Golos Svobody, investigators often took two weeks or longer to review torture claims, at which point the physical evidence of torture was no longer visible. Defense attorneys presented most allegations of torture during trial proceedings, and the courts typically rejected them. In some cases detainees who filed torture complaints later recanted, reportedly due to intimidation by law enforcement officers.

Prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life threatening due to food and medicine shortages, substandard health care, lack of heat, and mistreatment.

Physical Conditions: Pretrial and temporary detention facilities were particularly overcrowded, and conditions and mistreatment generally were worse than in prisons. Authorities generally held juveniles separately from adults but grouped them in overcrowded temporary detention centers when other facilities were unavailable. Experts reported that inmates who had been convicted of crimes involving terrorism or extremism were not adequately separated from the general population. Convicted prisoners occasionally remained in pretrial detention centers while they appealed their cases.

NGOs reported that in some cases prison gangs controlled prison management and discipline, since prison officials lacked capacity and expertise in running a facility. In some instances the gangs controlled items that could be brought into the prison, such as food and clothing, while prison officials looked the other way. According to NGOs, authorities did not try to dismantle these groups because they were too powerful and believed that removing them could lead to chaos. Some prisoners indicated that prison officials left prison order and safety to the prison gangs or prisoners themselves, resulting in instances of violence and intimidation among inmates.

Prisoners reported prison officials did not provide access to appropriate medical care in prisons, including medications, to prisoners. Human rights organizations reported that the government failed to provide prisoners and prison staff with personal protective equipment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Federation for Human Rights, called on the government to respect Mandela Rules regarding vulnerable prisoners during the pandemic and called for the release of imprisoned human rights activist and journalist Azimjan Askarov. Despite complaints from his lawyer and human rights organizations that he was gravely ill, Askarov died in prison in July likely due to COVID-19, and was only moved to the prison hospital two days before his death.

Administration: Authorities did not conduct proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners have the right to file complaints with prison officials or with higher authorities. According to Bir Duino, prison staff inconsistently reported and documented complaints. Many observers believed the official number of prisoner complaints of mistreatment represented only a small fraction of the actual cases. Officials running pretrial detention facilities often denied persons held in pretrial detention access to visitors.

The government empowered the National Center to Prevent Torture (NCPT), an independent and impartial body, to monitor detention facilities. NGO representatives stated that NCPT officials made progress monitoring and documenting some violations in detention facilities. They stressed, as they had in previous years that the government needed to implement a standardized approach to identifying torture cases and provide additional resources and staff members to the NCPT to conduct its work.

Independent Monitoring: Most monitoring groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), reported receiving unfettered access to prisons and pretrial detention facilities, except for detention centers the GKNB operates. Some NGOs, including Bir Duino and Spravedlivost, had the right to visit prisons independently as part of their provision of technical assistance, such as medical and psychological care.

The government granted individuals working in NCPT’s seven regional offices the authority to make unannounced, unfettered visits to detention facilities.

While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest, it continued to occur. Human rights organizations reported that authorities unfairly targeted and arrested ethnic Uzbeks for alleged involvement in banned religious organizations and for alleged “religious extremism activity.” While police have reduced arrests of ethnic Uzbeks for possession of “extremist materials” after a change in the extremism law in 2019, NGOs report that security services have shifted to online monitoring of social media accounts, and arresting ethnic Uzbeks who were alleged to be associated with “extremist groups.” Attorneys reported that police frequently arrested individuals on false charges and then solicited bribes in exchange for release.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

According to the criminal procedure code, only courts have the authority to issue search and seizure warrants. While prosecutors have the burden of proof in persuading a judge that a defendant should be detained pending trial, activists reported detention without a warrant or in contravention of regulatory standards remained common. NGOs reported police targeted vulnerable defendants from whom they believed they could secure a bribe. Authorities could legally hold a detainee for 48 to 72 hours before filing charges. Experts on torture abuse reported police and security services often failed to report that they detained a person in order to prolong harsh interrogation and torture. The law requires investigators to notify a detainee’s family of the detention within 12 hours. The general legal restriction on the length of investigations is 60 days. The law, however, provides courts the discretion to hold a suspect in pretrial detention for as much as one year, depending on the severity of the charges, after which they are legally required to release the suspect. Once a case goes to trial, the law provides courts the authority to prolong detention until the case is closed without limitations on duration of custody. The judicial system operates a functioning bail system. The law allows courts to use alternative measures instead of detention, such as restrictions on foreign travel and house arrest.

Persons arrested or charged with a crime have the right to defense counsel at public expense. By law the accused has the right to consult with defense counsel immediately upon arrest or detention, but in many cases the first meeting did not occur until the trial. As in past years, human rights groups noted incidents in which authorities denied attorneys access to arrested minors, often held the minors without parental notification, and questioned them without parents or attorneys present, despite laws forbidding these practices.

The law authorizes the use of house arrest for certain categories of suspects. Reports indicated law enforcement officers selectively enforced the law by incarcerating persons suspected of minor crimes while not pursuing those suspected of more serious offenses.

Arbitrary Arrest: As in previous years, NGOs and monitoring organizations, including Golos Svobody, Bir Duino, and Spravedlivost, recorded complaints of arbitrary arrest. Most observers asserted it was impossible to know the number of cases because the majority of these individuals did not report their experiences. According to NGOs in the southern part of the country, arrests and harassment of individuals allegedly involved in extremist religious groups–predominantly ethnic Uzbeks–continued.

Press reported arrests of individuals suspected of involvement in the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir; such arrests continued a trend that began in 2014. According to Bir Duino, however, corruption within the law enforcement system motivated some arrests. Civil society alleged police entered homes falsely claiming to have a search warrant, planted banned Hizb ut-Tahrir material, and arrested the suspect in the hope of extracting a bribe to secure release.

Both local and international observers said the GKNB and law enforcement officers engaged in widespread arbitrary arrests, including some alleged to be politically motivated; detainee abuse; and extortion, particularly in the southern part of the country.

On May 30, the GKNB arrested Kamil Ruziev, head of the Ventus human rights organization, for falsifying documents and fraud. According to a government spokesperson, the GKNB made the arrest after a client claimed that Ruziev had offered to provide legal expertise, despite not having a license to practice law. Human rights organizations immediately called for Ruziev’s release, asserting that his arrest was an attempt to silence a critic of the police and endemic torture. On June 22, the Issyk Kul District Court upheld his arrest as legal, prompting Bir Duino to issue a press release highlighting that the GKNB did not have jurisdiction over forgery and fraud cases under the criminal code, and questioning why the GKNB was involved. Additionally Bir Duino claimed that the court’s decision to put Ruziev under house arrest did not follow normal protocol.

Pretrial Detention: Civil society groups frequently reported lengthy pretrial detention periods for detained individuals. Political machinations, complex legal procedures, poor access to lawyers, and limited investigative capacity often lengthened defendants’ time in pretrial detention beyond the 60-day limit, with some individuals being detained legally for as long as one year. Seven pretrial detention facilities held approximately 2,500 persons.

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but judges were subject to influence or corruption. Throughout the year the conduct and outcome of trials appeared predetermined in multiple cases. Numerous sources, including NGOs, attorneys, government officials, and private citizens, asserted that some judges paid bribes to attain their positions. Many attorneys asserted that judges ubiquitously accept bribes. Authorities generally respected court orders.

Numerous NGOs described pervasive violations of the right to a fair trial, including coerced confessions, use of torture, denial of access to counsel, and convictions in the absence of sufficiently conclusive evidence or despite exculpatory evidence. International observers reported threats and acts of violence against defendants and defense attorneys inside and outside the courtroom, as well as intimidation of trial judges by victims’ relatives and friends.

From February to March, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights monitored the criminal trial of Gulzhan Pasanova as part of the Clooney Foundation’s TrialWatch initiative. Pasanova was convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm resulting in her husband’s death. Pasanova, who claimed to have been subjected to long-term domestic abuse by her husband, argued that she acted in self-defense. According to the ABA, the proceedings against Pasanova were marred by serious irregularities, including: state-imposed limitations of the right to call and cross-examine witnesses, a lack of an impartial tribunal, significant impediments to the right of appeal, and a failure of the court to act according to a presumption of innocence. Additionally the ABA asserted that the prosecutor and court disregarded the documented history of domestic violence, in contravention of Pasanova’s right to be free from “discrimination.”

While the law provides for defendants’ rights, the customs and practices of the judicial system regularly contradicted the constitutional presumption of innocence, and pretrial investigations focused on the collection of sufficient evidence to prove guilt. The law requires investigators to inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them and to provide interpreters as needed. Courts conducted trials in the state language, Kyrgyz, or the official language, Russian. In a majority of trials, courtroom procedure required defendants to sit in caged cells.

Defense attorneys complained that judges routinely returned cases to investigators if the prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to prove guilt, during which time suspects could remain in detention. According to attorneys, judges typically gave defendants at least a suspended sentence instead of finding them not guilty regardless of how little evidence existed to sustain a prison term.

Courts generally opened trials to the public, unless the case allegedly involved state secrets or privacy concerns of defendants. Courts often announced verdicts publicly, even in closed proceedings. State prosecutors submit criminal cases to courts, while judges direct criminal proceedings. Criminal cases feature a single judge, while three-judge panels conduct appellate cases. Judges have full authority to render verdicts and determine sentences. The government granted a limited number of judges the necessary security clearances to access documents deemed secret, further circumscribing defendants’ access to impartial judicial review in cases purporting to relate to national security.

The law provides for unlimited visits between an attorney and a client during trial, but authorities occasionally did not grant permission for such visits. The government provided indigent defendants with attorneys at public expense, and defendants could refuse legal counsel and defend themselves. HRW, domestic NGOs, and local attorneys reported some state-provided criminal defense lawyers were complicit with prosecutors and did not properly defend their clients. Many observers, particularly in the southern part of the country, described these lawyers as “pocket attorneys” who would help secure bribes from their client to pass to police and judges, which would then secure the client’s eventual release. International observers reported that defense attorneys in rural areas provided a lower quality of representation than defense attorneys in the capital. In many cases individuals accused of extremism-related crimes experienced difficulty trying to find an attorney who was not closely connected to police.

The law permits defendants and their counsel to attend all proceedings, question witnesses, present evidence, call witnesses, and access prosecution evidence in advance of trial, but courts frequently did not follow these requirements. Courts typically required witnesses to testify in person. Under certain circumstances courts allowed testimony via audio or video recording. Defendants and counsel, by law, have the right to communicate freely, in private, with no limitation on the frequency. Defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal a court’s decision. An appellate court can increase a lower court’s sentence against a defendant.

Human rights and civil society NGOs claimed there were a small number of incarcerated political prisoners. Human rights observers noted several high-profile trials for corruption and related crimes appeared to be politically motivated, targeting political opposition and members of former president Atambaev’s administration. NGOs that monitor prison conditions did not report political prisoners were treated differently from other prisoners. The government permitted access to political prisoners by human rights NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On July 24, Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist, died in prison. Askarov, along with seven other codefendants, had a life sentence for allegedly organizing riots that caused the death of a police officer during the 2010 ethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Askarov remained imprisoned until his death. In 2016 the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Askarov was arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured, and otherwise mistreated without redress. Supreme Court proceedings in Askarov’s appeal were marred with irregularities and police attempted to bar Askarov’s legal team from the initial hearing in March. Additionally, police initially denied a representative of OSCE’s ODIHR permission to attend the public court proceeding. During his final hearing in May, family members of the slain police officer threatened Askarov’s wife and lawyer, and the court continued proceedings without addressing the threats. After a short hearing, the Supreme Court upheld Askarov’s life sentence.

In the days before his death, media reported that Askarov was gravely ill. According to his lawyer, Askarov’s health was visibly deteriorating at their last face-to-face visit. The lawyer reported that Askarov had lost significant weight and that prison guards had to carry him into the room. The lawyer also said that Askarov was no longer eating, and the prison was giving him glucose intravenously to maintain nutrition. Bir Duino and other NGOs called for Askarov’s release, highlighting ongoing health concerns and a possible COVID-19 infection. The government repeatedly denied that Askarov’s health was failing or that Askarov had COVID-19, and claimed no prisoners in the prison system had the virus. The Office of the Ombudsman released a statement claiming that Askarov refused treatment and displayed no symptoms of COVID-19 during a medical examination. Bir Duino accused the ombudsman of deliberately misrepresenting Askarov’s health. After his death, the government stated that Askarov died from bilateral pneumonia and said Askarov had been placed on an oxygen concentrator. According to the death certificate, Askarov died after removing the tube connecting him to the oxygen concentrator.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

In December 2019 Syrgak Kenzhebaev, the husband of Shirin Aitmatova, former member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and a prominent anticorruption activist, was detained and deported to Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan on the basis of a case lodged on behalf of a Chinese businessman in Kyrgyzstan who accused him of fraud. This came at a time when Aitmatova was heavily involved in protests against the KG government related to new corruption allegations. Aitmatova said the deportation was based on a complaint by one of the individuals implicated in the corruption scandal.

The constitution and law provide for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. As with criminal matters, observers believed the civil judicial system was subject to influence from the outside, including by the government. Local courts address civil, criminal, economic, administrative, and other cases. The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority. The constitution provides citizens the right to apply to international human rights bodies seeking protection of violated rights and freedoms in accordance with international treaties. Nonetheless, the decisions of international bodies are nonbinding and therefore not subject to enforcement by the government.

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

According to the law, wiretaps, home searches, mail interception, and similar acts, including in cases relating to national security, are permitted only with the approval of the prosecutor and based on a court decision. Such actions are permitted exclusively to combat crime. There were reports that the government failed to respect these restrictions, including reports of police planting evidence in cases of extremism investigations. Seven government agencies have legal authority to monitor citizens’ telephone and internet communications.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.

Freedom of Speech: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of provisions of law on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted these provisions to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm such violations of law as arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. This was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.

Security services and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.

On March 21, the government declared a state of emergency for one month due to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The Media Policy Institute (MPI) reported the restrictions introduced in the state of emergency hampered the ability of journalists to report on the effects of COVID-19. MPI noted that the Commandant of Bishkek, the office in charge of the COVID-19 response in the capital, initially refused to accredit journalists to permit them to travel to report on the epidemic. Additionally, MPI reported that only state media was able to report from medical centers, despite the Commandant’s claim that journalists would not receive accreditation due to health and safety reasons. Law enforcement also warned that anyone publishing “false” information about the epidemic could be charged with a crime.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.

In a 2019 investigation, local Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)-affiliate Azattyk, online Kloop media, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an expose that implicated former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov in a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme. In the aftermath of the report, RFE/RL relocated some of their journalists to Prague amid serious threats to their lives and families, for fear of political reprisal. On April 10, former Osh customs officer Emilbek Kimsanov released a video showing purported text messages from Matraimov offering to pay Kimsanov for the return of Ali Toktokunov, one of the journalists who broke the corruption scandal, to the country “dead or alive.”

On January 9, two men assaulted Bolot Temirov, the founder of Factcheck.kg, a local investigative reporting website, after publishing an investigation into former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov detailing how the Matraimov family spent far more than their reported income would suggest. After the assault, Temirov stated that the attackers only stole his phone, which caused him to believe the attack was motivated by intimidation.

In June unknown assailants firebombed the Talas office of a small independent television channel, 3 Kanal. No one was injured in the attack; however, the head of the broadcaster estimated that the damage totaled approximately $15,000.

On October 5, during protests against parliamentary elections, there were multiple reported cases of violence against press. During a live broadcast, police fired a rubber bullet directly at a correspondent for Nastoyashchee Vremya, a Voice of America affiliate, and during a live recording, police seized a phone from a 24.kg reporter. On October 6, while a journalist from independent media outlet Kaktus broadcast live from a hotel hosting a meeting by some members of parliament, supporters of Sadyr Japarov reportedly attacked the reporter, surrounding her and demanding she stop filming. On October 10, 20-30 individuals tried to force their way into the Sputnik.kg office, demanding that the outlet send a reporter to cover a pro-Japarov protest occurring in the city. The mob allegedly threatened the editorial staff, saying Sputnik.kg had 30 minutes to begin broadcasting, otherwise they would break down the door and attack the office.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from government offices to report in a particular way or to ignore specific news stories.

NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.

In April local media reported that private citizens who criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 were coerced by government officials into recanting their reports and publicly apologizing to the government. The GKNB, the agency publishing videos of the apologies, denied they had pressured anyone to apologize and claimed the videos were submitted voluntarily. A doctor who posted a message on Twitter about the poor quality of personal protective equipment for medical workers claimed he was forced to apologize and later deleted his Twitter account.

Libel/Slander Laws: While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.

In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite some improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. In January former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov, along with his brother MP Iskander Matraimov, sued Kloop, Azattyk Radio, and 24.kg in response to the publication of an investigative series on a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme centered on Raimbek Matraimov. Initially, the judge in the case froze the assets of all of the media organizations but later reversed the decision. The Matraimovs dropped their suit against 24.kg after a retraction published on their website.

On August 19, Jalalabad police summoned AKIpress reporter Bekmamat Abdumalik uulu, purportedly in connection to a libel case. Abdumalik uulu asserted he was questioned in relation to a blog post critical of the government. A Ministry of Interior spokesperson claimed they had received a formal complaint that accused the journalist of disseminating “false rumors harmful to reputation and honor.” The Media Policy Institute, a press advocacy organization, issued a statement that noted libel laws are matters for civil litigation, and the police therefore illegally questioned Abdumalik uulu.

Internet Freedom

The government generally allowed access to the internet, including social media sites. There were no public credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The Civic Initiative on Internet Policy reported on 371 internet resources that are blocked by the government, including archive.org, soundcloud.com, and numerous links to Facebook and YouTube. The Civic Initiative for Internet Policy noted there were some sites the government blocked without a court order, including Change.org, which was blocked after a petition appeared calling for the impeachment of the president.

NGOs reported that security services have shifted to online monitoring of social media accounts, and media reported that the government targeted bloggers and social media users for critical internet posts. On July 15, the GKNB interrogated comedian Nazgul Alymkulova over satirical posts about the president and the government. Two days later, police detained Argen Baktybek uulu, an administrator of the Facebook group Memestan, over posts critical of the government. Baktybek was detained due to “the dissemination of information that demeans the authorities.” On July 28, the GKNB interrogated Eldiyar Zholdoshev after he posted a video online that criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 and called President Jeenbekov the worst president in the history of the country. The GKNB claimed that Zholdoshev had violated the law against incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or interregional hatred.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that authorities regularly monitored chatrooms and dating sites in an effort to punish and extort those who were seeking homosexual sex through online venues.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Institutions providing advanced religious education must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.

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 constitution provides for this right, although it limited peaceful assembly in Bishkek and Talas, with local governments refusing to issue permits for peaceful marches. Organizers and participants are responsible for notifying authorities of planned assemblies, but the constitution prohibits authorities from banning or restricting peaceful assemblies, even in the absence of prior notification. Local authorities, however, have the right to demand an end to a public action and, in the event of noncompliance, are empowered to take measures to end assemblies.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the government reportedly used public health concerns as a pretext for preventing peaceful protests. On March 5, during preparation for the annual Women’s March, a district court ruled that the event would not be allowed to proceed due to concerns about COVID-19. On March 6, the court reversed its decision, and allowed the march to take place. During the march, ultranationalists attacked the demonstrators, in some cases physically assaulting women marchers. The police allowed the attack to continue with impunity, and arrested the peaceful marchers. After the arrests, multiple human rights NGOs reported lawyers were denied access to their clients. After several hours, the police released the detainees, and the Prosecutor General’s Office declined to press charges. On March 10, members of Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights), the ultranationalist group that attacked the march, were fined for their part in the violence.

The law provides for freedom of association, although the government increased harassment of NGOs. NGOs are required to have at least three members and all other organizations at least 10 members. The Ministry of Justice did not refuse to register any domestic NGOs. The law prohibits foreign-funded political parties and NGOs, including their representative offices and branches, from pursuing political goals.

During the first half of the year, targeted harassment of NGOs and their workers by the government and ultranationalist groups increased significantly. These attacks appear to have centered on NGOs opposing proposed legislation to increase the requirements for the registration of NGOs. NGOs reported harassment from government security agencies, including unannounced visits to NGO offices, and threats. Additionally, ultranationalist groups repeatedly threatened NGOs. During one public meeting on the potential effects of the proposed legislation, a group of ultranationalists assaulted the security staff, gained entrance to the meeting, and publicly threatened to burn down the office of an NGO. Under pressure from civil society groups, parliament decided to delay consideration of the proposed law.

The government continued to maintain bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Kurdish People’s Congress, the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky.

Numerous human rights activists reported continued arrests and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature (see section 1.d.). Most arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members occurred in the southern part of the country and involved ethnic Uzbeks.

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

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

Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel abroad by citizens who have or had access to information classified as state secrets until the information is declassified.

Citizenship: The law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The government did not use the law during the year.

Not applicable.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to provide some protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In April the State Migration Service reported there were 193 refugees in the country, including 87 from Afghanistan.

Refoulement: In August the GKNB arrested Bobomorud Abdullayev, an Uzbek journalist who alleged he was tortured in Uzbekistan for his work. According to the GKNB, the government of Uzbekistan requested his arrest. Despite his request for asylum, the GKNB allegedly refused to permit Abdullayev access to his lawyers, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, or the UNHCR. Despite calls from civil society not to extradite Abdullayev, the government handed over Abdullayev to Uzbek authorities on August 22, without an extradition hearing as required by law. On August 28, Abdullayev’s lawyers alleged that the GKNB tortured Abdullayev during his detention.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law on refugees includes nondiscrimination provisions covering persons who UNHCR did not grant refugee status to when they left their country of origin and extends the validity of documents until a final decision on status is determined by a court. Despite local law the government has ignored asylum requests from asylum seekers likely to be tortured upon their return to their home country.

Employment: The government grants legal permission to work to individuals UNHCR has determined are refugees and to whom the government has granted official residency status in the country. Not all refugees qualify for residency status according to the government. Individuals who UNHCR has determined are refugees, but to whom the government has not conferred legal residency, are not legally permitted to work, access medical services, or receive identity documents. Therefore, they are susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities.

Access to Basic Services: The government deemed individuals whom UNHCR determined ineligible for refugee status, as well as asylum seekers who lacked official status, as ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for public officials convicted of corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Civil society and media reported numerous incidents of government corruption during the year. According to Transparency International, the government appears to selectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases. The practice of officials in all levels of law enforcement accepting the payment of bribes to avoid investigation or prosecution is a major problem. Law enforcement officers, particularly in the southern part of the country, frequently employed arbitrary arrest, torture, and the threat of criminal prosecution as a means of extorting cash payments from citizens (see section 1.d.).

Corruption: The GKNB’s anticorruption branch is the only government body formally empowered to investigate corruption. It is not an independent government entity; the branch’s work is funded from the GKNB’s operating budget. The branch limits its cooperation with civil society. The State Service to Combat Economic Crimes, also known as the Financial Police, investigates economic crimes, which sometimes includes corruption-related crimes.

A joint investigative report started in 2019 and continued this year by RFE/RL affiliate Azattyk, the OCCRP, and Kloop, uncovered a large corruption scheme centered on smuggling goods into and out of the country. The investigation relied upon Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer, who was later killed in Istanbul after he was revealed as the source of the reporting. Saimaiti identified former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov as the ringleader of the scheme, using his official position to move shipments of goods through customs without inspection or fees in exchange for payments from smugglers. The GKNB conducted an initial investigation into the claims, but did not directly investigate Matraimov.

According to Eurasianet, the interim Japarov administration arrested the crime kingpin and issued a statement claiming Matraimov has since 2016 operated a corrupt scheme to “extract shadow income during [his] administration of the customs system.” In the aftermath of his arrest, Matraimov reportedly agreed to pay $24.5 million in compensation for damage caused through his activities to the country’s coffers, though the investigative reporting indicated his criminal activity resulted in the embezzlement of over $700 million.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all public officials to publish their income and assets. The State Personnel Service is responsible for making this information public. Officials who do not disclose required information may be dismissed from office, although the government did not regularly enforce this punishment.

Tajikistan

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

The law prohibits extrajudicial killings by government security forces, and there were no reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents during the year.

The government took no action during the year in response to the preliminary findings of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which visited the country in 2019 for a general inspection. Following its visit, the Working Group noted “little interest” on the part of the government in addressing violations, including enforced disappearances that occurred during the 1992-97 civil war, and noted reports of some political opponents whose whereabouts were still unknown after being forcibly returned to the country.

The constitution prohibits the use of torture, although the government amended the criminal code in 2012 to add a separate article to define torture in accordance with international law. According to the 2019 UN Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) concluding observations, reports of beatings, torture, and other forms of coercion to extract confessions during interrogations were of concern. While authorities took some limited steps to hold perpetrators accountable, reports of torture and mistreatment of prisoners continued, and a culture of impunity and corruption weakened investigations and prosecutions. In some cases, judges dismissed defendants’ allegations of abuse during their pretrial detention hearings or trials. Officials did not grant sufficient access to information to allow human rights organizations to investigate claims of torture.

During the first six months the year, the Coalition against Torture, a group of local NGOs, documented 25 new cases of mistreatment with some victims alleging severe physical abuse. Of these complaints, 19 were against the Internal Affairs Ministry, one against the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), two against the Ministry of Justice’s Penitentiary Department, one against the State Financial Control and Anticorruption Agency, one against the Ministry of Defense, and one case was a victim of sexual harassment at work (in the private sector).

On July 14, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that it had received eight complaints during the first six months the year of the possible use of torture and mistreatment. In the course of the prosecutor’s investigations, a criminal case was opened based on one allegation. In a July 16 press conference, Human Rights Ombudsman Umed Bobozoda stated that during the first six months of the year, his office received three complaints regarding the possible use of torture and mistreatment, but the facts of torture were not confirmed.

The government operated 10 prisons, including one for women, and 12 pretrial detention facilities. Exact conditions in the prisons remained unknown, but detainees and inmates described harsh and life-threatening conditions, including extreme overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: As of October, the total prison population was approximately 8,000. The government began a mass amnesty in October 2019 that reportedly released 3,000 prisoners. No official statistics were available regarding the actual number of prisoners released, although Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other outlets reported the mass amnesty. The RFE/RL report noted that this was the country’s 15th mass amnesty since 1992, but the list of those released did not include political prisoners. On October 30, President Rahmon announced an amnesty decree for another 378 prisoners, but the government did not publicly release the list of prisoners.

On July 13, the Ministry of Justice reported that in the first half of the year, 41 prisoners died from various diseases. The ministry reported that within the prison population, there were 213 HIV-positive inmates, 85 inmates with tuberculosis, and 244 drug-addicted inmates.

The government did not acknowledge the COVID-19 outbreak until the end of April and claimed the country had zero cases. The Ministry of Justice reported no instances of prisoners with COVID-19 but confirmed that 98 were ill with pneumonia, with 11 deaths. Relatives of prisoners expressed concern about the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities. Prison authorities banned prison visits starting March 30 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Shukhrat Rahmatullo, the son of Rahmatullo Rajab, an imprisoned member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), told media at the end of April that his father was in critical condition with a fever of over 102 degrees, and that doctors subsequently told him that “90 percent of sick prisoners have COVID-19.” Rahmatullo also claimed that prison authorities never tested any prisoners for COVID-19 despite likely community spread among prisoners. Additional media reports alleged that prisoners were denied access to medications and lacked personal protective equipment and that there were few thermometers. Authorities responded to these reports by asserting that prisons were well equipped with medicines, beds, X-ray machines, and mechanical ventilation devices.

Penal Reform International, an organization conducting prison reform work with regional representation out of Kazakhstan, described in a 2019 report the conditions in the women’s prison as frigid in the winter, with only intermittent electricity and heat, and a lack of sufficient food provisions for both inmates and staff. Disease and hunger were serious problems. The 2019 OHCHR concluding observations found concerning levels of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons. Authorities often held juvenile boys with adult men.

Administration: The Office of the Ombudsman conducted prison visits throughout the year but resolved fewer than 2 percent of complaints filed related to torture or other abuse. NGOs reported mistrust of the ombudsman due to the office’s loyalty to the president and frequent dismissal of human rights concerns. A special monitoring group with ombudsmen and NGO representatives conducted announced visits of prison conditions. No known complaints were filed regarding specific prison conditions.

Independent Monitoring: The Ministry of Justice continued to restrict access to prisons or detention facilities for representatives of the international community. Throughout the year the Coalition against Torture and the human rights ombudsman conducted visits of closed institutions, although officials denied Coalition against Torture monitors private interviews with detainees or access to internal correctional institution documents. The International Committee of the Red Cross continued to lack access to prisons due to the absence of an agreement with the government, a situation that has persisted since 2004.

Arbitrary arrests were common and the law does not prohibit the practice. The law states that police must prepare a detention report and inform the prosecutor’s office of an arrest within 12 hours and file charges within 10 days. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but use of this provision was limited. Few citizens were aware of their right to appeal an arrest, and there were few checks on the power of police and military officers to detain individuals. Human rights activists reported incidents of forced military conscription, including of persons who should have been exempted from service.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that police may detain a suspect for up to 12 hours before authorities must decide whether to open a criminal case against the individual. If authorities do not file charges after 12 hours, the individual must be released, but police often did not inform detainees of the arrest charges even if ones were filed. If police file criminal charges, they may detain an individual for 72 hours before they must present their charges to a judge for an indictment hearing. Judges are empowered to order detention, house arrest, or bail pending trial.

According to law, family members are allowed access to prisoners after indictment, but prisoners are often denied access to visitors. The law states that a lawyer is entitled to be present at interrogations at the request of the detainee or lawyer, but in many cases, authorities did not permit lawyers timely access to their clients, and initial interrogations occurred without them. Detainees suspected of crimes related to national security or extremism were held for extended periods without being formally charged.

Arbitrary Arrest: The government generally provided a rationale for arrests, but detainees and civil society groups frequently reported that authorities falsified charges or inflated minor incidents to make politically motivated arrests. According to Human Rights Watch, the country has arbitrarily detained and imprisoned more than 150 individuals on politically motivated charges since 2015.

On January 28, the prosecutor general reported that the government had detained 113 suspected members of “Ikhwon-ul-muslimin” (“Muslim Brotherhood”), a group banned and labelled as an extremist organization by the government in 2006. Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon announced that while detainees were members of the clergy, teachers, and employers of various universities, the group’s goal was to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. In February authorities released from custody about 30 detainees from Isfara and Istaravshan in the Sughd region after 10 to 20 days in detention.

On December 18, the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe, following closed-door proceedings, found Asroriddin Rozikov guilty of participation in the activities of banned political parties or organizations and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. Human Rights Watch reported that on June 25, the GKNB detained Rozikov, son of Zubaidulloi Rozik, an imprisoned leader of the IRPT. The GKNB did not comment on the detention or conviction. Relatives alleged the motive for Rozikov’s arrest was to pressure his father to condemn publicly the leadership of the IRPT.

Jannatullo Komil, the head of the bureau of IRPT in Germany, one of the hundreds of members who live in exile in Europe, wrote in a July 8 Facebook post that local law enforcement bodies arrested five members of his family and detained them for a week without charges. According to Komil, his brother, sister, daughter-in-law, and two nieces were interrogated by the GKNB and Ministry of Internal Affairs. The interrogators demanded that the family hand over their sons who were living abroad in exile, largely in Europe.

Pretrial Detention: Defense lawyers alleged that prosecutors often held suspects for lengthy periods and registered the initial arrest only when the suspect was ready to confess. In most cases, pretrial detention lasted from one to three months but could extend as long as 15 months. Law enforcement officials must request an extension from a judge to detain an individual in pretrial detention after two, six, and 12 months. According to the OHCHR concluding observations, authorities tortured defendants in pretrial detention in attempts to extract confessions.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of charge, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. Despite such rights to challenge detention, a decrease in the number of lawyers licensed to take on criminal cases and the general apprehension with which lawyers take on sensitive cases limited the exercise of this right for those arrested on charges suspected to be politically motivated.

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive branch exerted pressure on prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges. Corruption and inefficiency were significant problems. According to numerous nongovernmental contacts, police and judicial officials regularly accepted bribes in exchange for lenient sentencing or release. During a research mission on the independence of the judiciary in May, the International Commission of Jurists noted, “judicial decisions are generally not available to members of the public unless they are participants in the proceedings.”

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but this presumption was often absent in practice. More than 90 percent of defendants were eventually found guilty. The International Commission of Jurists noted acquittals were extremely rare.

Although the law requires that defendants be informed of the criminal charges against them within 10 days, in practice they were not always promptly informed or granted a trial without undue delay. Courts generally allowed defendants to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial, but defendants are often denied access to an attorney during the pretrial and investigatory periods, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Authorities continued to file politically motivated criminal charges against some defense lawyers to obstruct detained political opposition figures’ access to legal counsel and to dissuade other lawyers from taking on similar cases.

The government provides attorneys at public expense when requested, but defendants and civil society members complained that the government sometimes appointed attorneys as a means to deny defendants’ access to the legal counsel of their choice. Defendants and private attorneys said government-appointed attorneys often provided a poor and counterproductive defense. Moreover, the government abolished a grandfather clause allowing experienced lawyers to continue to practice after a 2016 law required all lawyers to retake the bar examination to renew their licenses. As a result, the number of lawyers accepting criminal defense cases in the country shrank from approximately 2,000 to little more than 500. International observers found many criminal cases in which defendants did not have legal representation. Criminal defendants enjoy the legal right to prepare their defense but this right was often infringed.

Defendants may present witnesses and evidence at trial with the consent of the judge. Defendants and attorneys have the right to confront and question witnesses and to present evidence and testimony. Courts provide interpreters for defendants who do not speak Tajik, the official language used for court hearings. No groups are barred from testifying and, in principle, all testimony receives equal consideration. Courts, however, generally give prosecutorial testimony far greater consideration than defense testimony. Local legislation allows criminal defendants not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants also enjoy the right to appeal.

Low wages for judges and prosecutors left them vulnerable to bribery, a common practice. Government officials subjected judges to political influence.

Although most trials were public, the law also provides for secret trials when there is a national security concern. Civil society members faced difficulties in gaining access to high-profile public cases, which the government often declared secret.

In July the Supreme Court began the trial of 116 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including some of those arrested in January. The press center of the Supreme Court announced the trial would be held behind closed doors. The defendants’ lawyers refused to speak with media due to the Supreme Court classifying the case as secret. Relatives of the accused also declined to comment on the case to journalists but said they were able to bring food to the detention center but not see their relatives. The family members also claimed that state-provided lawyers frequently do not communicate with relatives of suspects.

While authorities claimed there were no political prisoners or politically motivated arrests, opposition parties and local and international observers reported the government selectively arrested and prosecuted political opponents. Although there was no reliable estimate of the number of political prisoners, in 2018 the government reported 239 prisoners who were members of banned political parties or movements.

On December 5, police in Dushanbe detained the deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Mahmurod Odinaev, on criminal charges of “hooliganism” and threats against law enforcement. The maximum punishment for these charges is five years in prison. The Office of the Prosecutor General released a statement indicating that the charges stemmed from an alleged altercation on October 29 during which Odinaev reportedly confronted military officials in Hissor for illegally drafting Odinaev’s son, Hojiakbar. A court in Hissor on December 7 approved a request by the local prosecutor’s office to order that Odinaev remain in detention for up to two months. Odinaev’s relatives claimed publicly that authorities targeted him due to his political activism.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

During the year there were credible reports of attempted misuse of international law enforcement tools, such as law enforcement systems (for example, INTERPOL red notices), for politically motivated reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country. The government used INTERPOL notices in an effort to locate and forcibly repatriate Tajik dissidents targeted by the government. The Central Bank of Tajikistan keeps a public list of over 2,400 names of suspected terrorists as defined by authorities. The list also includes names of opposition journalists and activists. According to a RFE/RL report from October 2019, six journalists and opposition activists living in self-exile in Europe publicly demanded the bank remove their names from the list. Other dissidents were frequently harassed or detained on politically motivated charges of extremism. As of July, the government had placed 72 Muslim Brotherhood members on the international wanted list.

In June the Supreme Court sentenced 29-year-old opposition activist Hizbullo Shovalizoda to 20 years in prison on charges of extremism after he was extradited from Austria in March. The Supreme Court classified the trial as secret, preventing officials from discussing Shovalizoda’s trial with embassies and other interested parties. Shovalizoda’s relatives told RFE/RL that the family was not permitted to attend the trial. In July the Austrian Supreme Court invalidated the extradition order, ruling that Austria’s decision to reject Shovalizoda’s asylum request and extradite him to Tajikistan was illegal. The court further noted that the decision to reject the asylum request was based on outdated information.

In September a member of banned opposition “Group 24” told RFE/RL that one of its members, Shobuddin Badalov, had been arrested in Russia and forcibly repatriated to the country, where he was likely to face torture. Neither Russian nor Tajik officials issued official statements regarding the situation. In response to an inquiry, the government confirmed that Badalov was detained upon his arrival in Tajikistan and a case against him for “arranging activities of an extremist organization” was in pretrial investigation. He remained in custody.

Civil cases are heard in general civil courts, economic courts, and military courts. Judges may order monetary compensation for victims in criminal cases. No separate juvenile justice system exists, although there were some courts that provided a separate room for children linked to the courtroom by video camera. Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts or through administrative mechanisms.

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

The constitution states the home is inviolable. With certain exceptions, it is illegal to enter a home by force or deprive a person of a home. The law states police may not enter and search a private home without the approval of a judge. Authorities may carry out searches without a prosecutor’s authorization in exceptional cases, “where there is an actual risk that the object searched for and subject to seizure may cause a possible delay in discovering it, be lost, damaged, or used for criminal purposes, or a fugitive may escape.” The law states courts must be notified of such searches within 24 hours. Police frequently ignored these laws and infringed on citizens’ right to privacy, including conducting personal searches without a warrant.

According to the law, “when sufficient grounds exist to believe that information, documents, or objects that are relevant to the criminal case may be contained in letters, telegrams, radiograms, packages, parcels, or other mail and telegraph correspondence, they may be intercepted” with a warrant issued by a judge. The law states only a judge may authorize monitoring of telephone or other communication. Security offices often monitored communications, such as social media and telephone calls, without judicial authorization.

According to the law, government authorities can punish family members for offenses committed by their relatives, for example, if an underage child commits an offense. There were continuing reports that Tajikistan-based relatives of perceived government critics in exile were harassed or targeted by local authorities.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.

Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets.

In 2016 parliament amended the criminal code, originally passed in 2007, which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.

In January and February, independent and private television and radio stations received two directives signed by Tojiddin Karimzoda, the head of the State Inspectorate for Television and Radio Broadcasting of the State Radio and Television of Tajikistan. The first, dated January 31, required private television and radio stations to submit their broadcasting schedule to the State Inspectorate on a weekly basis. The second, dated February 4, contained recommendations to promote issues “related to state policy.” Both directives stated that, if the recommendations are ignored, “punishment” would occur. When questioned, Karimzoda denied the recommendations represented inappropriate interference in the editorial freedom of private television and radio.

On July 4, President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the code of administrative offenses that impose fines and criminal penalties on individuals who disseminate “inaccurate” COVID-19 information, spread infectious diseases, or fail to wear protective masks in public. Prior to the amendments, the Ministry of Health had complained publicly about independent, factual reporting on COVID-19 in the country, claiming that such reporting mischaracterized the situation and would lead to panic. The president signed the law, approved by parliament on June 10, despite multiple appeals from media watchdogs and civil society organizations that argued the new law would undermine freedom of expression and critical media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following passage of the law, news sites began reporting less frequently on suspected deaths from COVID-19. An independent website that maintained an unofficial list of COVID-19 deaths based on reporting from surviving family members stopped posting regular updates, allegedly because families had become concerned about government reprisals for sharing information about deaths due to COVID-19. When COVID-19-like illnesses were officially reported as pneumonia by authorities, local news outlets typically refrained from questioning the diagnosis.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats. Although some media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding banned groups such as IRPT and Group 24.

Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not renew the accreditation for RFE/RL’s Russian-language Current Time correspondent Anushervon Aripov after it expired on August 1. According to Radio Ozodi’s local bureau director, Muhammadvafo Rahmatov, the ministry expressed dissatisfaction over two articles published on RFE/RL’s website, claiming biased reporting by its correspondents and Aripov. In one of the articles, Aripov criticized President Rahmon’s campaigning methods during the 2013 presidential election. As of September 1, a total of 13 Radio Ozodi and Current Time employees were without accreditation. Of this group, the Foreign Affairs Ministry informed seven journalists that their accreditation was forthcoming, and they could therefore continue their work in the country. The other six, including Aripov, did not have permission to work as journalists for RFE/RL and another three journalists hired by RFE/RL had not been accredited as of October. In addition, three employees that Radio Ozodi planned to hire in summer 2019 never received accreditation and eventually pursued other employment opportunities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to renew the accreditation of the last three acting heads of Radio Ozodi’s Dushanbe branch and issued limited three-to-six month accreditations to all other employees whose accreditations were renewed after October 2019 (the standard length was 12 months). According to Radio Ozodi leadership, the ministry declined (in most cases) to offer specific explanations to Radio Ozodi for withholding or delaying accreditations to their staff. Public statements by the foreign minister and the country’s mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated the reason for withholding accreditations was the outlet’s publication of interviews and quotes from members of banned opposition groups, primarily the IRPT and Group 24.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Radio Ozodi reported that several of its contacts and family members of its staff were questioned by authorities about the activities of its journalists and in some cases had their telephones confiscated for examination. Journalists from the Prague-based independent news website Akhbor were also warned by local authorities not to report on certain topics. On November 13, Akhbor editor in chief Mirzo Salimpur announced the media outlet had to shut down due to legal problems brought on by the Tajik government.

Two unknown assailants physically assaulted Asia-Plus journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati on May 11 near Dushanbe’s Korvon Market. According to an Asia-Plus article, Ghurbati received several threatening telephone calls from unknown individuals prior to the attack. The report also alleged that Ghurbati, known for covering sensitive topics, had come under online attack from a government “troll farm,” allegedly created by the country’s security services to silence government critics online. Other media outlets reported that immediately after the incident, Ghurbati sought medical treatment at three Dushanbe hospitals, but the hospitals turned him away, claiming they were under a COVID-19 quarantine. He finally received treatment at a local burn center, and he reported the attack to police. Media also noted that Ghurbati had been covering issues related to the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

On May 29, unknown assailants assaulted Ghurbati again in the Khuroson District of the Khatlon Region as he was reporting on the victims of damage caused by heavy rains and a mudslide that took place earlier in the district. Ghurbati reported that one of his assailants claimed to be the head of the Jamoat (municipality). On May 30, the Ministry of Interior Affairs released a statement regarding the attack alleging that Ghurbati attempted forcibly to enter a tent where victims of the recent rains were residing in order to film family members, especially minors. The residents reportedly resisted Ghurbati by driving him away. The ministry also claimed he wanted to awaken in residents a sense of discontent with the state and government. Ghurbati disputed this version of events, reporting he was not allowed to approach the areas of residences before he was accosted. On June 2, a court in the Khuroson District fined three local residents who perpetrated the attack on Ghurbati for petty hooliganism in the amount of 580 somoni ($58).

On July 3, the prosecutor general’s office in Dushanbe summoned and questioned two relatives of exiled journalist Mirzo Salimpur, the founder and chief editor of Akhbor. Salimpur told the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in a telephone interview that he believed his relatives were interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to pressure him to stop publishing criticism of the administration prior to the country’s presidential elections. During the incident, a man who identified himself as an official with the Prosecutor General’s Office interrogated two of Salimpur’s sisters-in-law who lived in the town of Hissor for several hours to learn about Salimpur’s other relatives. Salimpur said that his sisters-in-law felt intimidated and threatened by the interrogations.

On April 16, the Shohmansur District Court of Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharifov to one year in prison for allegedly inciting national and religious hatred. The GKNB detained Sharifov on January 28 and held him in custody for two months while his case was investigated. Sharifov pleaded not guilty but had no plans to appeal the verdict, as he would likely finish his sentence before the appeals process would finish. The guilty verdict came after a two-day closed trial. Sharifov’s lawyer and parents were permitted to attend the trial, but journalists and human rights activists were denied entry, allegedly as a COVID-19 preventative measure. According to Sharifov’s lawyer, the state prosecutor demanded that the judge sentence the journalist to two years and four months in prison, but the court sentenced him to a shorter term, because it was his first offense and he had young children. In December the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected the Penitentiary Department’s recommendation to transfer Sharifov to a less restrictive colony settlement for “good behavior,” ostensibly based on a determination that Sharifov was “a danger to society.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials, according to media reports and journalists. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.

Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an application process described as excessively complex. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.

Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail.

Internet Freedom

Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals and used temporary blackouts of all internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.

There were regular government restrictions on access to news websites, such as RFE/RL’s Radio Ozodi, Asia-Plus, and Akhbor. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.

In May, kvtj.com, a website created by a group of civil society activists to track those who died from COVID-19 and pneumonia, became inaccessible without a virtual private network. The website showed that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was several times larger than that reported in official government statistics. Some of the website’s authors received warnings from the government about laws penalizing “false” or “misleading” information around COVID-19.

The law gives law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet, an ability they continue to exercise regularly. According to the law, security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In 2018 parliament further amended the criminal code to criminalize the use of the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Parliament also amended the law criminalizing public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes or publicly justifying terrorist activities, to include statements or calls made via the internet.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.

Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months’ imprisonment. Addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing.

A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.

The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.

The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. During the year the ministry issued an amendment to the regulation that requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement, as it allegedly violates the provisions of the law on personal data, but the ministry has not yet responded.

There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.

The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.

Many female activists were subjected to anonymous harassment and attempts to denigrate them in social networks, including by falsely portraying them as sex workers, in retaliation for their participation in protests. In January the Vahdat police department refused to open a criminal case regarding the distribution of a video, which first appeared in September 2019, containing sexual scenes of activist D.M. with a man whose face on the video was erased. D.M. was among those who in April 2019 collected signatures requesting the president cancel the order to increase fees for mobile internet. The letter from the Investigative Department of Vahdat stated that no criminal case was opened due to the absence of evidence of a crime on the part of the man in the video.

On March 17, the GKNB detained and interrogated the former Dushanbe-based director of RFE/RL’s Tajik service Radio Ozodi, Nisso Rasulova. Observers believed the GKNB targeted Rasulova for attending a women’s empowerment event on March 13. The GKNB reportedly attempted, and failed, to prevent the event from taking place. After finding a venue and holding the event, several participants reported they were contacted, threatened, and blackmailed by GKNB agents.

On July 16, a Khatlon District Court sentenced 10 Khuroson residents to up to 10 days in prison for blocking a major highway on May 17 in a protest demanding government action in response to a mudslide. After heavy rain on May 14-16 caused extensive damage to critical infrastructure across the Khuroson region, dozens of residents took to the streets in protest. Police responded by dispersing the protestors with force. On May 18, the governor of Khatlon met with disaster victims, promising that government aid would be forthcoming, but also warning that “a tough response would follow any provocation.” As of October, in addition to the 10 convictions on July 16, six additional criminal cases against other protestors were still pending.

The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. In 2019 President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs) which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and impose burdensome reporting requirements. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities.

On January 2, the president signed amendments to the code on administrative offenses. The penalty for managing the activities of unregistered, suspended, or prohibited public or religious associations increased fourfold, up to $1,200. Participation in the activities of such associations is now punishable by a penalty of up to $600, a sharp increase from the previous maximum penalty of $42. Individuals and organizations charged with funding the activities of illegal organizations also face fines.

The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, religious-affiliated political parties are banned.

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

The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.

The government rarely 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, or other persons.

In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.

Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country due to arbitrary and inconsistent restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.

At times border security guards placed arbitrary restrictions on citizens wishing to travel abroad. On February 21, border control officers refused to allow a citizen named Abdu Vohidov to cross into the Kyrgyz Republic because he lacked a certificate from the military department office stating he was not a conscript. Such a certificate is not required for travel abroad. The press center of the Border Guards office refused to respond to a media inquiry on the incident.

Not applicable.

Refoulement: National security concerns continued to dominate decisions related to protection and human rights, which often heightened the risk of deportation of asylum seekers and refugees. During the year there were six refugee families (28 persons) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation a law that prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In June the government amended the law to exclude deportation. Despite the update to the law, the risk of refoulement remains.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum, and individuals may seek refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The refugee status determination process, as well as judicial procedures, does not comply with international standards. The criminal code criminalizes asylum seekers who entered the country illegally, in contrast to the country’s Refugee Law, which states that illegal entry is not a crime. These conflicting legal codes mean asylum seekers run the risk of arrest and subsequent deportation without access to asylum procedures. According to law, in order to seek asylum legally, asylum seekers must enter the country legally with valid travel documents and a visa obtained in advance.

The government provides asylum seekers with temporary certification while processing asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and, upon granting refugee status, refugee identification cards as a proof of legal stay. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications.

The government continued to place significant restrictions on asylum seekers and registered refugees, and officials continued to enforce a 2000 law prohibiting them from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.

National law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country had approximately 5,000 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghans.

Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers shared unhindered access to social, education, and health services with Tajik citizens. Although UNHCR’s activities were mostly focused on advocacy and protection, it maintained a limited humanitarian component to render assistance to the most vulnerable families. Thus, UNHCR through its NGO partner Refugees, Children, and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to children from vulnerable families and assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers faced legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.

Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship. As a prerequisite, refugees should denounce their refugee status and apply for a temporary residence permit to be able to apply further for naturalization. To date no such precedent has been recorded.

The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners was 47,746 persons (14,430 men and 33,316 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Sughd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 42,695 persons, both adults and children, with the remaining 5,051 still needing assistance to resolve their situation.

In December 2019 the government adopted an Amnesty Law allowing stateless persons and foreign nationals illegally residing in the country in violation of the rule of stay (for former USSR citizens) to legalize and regularize their legal status. The Amnesty Law is valid until December 2022, at which time all persons falling under the scope of the law must submit their applications for legalization. UNHCR evaluated the law as a major step in combating statelessness in the country.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of corruption, nepotism, and regional hiring bias at all levels of government throughout the year. Media reported that over the previous two years, the vast majority of cases of bribe taking by officials had been reclassified as fraud, and officials were released by paying a symbolic fine, which in most cases was significantly lower than the amount of bribes allegedly received by the officials.

Corruption: Amendments adopted in 2017 give the State Anticorruption Agency the authority to inspect the financial activities of political parties, international organizations, and local public associations. Previously, the Agency had the authority only to check and audit governmental bodies. According to the new requirements, political parties must submit corruption risk assessment reports to the Anticorruption Agency annually. Political parties and in-country political experts raised concerns that empowering the Anticorruption Agency to investigate the activities and budget of political parties would tighten control over their activities.

Corruption in the Ministry of Education was systemic. Prospective students reportedly were required to pay thousands of somoni (hundreds of dollars) in bribes to enter the country’s most prestigious universities, and provincial colleges reportedly required several hundred somoni for entrance. Students reportedly often paid additional bribes to receive good examination grades. According to the Anticorruption Agency, there were 85 registered corruption cases in the education sector during the first six months of the year.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Anticorruption Agency, and the Prosecutor General’s Office are responsible for investigating, arresting, and prosecuting suspected corrupt officials. The government acknowledged a problem with corruption and took some steps to combat it, including putting lower-level officials on trial for taking bribes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Anticorruption Agency submit cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office at the conclusion of their investigations. In some instances, the agencies collaborated with the Prosecutor General’s Office throughout the entire process.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.

Turkmenistan

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

Opposition media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year, nor were there reports of killings by narcotics traffickers or similar criminal groups.

There was a report of the hazing of military conscripts that resulted in three deaths. The law requires that the government protect the health and lives of members of the armed forces.

Opposition media and NGOs did not report politically motivated disappearances during the year. Nonetheless an NGO-led advocacy campaign, Prove They Are Alive!, maintained a list of reported disappeared prisoners. The 2019 list included the names of 121 prisoners, the same number as the previous year, including two releases and two new names from 2018, although the NGO estimated the actual number to be in the hundreds. The list included former ministers of foreign affairs Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev, former director of the Turkmenbashy oil refinery Guychmyrad Esenov, and many others accused of participation in an alleged 2002 assassination attempt on previous president Saparmurat Niyazov.

On August 10, Memorial Human Rights Center based in Russia provided an update on Kakajan Halbayev and Kemal Saparov, Turkmen students who were imprisoned in 2018 after they returned from St. Petersburg, Russia. Halbayev and Saparov received 15 years of imprisonment and were accused of conspiracy violently to overthrow the constitutional order, incitement to religious hatred committed by an organized group, and organization and participation in a criminal community. Memorial reported that, according to the investigation, all the “criminal acts” were committed by them on the territory of St. Petersburg. According to the Memorial report, the government of Turkmenistan alleged 12 citizens of Turkmenistan, who were in St. Petersburg in 2015-16, became members of the religious communities Wahhabi, Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb ut-Tahrir; met in cafes and mosques to discuss religious issues; and with citizens of Russia unidentified by the investigation created an organized criminal group, called for the seizure of power in Turkmenistan, used the internet for their activities, and through the media regularly called for the creation of an Islamic state in Turkmenistan. In 2018 the Ashgabat City Court sentenced Halbayev and Saparov to 15 years in prison in a strict-regime penal colony. They were in Bayramaly colony at the end of the year.

Although the constitution and law prohibit mistreatment, in its January 2017 report (the latest available) the UN Committee against Torture noted its concern at “consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions.” Activists and former prisoners related mistreatment, such as beating kidneys with plastic bottles full of water so bruises do not show on the body and a practice known as sklonka, in which prisoners are forced to stay in the open sun or cold for hours at a time.

In its 2019 review of the country, Amnesty International stated, “Torture and other ill-treatment is reported to be widespread.” Human Rights Watch in its 2019 report stated, “Torture and ill-treatment remain integral to Turkmenistan’s prison system.”

Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government were known to act with impunity, although numerous officials were arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.

Prison conditions reportedly remained unsanitary, overcrowded, and in some cases life threatening due to harsh treatment and inadequate medical care.

Physical Conditions: The prisoners in pretrial detention facilities were predominantly those sentenced but not yet transferred to penal colonies. The six pretrial detention facilities were designed for 1,120 persons but were believed to hold many times that number.

According to RFE/RL, a mosque for 600 individuals was built at MR-E/16 facility. According to the ombudsperson’s report, inspected facilities “… in general comply with the requirements of the law; however, some circumstances have been identified that require improvement of activities and ensuring consistent monitoring.” The ombudsperson sent three recommendations to the Ministry of Internal Affairs: to comply with labor and health safety rules, safety regulations, and industrial sanitation standards; to provide sports grounds with the necessary equipment to perform physical exercise; and to equip special rooms for cultural leisure activities.

On January 27, Turkmen.news published a monologue of a former convict who served at the maximum-security colony LB-K/11 in Lebap Province regarding the deteriorating conditions in the prison system. In June 2019 a commission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs inspected Mary prison hospital MR-B/15, which revealed numerous violations. As a result, the head of the hospital, deputy head, chief doctor, and several staff were demoted and transferred to other places. The inspection also revealed such violations as fake diagnoses and unexplained healthy prisoners living in the medical unit. The former prisoner also reported worsening food conditions.

Prisons were reportedly short on food and medication because the government reduced state support around the country. In February and March 2019, prisoners were cut off from quality bread, meat, rice, and pasta.

On August 4, Chronicles of Turkmenistan (CT) reported a female penal colony in Dashoguz prohibited movement between prison blocks and created an isolation zone for sick inmates. Doctors and nurses from the city infectious disease hospital were sent to work in the colony’s quarantine zone. Inmates were reportedly told to sew their own masks. Some inmates were apparently able to receive medication from relatives, due to a medicine shortage in the colony. CT also reported that two prisoners in Lebap’s LBK/12 penitentiary died of pneumonia in late July. Relatives were not permitted to take the bodies; Ministry of Interior soldiers reportedly buried the bodies in a Lebap cemetery. The General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice apparently agreed to suspend the transfer of convicts to prisons in other provinces.

On August 24, Turkmen.news reported that detainee Bayramdurdy Saparov in LB-K/11 prison colony in Lebap Province died of COVID-19-related pneumonia. Despite suffering chest pains and a lack of oxygen, he could not be transported to the prison hospital MR-B/15 for proper treatment, since all penitentiary institutions were in quarantine due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that began in March.

Administration: Authorities claimed they investigated mistreatment; however, the government did not provide written reports of its investigations to the diplomatic community. The government did not confirm whether it established a prison ombudsman.

According to relatives, prison authorities sometimes denied family members access to prisoners; denied family members permission to give food, medical, and other supplies to some prisoners; and did not make religious facilities available to all prisoners.

Turkmen.news reported in May that authorities prohibited relatives from visiting prisoners starting on March 5, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Independent Monitoring: There was no independent monitoring of the prisons.

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

A warrant is not required for arrest when officials catch a suspect in the act of committing an offense. The prosecutor general must issue an authorization for arrest within 72 hours of detention. If investigating authorities do not find evidence of guilt and issue a formal indictment within 10 days of detention, they must release the detainee; however, authorities did not always comply with this requirement. If evidence is found, an investigation may last as long as two months. A provincial or national-level prosecutor may extend the investigation to six months. The national prosecutor general or deputy prosecutor general may extend the investigation period to a maximum of one year. Following the investigation, the prosecutor prepares a bill of indictment and transfers the case to the court. Courts generally follow these procedures, and the prosecutor promptly informs detainees of the charges against them.

The criminal procedure code provides for a bail system and surety, but authorities did not implement these provisions. The law entitles detainees to immediate access to an attorney of their choice after a formal accusation, although detainees for various reasons may not have prompt or regular access to legal counsel. For example, detainees may have been unaware of the law, security forces may have ignored the entitlement to counsel, or the practice of seeking formal counsel was not a cultural norm. Authorities denied some detainees family visitation during the year. Families sometimes did not know the whereabouts of detained relatives. Incommunicado detention was a problem. The extent to which authorities failed to protect due process in the criminal justice system was unclear.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Persons convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning. In the past the government arrested and filed charges on economic or criminal grounds against those expressing critical or differing views instead of charging its critics with treason.

There were reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. Authorities frequently singled out human rights activists, journalists, members of religious groups, ethnic minorities, and dissidents, as well as members of NGOs who interacted with foreigners.

Pretrial Detention: In most cases the law permits detention of no more than two months, but in exceptional cases it may be extended to one year with approval of the prosecutor general. For minor crimes a much shorter investigation period applies. Authorities rarely exceeded legal limits for pretrial detention. Forced confessions also played a part in the reduction of time in pretrial detention. Accused persons are entitled to challenge the court but were unlikely to do so.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained or obtain prompt release if unlawfully detained. Persons arrested or detained unlawfully may seek reimbursement for damages following release. Law enforcement authorities found guilty of unlawful detention or arrest may be punished by demotion or suspension for five years, correctional labor service for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to eight years.

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive controls it, and it is subordinate to the executive. There was no legislative review of the president’s judicial appointments and dismissals. The president had sole authority to dismiss any judge. The judiciary was widely reputed to be corrupt and inefficient.

The law provides for due process for defendants, including a public trial; the right to attend the trial; access to accusatory material; the right to call witnesses; the right to a defense attorney, including a court-appointed lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one; and the right to represent oneself in court. Authorities, however, often denied these rights. Defendants frequently did not enjoy a presumption of innocence. The government permits the public to attend most trials, but it closed some, especially those considered politically sensitive. There were few independent lawyers available to represent defendants. The criminal procedure code provides that defendants be present at their trials and consult with their attorneys in a timely manner. The law sets no restrictions on a defendant’s access to an attorney. The court at times did not allow defendants to confront or question a witness against them and denied defendants and their attorneys access to government evidence. In some cases courts refused to accept exculpatory evidence provided by defense attorneys, even if that evidence might have changed the outcome of the trial. Courts did not offer interpreters to defendants who did not speak Turkmen.

Legal proceedings are conducted in the state language (Turkmen). Participants in the proceedings who do not speak the state language are guaranteed the right to make statements, give explanations and testimonies, file motions, bring complaints, become acquainted with all the materials of the case, speak in court in their native language or another language that they speak, and use the services of an interpreter. The legal code requires the government to hand over investigative and judicial documents to the defendant and translated into their native language or into another language they speak.

Even when the courts observed due process, the authority of the government prosecutor far exceeded that of the defense attorney, making it difficult for the defendant to receive a fair trial. Court transcripts frequently were flawed or incomplete, especially when there was a need to translate defendants’ testimony from Russian to Turkmen. Defendants could appeal a lower court’s decision and petition the president for clemency.

Opposition groups and some international organizations stated the government held political prisoners and detainees.

The precise number of political prisoners remained unknown. Observers estimated a number between 100 and 200, including the NGO Prove They Are Alive’s list of 121 prisoners.

Those convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning, although they could receive reductions of sentence from the president. The government continued to assert that none of these persons was a political prisoner. Humanitarian and human rights organizations were not permitted to visit political prisoners.

In February 2018 authorities reportedly arrested Omruzak Omarkulyev, a Turkmen university student studying in Turkey. Omarkulyev had created an informal Turkmen students’ club at his university in Turkey. In March 2018 Omarkulyev went missing after migration authorities allegedly banned him from returning to Turkey for his studies. RFE/RL and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an exile group, reported that Omarkulyev was sentenced to 20 years in prison on unknown charges and was being held at the maximum-security prison in Ovadandepe. In September, RFE/RL reported on a video in which Omarkulyev appeared although he did not speak in the video. The video claimed authorities had not arrested Omarkulyev and, instead, he was serving his mandatory two-year military service. The video was Omarkulyev’s first appearance since he disappeared in March 2018. Prove They Are Alive! included him in its 2019 report.

Amnesty: Although the president granted pardons to several hundred individuals with criminal convictions, the names of those pardoned were not made public. It was widely assumed that he did not pardon any political prisoners.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals located Outside the Country

On August 1, RFE/RL reported Dursoltan Taganova, an activist and representative of the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (DCT) living in Istanbul, was detained during a July 19 protest in front of the Turkmen consulate. One of the DCT leaders, Myrat Gurbanov, told RFE/RL that Taganova was transferred to a deportation camp in Istanbul because her immigration documents had expired. Gurbanov stated Turkish business representatives were pressuring Turkish authorities to send Taganova to Turkmenistan. According to media reports, Turkish officials released Taganova from the detention center on October 13 and granted her asylum in Turkey. On October 30, RFE/RL reported Turkmenistan government officials continued to harass Taganova and her family.

The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reported the national security services had increased their efforts to recruit informants among the growing community of Turkmenistani citizens who resided in Turkey. On July 1, Turkmen News reported that officials of the Ministry of National Security were persecuting Turkmen activists abroad, as well as their relatives who were in Turkmenistan.

The civil judiciary system was neither independent nor impartial, as the president appointed all judges. According to the law, evidence gathered during a criminal investigation can serve as the basis for a civil action in a process called “civil lawsuit in criminal justice.” Observers noted that in principle, this could include human rights abuses. In the past there were reports of bribes in the civil court system to ensure a particular outcome. In cases in which it had interests regarding an individual citizen, the state used the judiciary to impose court orders. Persons and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to regional human rights bodies, but local courts were unlikely to reverse decisions despite successful appeals.

Any individual or organization may file a complaint related to human rights abuses with the Office of the Ombudsperson. According to the law, the ombudsperson may then make a recommendation to the offending party on the necessary measures to restore the violated rights or freedoms immediately.

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

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but authorities frequently did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities reportedly searched private homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.

The law does not regulate surveillance by the state security apparatus, which regularly monitored the activities of officials, citizens, opponents, and critics of the government, and foreigners. Security officials used physical surveillance, telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, and informers. Authorities frequently queried the parents of students studying overseas and sometimes threatened state employees with loss of employment if they maintained friendships with foreigners.

The government reportedly intercepted surface mail before delivery, and letters and parcels taken to the post office had to remain unsealed for government inspection.

Persons harassed, detained, or arrested by authorities reported that the government caused family members to be fired from their jobs or expelled from school. Authorities sometimes also detained and interrogated family members.

The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, as well as to some virtual private network (VPN) connections. The government controlled the internet (there was only one provider in the country) and monitored users’ (journalists, civil society, etc.) internet activities.

According to CT, surveillance of activists and their relatives consisted of wiretapping, monitoring of postal correspondence, and periodic visits by district police officers. Local authorities conducted personal surveillance in special cases.

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 the government did not respect this right.

Freedom of Speech: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Citizens publicly criticizing the government or the regime face intimidation and possible arrest. The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems.

On June 19, Fergana.agency reported that local authorities arrested Ashgabat resident Murad Dushemov for his active participation in online opposition platforms. According to the news agency, on June 17, one police representative and three men in civil uniforms came to Dushemov’s apartment, confiscated his computer, and took Dushemov to the internal affairs department of Kopetdag district of Ashgabat. He was also told that if local authorities found “evidence of an opposition activity” on his computer, he would be sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. Khydyrov stated that Dushemov was a member of the Telegram chat “activistdvt,” created by the new Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, and administrators of the group banned Dushemov for inappropriate behavior. After that he became active on other opposition platforms.

On June 27, RFE/RL reported that authorities placed Murad Dushemov under house arrest. CT reported on September 7 that local authorities in Balkanabat, Balkan Province, arrested Pygamberdi Allaberdiyev, a lawyer for Nebitdag Oil of the Ministry of Oil and Gas of Turkmenistan, for “hooliganism.” CT claimed he was arrested for allegedly communicating with leaders of international protest movements against the government. He denied these charges. On September 30, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of hooliganism and intent to inflict moderate harm to health.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers and journals. The quasi-independent weekly newspaper Rysgal continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government maintained restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers.

The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. Channels including BBC World News and the Turkmen-language version of RFE/RL were widely available through satellite dishes. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access.

The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use.

There was no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities.

Independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who previously worked for RFE/RL and began cooperating with Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, repeatedly faced harassment. In March 2019 migration authorities stopped her at Ashgabat airport as she was departing for Georgia to participate in an international seminar and told her that she had been blacklisted for travel abroad. The migration services later confirmed the ban in writing, without providing any explanation for it. Following international attention to Achilova’s case, officials eventually lifted the travel ban.

Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists critical of its official policy to surveillance and harassment. There were reports law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, including by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad.

On June 25, CT reported the Ministry of National Security monitored the house of human rights activist Natalya Shabunts for two weeks. Reportedly, some stayed in the car and some near the house.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits censorship and provides for freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents often engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.

To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishers, printers, and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. The government must approve the importation, publishing, and dissemination of religious literature. The government prohibits unauthorized importation of the Quran and the Bible, although authorized imports of these and some other religious texts were approved occasionally, including during the year.

Internet Freedom

The government continued to monitor citizens’ email and internet activity. Reports indicated the Ministry of National Security controlled the main internet access gateway and that several servers belonging to internet protocol addresses registered to the Ministry of Communications operated software that allowed the government to record Voice over Internet Protocol conversations, turn on computer cameras and microphones, and log keystrokes. Authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as to some VPN connections, including those of diplomatic missions and international businesses; it severely restricted internet access to other websites. VPNs, however, were widely used by the general population, with users often having to switch to new VPNs after a VPN was blocked. Qurium Media Foundation reported authorities blocked 133 of the most popular worldwide websites.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government did not tolerate criticism of government policy or the president in academic circles and curtailed research in areas it considered politically sensitive, such as comparative law, history, ethnic relations, and theology.

The Ministry of Culture censored and monitored all public exhibitions, including music, art, and cultural events. The government strictly controlled the production of plays and performances in state theaters, and these were severely limited. Authorities also strictly controlled film screenings and limited viewings to approved films dubbed or subtitled in Turkmen and Russian, unless sponsored by a foreign embassy.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government restricted this right. During the year authorities neither granted the required permits for public meetings and demonstrations nor allowed unregistered organizations to hold demonstrations. Unregistered religious groups were not allowed to meet, according to the country’s religion law. Groups that defied the law and attempted to meet in private homes faced intimidation and scrutiny from security forces.

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government restricted this right. The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice and all foreign assistance to be coordinated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by a fine, short-term detention, and confiscation of property. The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice and sets out a schedule of fines for religious activity conducted by unregistered groups.

The government reported that, as of August 23, 2019, 122 NGOs were registered in the country, including four international NGOs. Of the registered NGOs, international organizations recognized only a few as independent. NGOs reported the government presented a number of administrative obstacles to NGOs that attempted to register. Authorities rejected some applications repeatedly on technical grounds. Some organizations awaiting registration found alternate ways to carry out activities, such as registering as businesses or subsidiaries of other registered groups, but others temporarily suspended or limited their activities. Although the law states there is a process for registering foreign assistance, NGOs had difficulty registering bilateral foreign assistance under the 2013 decree requiring such registration.

Observers noted a number of barriers to the formation and functioning of civil society. These included regulations that permit the Ministry of Justice to send representatives to association events and meetings and requirements that associations notify the government about their planned activities.

New amendments to the law on public associations were adopted on August 22. According to the new amendments, an international public association may be created if there are at least 50 founders, whereas previously the law stated the “international and national public association can be created if there are at least 50 and 400 members, respectively.” To create a national public association, it must have at least 50 founders, and the territorial and local public associations must have at least five founders. In addition a new requirement for state registration is “a statement signed by the members of the governing body of this public association indicating their last names, names, patronymics, date of birth, and place of residence.”

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

The constitution and law do not provide for full freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: The law requires internal passports and residency permits. Persons residing or working without residency permits face forcible removal to their place of registration. A requirement for a border permit remained in effect for all foreigners wishing to travel to border areas.

Government media reported that during the September 2 session of the State Security Council, the president signed a decree “on improving the passport system in Turkmenistan,” which is aimed at simplifying the registration and issuance of passports to citizens of the country, including their registration at the place of residence. The document charges the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the obligation to issue a passport to a citizen within seven working days, provide registration at the place of residence of citizens, and provide extract certificates, as well as preparation of passport books and other official related documents. The document prohibits ministries, agencies, municipalities, and other institutions, regardless of their organizational and legal form, from requiring various certificates from citizens, if the necessary information can be confirmed by presenting the passport of a Turkmen citizen.

Police continued a practice initiated in February 2019 of harassing female drivers. On numerous occasions police confiscated women’s licenses and cars for ostensibly minor reasons, such as lacking an item in the legally required first-aid kit.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to bar certain citizens from departing under its Law on Migration. The law states that citizens may be denied exit from the country “if their exit contravenes the interests of the national security of Turkmenistan.”

Prove They Are Alive! reported that any of the country’s law enforcement bodies can initiate a travel ban on a citizen and that travelers in various categories may be denied departure, including young men obliged to perform military service; persons facing criminal and civil charges or under probationary sentence; relatives of persons reportedly convicted and imprisoned for the 2002 alleged assassination or coup attempt; as well as journalists, civil society activists, and their family members. The group estimated that 20,000 individuals were subject to a travel ban based on political grounds.

Unless the Ministry of Foreign Affairs specifically approved a program in advance, the government routinely prevented citizens from travelling abroad for programs sponsored by foreign governments. Migration officials often stopped nonapproved travelers at the airport and prevented them from leaving.

The law provides for restrictions on travel by citizens who had access to state secrets, presented falsified personal information, committed a serious crime, were under surveillance, might become victims of trafficking, previously violated the law of the destination country, or whose travel contradicts the interests of national security. In some cases the law provides for time limits on the travel ban as well as fines for its infraction. Former public-sector employees who had access to state secrets were prevented from traveling abroad for five years after terminating their employment with the government. The law allows authorities to forbid recipients of presidential amnesties from traveling abroad for a period of up to two years.

Exile: The law provides for internal exile, requiring persons to reside in a certain area for a fixed term of two to five years.

Not applicable.

In 2009 the government assumed responsibility from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for making refugee status determinations, but it has not granted refugee status since then. UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings.

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. No new asylum seekers have officially registered in the country since 2005.

UNHCR reported that as of October 2017, 22 UNHCR-mandate refugees resided in the country. Each of these had been individually recognized under UNHCR’s mandate between 1998 and 2002. Mandate refugees are required to renew UNHCR certificates with the government annually.

The country had a significant population of former Soviet Union citizens who became stateless due to the breakup of the Soviet Union. UNHCR’s last calculation in 2015 estimated there were 7,111 stateless persons or persons of undetermined nationality in the country. The number of stateless persons who were also refugees was not available. In recent years the government usually granted more than one thousand otherwise stateless individuals citizenship annually.

Citizenship is derived primarily from one’s parents; however, on July 1, the new Law on Civil Status Acts took effect. This law states that the government will register the birth of any child born in the country–including those with undocumented parents. The requirement that applicants for citizenship prove they are not citizens of another country impeded efforts to establish the nationality of undocumented persons. According to UNHCR, however, during the previous 15 years, an estimated 23,000 refugees and stateless persons were granted Turkmen nationality.

The law allows stateless persons to reside in the country legally and travel internationally with government-issued identification and travel documents. Undocumented stateless persons did not have access to public benefits, education, or employment opportunities.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively. There were numerous reports of corruption in the security forces and in all social and economic sectors throughout the year. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. According to analysts, factors encouraging corruption included the existence of patronage networks, low government salaries that in the latter half of the year were paid as much as three months behind schedule, a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability, the absence of published macroeconomic data, and the fear of government retaliation against citizens who choose to highlight corrupt acts. According to Freedom House and the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, the country had a severe corruption problem.

There are no independent institutions tasked with combating corruption. Crackdowns on corruption were typically selective and related to conflicts within the ruling elite. Anticorruption bodies also were allegedly used to extort revenue from wealthy officials and businessmen.

Checks on nepotism and conflicts of interest were also lacking; in February the president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov was appointed as Minister of Industry and Construction Production.

Corruption: On January 20, CT reported that a preschool chief in Ashgabat suspected of receiving large bribes for employment was convicted to eight years.

As RFE/RL reported, Switzerland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs stated on January 15 that Switzerland had returned $1.3 million of confiscated funds to Turkmenistan. According to the agreement with the UN Development Program (UNDP), the funds were to be used for UNDP projects in the country, particularly for purchasing antituberculosis drugs. The official statement did not offer specifics, but according to RFE/RL, the funds may have been connected to one of several high-level local officials sentenced for corruption. RFE/RL noted this was the first time illegally obtained funds were confiscated and returned.

During the Cabinet of Ministers meeting on October 9, the prosecutor general reported on the investigation into the educational and cultural spheres. As a result, eight persons in the educational sector were arrested and imprisoned.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require elected or appointed officials to disclose their incomes or assets. Financial disclosure requirements are neither transparent nor consistent with international norms. Government enterprises are not required to publicize financial statements, even to foreign partners. Local auditors, not internationally recognized firms, often conducted financial audits.

Uzbekistan

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

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In January a man died as a result of beatings suffered while in detention at the Chirakchi District Ministry of the Interior branch office in the Kashkardarya Region, and on September 21, two officers who had been charged in the case received from four to nine years in prison. The first deputy chief of the police department resigned his position following the death.

In a separate case on May 30, press reported that Alijon Abdukarimov suffered critical wounds from the Andijan police while in detention on May 29 over charges of theft. After allegedly being beaten at a police station, Abdukarimov was taken to a hospital, where he died on June 11. The Prosecutor General’s Office launched an investigation into his case, leading to the June 13 arrest of six police officers. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently filed charges against them, and an additional 19 law enforcement officers faced disciplinary measures. On November 27, the Andijan regional criminal court announced that the six police officers were sentenced from one to 10 years in prison.

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

The country has laws governing the conduct of law enforcement officers and addressing torture, including language that states, “Employees of the Internal Affairs Ministry may not employ torture, violence, or other cruel or degrading treatments. The employee of the Internal Affairs Ministry is obliged to prevent intentional acts causing pain, physical, or moral suffering to the citizen.” The law bans the use of evidence obtained by torture in court proceedings. In addition, an antitorture law includes liability for the use of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment. Prior to the adoption of the law, there were formal obstacles to the prosecution of persons involved in torture. These restrictions were eliminated.

During the year the UN Committee Against Torture concluded “that torture and ill-treatment continue to be routinely committed by, at the instigation of and with the consent of the State party’s law enforcement, investigative and prison officials, principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.” In addition, a number of criminal trials during which defendants raised torture allegations, as well as several trials of persons charged with committing torture under Article 235 of the criminal code, including the 2018 trial of six National Security Service officers and others charged with torturing Ilhom and Rahim Ibodov, were closed to the public. Court decisions in those cases were not publicly available.

In September 2019 local officials in Khorezm detained blogger Nafosat “Shabnam” Ollashkurova after she criticized local government corruption on Facebook, including posts about illegal demolitions. Ollashkurova served 10 days of administrative detention, following which the Urgench District Civil Court ordered authorities to place her in the Khorezm regional psychiatric center for six months of evaluation and treatment against her will. Ollashkurova was released from the regional psychiatric center on December 28, 2019. In mid-January she reported authorities continued to harass her, claiming officials were visiting her apartment building and reminding family members her classification as a mental patient meant she could be detained without a court order at any time. Fearing for her safety, Ollashkurova fled the country on January 18 and sought political asylum in another country.

According to Forbes and other media sources, Farrukh Khidirov, a prisoner in penal colony #11 in the Navoi Region, died on June 27 after officials beat and burned him with boiling water. According to human rights activists, a few days before his death, Khidirov called home and said penal colony officials were demanding money from him. The officials provided him with their bank account information so that he could transfer funds. When they did not receive the money, they tortured him, human rights activists reported. Khidirov spent eight days in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. After the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Ezgulik published accounts of his case, the Main Directorate of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs published a refutation in local online media. The message stated, “The body was examined by the Prosecutor’s Office, no bodily injuries were detected, and an appropriate examination was appointed regarding the incident. The redness that appeared on the video is a cadaveric stain and has nothing to do with bodily harm.”

In June a resident of the Surkhandarya Region told local media that “National Guard officers strangled me for not wearing a mask.” The officers allegedly approached him near his home and reported they had photographed him without a mask, which national directives required be worn in public at all times due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. One officer allegedly tried to force the victim into a police van, strangling him in the process.

On July 12, the Analytical Center for Central Asia and other media reported that police officers and National Guard officers beat a judge at a checkpoint by the entrance to the Jarkurgan District of the Surkhandarya Region. Following a traffic jam, police eventually closed the entrance to the city due to COVID-19 restrictions. The judge, who had been waiting in traffic for an hour to enter the city, spoke with the officers, who then pulled him from his vehicle and beat him, causing a concussion. On July 15, the General Prosecutor’s Office declared it had instituted criminal proceedings under Article 206 against employees who had worked at the checkpoint.

Media reported that on December 1 Zhanabay Ismayilov of Chimbay was severely beaten in the Karalkalpakstan Region–suffering cuts, bruises, and a broken arm–after two drunken Ministry of Interior officers assaulted him when he tried to get into their taxi, which he believed was free. Despite appeals by the victim’s family, at year’s end authorities had not opened a case against the two officers.

Prison conditions were in some circumstances harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.

Physical Conditions: Reports of overcrowding, severe abuse, and shortages of medicine were common. On August 17, the government reported there were 22,867 prisoners in the penal system, held in 43 prisons and 11 pretrial detention facilities. Of the 43 prisons, 18 were “closed colonies” and 25 were open, “resettlement” colonies. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the prison capacity was at 56 percent.

Officials generally provided inmates access to poor quality potable water and food. Visiting family members often brought provisions to detained family members. Upon release, political prisoners in the last two to three years reported to Human Rights Watch and others of being beaten and otherwise tortured, including being held in stress positions, while in prison.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prisoners are entitled to outdoor exercise during nonworking hours, psychological treatment, and safe working conditions. In addition, prisoners are eligible for salaries and other work benefits. In the event of serious illness, prisoners can receive additional telephone privileges and family visits upon a physician’s advice. The rules also state that prisoners should undergo a medical examination upon request and at intervals of not more than six months. No information on implementation of these rules was publicly available.

Prison administration officials reported an active World Health Organization tuberculosis program in the prisons and an HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention program. International experts noted, however, that the rate of infectious diseases in prisons was not public knowledge and believed that the rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS were very likely higher in prisons than in the general population. Poor compliance with treatment plans and other implementation issues undermined government efforts to lower infection rates.

Civil society activists raised concerns that prison officials were not adequately addressing COVID-19-related safety measures and specifically noted that older and medically compromised prisoners were at a higher infection risk due to lack of such measures.

On May 11, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, along with the government-run NGO Yuksalish, announced it would begin conducting public monitoring in penal institutions to assess the level of protection against COVID-19. According to human rights activists, during the COVID quarantine and restrictive movement measures instituted in March, family members of prisoners stopped receiving mail, were restricted from visiting the prisons, and were denied telephone calls.

On May 22, the Cabinet of Ministers published a decree instructing the Ministry of Internal Affairs to publish information regarding the number of persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention institutions; the number of penitentiaries and pretrial detention institutions; information on types of manufactured goods and monetary value of such goods produced in the penitentiary facilities; information on the number of deaths among persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention facilities; and information on the number of convicts kept in penitentiary institutions that are subject to compulsory medical measures.

One human rights activist reported that prison administrators continued to charge current prisoners, often those convicted on religiously based charges, with new offenses, such as organizing criminal communities or participating in banned organizations. Such charges served as grounds for extending their prison terms. According to the law, prison officials are allowed to file new charges against prisoners resulting in new prison terms. Activists often referred to this as an “extension” of a term, but in reality it was a new sentence imposed on a current prisoner. For example, during the year 11 religious prisoners (each serving 20 year sentences) received an additional prison term of 10 years under this practice.

Administration: The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office may investigate complaints from detainees and the public. The Ombudsman’s Office may make recommendations on behalf of specific prisoners, including changes to the sentences of nonviolent offenders to make them more appropriate to the offense. Some family members of detained or released prisoners said the ombudsman did not respond to their complaints. On June 17, media reported that volunteers of the “Open Line Initiative” group held a protest to demand the resignation of the ombudsman. The protesters, family members of prisoners, contended that prisoners were routinely harassed, bullied, beaten, humiliated, and psychologically tortured by prison officials, including senior officials, and that the ombudsman routinely ignored family pleas for assistance.

Some human rights activists reported that lawyers had no problems meeting with their clients, although others disputed this, saying access was both limited and monitored.

Prison officials typically allowed family members to visit prisoners for up to four hours two to four times per year. Officials also permitted longer visits of one to three days two to four times per year, depending on the type of prison facility, as well as overnight stays. In March officials instituted COVID-19 restrictions on visitations. Authorities relocated some religious and political prisoners to housing in prison colonies rather than formal prisons. The colonies often allowed prisoners to come and go regularly and to have more family contact. Some prisoners were allowed to work and earn money inside or outside the colony.

The government stated that prisoners have the right to practice any religion, but some prisoners complained to family members that prison authorities did not permit them to observe religious rituals that conflicted with the prison’s schedule. Such rituals included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation has improved, others said the restriction continued. Authorities forbid all prisoners to observe religious holidays, such as Ramadan, with no fasting allowed. Although some prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to complain that authorities did not allow all religious prisoners access to religious materials.

According to official government procedures, prisoners have the right to “participate in religious worship and family relations, such as marriage.” Close relatives also have the right to receive oral and written information from prison officials regarding the health and disciplinary records of their family members. Families continued to report that the government provided limited to no information or withheld information contained in health and prison records.

Independent Monitoring: Some independent observers had limited access to some parts of the penitentiary system, including pretrial detention facilities, women’s prisons, and prison settlements. Ezgulik, however, reported it had no problems accessing any prisoner. UNICEF regularly visited the country’s four juvenile offenders’ colonies. The International Committee for the Red Cross had not visited detainees since 2013.

The constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law a judge must review any decision to arrest accused individuals or suspects. Judges granted arrest warrants in most cases. Defendants have the right to legal counsel from the time of arrest. State-appointed attorneys are available for those who do not hire private counsel. Officials did not always respect the right to counsel and occasionally forced defendants to sign written statements declining the right. Authorities’ selective intimidation and disbarment of defense lawyers produced a chilling effect that also compromised political detainees’ access to legal counsel.

Some defense lawyers noted difficulty in accessing clients, the lack of private meeting spaces at law enforcement facilities to meet with detainees, and the lack of access to information about their client’s case.

The law authorizes the use of house arrest as a form of pretrial detention. The law allows detainees to request hearings before a judge to determine whether they should remain incarcerated or released before trial. Authorities often granted these hearings but typically granted detention requests from prosecutors, thereby undermining the spirit of judicial oversight. The arresting authority is required to notify a relative of a detainee of the detention and to question the detainee within 24 hours of arrest.

On April 1, compulsory procedures to protect detainees, including video recording of actions involving detainees and explanation of procedural rights to detainees, were introduced. The new procedures also stipulate that police are required to notify either family members or other designated persons regarding the arrest and location of a detainee within 24 hours. According to media reports and human rights activists, these protective measures had not been well implemented and reports of police abuse following detention were common.

Civil society reported that authorities physically abused or tortured suspects before notifying either family members or attorneys of their arrest in order to obtain a confession. In February the Ombudsman’s Office released its 2019 annual report, which noted that cameras in interrogation rooms at law enforcement facilities were frequently turned off or detainees were tortured and interrogated within camera blind spots. The report called for the creation of a special investigative committee to look into such cases. The ombudsman stated publicly on May 29 that 80 to 90 percent of the complaints of torture received by the office occurred at pretrial detention facilities rather than in the prison system.

On August 10, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree aimed at introducing mechanisms to eliminate the torture of detainees by ensuring the right of detainees to meet privately with defense lawyers upon arrest, ensuring the presence of defense lawyers during witness interrogation, outlawing the use of illegally obtained evidence; and introducing the use of plea agreements.

Suspects have the right to remain silent and must be informed of the right to counsel. Detention without formal charges is limited to 48 hours, although a prosecutor may request that a judge extend detention an additional 48 hours, after which the person must be charged or released. Judges typically grant such requests, and the judge who issues such an extension is often the same one that presides over the trial, which creates incentives to cover up violations. Authorities typically held suspects after the allowable period of detention, according to human rights advocates. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail (or on the guarantee of an individual or public organization acting as surety), stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. The judge conducting the arrest hearing is allowed to sit on the panel of judges during the individual’s trial.

The law requires authorities at pretrial detention facilities to arrange a meeting between a detainee and a representative from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office upon the detainee’s request. Officials allowed detainees in prison facilities to submit confidential complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Once authorities file charges, suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months while investigations proceed. The law permits an extension of the investigation period for as much as seven months at the discretion of the appropriate court upon a motion by the relevant prosecutor, who may also release a prisoner on bond pending trial. Those arrested and charged with a crime may be released without bail until trial on the condition they provide assurance of “proper behavior” and that they would appear at trial.

A decree requires that all defense attorneys pass a comprehensive relicensing examination. In past years several experienced and knowledgeable defense lawyers who had represented human rights activists and independent journalists lost their licenses after taking the relicensing examination or because of letters from the bar association under the control of the Ministry of Justice claiming that they violated professional ethical norms.

The country had relatively few defense lawyers per capita, and activists said this likely was due to lower levels of pay, prestige, and influence in comparison to judges and prosecutors.

On November 30, the president signed a law that allows the National Guard, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and police the right to surveil electronically attorneys’ communications with clients. With the consent of the prosecutor or an investigator, officials (including prosecutors, investigators, and state bodies) can have access to conversations, messages, and other forms of information conveyed between a defendant and his or her lawyer by telephone and other telecommunications devices. Officials may also record these conversations. In some cases, authorities detained suspects and required them to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from discussing their case publicly. Human rights lawyers complained authorities used this tactic as a way to prevent lawyers and clients from receiving outside assistance or boosting publicity about their cases.

Arbitrary Arrest: Bloggers and activists were occasionally detained arbitrarily. In July local police illegally detained and interrogated journalists in Karakalpakstan without a court summons and seized their phones and laptops due to claims of “false” reporting about the health of a local government official. The Prosecutor General’s Office criticized the local police for what it termed “illegal acts.”

In contrast with previous years, religious groups reported that arbitrary detention of their members no longer occurred.

The government phased out the use of preventive watch lists, which contained the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the regime. In 2019 Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov announced that since 2016, authorities removed more than 20,000 prisoners convicted on religious grounds from the watch list. It was unknown how many individuals remained on the watch list. Previously, authorities compelled named individuals on the watch list to submit to police for interrogation, denied issuance of passports and travel visas, and in some cases, prohibited the purchase and use of smartphones.

The law provides for a commission to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. On August 26, the Ministry of Interior press service released a video announcing that some prisoners would be pardoned or released in honor of Independence Day. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that a large number of the pardons included those convicted on “religious extremism” charges. The video and accompanying press declared the government had released or pardoned 4,500 prisoners since the death of former president Karimov in 2016, including 1,584 religious prisoners (of these, 1,215 were released and 369 received reduced sentences). On August 27, in advance of the country’s Independence Day, an additional 113 prisoners received pardons, including 105 religious prisoners. On December 7, to mark Constitution Day, the government released 104 prisoners, including 21 religious prisoners, bringing the total number of religious prisoners released since 2016 to 1,710. Another commission reviews the petitions of persons “who mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” While the commission has the power to exonerate citizens from all criminal liability, observers reported it did not exercise this power in the majority of cases the commission reviewed.

Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors generally exercised discretion regarding most aspects of criminal procedures, including pretrial detention. Authorities did not provide access to detainees to a court to challenge the length or validity of pretrial detention, despite the law granting detainees the right to do so. Even when authorities did not file charges, police and prosecutors frequently sought to evade restrictions on the length of time that persons could be held without charges by holding them as witnesses rather than as suspects. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the prison system, did not provide information regarding the number of persons held in pretrial detention centers or allow access to independent organizations.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law detainees or former detainees are able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Appeals were sometimes open to the public by request of the applicant. New evidence was rarely heard. Appeal courts generally reviewed previous trial records and asked applicants to declare for the record their innocence or guilt. Appeals rarely resulted in the courts overturning their original decisions.

The constitution provides for a judiciary; however, the judiciary does not operate with complete independence and impartiality. The Prosecutor General’s Office and other law enforcement bodies occasionally exerted inappropriate pressure on members of the judiciary to render desired verdicts. Regardless of the length of their term, judges can still be arbitrarily dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council, making them vulnerable to political pressure.

Judges are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council, subject to concurrence by the Senate. According to the law, lifetime appointments are possible under certain circumstances. The law states, “A judge shall be appointed or elected in accordance with the established procedure for an initial five-year term, a regular 10-year term, and a subsequent indefinite period of tenure.” Regardless of the term of appointment, the Supreme Judicial Council may dismiss judges. On August 20, the council invited media representatives to a first-ever meeting during which council members discussed the appointment of 19 new judges.

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but in practice this was not always the case. The criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence. Judicial authorities officially opened most trials to the public and generally permitted international observers at proceedings, but judges or other officials arbitrarily closed some proceedings to observers, even in civil cases. Judges may close trials in exceptional cases, such as those involving state secrets or to protect victims and witnesses. Authorities generally announce trials only one or two days before they begin, and they frequently postponed hearings.

A panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors, selected by committees of worker collectives or neighborhood committees, generally presided over trials. Lay assessors rarely speak. The professional judge usually accepts the prosecutors’ recommendations on procedural rulings and sentencing.

Defendants have the right to attend court proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence, but judges often declined defense motions to summon additional witnesses or to enter evidence supporting the defendant into the record.

While the overwhelming majority of criminal cases brought to trial resulted in guilty verdicts, the number of acquittals has risen. According to the Supreme Court’s website, the number of acquittals increased from six in 2016, to 263 in 2017, to 867 in 2018, and to 859 in 2019 (compared to 27,603 convictions in 2019).

Following his September 2019 visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego Garcia-Sayan highlighted the 2019 creation of the Supreme Judicial Council, the increase in acquittals, and the establishment of a process to improve the public’s access to court rulings, as key steps toward promoting judiciary independence in the country. His formal report, issued in June, noted that corruption remained a concern and a number of forms of interferences continued to undermine both the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government (affecting institutional independence) and the independence of individual judges to adjudicate the cases before them impartially and autonomously (affecting personal independence). The report noted that “prosecutors retain a prominent role in criminal proceedings, and the proceedings for the appointment and dismissal of the prosecutor general do not provide sufficient guarantees to prevent undue political influence from the legislative and executive branches of power, raising considerable concerns as to the institutional independence of the whole prosecution service.”

The UN special rapporteur’s report also noted that, “the shortage of lawyers severely affects access to justice, especially outside of Tashkent, and lawyers continue to encounter several obstacles in obtaining access to clients, in particular during pretrial detention.” It stated that some lawyers, for example, those defending persons who charged with terrorist offenses or who are political prisoners, reported harassment and illegal searches prior to meetings with clients in detention facilities. Further, it stated lawyers also experienced a lack of access to information, files, and documents in the possession of government authorities. The report found that lawyers were frequently denied access to case files prior to indictments or were prevented from summoning or cross-examining witnesses. In cases involving state security, lawyers did not have access to the indictment or the final ruling. The report concluded that this constituted a serious violation of the principle of equality of arms, since defendants were de facto deprived of any effective legal assistance.

The government provided legal counsel and interpreters without charge when necessary. According to credible reports, state-appointed defense attorneys routinely acted in the interest of the government rather than of their clients because of their reliance on the state for a livelihood and fear of possible recrimination.

In 2019 the Ministry of Justice registered the nongovernmental, nonprofit organization Madad, whose purpose is to help increase legal awareness and provide free legal advice and practical legal assistance, including through the operation of an online portal Advice.uz (e-maslahat.uz).

By law a prosecutor must request an arrest order from a court, and courts rarely denied such requests. Prosecutors have considerable power after obtaining an arrest order. They direct investigations, prepare criminal cases, recommend sentences to judges, and may appeal court decisions, including sentences. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail, stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. Although the criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor’s recommendations generally prevail. If a judge’s sentence does not correspond with the prosecutor’s recommendation, the prosecutor may appeal the sentence to a higher court. Judges often based their verdicts solely on confessions and witness testimony that authorities in some cases allegedly extracted through abuse, threats to family members, or other means of coercion. Authorities commonly used these practices in religious extremism cases in particular. Both defense lawyers and prosecutors may call on judges to reject confessions and investigate claims of torture.

The government continued to broadcast live coverage of court hearings when both parties consent, limiting such broadcasts to minor cases typically involving administrative offenses or economic cases. Despite the Supreme Court’s efforts to publish its rulings on its website, lower-level courts generally did not publish their rulings, making it difficult for defense lawyers to build arguments based on legal precedent.

The law provides a right of appeal to defendants, but appeals rarely resulted in reversal of convictions. In some cases, appeals resulted in reduced or suspended sentences.

In August the government released four high-profile prisoners. Three of these (Rustam Abdumannopov, Iskandar Khudaiberganov, and Akrom Malikov) were considered by Tashkent-based human rights organization Ezgulik and other domestic human rights activists to be the only three remaining political prisoners in the country. The fourth prisoner released was Rukhitdin Fakhrutdinov, a well known religious prisoner. It was unknown how many other religious prisoners remained in custody.

In years past the government targeted peaceful political dissidents and convicted them of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or for belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations. NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention. There were no reports of such detentions during the year.

Authorities sometimes did not provide political prisoners and detainees the same protections as other detainees, including by holding some incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, limiting their access to lawyers of their choosing, and psychologically intimidating some of them. The government sometimes did not permit access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with an allowance upon parole to help them reintegrate into society, although some reported not receiving all promised benefits. Such allowances include travel expenses to one’s place of residence, health benefits, and the issuance of an internal passport, which is the primary form of identification in the country. Upon release, convicts sign a document acknowledging they understand the terms of their parole. This document typically includes a prohibition on travel abroad for up to one year. In years past, several former prisoners reported that authorities levied a fine against them as a condition of their parole. Failure to abide by the terms of payment may result in the termination of parole. One former prisoner, for example, was reportedly required to pay 20 percent of his monthly salary to the government for 18 months following his release.

In 2019 high-level government officials periodically visited different regions of the country to conduct outreach to vulnerable social groups, such as former prisoners, and the government said it maintained this policy. COVID-19-related movement restrictions and strict quarantine protocols issued throughout the country likely affected the ability of officials to conduct such visits. In years past, former prisoners expressed concerns regarding the difficulty of placing children into kindergartens, obtaining assistance in securing housing, and receiving medical treatment, as well as concerns over their parole terms.

Some former political prisoners pointed out that they were still considered criminals because authorities did not fully exonerate them upon their release from prison. Three former political prisoners, including Azam Farmonov, whom authorities released in 2017 after serving 11 years of a 13-year sentence, attempted to register an NGO named Restoration of Justice three times in 2019, without success. On March 9, the Ministry of Justice registered the NGO under a new name, Hoquqiy Tayanc (Legal Pillar); the NGO sought redress for the unlawful detention of political prisoners, including clearing their records through exoneration, expungement, or other means.

Amnesty: Authorities annually grant amnesty and release individuals imprisoned for religious extremism or other crimes. In five separate instances during the year, President Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious extremism or other grounds.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Kyrgyzstan authorities extradited journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev to Tashkent on August 9 at the request of Uzbekistan authorities. The Uzbekistan government charged the journalist on two counts of crimes against the government, reportedly based on accusations that he had published allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan officials. After Abdullayev signed a nondisclosure agreement, he was released, and the charges were eventually dropped (see section 2.a.).

Citizens may file suit in civil courts for alleged human rights violations by officials, excluding investigators, prosecutors, and judges. Civil society reported in the past that bribes accepted by judges influenced their court decisions in these cases.

Government urban renewal campaigns to demolish older, Soviet-era apartment blocks and private homes in both Tashkent and other regions continued to displace citizens from their homes or businesses, often without due process.  On February 14, a fight broke out between police and residents of a village in the southern region of Surkhondaryo due to news this campaign would demolish their homes.  Also in February, a woman was severely burned in Qarshi after she set herself on fire in front of the regional prosecutor’s office to protest the illegal demolition of her home.  On August 28, more than 100 residents in a Tashkent neighborhood began protesting the demolition of their private garages where a builder planned to construct an apartment building.  The residents had been fighting the planned construction for months.

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

Although the constitution and law forbid arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, authorities did not respect these prohibitions. The law requires that prosecutors approve requests for search warrants for electronic surveillance, but there is no provision for judicial review of such warrants.

On August 6, unknown assailants simultaneously hacked the Telegram accounts (a popular social messaging app) of several bloggers and journalists, including the owners of Telegram channels https://t.me/nobody_cares_but (10,000 subscribers) https://t.me/insider_uz (7,000 subscribers), https://t.me/kurbanoffnet (7,000 subscribers), and journalists Zafarbek Solizhonov and Anora Sodikova. Bloggers and journalists later posted online their belief that the aim was not only to attack freedom of speech but also to obtain personal information that could later be used against them. “We know that this attack was aimed at specific individuals, so it can be said that the main target was not money,” wrote journalist and blogger Eldar Asanov on his Telegram channel (8,000 subscribers).

The government adopted a unified statute addressing matters related to personal data protection and processing in 2019. Previously, numerous laws and resolutions regulated the government’s protection of and processing procedures for individuals’ personal data, which complicated compliance requirements. This law was the country’s first attempt to unify personal data regulations in line with international standards.

There were no reports of raids of the homes of religious groups’ members and unregistered congregations.

The government continued to use an estimated 12,000 mahalla (neighborhood) committees as a source of information on potential “extremists.” The committees provide various social support functions, including the distribution of social welfare assistance to the elderly, single parents, or families with many children; intervention in cases of domestic violence; and adjudication of disputes between residents, but they also serve as a way to feed information about local community members to the government and law enforcement entities. Mahallas in rural areas tended to be more influential than those in cities.

In February, President Mirziyoyev issued a decree that established the Ministry for the Support of the Mahalla and the Family. The new ministry is tasked with ensuring close cooperation between the state level government and the local mahallas on issues of women, family, and social structures.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.

Freedom of Speech: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.

On August 9 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, local authorities arrested Uzbekistani journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev at the request of the Uzbekistan government. Abdullayev was charged under Articles 158 (Offense against the President) and 159 (Attempt to Overthrow the Constitutional Order) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code. The charges stemmed from authorities’ accusation Abdullayev was writing under the pen name “Qora Mergan,” (Black Sniper), an author that publishes allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan government officials, which Abdullayev denied. On August 22, Kyrgyz officials forcibly repatriated Abdullayev to Uzbekistan. He was released after signing a nondisclosure agreement, and after several weeks authorities dropped the charges.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation, and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny some foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertys accreditation request. Others, such as BBC, Voice of America, and Eurasianet, were accredited.

In January the government’s Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media began operating. The main purpose of the Public Fund is to help media outlets develop and maintain equal rights in the media market and to promote the rights of journalists and bloggers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, print newspapers and magazines could not be published for several months. In their place was increased reporting from popular online media outlets, such as Kun.uz and Daryo.uz, as well as through channels on the social messaging app Telegram.

On November 20, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) sent warning letters to leading news websites Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, and Podrobno.uz, for questioning the legitimacy of official COVID-19 statistics reported by the Ministry of Health. The letter from AIMC noted: “the publication of information based on unverified data and the attitude expressed in this regard led to the formation of the wrong opinion among the public.” AIMC’s letter warned that “publication of such unverified information in the future may lead to serious legal consequences.” Subsequently, AIMC Director-General Asadjon Khodjayev accused several media outlets such as Kun.uz, Daryo.uz, and Gazeta.uz on November 26 of bias and again threatened “serious legal consequences.”

On December 29, President Mirziyoyev supported media freedom in his annual address to parliament, saying, “It should be especially noted that the mass media, along with objective coverage of the large-scale changes taking place in our country, draw the attention of government agencies and the public to the urgent problems on the ground and encourage leaders at all levels to solve these problems. Today they are increasingly becoming the ‘fourth power.’”

The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.”

The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.

Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.

A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. The government-run Ozbekistan is a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English.

Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to increased arrest, harassment, and intimidation.

Even before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, some journalists reported a “negative trend” in terms of media freedom, citing daily reports of harassment of journalists and bloggers. Some journalists said they believed the security services used the pandemic as a way to remind media that “they are still in charge,” despite the president’s public claims that journalists and bloggers are a vital part of the country’s reform process.

In April authorities detained Sharifa Madrahimova, a correspondent of Marifat newspaper, after she filmed a documentary video in local bazaars to report on price gouging on basic food items during the COVID-19 quarantine.

In May, following the collapse of a dam in Sardoba that displaced hundreds of villagers, two journalists at a popular sports channel were fired after publicly criticizing how a state-run news channel covered the story. Bobur Akmalov (editor) and Jamoliddin Babajanov (producer), at “Sport,” made their remarks during a radio program broadcast on May 18.

On July 26, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned the chief editors from three Karakalpakstan news websites after printing unconfirmed reports about the death of Karakalpakstan parliament’s chairman, Senator Musa Yerniyazov, who tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, the Ministry of Interior summoned a blogger in Karakalpakstan who posted the same story. The three online outlets, as well as the blogger, all later retracted their reports about the senator’s death. A Tashkent-based website also published the news, only to claim later that “this unconfirmed information was published as a result of hacking.” Bloggers and journalists in Karakalpakstan reported that the dissemination of information in the region in general was “severely restricted” and the local authorities were covering up the real number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

On August 22, police arrested a popular vlogger who frequently called for changes in the local leadership in Fergana (where the governor is widely seen as corrupt). Authorities detained Dadakhon Haydarov, a 22-year-old from Sokh District of the Fergana Region and who had a large YouTube following, and detained him for 10 days. According to his father, officials took Haydarov from his parent’s home and transferred him by helicopter to Fergana City.

In May unknown assailants attacked the cameraman accompanying a journalist from the internet publication “Effect Uz” while investigating a story in the Fergana Region. The journalist told media that “unknown persons sprayed a gas canister into the (camera) operator’s eyes and broke the car windows. In addition, the attackers stole a video camera, which is the property of the publication.” The cameraman suffered injuries from the attack.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications such as Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published some critical stories on issues such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who were still on a “black list” that limited their ability to publish elsewhere.

In 2019 the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, which had been blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.

There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.

Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without legal reprisal.

Internet Freedom

The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens began to complain about the government’s response in online social forums, the government restricted access to social media, Facebook in particular, with frequent service interruptions. Users noted that while the government did not block the site, it became extremely difficult to load pages and view content. Users noted improvement of Facebook functionality only in August, once the nationwide quarantine was lifted. The media law defines websites as media outlets, requiring them to register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. The government blocked the website of Forum 18, a human rights news site.

Several active online forums allowed registered users to post comments and read discussions on a range of social problems. To become a registered user in these forums, individuals must provide personally identifiable information. It was not clear whether the government attempted to collect this information, although provisions of the law require internet cafe proprietors to log customers’ browser history.

In March the government amended the criminal code to include prohibitions against spreading “false” information regarding COVID-19. On March 31, Dr. Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in Karakalpakstan Region, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any coronavirus cases in Karakalpakstan. Five officials then came to the hospital to question Sultonov, known for publicly discussing freedom of religion and belief on his social media pages. The officials asked Sultonov if he had any religious texts on his person. He said he had Muslim texts on his computer, so officials confiscated it. Authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly spreading false information on lockdown measures under the new criminal code. On November 23, the court of the Ellikalansky District of Karakalpakstan sentenced him to 14 months’ of restrictions on his freedom of movement, including time served since March, for the “Illegal Manufacturing, Storage, Importation, or Distribution of Materials of Religious Content” as well as for “Distribution of Information about the Dissemination of Quarantine and Other Hazardous Infections.”

A decree requires all websites seeking the “.uz” domain to register with the government’s Agency for Press and Information. The decree generally affected only government-owned or government-controlled websites. Opposition websites and those operated by international NGOs or media outlets tended to have domain names registered outside the country.

The government implemented procedures for restricting access to websites that include “banned information.” Based on these regulations, a website or blog could be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography, or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government continued to limit academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities occasionally required department-head approval for university lectures, and university professors generally practiced self-censorship.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly. While the government restricted this right, it sometimes allowed individuals to exercise this freedom without reprisal.

On March 20, an Andijan regional court sentenced Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov to 15 days’ detention for conducting a nikah ritual (an unregistered religious marriage ceremony). Although performing nikah is not itself illegal, Bobojonov was sentenced under Article 201 of the administrative code, “violation of the procedure for organizing, holding meetings, rallies, street processions, or demonstrations.” After the intervention of Bobjonov’s lawyer, human rights activists, and local bloggers, the court reduced his sentence to five days.

Authorities have the right to suspend or prohibit rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. Although the law requires demonstrators to obtain permits, most demonstrators proceeded without filing permit applications. In some incidents, authorities subjected citizens to large fines, threats, arbitrary detention, or abuse for violating procedures for organizing meetings, rallies, and demonstrations or for facilitating unsanctioned events by providing space, other facilities, or materials. Organizers of “mass events” with the potential for more than 100 participants must sign agreements with the Ministry of Interior for the provision of security prior to advertising or holding such an event. Officials broadly applied this regulation, including to private corporate functions.

While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. Authorities sought to control NGO activity, internationally funded NGOs, and unregulated Islamic and minority religious groups. The operating environment for independent civil society, in particular human rights defenders, remained restrictive, although several activists reported improved cooperation with government officials. Several independent NGOs continued to face barriers to registering locally due to earlier court orders against them or other objections by officials.

The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the registration of NGOs, requires NGOs to obtain the ministry’s approval to hold large meetings with nonmembers, including foreigners; to seek the ministry’s clearance on any event where materials are to be distributed; and to notify the ministry in writing of the content and scope of the events in question.

The government has a legal framework for public oversight of the activities of government bodies and government officials. In accordance with the law, citizens, citizens’ self-government bodies, noncommercial organizations, and mass media have the right to exercise oversight regarding activities of government bodies and officials.

There are legal restrictions on the types of groups that may be formed. The law requires that organizations with an operating budget and funds register formally with the government. The law allows for a six-month grace period for new organizations to operate while awaiting registration from the Ministry of Justice, during which time the government officially classifies them as “initiative groups.” Several NGOs continued to function as initiative groups for periods longer than six months.

In 2018 the government issued a number of regulations that affected NGO activity. The Ministry of Justice no longer requires NGOs to obtain approval in order to conduct events, but they still need to notify the ministry of plans to conduct public programs. The minimum period for informing the ministry of planned activities is 10 days before the start of an event without the participation of foreign citizens, and 20 days before the start of event with the participation of foreign citizens. The ministry provides NGOs with written notice only in cases of refusal to conduct the event. The law also requires that NGOs file annual reports to the government. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice adopted the Regulation on Monitoring and Studying Activities of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, which establishes a separate procedure on monitoring and studying NGOs’ activities.

The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs.

Due to the burdensome challenges registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations have not received registration from the government. As a result, civil society remains stifled and the level of regulations prevents organizations from gaining a footprint in the country.

On January 18, shortly after Ezgulik assisted blogger and activist Nafosat Olloshkurova as she fled the country, authorities seized the registration certificate, charter, computers, and other documents of the Ezgulik branch office in the Jizzakh Region. According to Ezgulik, prosecutors stated they had a warrant to conduct the search but did not produce it when asked. The next day the prosecutor’s office filed a corruption case against the head of the branch office, Zifa Umrzakova. In June the Criminal Court of Jizzakh sentenced her to two years of “restricted movement.” The case was pending appeal, with a hearing scheduled for January 11, 2021.

The administrative liability code imposes large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity as well as for “involving others” in “illegal NGOs.” The law does not specify whether the term refers to NGOs suspended or closed by the government or merely NGOs not officially registered. The administrative code also imposes penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities the government did not approve in advance.

Registered NGOs are allowed to receive grants from domestic and foreign donors. Receiving organizations must notify the Ministry of Justice of their grants and present a plan of activities to the ministry that details how the NGO would allocate the funds. If the ministry approves, no other government approvals are required. The ministry requires yearly financial reports from NGOs.

Parliament’s Public Fund for the Support of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, and Other Civil Society Institutions continued to conduct grant competitions to implement primarily socioeconomic projects. Some civil society organizations criticized the fund for primarily supporting government-organized NGOs. The law criminalizes membership in organizations the government broadly deemed “extremist.”

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

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

In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens throughout the country to have a domicile registration stamp (formerly known as propiska) in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Previously, individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country.

On May 13, the president signed an amended law governing residence registration in Tashkent and specifically the list of categories of citizens “subject to permanent registration in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region.” The new law enables citizens to register at the addresses of their relatives “in a direct line” along first and second degrees of kinship, and canceled the requirement that a couple must live together for one year after marriage in order to retain their residence permit. A new stipulation was introduced that specialists (with some exceptions) who have been working continuously for five years or more in government bodies and organizations located in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region, together with their family members, also have the right to permanent registration. Effective September 1, residents from other regions visiting Tashkent or Tashkent Region may stay for up to 15 days without filing for temporary registration with the police, extended from 10 days.

The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.

Foreign Travel: In 2019 the government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.

On December 9, the government announced it had repatriated 98 Uzbekistani women and children from Syria, where they had “suffered bitter consideration due to the mistakes of spouses or fathers.” The government pledged to assist them and provide necessary support for their return to society.

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, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. According to a 2018 UNHCR publication, “Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia and the CIS that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, there is no national legislation to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. Rather, asylum seekers are dealt with according to migration legislation.” There were no known cases of refoulement during the year.

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.

During the year, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the UNHCR mandate. UNHCR–through its regional offices, as it does not have an office in-country–undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most refugees lost access to their livelihoods, and in May, UNHCR provided a one-time financial assistance to all refugees in the country.

In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff provides counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.

In the past some refugees from Tajikistan were officially stateless or faced the possibility of becoming officially stateless, as many carried only old Soviet passports rather than Tajikistan or Uzbekistan passports. Children born to two stateless parents could receive Uzbekistani citizenship only if both parents had a residence permit.

On March 13, the president signed a new law on citizenship. While the new law did not come fully into effect until September 13, the provision that confers citizenship to registered stateless persons who were granted permanent residence in the country before January 1, 1995, went into effect on April 1. According to the UNHCR representative for Central Asia, of the more than 97,000 stateless persons residing in the country, 49,228 individuals benefited from the new provision and would be recognized as citizens. In a statement on March 17, UNHCR welcomed the law and noted its role in providing recommendations to national authorities during its drafting. The UN Secretary-General’s Office issued a statement on March 19 congratulating the country on passing the new law, noting it was a significant contribution toward the United Nations’ global effort to end statelessness by 2024.

On December 29, in his end-of-the-year address to parliament, President Mirziyoyev announced plans to grant Uzbekistan citizenship to stateless persons resident in the country since 2005. Media reported this would give 20,000 more persons the opportunity to become citizens.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

On June 29, a presidential decree established the Anti-Corruption Agency, which is mandated to develop and implement national anticorruption policies. The Agency may also: request, receive and conduct research over budget expenditures, sale of state-owned assets, public procurement, implementation of investment projects and government programs; review letters from individuals and legal entities on corruption issues and take measures to restore their violated rights and protect their interests; conduct administrative investigations of corruption offenses; and, make binding orders on the suspension of performance or annulment of decisions of executive authorities, economic management bodies, and their officials if signs of corruption are detected in them. The agency is subordinated to the President and reports to the Legislative chamber of parliament.

Corruption: On June 24, authorities detained the head of the Main Department for Capital Construction in the Khokimiyat of Chilanzar (district of Tashkent) for allegedly taking a bribe of $50,000 (after allegedly asking for $1.4 million). The bribe was reportedly intended for assistance in registering an expensive land plot. Investigators opened a criminal case against the detainee under Article 210 (Bribery) of the criminal code.

On November 19, the government’s Anti-Corruption Agency reported the damage from corruption offenses of officials in 2020 surpassed 200 billion soum, ($20 million). According to the agency, law enforcement agencies opened 838 criminal cases of corruption, in which 647 officials were prosecuted in 454 cases. Most of the officials (40.3 percent) committed crimes under embezzlement charges. Of those prosecuted, four were officials at the state level, 15 at the regional level, and 626 at the city and district levels. Further, seven were deputy mayors, 57 were employees of the Ministry of Health, eight were from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations, 15 were from the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education, 89 were from the Ministry of Public Education, 36 from the Ministry of Preschool Education, 13 from the Bureau of Compulsory Enforcement under the Prosecutor General’s Office, 59 from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, two from the National Guard, six from the State Tax Committee, and three from the Ministry of Defense. In addition, among those accused of corruption were 34 executives of banks and 184 executives of enterprises with state shares.

On December 1, the Anti-Corruption Agency reported that judges of the Tashkent city administrative court had embezzled eight billion soum ($766,000). According to the agency, “Several judges and their assistants conspired with the officers of the Tashkent city traffic police department. They made an estimated five thousand fake decisions without initiating administrative cases on traffic violations. They reviewed cases without the participation of the parties and deliberately destroyed some administrative cases resulting in damage to the state budget.” The agency reported that the General Prosecutor’s Office had opened a criminal case against judges and other employees of the Tashkent City Administrative Court.

On December 17, media reported that a study conducted by law enforcement officials revealed 1,525 cases of corruption regarding the supply of electricity, natural gas, and coal worth 59 billion soum ($5.6 million). The report also noted the Prosecutor’s Office and tax authorities identified 110 cases related to the purchase and sale of coal.

On February 5, in response to international pressure, officials released Aramais Avakian, who had been imprisoned since 2016 on charges of “plotting anticonstitutional activities” and participating in an extremist organization. Charges against Avakian, an ethnic Armenian Christian, stemmed from the failure by local authorities to attempt to take over his successful fish farm through coercion.

Financial Disclosure: Some government officials are required by law to disclose income from outside employment, but such disclosures were not publicly available. While many officials received income from outside employment, there were no reports of an official’s disclosure being questioned or sanctions being employed for not complying with the law.