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Kazakhstan

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

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.

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.

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

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.).

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.

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.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future