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Iraq

Executive Summary

Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The 2018 parliamentary elections, while imperfect, generally met international standards of free and fair elections and resulted in the peaceful transition of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Widespread protests that began in October 2019 led to the resignation of al-Mahdi on December 1, 2019, and triggered a five-month period of government formation. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, acting director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, secured confirmation as prime minister by the Iraqi Council of Representatives on May 6 after announcing commitments to hold early elections in 2021, provide judicial accountability for violence during the previous year’s protests, bring all arms under state control, and address systemic and widespread corruption within Iraqi government institutions.

Numerous domestic security forces operate throughout the country. Iraqi Security Forces are organized administratively within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, as well as within the quasi-ministerial Counterterrorism Service. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of order; it oversees the Federal Police, Provincial Police, Facilities Protection Service, Civil Defense, and Department of Border Enforcement. Energy police, under the Ministry of Oil, are responsible for providing energy infrastructure protection. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for the defense of the country but also carry out counterterrorism and internal security operations in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior. The Counterterrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister and oversees the Counterterrorism Command, an organization that includes three brigades of special operations forces. The National Security Service intelligence agency reports directly to the prime minister.

Iraq’s regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies struggled to maintain order within the country, operating in parallel with the Popular Mobilization Committee, a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces; such units operated throughout the country, often outside government control and in opposition to government policies. Most Popular Mobilization unit members were Shia Arabs, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority units generally operated within or near their home regions. All Popular Mobilization units officially report to the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee and are under the ultimate authority of the prime minister, but several units were, in practice, also responsive to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, each maintain an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party separately control additional Peshmerga military units, as well as separate police forces under nominal Kurdish Ministry of Interior control. The constitution also allows for a centralized, separate Asayish internal security service; however, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also each maintain Asayish forces. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also maintain separate intelligence services, nominally organized under the Kurdistan Region Security Council.

Federal civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Force units and the Popular Mobilization Committee. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the central government led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts. Members of the security forces committed numerous documented abuses.

The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority provinces beginning in early October 2019 and lasting through mid-2020, with reports of more than 500 civilians killed and 20,000 or more injured. The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the violence.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and existence of criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; forced returns of internally displaced persons to locations where they faced threats to their lives and freedom; threats of violence against internally displaced persons and returnee populations perceived to have been affiliated with ISIS; widespread official corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and restrictions on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions; discrimination in employment of migrants, women, and those with disabilities; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, investigated allegations of abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi Security Forces, including a ministerial investigation of the October 2019 protests, but rarely punished those responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.

Despite a reduction in numbers, ISIS continued to commit serious abuses and atrocities, including killings through suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. The government continued investigations and was prosecuting allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, publicly noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the counterterrorism law.

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

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports that the government and members of the security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, and nongovernmental militias and ISIS affiliates also engaged in killings (see section 1.g.).

In August the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded credible reports of the deaths of 487 protesters and 7,715 incidents of injury to protesters at, or in the vicinity of, demonstration sites from October 2019 to April. A comprehensive disaggregation of those injured was not possible. The casualty findings were broadly consistent with reports from various independent institutions in the country.

Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed provinces. Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence occurred frequently throughout the country. In July historian and government advisor Hisham al-Hashemi was killed near his home in Baghdad’s Ziyouna district by two gunmen firing from a motorcycle. No group claimed responsibility for the shooting, but Al-Hashemi had been threatened by the Islamic State as well as pro-Iranian militias.

In August civil society activists blamed pro-Iranian militias for the killing of prominent activist Ossama Tahseen in Basrah Province by unknown gunmen. Tahseen was shot 21 times while security forces reportedly looked on. Also in August unknown gunmen killed female activist Reham Yakob. Yakob, who had previously led all-women protests in Basrah, had harshly criticized the government and pro-Iranian militias via social media before her death.

Government security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings. The Iraqi Parliament announced in December 2019 that a parliamentary “fact-finding committee” assigned to investigate the use of violence in the southern provinces had concluded its work and that its final report would be submitted to then caretaker prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, without providing a timeline. The Dhi Qar Province portion of the investigation remained unfinished due to “incomplete statements of the officers.” Ultimately the committee did not release its final report, and apparently no significant legal action was taken against the perpetrators. The establishment of a fact-finding body to pursue accountability for violence against protesters was one of the first commitments of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government when he became prime minister in May. On July 30, al-Kadhimi stated that violence during demonstrations, as of that date, had killed at least 560 persons, including civilians and security personnel.

During the year the security situation remained unstable in many areas due to intermittent attacks by ISIS and its affiliated cells; sporadic fighting between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and ISIS strongholds in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence.

Terrorist violence continued throughout the year, including several ISIS attacks (see section 1.g.). According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell (a component of the Defense Ministry), the number of ISF personnel killed in attacks during the year was 88, while another 174 members were wounded.

b. Disappearance

There were frequent reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including Federal Police and PMF units. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that from October 2019 to March, UNAMI received 154 allegations of missing protesters and human rights activists presumed to have been abducted or detained.

UNAMI/OHCHR stated in a May report that they were not aware of any official investigations conducted by law enforcement authorities to locate the missing, to identify and prosecute those responsible, or to obtain justice and redress for victims. The government also did not initiate investigations into the abduction and torture of demonstrators and did not prosecute any perpetrators in relation to such acts, including those committed by nongovernment militias and criminal groups.

Local authorities in Sinjar, Ninewa Province, reported approximately 70 Yezidis were confined in secret Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prisons. Local authorities alleged that since July 2019 PKK fighters had abducted more than 400 Yezidi women residents whose fates remained unclear. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces did not have direct access to Sinjar and were unable definitively to verify reports. In July the PKK kidnapped two citizens in Duhok Province. The fate of the two abductees remained unknown.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the constitution and laws prohibit such practices, they do not define the types of conduct that constitute torture, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, often without regard for the manner in which it was obtained. Numerous reports indicated that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which in some ISIS-related counterterrorism cases was the only evidence considered.

As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, the National Security Service (NSS), and the PMF, abused and tortured individuals–particularly Sunni Arabs–during arrest and pretrial detention and after conviction. Former prisoners, detainees, and international human rights organizations documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Ministry of Interior-run facilities and, to a lesser extent, in Ministry of Defense-run detention facilities.

Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that some detained protesters were subjected to various mistreatment during interrogation, including severe beatings, electric shocks, hosing or bathing in cold water, being hung from the ceiling by the arms and legs, death threats and threats to their families, as well as degrading treatment (such as being urinated on or being photographed naked). In the same report, women interviewees described being beaten and threatened with rape and sexual assault. A local NGO in June reported that dozens of torture cases were recorded in detention centers in Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Anbar, Dhi Qar, and Baghdad.

Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and occasionally life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and the threat of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in government-run prisons was a systemic problem exacerbated by an increase in the number of alleged ISIS members detained during the past two years. In addition three of the 24 correctional facilities managed by the Iraqi Corrections Service–the government entity with legal authority to hold persons after conviction–remained closed due to security concerns, worsening overcrowding in the facilities that remained open.

In July the Ministry of Justice warned of an emerging health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic due to prison overcrowding. A senior ministry official stated the juvenile prison was holding 600 inmates, despite a maximum capacity of 250. The official claimed the Justice Ministry had tracked 31 positive cases of COVID-19 among the juvenile inmate population as of July.

In June the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) echoed the Ministry of Justice’s concerns reporting that the country’s penal system’s facilities suffered from overcrowding and a lack of infrastructure and health services, adding that maintaining social distancing among inmates was impossible, which would turn prisons into epicenters of the COVID-19 epidemic.

In April the Justice Ministry announced that 950 adult inmates and 57 juveniles received special pardons to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities. In August the ministry also announced the opening of a new prison in Baghdad to reduce overcrowding with assurances the new prison complied with international standards.

The IHCHR estimated the number of detainees and inmates in Ninewa detention centers at 5,500 individuals, with the number of juveniles (younger than age 18) detained in terrorism cases at 1,000. Overcrowding in detention centers ranged from 150 to 200 percent of their capacity, especially in al-Faysaliah Detention Center in Mosul. The IHCHR reported the centers witnessed high death rates, including 180 deaths in 2018, 40 in 2019, and 22 as of June.

The number of detainees increased beyond the designated capacity across the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s (IKR) six correctional centers. The Independent Human Rights Commission Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported the Erbil Correctional Center, built to house 900 detainees, held 1,957 inmates. The IHRCKR reported three inmates with chronic disease died without getting proper medical treatment due to overcrowding of detention centers. Limited medical staff was unable to handle all cases and provide adequate medical services to all prisoners.

Within the IKR, provinces applied parole and criminal code provisions inconsistently. Legal procedures were often delayed by administrative processing, and parole decisions were not made in a timely fashion.

According to UNAMI, the KRG’s newer detention facilities in major cities were well maintained, although conditions remained poor in many smaller detention centers operated by the KRG Ministry of Interior. In some KRG Asayish detention centers and police-run jails, KRG authorities occasionally held juveniles in the same cells as adults. An IHRCKR report stated that as of September, authorities housed more than 50 minors in Erbil Women’s and Children Reformatory Center with their convicted mothers. UNICEF funded a separate annex to the prison for these minors, but they continued to lack access to education.

Administration: The central government reported it took steps to address allegations of mistreatment in central government facilities, but the extent of these steps was not known. Both Iraqi and international human rights organizations asserted that judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based solely on coerced confessions.

Prison and detention center authorities sometimes delayed the release of exonerated detainees or inmates due to lack of prisoner registration or other bureaucratic issues, or they extorted bribes from prisoners prior to their release at the end of their sentences. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel.

The KRG inconsistently applied procedures to address allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish. In a September report on prison conditions across the IKR, the IHRCKR stated that some prisons failed to maintain basic standards and to safeguard the human rights of prisoners. The report emphasized the need for new buildings and for laws to protect the rights and safety of inmates.

Independent Monitoring: Iraqi Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. In June the government complied with a request from the IHCHR to allow alternative virtual methods to monitor prisons and detention facilities after prison authorities prevented the commission’s inspection teams from accessing these facilities due to the spread of COVID-19.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Despite such protections, there were numerous reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, predominantly of Sunni Arabs, including internally displaced persons (IDPs). In July security forces arrested 20 Sunni alleged suspects after an ISF brigadier general was killed during an ISIS attack in Tarmiya. The detainees were not involved in the attack, had no reported affiliation with ISIS, and were released only after the prime minister’s direct intervention.

In September, ISF units arrested prominent activist Dhurgham Majid and 40 other protesters in al-Hillah, Babil Province, and detained them until the following day without providing a reason for their detention.

KRG security forces detained at least 50 protesters, activists, and journalists in late August in the towns of Zakho and Duhok. Many observers called the detentions arbitrary, either because persons were detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, or because authorities ignored their right under law to be brought before a judge within 24 hours.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law prohibits the arrest or remand of individuals, except by order of a competent judge or court or as established by the code of criminal procedures. The law requires authorities to register the detainee’s name, place of detention, reason for detention, and legal basis for arrest within 24 hours of the detention–a period that may be extended to a maximum of 72 hours in most cases. For offenses punishable by death, authorities may legally detain the defendant as long as necessary to complete the judicial process. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for updating and managing these registers. The law requires the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the NSS to establish guidelines for commanders in battlefield situations to register detainees’ details in this central register. The law also prohibits any entity, other than legally competent authorities, to detain any person.

Human rights organizations reported that government forces, including the ISF (including the Federal Police), NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish, frequently ignored the law. Local media and human rights groups reported that authorities arrested suspects in security sweeps without warrants, particularly under the antiterrorism law, and frequently held such detainees for prolonged periods without charge or registration. The government periodically released detainees, usually after concluding that it lacked sufficient evidence for the courts to convict them, but many others remained in detention pending review of other outstanding charges.

In May, Amnesty International reported that armed members of the KRG’s Asayish entered the home of teacher and activist Badal Abdulbaqi Abu Bakr in the town of Duhok and arrested him without a warrant. Bakr was later charged with “misuse of electronic devices” for his role in organizing peaceful protests through social media platforms.

The law allows release on bond for criminal (but not security) detainees. Authorities rarely released detainees on bail. The law provides for judges to appoint free counsel for the indigent. Attorneys appointed to represent detainees frequently complained that insufficient access to their clients hampered adequate attorney/client consultation. In many cases detainees were not able to meet their attorneys until their scheduled trial date.

Government forces held many terrorism-related suspects incommunicado without an arrest warrant and transported detainees to undisclosed detention facilities (see section 1.b.).

Arbitrary Arrest: There were numerous reports of arbitrary arrest or unlawful detention by government forces, including the ISF (including the Federal Police), NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish. There were no reliable statistics available regarding the total number of such acts or the length of detentions. Authorities often failed to notify family members of the arrest or location of detention, resulting in incommunicado detention if not enforced disappearance (see section 1.b.). Humanitarian organizations also reported that, in many instances, federal authorities did not inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or the charges against them. Many reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention involved suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members.

There were reports of Iran-aligned PMF groups also arbitrarily or unlawfully detaining Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and other minorities in western Ninewa and the Ninewa Plain. There were numerous reports of 30th and 50th PMF Brigades involvement in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants. In July credible law-enforcement information indicated that the 30th PMF Brigade operated secret prisons in several locations in Ninewa Province, which housed 1,000 detainees arrested on sectarian-based, false pretenses. Leaders of the 30th PMF Brigade allegedly forced families of the detainees to pay large sums of money in exchange for the release of their relatives.

In October, Iraqi security forces in Basrah arbitrarily detained without warrant eight human rights defenders, including human rights defender Hussam al-Khamisy, according to witnesses who spoke to the NGO Gulf Center for Human Rights and local rights groups. The eight were held for six hours and released only after being forced to sign a document, which they were not allowed to read.

Pretrial Detention: The Ministries of Justice, Defense, Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs are authorized by law to hold pretrial detainees, as is the NSS in limited circumstances, for a brief period. Lengthy pretrial detentions without due process or judicial review were a systemic problem, particularly for those accused of having ties to ISIS. There were no independently verified statistics, however, concerning the number of pretrial detainees in central government facilities, the approximate percentage of the prison and detainee population in pretrial detention, or the average length of time held.

The lack of judicial review resulted from several factors, including the large number of detainees, undocumented detentions, slow processing of criminal investigations, an insufficient number of judges and trained judicial personnel, authorities’ inability or reluctance to use bail or other conditions of release, lack of information sharing, bribery, and corruption. Overcrowding of pretrial detainees remained a problem in many detention centers.

Lengthy pretrial detentions were particularly common in areas liberated from ISIS, where the large number of ISIS-related detainees and use of makeshift facilities led to significant overcrowding and inadequate services. There were reports of detention beyond judicial release dates and unlawful releases.

According to the IHCHR, 448 non-Iraqi women and 547 children were in Ministry of Justice custody as of September. Of the 547 children, 222 were placed with their mothers, while 80 were sent to the juvenile correctional department and 32 were sent to state shelters (orphanages).

Authorities reportedly held numerous detainees without trial for months or years after arrest, particularly those detained under the antiterrorism law. Authorities sometimes held detainees incommunicado, without access to defense counsel, presentation before a judge, or arraignment on formal charges within the legally mandated period. Authorities reportedly detained spouses and other family members of fugitives–mostly Sunni Arabs wanted on terrorism charges–to compel their surrender.

KRG authorities also reportedly held detainees for extensive periods in pretrial detention; however, no data was available regarding the approximate percentages of prison and detainee population in pretrial detention and the average length of time held.

KRG officials noted prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons. COVID-19 preventive measures and closures presented additional obstacles to the resolution of judicial proceedings during 2020.

According to the IHRCKR, some detainees remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders were issued for their release. The IHRCKR reported that other detainees remained in detention centers longer than required due to lack of implementation of parole and closure of courts due to COVID-19 restrictive measures. Lawyers provided by an international NGO continued to have access to and provide representation to any juvenile without a court-appointed attorney.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution and law grant detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination on the legality of their detention and the right to prompt release. Despite the 2016 law concerning rights of detainees, NGOs widely reported that detainees had limited ability to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court and that a bribe was often necessary to have charges dropped unlawfully or gain release from arbitrary detention. While a constitutional right, the law does not allow for compensation for a person found to have been unlawfully detained. In July an Iraqi NGO documented 10 cases of detainees forced to pay bribes to gain release from detention and cited stories of family members blackmailed by security officers who accepted bribes without releasing the detainees. The report quoted an IHCHR member who said that at least half of these detainees had been incarcerated for periods ranging from six months to two years without having their cases settled.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Iraqi constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but certain articles of law restricted judicial independence and impartiality. The country’s security situation and political history left the judiciary weak and dependent on other parts of the government. The Federal Supreme Court rules on issues related to federalism and the constitution, and a separate Higher Judicial Council manages and supervises the court system, including disciplinary matters.

Corruption or intimidation reportedly influenced some judges in criminal cases at the trial level and on appeal at the Court of Cassation.

Numerous threats and killings by sectarian, tribal, extremist, and criminal elements impaired judicial independence. Judges, lawyers, and their family members frequently faced death threats and attacks. In February the head of the Iraqi Bar Association, Dhia al-Saadi, announced his intention to prosecute the perpetrators who tried to assassinate protester lawyer Ali Ma’arij in Dhi Qar Province.

Judges in Mosul and Baghdad were repeatedly criticized by international NGOs for overseeing hasty trials and handing down long prison sentences for ISIS family members. Defense attorneys said they rarely had access to their clients before hearings and were threatened for defending them. According to Amnesty International, trials for terrorism-related charges lasted anywhere from one to 10 minutes, and authorities often brought groups of 50 to 80 detainees into the court to be sentenced together. Children older than age nine also were prosecuted for illegal entry into the country despite statements that their parents brought them to the country without their consent.

The Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent from the KRG Ministry of Justice, but KRG senior leaders reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases. Judicial appointments and rulings were reportedly also influenced by the region’s strongest political parties.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide all citizens the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right for all defendants. Some government officials, the United Nations, and civil society organizations (CSOs) reported trial proceedings fell short of international standards.

By law accused persons are innocent until proven guilty. Judges in ISIS-related cases, however, sometimes reportedly presumed defendants’ guilt based upon presence or geographic proximity to activities of the terrorist group, or upon a spousal or familial relationship to another defendant, as indicated by international NGOs throughout the year. The law requires detainees to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and of their right to a fair, timely, and public trial. Nonetheless, officials routinely failed to inform defendants promptly or in detail of the charges against them. Trials were public, except in some national security cases. Numerous defendants experienced undue delays in reaching trial.

In 2019 the government established specialized terrorism courts to prosecute accused foreign terrorist fighters repatriated from neighboring Syria. In April 2019 courts began preparing cases against nearly 900 citizens accused of joining ISIS. The IHCHR said that as of August, a total of 794 of the 900 had been found guilty of terrorism crimes and sentenced to death. By law the Court of Cassation reviews each sentence, but according to the IHCHR, it was likely that all of the death penalty sentences would be upheld.

Defendants’ rights under law include the right to be present at their trial and the right to a privately retained or court-appointed counsel, at public expense, if needed. Defendants frequently did not have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Insufficient access to defense attorneys was a serious defect in investigative, trial, and appellate proceedings. This scenario was typical in counterterrorism courts, where judicial officials reportedly sought to complete convictions and sentencing for thousands of suspected ISIS members quickly, including through mass trials.

Defendants also have the right, under law, to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed. The qualifications of interpreters varied greatly. Some foreign missions provided translators to their citizen defendants; however, not all countries were able to provide this service. When no translator was available, judges reportedly postponed proceedings and sent the foreign defendants back to jail.

Judges assemble evidence and adjudicate guilt or innocence. Defendants and their attorneys have the right, under law, to confront witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence. They may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Nevertheless, defendants and their attorneys were not always granted access to evidence, or government officials demanded a bribe in exchange for access to the case files. In numerous cases judges reportedly relied on forced or coerced confessions as the primary or sole source of evidence in convictions, without the corroboration of forensic evidence or independent witness testimony.

The public prosecution, defendant, and complainant each have the right to appeal an acquittal, conviction, or sentence in a criminal court ruling. Appeals are heard by the criminal committee, consisting of a presiding judge and a minimum of four other judges, within the Federal Court of Cassation in Baghdad. The criminal committee automatically reviews all cases with a minimum sentence of 25 years, life imprisonment, or death. The committee may uphold a decision or overrule it and return the case to the trial court for a retrial or for additional judicial investigation. The law provides for retrials of detainees convicted due to forced or coerced confessions or evidence provided by secret informants. The Ministry of Justice reported in 2019 that authorities released almost 8,800 detainees from government custody between the law’s enactment in 2016 and October 2019. Updated figures were not available as of December.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in September that a study of appeals court decisions indicated judges in almost two dozen cases appeared to ignore torture allegations and, in some instances, relied on uncorroborated confessions. According to HRW, judges denied these appeals even when the torture allegations were substantiated by forensic medical exams, and where the confessions were unsubstantiated by any other evidence or extracted by force.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government did not consider any incarcerated persons to be political prisoners and argued they had violated criminal statutes. It was difficult to assess these claims due to lack of government transparency, prevalence of corruption in arrest procedures, slow case processing; and extremely limited access to detainees, especially those held in counterterrorism, intelligence, and military facilities. Political opponents of the government alleged the government imprisoned individuals for political activities or beliefs under the pretense of criminal charges ranging from corruption to terrorism and murder.

A legal advisor at an Iraqi human rights NGO noted the disappearances of at least 75 human rights and political activists who were kidnapped from protest squares and were being held by unknown parties presumed to be Iranian-backed militias.

In May, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi ordered the immediate release of all detained protesters. The Higher Judicial Council subsequently ordered courts around the country to release all protesters. In July the prime minister followed up with unannounced visits to prisons where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claimed protesters were being detained. According to local human rights organizations, prison officials were surprised by al-Kadhimi’s visits, during which the prime minister reportedly asked detainees whether there were any protesters among them.

After al-Kadhimi’s prison visits the IHCHR confirmed the release of 2,740 protester detainees. The IHCHR was allowed to visit the remaining 87 detainees, those accused of specific violent acts against government forces, while in custody.

Amnesty: A general amnesty law approved in 2016 and amended in 2017 includes amnesty for corruption crimes under the condition that the stolen money be returned. NGOs and politicians complained that authorities implemented the law selectively and in a manner that did not comply with the intended goal of the legislation, which was to provide relief for those imprisoned under false charges or for sectarian reasons.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for, or cessation of, human rights violations through domestic courts. Administrative remedies also exist. The government did not effectively implement civil or administrative remedies for human rights violations due in part to the overwhelming security focus of the executive branch on maintenance of law and order, coupled with an understaffed judiciary.

Unlike federal law, KRG law provides for compensation to persons subject to unlawful arrest or detention and survivors of the Anfal chemical weapons campaign waged by the former Baath regime of Saddam Hussein; the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs handles such cases. The ministry approved approximately 5,127 cases (many historical) that were to receive compensation consisting of a piece of land, 10 years’ salary, and college tuition for one family member, although the government could not always pay compensation due to budget constraints. The ministry stated there were 20,364 unlawful arrest claims approved but pending final compensation decisions.

Individuals in the IKR and the rest of the country who were imprisoned for political reasons under the former Baath regime of Saddam Hussein received a pension as compensation from the government. While KRG political prisoners’ pensions were approximately 500,000 dinars ($440) plus 50,000 dinars ($44) for each year of being imprisoned, the central government paid other Iraqis a minimum of 1.2 million dinars ($1,050).

Property Restitution

The constitution and law prohibit the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. In previous years government forces and PMF units forced suspected ISIS members, in addition to religious and ethnic minorities, from their homes and confiscated property without restitution. Although home and property confiscations declined sharply during the year, many of those who confiscated the homes still occupied them or claimed ownership to the property. This factor, among other concerns, contributed to low rates of return for IDPs to these areas. The compensation commission of Mosul, Ninewa Province, stated that families of suspected ISIS members could receive compensation if they obtained a security clearance to return home from the NSS, but HRW reported that almost all families of ISIS suspects were being denied clearance.

In Mosul, activists claimed that various PMF militia confiscated more than 5,000 private and public properties by manipulating property registration to replace the owner of record, many of whom fled the area during ISIS occupation. Similarly, NGO contacts reported a pro-Iranian militia group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, confiscated the Abu Nawas theater building in November, one of the oldest theaters in Baghdad, to support their activities.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government forces often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

Killings: Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO that records civilian deaths in the country, reported 848 civilians killed during the year due to internal conflict, a drop from 2,392 civilian deaths reported during the preceding year. An IHCHR commissioner attributed the drop in deaths to reduced protest activity during the year, as well as to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Despite its territorial defeat in 2017, ISIS remained a major perpetrator of abuses and atrocities. The remaining fighters operated out of sleeper cells and strike teams that carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations against security forces and community leaders. These abuses were particularly evident in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces. Salah al-Din provincial operations commander Saad Muhammed told local media on July 25 that an ISIS group attacked the house of a village leader, Khudair Abbas al-Samarrai, and killed him along with five of his immediate family members.

Abductions: There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including the ISF and PMF, as well as non-PMF militias and criminal groups.

A UNAMI report released in August on enforced disappearances in Anbar Province called for independent and effective investigations to establish the fate of approximately 1,000 civilian men and boys who disappeared during military operations against ISIS in Anbar during 2015-16. The report highlighted a list of 300 names, compiled by the IHCHR, of persons allegedly kidnapped from al-Sejar, al-Saqlawia, and al-Razzazah in 2016. Despite this list’s being shared with Iraqi government officials, as of August the IHCHR had not received any information about these individuals, and the Iraqi government had not added the names to their databases of known missing persons.

The KRG Office for Rescuing Kidnapped Yezidis on September 2 stated that 2,880 (1,304 females and 1,576 males) of the 6,417 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 remained missing. The report indicated ISIS attacks on Yezidi communities had resulted in 310,000 Yezidi IDPs, forced more than 100,000 to flee Iraq, and left 2,745 children as orphans. The statement noted that in Sinjar 83 mass graves had been discovered, in addition to dozens of individual gravesites, and that 68 holy shrines and temples were destroyed. The report noted that referenced statistics did not reflect additional human casualties or the vast material losses in residential and agricultural land, residences, businesses, livestock, cars, and other property.

Other minority populations were also victims of gross human rights violations committed by ISIS forces. A Shabak member of parliament reported that 233 Shabak men women and children had been kidnapped by ISIS and their whereabouts remained unknown. Ali Hussein, of Iraqi Turkmen Front, reported approximately 1,200 Turkmen had been kidnapped, including 446 women. Hussein estimated that 800 of the 1,200 were killed, while the rest remained missing. The KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs estimated the total number of Christians killed by ISIS at 303, with another 150 missing. According to the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, more than 45 Peshmerga taken prisoner during the fighting with ISIS remained missing.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Reports from international human rights groups stated that government forces, including Federal Police, National Security Service, PMF, and Asayish, abused prisoners and detainees, particularly Sunni Arabs.

The Iraqi War Documentation Center (IWDC) released a statement in July stating that in June and July approximately 207 civilians were reportedly detained, mostly Sunnis accused of ISIS affiliation, by ISF and PMF units, from the Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Diyala, and Baghdad belt areas, including at least 10 women and three children. The IWDC added that one of these detainees, Ahmed Hadi al-Dulaimi, from Tarmiyah district north of Baghdad, died on July 6 while in PMF custody and that his body showed signs of torture.

Child Soldiers: There were no reports that the central government’s Ministry of Defense conscripted or recruited children to serve in the security services. The government and Shia religious leaders expressly prohibited children younger than 18 from serving in combat.

In previous years ISIS was known to recruit and use children in combat and support functions. Due in part to ISIS’ territorial defeat, little information was available on its use of children in the country during the year.

In June the UN Security Council published a report on children and armed conflict, in which the UN secretary-general commended the government for its continuing discussion with the United Nations on developing an action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces and noted that no new cases of recruitment and use by those forces were documented during the year.

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

Other Conflict-related Abuse: Conflict disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons throughout the country, particularly in Baghdad, Anbar, and Ninewa provinces.

Government forces, including the ISF and PMF, established or maintained roadblocks that reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance to communities in need, particularly in disputed territories such as Sinjar, Ninewa Province. Media outlets circulated a video of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a UN World Food Program (WFP) vehicle in Ninewa on August 26. The Saraya Awliyaa al-Dam militia declared responsibility for the attack. A WFP worker was reportedly injured by the blast in Bartalla district between Erbil and Ninewa.

ISIS reportedly targeted religious celebrations and places of worship, civilian infrastructure, including several attacks on electricity and water infrastructure in Kirkuk and other provinces. ISIS leadership characterized the attacks as “continuous operations to drain through attrition the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, and Peshmerga.”

On August 22, ISIS militants reportedly carried out an IED attack against a Shia holy site during an Ashura religious procession in Dujail, located in southern Salah al-Din Province. The resulting clashes between ISIS and government forces responding to the attack resulted in 13 fatalities and three injuries among Iraqi Federal Police and Saraya al-Salam militiamen, as well as seven civilians wounded.

On August 25, the Iraqi Security Media Cell reported that ISIS terrorists opened fire on a police station in the Daquq area of the Kirkuk highway with four reported deaths and four wounded.

In 2017 the UN Security Council, in cooperation with the government, established the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) with a goal to bring justice and accountability to individuals who committed, or participated in, mass atrocities and serve as a deterrent to further gross violations of human rights. The investigative team–which was tasked with collecting, preserving, and storing evidence of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS–formally began its work in 2018. In March 2019 UNITAD launched its first exhumation at the Yezidi village of Kocho, in Ninewa Province’s Sinjar district. COVID and security issues delayed much of UNITAD’s work during the year, but in October a new exhumation was launched at the Solagh Institute in Ninewa, where elderly Yezidi women deemed too old to be sold by ISIS into sexual slavery were executed and buried. In November, UNITAD also announced planned exhumations in Zagroytiya village just south of the Mosul airport, where dozens of Sunni male law enforcement personnel were killed, and Mosul’s Badoush Prison, where hundreds of Shia inmates were executed.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press if such does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision, media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, militias, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.

Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service.

Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political figures and parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, government officials, and private individuals. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.

The KRG’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaymaniya Province, Kurdsat News, and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.

The IKR press law does not give the KRG the authority to close media outlets, but in August the KRG closed the Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices in Erbil and Duhok over the television station’s coverage of protests. On September 9, KRG coordinator for international advocacy Dindar Zebari defended the move stating that NRT violated Article 2 of Law 12 of 2010, which bars encouraging a public disturbance or harming social harmony in accordance with IKR law.

Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.

Violence and Harassment: Several journalists were killed throughout the year during the course of their work, some reportedly by militia or security forces. On February 11, unknown gunmen assassinated journalist and general supervisor of al-Rasheed Satellite TV, Nizar Thanoun, while he was traveling in his car in the al-Jama neighborhood of western Baghdad.

In addition to those killed, others in media reported threats, intimidation, and attacks. Istiaq Adel, a reporter for al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported she survived an attack on January 30 after receiving several threatening text messages.

HRW released a report in June that cited numerous violations of press freedom and freedom of expression amid widespread protests and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Media workers reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.

Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.

Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular journalists working for NRT were frequently arrested. On August 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city and seized their equipment. Rebwar Kakay, head of NRT’s office in Erbil, told the CPJ that authorities held the journalists without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, and that the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones were seized.

Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Press Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. KRG officials increased their use of lawsuits against journalists critical of the KRG, including applying laws such as the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices instead of the IKR press law. In the first nine months of the year, KRG officials from various government offices filed eight independent lawsuits against freelance journalist Hemn Mamand after he posted content on Facebook critical of the KRG’s COVID-19 response. Mamand was arrested twice, in March and again in April, and spent 34 days in detention on charges levied under the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices.

Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.

The Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) released a report in July that detailed restrictions imposed by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC) on media outlets over the past 10 years, which included 128 closures of media outlets, suspension of operating licenses, fines, and forced job termination of selected employees. Since October 2019 the CMC ordered the closure of 19 local and Arab media outlets, most of which participated in the coverage of the October 2019 demonstrations.

HRW reported in April that the CMC suspended Reuters’ license for three months and fined it for an article it published on April 2 alleging that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was much higher than the official statistics. Authorities lifted the suspension on April 19 amid international pressure.

Libel/Slander Laws: Militias and government officials used arrest warrants in defamation cases to intimidate, silence, and in some instances apparently “flush out” activists and journalists from hiding. An Iranian-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, targeted Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salihi with a defamation complaint over her reporting on their activities, which resulted in Baghdad’s Karrada Investigative Court issuing an arrest warrant against her on October 22. On November 5, the Ninewa Federal Court of Appeals issued arrest warrants against four media bloggers over their critical reporting on the province’s COVID-19 response. One blogger claimed to have been directly threatened by Ninewa’s provincial health services director. In similar developments in the IKR, on September 22, police detained journalist Bahroz Jaafar in Sulaymaniya following a lawsuit filed by President Barham Salih over defamation charges.

Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. On July 17, dozens of journalists expressed concerns regarding a potential escalation of violence against them by outlaw militias, particularly in the wake of the Hisham al-Hashemi killing. The PFAA reported in July it had documented specific threats by unknown militias against at least 30 journalists during the year. The PFAA also said that it had become common practice to accuse journalists responsible for antimilitia reporting of being agents of foreign governments and encourage violence against them.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, organize demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.

The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. While Wi-Fi and 3G access was largely restored, connectivity remained weak, making social media and streaming difficult. Slow speeds, or the “throttling back” of internet access, greatly limited the ability of users to upload video and photographic content.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Social, religious, and political pressures significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions, various groups sought to control the pursuit of formal education and the granting of academic positions. Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.

NGOs in the IKR reported that university president, dean, and senior professorship positions were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties. Privilege was also given to those affiliated with political parties in the pursuit of higher degrees.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” The government sometimes limited freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations. As demonstrations escalated starting in October 2019, authorities consistently failed to protect demonstrators from violence (see section 1.e.).

In February armed militias attacked protest squares in Najaf and Karbala using live bullets, batons, and knives against peaceful protesters and also burned their tents. The security forces watched the attacks unfold without intervening to protect the demonstrators or stopping the militants. In May security forces in Diwaniyah Province opened fire on protesters who had gathered to demand the release of four activists arrested earlier that day.

From October 2019 to August, the al-Nama Center for Human Rights documented 39 killings targeting protesters, 31 attempted killings, 20 cases of harassment and intimidation, seven enforced disappearances, 36 kidnappings, and 35 arbitrary detentions throughout the country. Most of these attacks were carried out by unknown gunmen who observers believed were likely linked to Iranian- or Sadrist-backed militias.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or “Zionist principles.”

The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. According to the NGO Directorate at the Council of Ministers Secretariat, there were 4,600 registered NGOs as of September, including 168 branches of foreign organizations. There were also 900 women-focused or -chaired NGOs registered as of September. The directorate also sanctioned 700 NGOs for committing violations, such as providing cover for political parties or suspicious operations against the NGO code.

NGOs registered in Baghdad could operate in the IKR; however, NGOs registered solely in the IKR could not operate in the rest of the country. As a result some NGOs registered only in the IKR could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.

In some instances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other instances local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees or comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.

Despite improving security conditions in some areas, many returnees grappled with the destruction of homes, lack of services and livelihoods, and continued concerns for security due to the prevalence of PMF groups and, in Sinjar, militias aligned with the PKK. In some cases this led to secondary displacement or a return to IDP camps.

Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19 curfews, and travel restrictions, as well as official and unofficial access restrictions, limited humanitarian access to IDP communities. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS, the PKK, and PMF groups hindered the movement of local and international staff of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor and implement some programs for a portion of the year.

UNAMI also reported that more than 2,460 humanitarian missions had been canceled or prevented from reaching their destinations since the beginning of December 2019. An estimated 2.4 million persons in need were affected by the restrictions imposed on humanitarian movements. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in September alone more than 287,700 individuals in need were affected by these restrictions.

Humanitarian and other organizations reported improved field access beginning in September following action by the NGO Directorate to begin processing access letter requests. According to OCHA, in October the number of individuals affected by access related restrictions fell to 37,000. Humanitarian organizations reported smoother movement in the central provinces of Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala. Access challenges continued, however, in some areas in western Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces.

In July humanitarian partners reported 77 restrictions of access incidents across 22 districts, with Ninewa Province reporting the highest number. Across all provinces, approximately 95 percent of the incidents reported constituted administrative restrictions on humanitarian activities and movements. It was estimated that more than 231,000 persons in need were affected by access-related incidents that took place in Ninewa (71 percent), Kirkuk (27 percent), Anbar (1 percent), and Baghdad (1 percent). Most incidents reported by humanitarian organizations indicated difficulties related to lack of national-level access letter authorizations.

In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethnosectarian reasons, as well as criminal extortion, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.

Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and the Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Province. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th and 50th PMF Brigades, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade also refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints, and their continued obstruction led to forced demographic change in traditionally Christian areas of the Ninewa Plain.

The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered for nonresidents. Authorities required nonresidents to register with the local Asayish office to obtain a residence permit. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Province and the disputed territories.

KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that entry limitations for IDPs and refugees seeking to return to their areas of origin depended upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, leaving some returnees separated from their families and agricultural land on the other side of the line of control. Closed checkpoints forced many IDPs to wait, often resulting in secondary displacement. In other instances the closure of checkpoints forced returnees to take circuitous and dangerous routes to reach their areas of origin. KRG officials also prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks reportedly were lengthy on occasion. Entry was often more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.

Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, an estimated 1.3 million persons remained internally displaced, with more than 250,000 residing in camps and an additional 44,000 in informal settlements, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa provinces. According to IOM, more than 100,000 IDPs lived in critical shelters, including unsafe and abandoned buildings, religious buildings, and schools. Nearly five million persons returned to areas of origin across the country since liberation from ISIS.

The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors continued to provide support for formal IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.

In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal, and ethnosectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements strained the capacity of local authorities in areas with higher concentrations of IDPs. Families returning to their place of origin faced a lack of shelter, access to services, and livelihood opportunities. Displaced families, especially those with perceived ties to ISIS, were often unable to obtain or replace vital civil status documents, without which they were not able to work, go to school, or move about freely.

Government assistance focused on financial grants to returnees, but payments were sporadic and there was a large backlog in responding to applications. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.

All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in areas that were among the last to be liberated. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each province. Low oil prices reduced government revenues and further limited funds available for the PDS. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.

Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. KRG officials asserted that all IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan Region benefited from access to public services and infrastructure (such as drinking water, electricity, education, health care, roads, and irrigation system) on an equal basis with the local population, which they stated was a reflection of the KRG’s commitment to safeguard fundamental human rights and human dignity under pressing circumstances.

To support humanitarian standards and serve displaced populations, KRG officials reported they had allocated land for construction of camps; contributed to the construction of camps and connecting camps to power grids and local infrastructure; introduced civil administration in the camps and provided security services; reinforced technical and legal services to combat sexual and gender-based violence in and outside the camps; opened additional shifts at local schools to make schooling in Arabic available to displaced children (58 percent of refugees’ children and 91 percent of IDPs children were enrolled in formal and informal education); facilitated reunification of children with their families; granted access for all IDPs and refugees to public health services, including mobilizing emergency mobile clinics and medical teams; introduced simplified procedures for free movement of humanitarian personnel; introduced exemption from customs duty and mechanisms to fast-track customs clearance for humanitarian supplies; and publicly called on local communities and all sections of society to welcome and assist IDPs as their guests.

The KRG was host to almost two million IDPs, including a large percentage of Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kaka’i, and other ethnic and religious groups from the Ninewa Plain. Despite the dire economic situation and security difficulties that occurred in the region, KRG officials reported they focused on preserving the rights of these minorities as a top priority.

Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Government officials frequently denied security clearances for displaced households with perceived ISIS affiliation to return to areas of origin. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camps where they resided. Humanitarian organizations reported that women heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.

IKR-based NGOs documented numerous cases of women, who, forced to marry ISIS fighters, subsequently became widows with children but lacked marriage and birth certificates required to obtain legal documentation for these children. These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters. NGO partners reported that some Yezidi community representatives pressured women to abandon their children or place them in orphanages as a condition for being accepted back into the Yezidi community.

In October the minister of displacement and migration announced a new three-phase plan to close all of the country’s IDP camps and immediately launched a series of sudden camp closures in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Ninewa provinces, affecting more than a thousand families. By late November the ministry had closed 11 displacement sites–eight formal IDP camps and three informal sites–across federal Iraq, affecting more than 25,000 IDPs. These closures were not coordinated with relevant local authorities or with humanitarian actors, not all IDPs were able or willing to return to their place of origin, and there were reports that up to 50 percent of IDPs could end up in secondary displacement as a consequence. IDP camp managers and NGOs reported government officials did not always give IDPs at closed camps the choice of where to proceed, resulting in involuntary, unsafe, and undignified returns and movements.

There were numerous reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion when they attempted to return to areas of origin. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to the stigmatization of IDPs, particularly those living in camps, who were being isolated and whose movements in and out of camps were increasingly restricted. Following IDP camp closures starting in October, many IDPs with perceived ISIS affiliation reported being rejected by local communities in areas of return, forcing them either to return to their former camps or to proceed elsewhere. Tribal pacts called for punishing false accusations of ISIS affiliation, but they also prohibited legal defense for those affiliated with ISIS. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than affiliation with ISIS.

Many Christian IDPs refused to return to the town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Brigade that occupied it and the presence of the Tesferat detention center and court, which the International Committee of the Red Cross reported could hold women and minors suspected of being ISIS family members. Prior to 2002, there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the region, but that figure had reportedly fallen to below 150,000. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plans or public services, as well as insecurity, had discouraged them from returning home. In June, however, Yezidis began returning to the Sinjar district in Ninewa Province for a variety of reasons, including fear of COVID-19 in camp settings, and as of late October more than 30,000 had returned.

In October the Iraqi government and the KRG signed a comprehensive agreement that called for a new mayor and administrative committees to oversee Sinjar district, a local security force consisting of Yezidis, removal of PKK and PMF militias, and expanded reconstruction efforts to support voluntary returns of Yezidis still displaced in the IKR and abroad.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls and lack of capacity.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse of residents, further exacerbated by COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported cases in which camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Syrians made up the vast majority of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR. The KRG generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.

According to the KRG Ministry of Interior, 259,496 refugees resided in the IKR as of September. More than one-half of these refugees lived outside of camps. The KRG cooperated with UNHCR in allowing these individuals to seek refuge in camps and receive basic assistance. The KRG allowed Syrian refugees with family in the IKR to live outside of camps.

Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR. KRG authorities noted IDPs and refugees had freedom of movement within the IKR. There are provisions to allow family visits to Syria. The KHRW confirmed the restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.

Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians. In the KRG Palestinians are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their refugee status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Central government authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed in some form of livelihood activity.

g. Stateless Persons

UNHCR estimated there were more than 47,000 stateless individuals in the country as of August. An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps were missing civil documentation and faced exclusion from local society, including being barred from attending school, lacking access to health care, and being deprived of basic rights. Many of these children, born under ISIS rule, were issued birth certificates that were considered invalid by the Iraqi government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation.

Absent a countrywide, consistent plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness. The Yezidi community more willingly welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered through rape by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community.

International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that did not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality.

As of 2006, the latest year for which data was available, an estimated 54,500 Bidoon (stateless) individuals, living as nomads in the desert in or near the southern provinces of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding. Prolonged drought in the south of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani (Dom) population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Baha’i religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.

A UNHCR-funded legal initiative secured nationality for hundreds of formerly stateless families, giving them access to basic rights and services. Since 2017 lawyers worked to help Bidoons and other stateless persons acquire nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Despite violence and other irregularities in the conduct of previously held elections, citizens were generally able to exercise this right.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2018 the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) conducted elections for the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR)–the national parliament. The 2018 elections were notable in that IHEC chose to implement new technologies, including the automated counting and tabulation of votes and the biometric identification and verification of voters. These new technologies, adopted very late in the electoral cycle, placed considerable strain on the institution. International and local observers monitored the elections. Two hundred and seventy-five out of 329 COR members lost their seats in these elections, including the speaker. Although observers declared the elections peaceful, allegations of fraud prompted parliament to order a recount of ballots in areas of Anbar, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and the IKR. Fraud allegations included repeat voting, manipulation of electronic ballot tallies, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation.

The COR ratified a new election law in November, which some analysts believed could provide political independents a better chance of winning seats in parliament. The new law effectively changed the country’s elections from a proportional representation system based on party lists to a single, nontransferable vote system. Electoral experts assessed the single, nontransferable system would allow voters to choose individual candidates, offering equal chances to independent candidates and large, well-organized electoral alliances. The law allows for holding early parliamentary elections in June 2021 as called for by the prime minister. In November the government submitted a formal request to the UN Security Council for expanded UN electoral monitoring to strengthen the transparency and credibility of these anticipated elections.

Due to problems obtaining or replacing civil documents, as well as last-minute changes to IHEC identification requirements, many IDPs were disenfranchised during the 2018 elections. Although the IHEC made attempts to accommodate the various registration and voting challenges (special absentee voting stations and waiver of the biometric identification card requirement) facing IDPs, the IHEC did not sufficiently inform IDPs in camps about the registration process and the voting procedures for the different categories of IDPs. By the 2017 cut-off date for voter registration, only 293,000 of an estimated 800,000 IDPs of voting age were registered. IDPs are the only group singled out in the new election law who must have a biometric voter identification card to vote. NGOs expressed concern that this could further disenfranchise IDPs in future elections as IHEC struggled to rollout the biometric voter identification program due to capacity challenges and COVID-19.

The Kurdistan Independent High Electoral Commission held elections in 2018 for the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP). Most observers witnessed only minor voting day irregularities, but opposition parties alleged voter intimidation and systemic fraud, such as ballot stuffing and falsification of documents. Following the 2018 national parliamentary elections, the International Crisis Group reported on allegations in Kirkuk Province, noting that the Kurdish PUK party won in several non-Kurdish areas with historically low PUK support, and turnout in Kurdish areas was low compared both with past elections and with turnout in Turkmen and Arab areas.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties and coalition blocs tended to organize along either religious or ethnic lines, although some parties crossed sectarian lines. Membership in some political parties conferred special privileges and advantages in employment and education. As of December there were 231 registered and approved parties for the anticipated 2021 national elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The constitution mandates that women constitute at least 25 percent of parliamentary and provincial council membership. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, 19 women received sufficient votes to win seats in the 329-seat COR without having to rely on the constitutional quota, compared with 22 in 2014. Sixty-five additional women were awarded seats based on the quota, raising the total number of seats women held to 84. Nonetheless, political discussions often reportedly marginalized women members of parliament.

In June, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi appointed Evan Faeq Yakoub Jabro as minister of migration and displacement. In this role she managed government policy regarding the migratory emergency and the relocation of IDPs. Prior to her confirmation, she held the role of adviser to the governor of Mosul on minority issues. She is a Christian and a member of the Chaldean Church.

Of the 329 seats in parliament, the law reserves nine seats for minorities: five for Christians from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Duhok provinces; one Yezidi; one Sabean-Mandaean; one Shabak; and, following a parliamentary decision in February 2019, one for Faili Kurds in Wasit Province.

The KRG reserves 30 percent of parliamentary and provincial council membership for women. Three women held cabinet level positions as of October. The number of women who served as judges in the IKR increased during the year.

Of 111 seats in the IKP, the law reserves 11 seats for minorities along ethnic, rather than religious lines: five for (predominantly Christian) Chaldo-Assyrian candidates, five for Turkmen candidates, and one for Armenian candidates. No seats are reserved for self-described groups whom the KRG considers ethnically Kurdish or Arab, such as Yezidis, Shabak, Sabean-Mandaeans, Kaka’i, and Faili Kurds.

Major political parties partnered with, or in some cases created, affiliated minority political parties in both the central government and IKR elections and encouraged other Iraqis to vote for allied minority candidates for quota seats in the COR and IKP. Minority community activists complained this process disenfranchised them, and they advocated for electoral reform to limit voting for minority quota seats to voters of the relevant minority, as well as for additional quota seats in the COR and IKP.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government struggled to implement the laws effectively. The law allows some individuals convicted of corruption to receive amnesty upon repaying money they had obtained by corruption, which had the effect of allowing them to keep any profits from stolen funds. Officials in federal Iraq and the IKR frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption remained a chief obstacle to effective governance at all institutional levels. The existence of armed militias, which are directly involved in corruption and provided protection for corrupt officials, made serious and sustainable anticorruption efforts difficult to enforce.

Corruption: UK-based newspaper, The Independent, reported in June that $300 billion had been funneled to thousands of fake and inactive projects around the country. The report revealed that 85 percent of 50,000 industrial projects in the private sector were inactive, and 250 state factories were not operating despite receiving funds from the government. Bribery, money laundering, nepotism, and misappropriation of public funds were common at all levels and across all branches of government. Family, tribal, and ethnosectarian considerations significantly influenced government decisions at all levels and across all branches of government.

Investigations of corruption were not free from political influence. Anticorruption efforts were hampered by a lack of agreement concerning institutional roles, political will, political influence, lack of transparency, and unclear governing legislation and regulatory processes. Although anticorruption institutions increasingly collaborated with civil society groups, the effect of expanded cooperation was limited. Media and NGOs attempted to expose corruption independently, but their capacity was limited. Anticorruption, law enforcement, and judicial officials, as well as members of civil society and media, faced threats, intimidation, and abuse in their efforts to combat corrupt practices.

In August, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi issued an executive order forming a “special and permanent committee” to investigate and prosecute major corruption files and high-profile crimes within government ministries and public agencies.

In September the anticorruption committee arrested 19 high-profile individuals, including Iraqi Retirement Authority director Ahmed al-Saadi, Baghdad Investment Commission chief Shaker al-Zamili, and Qi Card CEO Bahaa Abdul-Hussein, all of whom were remanded to Counterterrorism Service custody. Following the arrests friends and family of the detainees alleged the detainees had suffered physical abuse in custody and were denied access to medical and legal services. The prime minister publicly refuted the allegations.

The Central Bank leads the government’s efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. The Central Bank’s Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing worked with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to identify and prosecute illicit financial transactions. The latest report released by the office in 2019 showed it investigated 400 potential cases of money laundering during that year, with 34 cases referred to the judiciary and 192 cases under review by the office’s analysts. In July the office issued a statement on the European Commission’s (EC) decision to keep Iraq on the revised list of high-risk countries regarding money laundering and terrorist financing. The statement expressed displeasure at Iraq’s inclusion on the list, asserting the EC’s decision was based solely on security and lacked technical bases.

The Council of Ministers Secretariat has an anticorruption advisor, and the COR has an Integrity Committee. The Council of Ministers secretary general led the Joint Anticorruption Council, which also included agency inspectors general. In October the council dismissed approximately 1,000 civil servants after convicting them of public-integrity crimes, including wasting public money, bribery, and embezzlement.

Border corruption continued to be a problem. In July the prime minister launched a campaign to secure borders with Iran and other neighboring countries. He granted extended powers to the Iraqi military and navy to control borders with Iran and Kuwait and provided the border guards with additional reserve forces. KRG officials launched an investigation in September into corruption and smuggling at the Parwez Khan border crossing with Iran.

The KRG maintained its own Commission of Integrity (COI), which issued its first report in 2017. According to the COI’s 2020 report, there were 158 corruption cases underway or completed from January to November 18, with 26 individuals convicted. The convictions came from across the IKR including Erbil (11), Duhok (7), Garmian (5), and Sulaymaniya (3).

Financial Disclosure: The law authorizes the federal COI to obtain annual financial disclosures from senior public officials, including ministers, governors, and parliamentarians, and to take legal action for nondisclosure. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment. A unified system for enforcing annual financial disclosures does not exist. The federal COI has no jurisdiction over the IKR, but Kurdish members of the central government were required to conform to the law. The law obligates the federal COI to provide public annual reports on prosecutions, transparency, accountability, and ethics of public service. The prime minister and his cabinet submitted financial disclosures for 2020. The federal COI did not issue a semiannual report during the year.

The Kurdistan COI is responsible for distributing and collecting financial disclosure forms in the IKR. There was no information available indicating that public officials faced penalties for financial nondisclosure during the year.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated, in most cases with little government restriction or interference, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

Due to the ISIS-driven humanitarian crisis, many local NGOs focused on assisting refugees, IDPs, and other vulnerable communities. In some instances these NGOs worked in coordination with central government and KRG authorities. A number of NGOs also investigated and published findings on human rights cases. There were some reports of government interference with NGOs investigating human rights abuses and violations involving government actors.

There were multiple reports of international and Iraqi aid workers being harassed, threatened, arrested, and accused of false terrorism charges in some cases. The International NGO Safety Organization recorded 20 incidents against NGOs during the year. In December, Asaib Ahl al-Haq raided a community center in Mosul that belonged to the International Rescue Committee and threatened aid workers employed there, and the center remained closed.

NGOs faced capacity-related problems, did not have regular access to government officials, and, as a result, were not able to provide significant protections against failures in governance and human rights abuses. Domestic NGOs’ lack of sustainable sources of funding hindered the sector’s long-term development. The government rarely awarded NGOs contracts for services. While the law forbids NGOs from engaging in political activity, political parties or sects originated, funded, or substantially influenced many domestic NGOs.

NGOs were prevented from operating in certain sectors (see section 6, Women). NGOs registered in Erbil could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories without additional permits from Baghdad (see section 2.b.).

The IKR had an active community of mostly Kurdish NGOs, many with close ties to and funding from political parties. Government funding of NGOs is legally contingent upon whether an NGO’s programming goals conform to already identified KRG priority areas. The KRG NGO Directorate established formal procedures for awarding funds to NGOs, which included a public description of the annual budget for NGO funding, priority areas for consideration, deadlines for proposal submission, establishment of a grant committee, and the criteria for ranking proposals; however, NGOs reported the KRG had not provided funding to local NGOs since 2013.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government and the KRG sometimes restricted the access of the United Nations and other international organizations to sensitive locations, such as Ministry of Interior-run detention facilities holding detainees suspected of terrorism.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The IHCHR is constitutionally mandated. The law governing the IHCHR’s operation provides for 12 full-time commissioners and three reserve commissioners with four-year, nonrenewable terms; new commissioners assumed duties in 2017. The law provides for the IHCHR’s financial and administrative independence and assigns it broad authority, including the right to receive and investigate human rights complaints, conduct unannounced visits to correctional facilities, and review legislation. Some observers reported the commissioners’ individual and partisan political agendas largely stalled the IHCHR’s work. The IHCHR actively documented human rights violations and abuses during the demonstrations in 2019 and 2020 and regularly spoke out against both government and militia violence against protesters.

The IHRCKR issued periodic reports on human rights, trafficking in persons, and religious freedom in the IKR. The commission reported KRG police and security organizations generally had been receptive to human rights training and responsive to reports of violations. The IHRCKR and KHRW conducted human rights training for the police and Asayish, as well as police trainers in the past; however, training was put on hold during the year due to COVID-19.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but not specifically spousal rape, and permits a sentence not exceeding 15 years, or life imprisonment if the victim dies. The rape provisions of the law do not define, clarify, or otherwise describe “consent,” leaving the term up to judicial interpretation. The law requires authorities to drop a rape case if the perpetrator marries the victim, with a provision protecting against divorce within the first three years of marriage. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There were no reliable estimates of the incidence of rape or information on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNAMI reported a significant increase in the reports of rape, domestic violence, spousal abuse, immolation and self-immolation, self-inflicted injuries due to spousal abuse, sexual harassment of minors, and suicide due to increased household tensions because of COVID lockdowns, as well as economic hardship due to the country’s declining economy.

Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides reduced sentences for violence or killing if the perpetrator had “honorable motives” or if the perpetrator caught his wife or female relative in the act of adultery or sex outside of marriage. Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem.

Harassment of legal personnel who sought to pursue domestic violence cases under laws criminalizing assault, as well as a lack of trained police and judicial personnel, further hampered efforts to prosecute perpetrators.

The government and KRG also struggled to address the physical and mental trauma endured by women who lived under ISIS rule. Al-Monitor wrote in May that 10 percent of Yezidis living in the Sharya IDP camp were considering suicide. A mental health activity manager for Doctors without Borders told Voice of America in October that between April and August, her organization received 30 reports of individuals who attempted suicide.

The Ministry of Interior maintained 16 family protection units under police authority, located in separate buildings at police stations around the country, designed to resolve domestic disputes and establish safe refuges for victims of sexual or gender-based violence. These units reportedly tended to prioritize family reconciliation over victim protection and lacked the capacity to support victims. NGOs stated that victims of domestic violence feared approaching the family protection units because they suspected that police would inform their families of their testimony. Some tribal leaders in the south reportedly banned their members from seeking redress through police family protection units, claiming domestic abuse was a family matter. The family protection units in most locations did not operate shelters.

KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse, threats of violence, and spousal rape. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law and maintained a special police force to investigate cases of gender-based violence and a family reconciliation committee within the judicial system, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating gender-based violence.

In the IKR, two privately operated shelters and four KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs-operated shelters provided some protection and assistance for female victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Space was limited, and NGOs reported psychological and therapeutic services were poor. NGOs played a key role in providing services, including legal aid, to victims of domestic violence, who often received no assistance from the government. Instead of using legal remedies, authorities frequently mediated between women and their families so that the women could return to their homes. Other than marrying or returning to their families, which often resulted in further victimization by the family or community, there were few options for women accommodated at shelters.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): NGOs and the KRG reported the practice of FGM/C persisted in the IKR, particularly in rural areas of Erbil, Sulaymaniya, and Kirkuk provinces, despite a ban on the practice in IKR law. Rates of FGM/C, however, reportedly continued to decline. NGOs attributed the reduction in FGM/C to the criminalization of the practice and sustained public outreach activities by civil society groups. FGM/C was not common outside the IKR.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permitted “honor” as a lawful defense in violence against women, and so-called honor killings remained a serious problem throughout the country. A provision of the law limits a sentence for conviction of murder to a maximum of three years in prison if a man is on trial for killing his wife or a female dependent due to suspicion that the victim was committing adultery or engaged in sex outside of marriage. UNAMI reported that several hundred women died each year from honor killings. Some families reportedly arranged honor killings to appear as suicides.

In September, two young women were found dead near the town of Chamechamal, Sulaymaniya, after allegedly being killed by their father. NGOs and activists issued a statement urging IKR authorities to pursue justice for the victims who were thought to be murdered due to their father’s disapproval of their dating outside of marriage.

The KRG Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Combating Violence against Women confirmed three cases of honor killing among 26 female homicide victims in the IKR as of September. A UN source, however, observed the number of actual honor killings was likely much higher.

There were reports that women and girls were sexually exploited through so-called temporary, or pleasure, marriages, under which a man gives the family of the girl or woman dowry money in exchange for permission to “marry” her for a specified period. Young women, widowed or orphaned by ISIS offensives, were especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. In similar cases NGOs reported some families opted to marry off their underage daughters in exchange for dowry money, believing the marriage was genuine, only to have the girl returned to them months later, sometimes pregnant.

Government officials and international and local NGOs also reported that the traditional practice of nahwa, where a cousin, uncle, or other male relative of any woman may forbid or terminate her marriage to someone outside the family, remained a problem, particularly in southern provinces. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to nahwas and fasliya (where women are traded to settle tribal disputes), but these traditions continued, especially in areas where tribal influence outweighed government institutions.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Penalties for sexual harassment include fines of up to only 30 dinars (2.5 cents), imprisonment, or both, not to exceed three months for a first-time offender. The law provides relief from penalties if unmarried participants marry. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement, but penalties were very low. In most areas there were few or no publicly provided women’s shelters, information, support hotlines, and little or no sensitivity training for police. Refugees and IDPs reported regular sexual harassment, both in camps and cities.

Women political candidates suffered harassment online and on social media, including posting of fake, nude, or salacious photographs and videos meant to harm their campaigns.

Reproductive Rights: Couples have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, as well as have access to information on reproductive health, free from violence. Various methods of contraception were widely available, including in the IKR; however, women in urban areas generally had greater access than those in rural parts of the country. A married woman could not be prescribed or use contraception without the consent of her husband. Unmarried single women were also unable to obtain birth control. Divorced or widowed women, however, did not have this same restriction. Abortion is prohibited; however, a 2020 law in the IKR allows for abortion if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. In addition to consent from the mother and her husband, a committee with at least five physician must determine if the pregnancy poses a serious threat to her life.

Due to general insecurity in the country and attendant economic difficulties, many women received inadequate medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that in some governorates the work of reproductive health and pregnancy care units, as well as health awareness campaigns, had ceased almost entirely because of COVID-19’s impact on the health-care system.

In the IKR the KRG Ministry of Health reported that survivors of sexual violence received treatment from provincial health departments and emergency rooms. Judges, however, rarely considered forensic evidence that was collected. The government stated it provided full services for survivors of sexual violence and rape in all governorates, as the law requires that survivors receive full health care and treatment. Emergency contraceptives were available as part of the clinical management of rape through government services and in private clinics, although advocates who worked with survivors reported many barriers to women accessing those contraceptives, as well as significant gaps in service delivery.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The Council of Ministers’ Iraqi Women Empowerment Directorate is the lead government body on women’s issues. Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, and inheritance laws discriminate against women. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing.

For example, in a court of law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in some cases and is equal in other cases. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony other than child support or two years’ financial maintenance in some cases; in other cases the woman must return all or part of her dowry or otherwise pay a sum of money to the husband. Under the law the father is the guardian of the children, but a divorced mother may be granted custody of her children until age 10, extendable by a court up to age 15, at which time the children may choose with which parent they wish to live.

All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. Discrimination toward women on personal status issues varies depending on the religious group. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except recognized religious minorities. In all communities male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative (see section 2.d.). Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.

NGOs also reported cases in which courts changed the registration of Yezidi women to Muslim against their will because of their forced marriage to ISIS fighters.

The KRG provided some additional legal protections to women, maintaining a High Council of Women’s Affairs and a Women’s Rights Monitoring Board to enforce the law and prevent and respond to discrimination, but such protections were applied inconsistently. Other portions of KRG law continued to mirror federal law, and women faced discrimination. KRG law allows women to set as a prenuptial condition the right to divorce her husband beyond the limited circumstances allowed by Iraqi law and provides a divorced wife up to five years’ alimony beyond child care.

Children

Birth Registration: The constitution states that anyone born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen. Failure to register births resulted in the denial of public services such as education, food, and health care. Single women and widows often had problems registering their children, although in most cases authorities provided birth certificates after registration of the birth through the Ministries of Health and Interior; such registration was reportedly a lengthy and at times complicated process. The government was generally committed to children’s rights and welfare, although it denied benefits to noncitizen children. Humanitarian organizations reported a widespread problem of children born to members of ISIS or in ISIS-held territory failing to receive a government-issued birth certificate. An estimated 45,000 displaced children living in camps lacked civil documentation, including birth certificates, and the issue also affected many IDPs living outside of IDP camps.

Education: Primary education is compulsory for citizen children for the first six years of schooling and until age 15 in the IKR; it is provided without cost to citizens. Equal access to education for girls remained a problem, particularly in rural and insecure areas. Recent, reliable statistics on enrollment, attendance, or completion were not available.

Schools continued to be closed from February onward, putting more than 10 million students out of school. UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education to broadcast lessons through education television and digital platforms. Children’s access to alternative learning platforms via the internet and television, however, was hindered by limited connectivity and availability of digital devices, as well as lack of electricity. Moreover, the Ministry for Directorates of Education had not issued directives for guiding the delivery of distance learning.

Child Abuse: Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides protections for children who were victims of domestic violence or were in shelters, state houses, and orphanages, including access to health care and education. Violence against children reportedly remained a significant problem, but up-to-date, reliable statistics on the extent of the problem were not available. Local NGOs reported the government made little progress in implementing its 2017 National Child Protection Policy.

UNICEF reported that during the year, at least 1.64 million children, half of them girls, were estimated to need at least one type of protective service. UNICEF and its implementing partners continued to deliver psychosocial support; case management and specialized protection services for children, including birth registration; civil documentation and legal assistance; and capacity development of national partners. UNICEF also worked with Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and NGO partners in establishing referral mechanism and alternative care arrangements for children affected by COVID-19. They purchased and distributed personal protective equipment kits for 2,511 children in detention centers and children’s homes, while continuing to advocate for the release of children from prison. A total of 440 children were released from detention since the start of the pandemic. The Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting verified 24 grave violations, affecting 23 children, compared with 16 verified grave violations affecting 16 children in the previous quarter.

KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse and threats of violence. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating child abuse. The KRG’s Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Education, and Culture and Youth operated a toll-free hotline to report violations against, or seek advice regarding, children’s rights. Multiple reports of child abuse surfaced during the year. Activists reported sexual abuse and assault by relatives was widespread and that some victims did not report crimes due to fear of retribution by family members.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but the law allows a judge to permit children as young as 15 to marry if fitness and physical capacity are established and the guardian does not present a reasonable objection. The law criminalizes forced marriage but does not automatically void forced marriages that have been consummated. The government reportedly made few efforts to enforce the law. Traditional early and forced marriages of girls, including temporary marriages, occurred throughout the country. UNHCR reported the continued prevalence of early marriage due to conflict and economic instability, as many families arranged for girls to marry cousins or into polygamous households. Others gave their daughters as child brides to armed groups as a means to ensure their safety, access to public services in occupied territories, or livelihood opportunities for the entire family.

In the IKR the legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but KRG law allows a judge to permit a child as young as 16 to marry if the individual is entering into the marriage voluntarily and has received permission from a legal guardian. KRG law criminalizes forced marriage and suspends, but it does not automatically void, forced marriages that have been consummated. According to the KRG High Council of Women’s Affairs, refugees and IDPs in the IKR engaged in child marriage and polygamy at a higher rate than IKR residents. Some Kurdish men crossed over into federal Iraqi territory to acquire a child bride since those laws are not as strict.

The KRG assigned police and officials from the office to combat domestic violence to deter parents from forcing their children into marriages and to conduct awareness campaigns to combat sexual violence.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Child prostitution was a problem, as were temporary marriages, particularly among the IDP population. Because the age of legal criminal responsibility is nine in the areas administered by the central government and 11 in the IKR, authorities often treated sexually exploited children as criminals instead of victims. Penalties for commercial exploitation of children range from fines and imprisonment to the death penalty. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement.

Displaced Children: Insecurity and active conflict between government forces and ISIS caused the continued displacement of large numbers of children. Abuses by government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, contributed to displacement. Due to the conflict in Syria, children and single mothers from Syria took refuge in the IKR. UNICEF reported that almost one-half of IDPs were children.

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

Anti-Semitism

The federal Iraqi penal code stipulates that any person convicted of promoting Zionist principles, association with Zionist organizations, assisting such organizations through material or moral support, or working in any way to realize Zionist objectives, be subject to punishment by death. According to the code, Jews are prohibited from joining the military and cannot hold jobs in the public sector. In practice the KRG did not apply the central government’s anti-Zionist laws and relied on IKR law number five, which provides protections for the rights of religious minorities, including Jews.

A very small number of Jewish citizens lived in Baghdad. According to unofficial statistics from the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, there were as few as 100 to possibly as many as 300 Jewish families in the IKR. The Jewish community did not publicly worship due to fears of retribution, discrimination, or violence by extremist actors. The KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs designated one of its seven departments to Jewish affairs. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts in the country during the year.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution states the government, through law and regulations, guarantees the social and health security of persons with disabilities, including through protection against discrimination and provision of housing and special programs of care and rehabilitation. Despite constitutional guarantees, no laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Persons with disabilities had limited access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

Although a 2016 Council of Ministers decree orders access for persons with disabilities to buildings and to educational and work settings, incomplete implementation continued to limit access.

In August, following reports of serious delays in payment of social subsides to disabled persons, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (Labor Ministry) called on the government to ensure these payments within the federal budget. Local NGOs reported that despite the government adoption of a long-term strategy for sustainable development to persons with disabilities, the implementation of the program objectives remained poor throughout the year. Persons with disabilities continued to face difficulties in accessing health, education, and employment services.

The Labor Ministry leads the Independent Commission for the Care of People with Disabilities. Any Iraqi citizen applying to receive disability-related government services must first receive a commission evaluation. The KRG deputy minister of labor and social affairs leads a similar commission, administered by a special director within the ministry.

There is a 5 percent public-sector employment quota for persons with disabilities, but employment discrimination persisted (see section 7.d.). Mental health support for prisoners with mental disabilities did not exist.

The Ministry of Health provided medical care, benefits, and rehabilitation, when available, for persons with disabilities, who could also receive benefits from other agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Office. The Ministry of Labor operated several institutions for children and young adults with disabilities. The ministry provided loan programs for persons with disabilities for vocational training.

KRG law proscribed greater protections for individuals with disabilities, including a requirement that 5 percent of persons with disabilities be employed in public-sector institutions and 3 percent with the private sector. The KRG reported 12,068 public-sector employees with disabilities during the year. The KRG provided a 100,000-dinar monthly stipend to government employees with disabilities and a 150,000-dinar stipend to those not employed by the KRG.

Disability rights advocates in the KRG reported that the IKR’s disability protections lacked implementation, including the 5 percent employment requirement. Lack of accessibility remained a problem with more than 98 percent of public buildings, parks, and transportation lacking adequate facilities to assist the more than 110,000 registered persons with disabilities in the region. Disability advocates reported employment was low among members of the community and many youth with mental and physical disabilities lacked access to educational opportunity.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The country’s population included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Shabaks, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is, and a very small number of Jews. The country also had a small Romani (Dom) community, as well as an estimated 1.5 to 2 million citizens of African descent who reside primarily in Basrah and adjoining provinces. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of discrimination as based solely on ethnic or religious identity.

HRW released a report on July 19 stating that the KRG had prevented thousands of Arab families from returning home in Duhok, including families from five villages in Ninewa’s Rabia subdistrict who had been displaced since 2014. HRW claimed that the KRG was only allowing Kurdish families to return.

Ethnic and sectarian-based fighting continued in mixed provinces, although at lower rates than in 2019. In April, ISIS gunmen attacked a Kaka’i village in Kirkuk killing five persons, and in June ISIS perpetrated another attack on a village near Khanaqin in Diyala Province that killed six individuals and wounded six others.

In September local media reported that Arab tribesmen stormed Palkana, a Kurdish village in Kirkuk Province, to oust the village’s Kurdish residents. The tribesmen threatened to use violence against Kurdish families if they refused to leave. Local police were notified of the violations but refused to intervene.

The law does not permit some religious groups, including Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Kaka’i, to register under their professed religions, which, although recognized in the IKR, remained unrecognized and illegal under federal Iraqi law. The law forbids Muslims to convert to another religion. In the IKR this law was rarely enforced, and individuals were generally allowed to convert to other religious faiths without KRG interference (see sections 2.d. and section 6, Children).

Government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, and other militias targeted ethnic and religious minorities, as did remaining active ISIS fighters.

Discrimination continued to stoke ethnosectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year. Some government forces, including PMF units, forcibly displaced individuals due to perceived ISIS affiliation or for ethno-sectarian reasons.

Many persons of African descent, some stateless, lived in extreme poverty with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. They were not represented in politics, and members held no senior government positions. Furthermore, they stated that discrimination kept them from obtaining government employment. Members of the community also struggled to obtain restitution for lands seized from them during the Iran-Iraq war.

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

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct if those engaging in the conduct are younger than age 18, while it does not criminalize any same-sex activities among adults. Despite repeated threats and violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, specifically gay men, the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute attackers or to protect targeted individuals.

In May the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned foreign embassies for offending what it called the country’s “norms and values” when the EU mission hoisted the rainbow flag, commonly associated with LGBTI persons, on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Several Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum also condemned the incident, with some calling for the EU mission to be closed. A few days later, media outlets reported that a young gay man was killed in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, and another in Babil Province, in an apparent backlash against the flag raising.

LGBTI individuals also faced intimidation, threats, violence, and discrimination in the IKR. LGBTI individuals reported they could not live openly in the IKR without fear of violence at the hands of family members, acquaintances, or strangers. Rasan Organization for gender-based violence and LGBT awareness posted a video documentary in September 2019 about the impact of COVID-19 on LGBT individuals in the IKR. LGBTI individuals struggled to be accepted by their family members and the IKR community and disguised their identity from their families due to fear of violence, verbal abuse, and killing.

According to NGOs, Iraqis who experienced severe discrimination, torture, physical injury, and the threat of death on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics had no recourse to challenge those actions via courts or government institutions.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution states that citizens have the right to form and join unions and professional associations. The law, however, prohibits the formation of unions independent of the government-controlled General Federation of Iraqi Workers and in workplaces with fewer than 50 workers. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide reinstatement for workers fired for union activity. The law allows workers to select representatives for collective bargaining, even if they are not members of a union, and affords workers the right to have more than one union in a workplace. In June the government ratified International Labor Organization Convention 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.

The law also considers individuals employed by state-owned enterprises (who made up approximately 10 percent of the workforce) as public-sector employees. CSOs continued to lobby for a trade union law to expand union rights.

Private-sector employees in worksites employing more than 50 workers may form workers committees–subdivisions of unions with limited rights–but most private-sector businesses employed fewer than 50 workers.

Labor courts have the authority to consider labor law violations and disputes, but no information was available concerning enforcement of the applicable law, including whether procedures were prompt or efficient or whether penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Strikers and union leaders reported that government officials threatened and harassed them.

The law allows for collective bargaining and the right to strike in the private sector, although government authorities sometimes violated private-sector employees’ collective bargaining rights. Some unions were able to play a supportive role in labor disputes and had the right to demand government arbitration.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor–including slavery, indebtedness, and trafficking in persons–but the government did not effectively monitor or enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for analogous, serious crimes such as kidnapping.

Employers subjected foreign migrant workers–particularly construction workers, security guards, cleaners, repair persons, and domestic workers–to forced labor; confiscation of passports, cellphones, ATM cards, and other travel and identity documents; restrictions on movement and communications; physical abuse, sexual harassment, and rape; withholding of wages; and forced overtime. There were cases of employers stopping payment on contracts and preventing foreign employees from leaving the work site.

Employers subjected women to involuntary domestic service through forced marriages and the threat of divorce, and women who fled such marriages or whose husbands divorced them were vulnerable to social stigma and increased vulnerability to further forced labor. Female IDPs, single women, and widows were particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation and discriminatory employment conditions.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The constitution and law prohibit the worst forms of child labor. In areas under central government authority, the minimum age for employment is 15. The law limits working hours for persons younger than 18 to seven hours a day and prohibits employment in work detrimental to health, safety, or morals of anyone younger than 18. The labor code does not apply to juveniles (ages 15 to 18) who work in family-owned businesses producing goods exclusively for domestic use. Since children employed in family enterprises are exempt from some protections in the labor code with regard to employment conditions, there were reports of children performing hazardous work in family-owned businesses.

The law mandates employers bear the cost of annual medical checks for working juveniles. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 are not required to attend school, but also not permitted to work. Penalties include imprisonment for a period of 30 days to six months and a fine of up to one million dinars ($880), to be doubled in the case of a repeated offense. Data on child labor was limited, particularly with regard to the worst forms of child labor, which further limited enforcement of existing legal protections. Child labor, including in its worst forms, occurred throughout the country. This included forced begging and commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking, according to international NGOs.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is charged with enforcing the law prohibiting child labor in the private and public sectors, and labor law enforcement agencies took actions to combat child labor. The government lacked programs that focus on assisting children involved in the worst forms of child labor. Gaps existed within the authority and operations of the ministry that hindered labor law enforcement, including an insufficient number of labor inspectors and a lack of funding for inspections, authority to assess penalties, and labor inspector training. Inspections continued, and resumed in areas liberated from ISIS, but due to the large number of IDPs, as well as capacity constraints and the focus on maintaining security and fighting terrorism, law enforcement officials and labor inspectors’ efforts to monitor these practices were ineffective. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. In the IKR, education is mandatory until age 15, which is also the minimum age for legal employment.

The KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs estimated several hundred children worked in the IKR, often as street vendors or beggars, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. The ministry operated a 24-hour hotline for reporting labor abuses, including child labor, that received approximately 200 calls per month.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/  .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution provides that all citizens are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, religion, social origin, political opinion, language, disability, or social status. It also prohibits any forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. The government was ineffective in enforcing these provisions. Penalties were commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. The labor law limits women from working during certain hours of the day and does not allow them to work in jobs deemed hazardous or arduous. Women must obtain permission from a male relative or guardian before being granted a Civil Status Identification Card for access to employment. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on age, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, or other communicable diseases. The law allows employers to terminate workers’ contracts when they reach retirement age, which is lower by five years for women. The law gives migrant Arab workers the same status as citizens but does not provide the same rights for non-Arab migrant workers, who faced stricter residency and work visa requirements.

Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians, but the KRG does. Palestinians are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed.

Many persons of African descent lived in extreme poverty and were nearly 80 percent illiterate; more than 80 percent were reportedly unemployed. According to some sources, they constituted 15 to 20 percent of the Basrah region’s 2.5 million inhabitants. They were not represented in politics, held no senior government positions, and reported that discrimination kept them from obtaining government employment.

Stateless persons faced discrimination in employment and access to education. Many stateless persons were not able to register for identity cards, which prevented them from enrolling in public school, registering marriages, and gaining access to some government services. Stateless individuals also faced difficulty obtaining public-sector employment and lacked job security.

Despite constitutional guarantees, no laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Persons with disabilities had limited access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

Although a 2016 Council of Ministers decree orders access for persons with disabilities to buildings and to educational and work settings, incomplete implementation continued to limit access. There is a 5 percent public-sector employment quota for persons with disabilities, but employment discrimination persisted, and quotas were not met. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs maintained loan programs for persons with disabilities for vocational training.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women, foreign workers, and minorities (see section 6). Media reported in February and June that the availability of foreign workers willing to accept longer hours and lower pay in unskilled positions had increased unemployment to approximately 23 percent and led foreign workers to commandeer certain undesired industries such as janitorial services and the food industry, resulting in social stigmatization.

In July the Labor Ministry reported that COVID-19 and a drop in oil prices caused the percentage of Iraqis living in poverty to increase from 22 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in the current year. NGOs reported that women and migrants workers faced the highest rates of unemployment during the pandemic. Women fared worse than men, with 40 percent of women working in the private sector losing their jobs, compared to 12 percent for men.

There were more than 15 unions, associations, and syndicates in the IKR, all led by all-male executive boards. In response the Kurdistan United Workers Union established a separate women’s committee, reportedly supported by local NGOs, to support gender equality and advance women’s leadership in unions in the IKR.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage, set by federal labor law, was above the poverty line. The law limits the standard workday to eight hours, with one or more rest periods totaling 30 minutes to one hour, and the standard workweek to 48 hours. The law permits up to four hours of overtime work per day and requires premium pay for overtime work. For industrial work, overtime should not exceed one hour per day. The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law states that for hazardous or exhausting work, employers should reduce daily working hours. The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from a situation endangering health and safety without prejudice to their employment but does not extend this right to civil servants or migrant workers, who together made up the majority of the country’s workforce.

The Ministry of Labor has jurisdiction over matters concerning labor law, child labor, wages, occupational safety and health topics, and labor relations. The ministry’s occupational safety and health staff worked throughout the country, but the government did not effectively enforce regulations governing wages or working conditions. In June the Iraqi Communist Party criticized the Ministry of Electricity decision to reduce day workers’ monthly wages from 330,000 dinars ($290) to 205,000 dinars ($180). The number of inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance. Penalties for labor violations were not commensurate with those for similar crimes such as fraud.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards are appropriate for the main industries. It is unclear whether responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with OSH experts and not the workers. Penalties for OSH violations were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.

The legal and regulatory framework, combined with the country’s high level of violence and insecurity, high unemployment, large informal sector, and lack of meaningful work standards, resulted in substandard conditions for many workers. Workplace injuries occurred frequently, especially among manual laborers; however, no data was available on the specific number of industrial accidents that resulted in death or serious injury.

In August the Iraqi Civil Defense Directorate reported on the death of a maintenance worker who fell into the drainage system of a residential building in the Basrah Province. The directorate attributed the incident to a lack of adherence to OSH guidelines.

A lack of oversight and monitoring of employment contracts left foreign and migrant workers vulnerable to exploitative working conditions and abusive treatment. Local NGOs reported that thousands of migrant workers faced poor work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, including illegal layoffs, homelessness, unpaid wages, and sexual exploitation. In January the Labor Ministry announced the number of registered migrant workers was only 4,000 persons nationally but the total number of expatriate workers exceeded 750,000, highlighting the large number of persons working illegally in the country. Some observers reported these migrant workers lived in work camps, sometimes in substandard conditions.

Panama

Executive Summary

Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.

The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, and the National Border Service handles border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed few abuses.

Significant human rights issues included restrictions on free expression and the press, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits.

The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses, but information on the process and results of investigations were rarely made public.

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

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

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

b. Disappearance

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

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Impunity among security forces existed due to weak and decentralized internal control mechanisms for conduct and enforcement. The largest security force, the Panama National Police, has an internal affairs office, responsible for enforcing conduct violations, but it withdrew from past efforts to modernize. The government rarely made cases of police abuse or corruption public, and the National Criminal Statistics Directorate was unable to provide strong data on police internal affairs, making the extent of impunity difficult to gauge. National police authorities provided training and information to officers to discourage involvement with narcotics trafficking and corruption.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh, due to overcrowding, insufficient internal security, a shortage of prison guards, and inadequate medical services and sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: According to the Ministry of Government’s National Directorate of the Penitentiary System (DGSP), as of October the prison system held 17,895 prisoners in facilities with an intended capacity of 14,591 inmates. Pretrial detainees shared cells with convicted prisoners due to space constraints. Prison conditions for women were generally better than for men, but conditions for both populations were poor, with some facilities overcrowded, inadequate inmate security and medical care, and a lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene.

Evangelical pastors and gang leaders tightly controlled the pavilions inside the prisons. Two separate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported perceived favoritism towards evangelical inmates who appointed themselves “leaders of the prison pavilions.” NGO representatives reported that perceived corruption within the prison system enabled these “leader” inmates to receive privileges, most likely requiring the collaboration of police or civilian custodians. Other inmates had to secure approval of these “leaders,” which often involved payment of bribes, to obtain expedited transfers or access to their legal counselors.

Gang activity in prisons represented a daily threat to prisoner safety. Deficient prison security management contributed to a December 2019 massacre in La Joyita Prison, resulting in 13 deaths and 14 persons injured. NGO representatives said prison security personnel were likely complicit in the smuggling of AK-47s and other firearms used in the killings.

Despite various sanitary protocols implemented due to the pandemic, medical care overall was inadequate due to lack of personnel, transportation, and medical resources. As of September there were no vaccination campaigns in prisons. Authorities transferred patients with serious illnesses to public clinics, but there were constant difficulties in arranging inmate transportation. The DGSP lacked ambulances. Transfer of inmates depended on the availability of police vehicles or the limited national ambulance system.

As of September, 2,134 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, six of whom died. Owing to the pandemic, authorities put 923 inmates who had completed two-thirds of their sentences or had chronic illnesses under house arrest to reduce overcrowding. Bureaucracy within the Public Ministry, DGSP, and courts prevented the release of additional inmates who qualified for release.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. Representatives from the Ombudsman’s Office and the judicial system reported it was difficult for them to receive access to DGSP authorities.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. The Ombudsman’s Office prisons officer visited prisons, including an unannounced visit by the ombudsman in September, but due to the pandemic, visits had to be limited and prearranged. Human rights NGOs seeking access to prisons were required to send a written request to the DGSP 15 days in advance.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals violating the curfew were arrested and had no legal representation due to the strict lockdown. After experiencing negative news reports and civil society protests on social media, the government issued a decree waiving movement restrictions for lawyers. There were several instances of abuse of authority by police agents while carrying out detentions during curfew times.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires arresting officers to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel. During the pandemic there were numerous complaints of abuse of authority by police agents detaining persons during the quarantine and curfew. Most complaints focused on the verbal mistreatment of citizens at checkpoints, but there were instances when police applied physical force while conducting alcohol tests during the curfew.

Legal cases opened prior to the transition to the accusatory justice system (SPA) continued to be processed under the previous inquisitorial system. Both systems demonstrated vulnerabilities to corruption, inefficiencies, and bureaucratic obstacles. Due to the pandemic, the judicial branch was closed from mid-March through June, thereby delaying administration of any pending cases. Hearings to reduce the prison population to avoid spread of COVID-19 infections were held from April to May, but the regular absence of the public defenders contributed to more delays. Informality in the judicial processes, such as sending documents through mobile messenger platforms instead of official emails, became the norm for some lower-level court judges, thus jeopardizing the transparency of the judicial process.

Under the SPA bail exists but was rarely granted because of the implementation of a less costly provisional release system. Under the inquisitorial system, a bail procedure exists for a limited number of crimes but was largely unused. Most bail proceedings were at the discretion of the Prosecutor’s Office and could not be initiated by detainees or their legal counsel. Bail was granted in high-profile corruption cases, which prompted complaints by civil society that the Public Ministry was administering “selective” justice.

The law prohibits police from detaining adult suspects for more than 48 hours but allows authorities to detain minor suspects for 72 hours. Under the SPA, arrests and detention decisions were made on a probable cause basis.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention. In one case police ordered a lesbian couple out of their private vehicle for kissing. They were detained, taken to a police station, and fined $50 each for indecent public behavior before being released.

Pretrial Detention: According to official statistics, as of July approximately 40 percent of inmates had not been convicted, compared with 43 percent in the previous year. Full implementation of the SPA structure nationwide decreased the number of pretrial detainees consistently since 2016.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, the lack of criminal convictions on corruption charges supported widespread public opinion that the judicial system was susceptible to corrupt internal and external influence.

In a change from the previous year, most allegations of manipulation of the justice system related to the continuing influence of past regimes, notably those of the Ricardo Martinelli (2009-14) and Juan Carlos Varela (2014-19) administrations. While both former presidents were under separate investigations for a variety of corruption-related charges, including alleged money laundering and embezzlement, it was unclear to what extent loyalties to either former president influenced legal proceedings. Martinelli’s 2018 extradition from the United States to face illegal wiretapping charges resulted in an August 2019 “not guilty” finding, with evidence and testimony excluded on procedural grounds. Despite a Supreme Court panel rejection of several grounds for annulment of the decision, the case remained under appeal before a lower court.

In August the Penal Court of the Supreme Court of Justice refused to hear a request from victims of former president Martinelli asking for the annulment of his trial at a lower-level court, where three new judges found him not guilty of illegally wiretapping their telephones and chat conversations. Also in August the Supreme Court denied a prosecutor’s appeal of a 2019 decision by a three-judge panel that found Martinelli not guilty of any of the four criminal charges he faced. The court ruled, however, that a midlevel tribunal should see the request for appeal.

Unlike in accusatory system cases, court proceedings for cases in process under the inquisitorial system were not publicly available. As a result nonparties to the inquisitorial case proceedings did not have access to these proceedings until a verdict was reached. Under the inquisitorial system, judges could decide to hold private hearings and did so in high-profile cases. Consequently, the judiciary sometimes faced accusations, particularly in high-profile cases, of procedural irregularities. Since most of these cases had not reached conclusion, however, the records remained under seal. Interested parties generally did not face gag orders, but because of this mechanism, it was difficult to verify facts.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The law provides that all citizens charged with crimes enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence. They have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free language interpretation available for non-Spanish-speaking inmates), to have a trial without undue delay, to have counsel of their choice and adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, to refrain from incriminating themselves or close relatives, and to be tried only once for a given offense. The accused may be present with counsel during the investigative phase of proceedings.

The fully implemented SPA system stipulates that trials must be completed in less than 18 months. Judges may order detainees to be present during the pretrial phase to provide or expand upon statements or to confront witnesses. Trials are conducted based on evidence presented by the public prosecutor. Defendants have the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, along with the right to enter into a plea deal. During the pandemic, however, many inmates were not present at their hearings. Defendants may confront or question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants have a right to appeal.

The Public Defender’s Office continued to fail to initiate the formal process for early release of inmates in a timely fashion, despite written instructions from the judicial branch. No disciplinary actions were taken.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have access to the courts to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations, although most did not pursue such lawsuits due to the length of the process. There are administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs, and authorities often granted them to citizens who followed through with the process. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured. Individuals or organizations who have exhausted domestic remedies may initiate cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights by submitting petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

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. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel and slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Violence and Harassment: In January, National Assembly vice president Zulay Rodriguez sued journalist Mauricio Valenzuela, of the online media outlet Foco Panama, in a family court with charges of gender-based violence, infringing the rights of a minor, and attacking her personal liberty and integrity. Valenzuela had reported Rodriguez’ alleged involvement in a gold-trafficking case. Rodriguez requested a restraining order against Valenzuela and limitations on his use of technology and electronic devices against her. In February, Rodriguez alleged Valenzuela violated the restraining order, but a judge dismissed the case in July.

In October, National Assembly member Sergio Galvez publicly attacked the personal reputation of Radio Panama news anchor and political analyst Edwin Cabrera. While speaking on the floor of the assembly, Galvez accused Cabrera of having drinking problems and being a pedophile and questioned his sexual orientation. Since assembly members have immunity over what they say during their legislative sessions, Cabrera was unable to take legal action against Galvez.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation, and penalties include fines, imprisonment, or both. In June a civil court ordered the seizure of Corprensa’s assets for 1.8 million balboas ($1.8 million). Corprensa was overdue on posting a financial bail for more than one million dollars for a 2012 libel and slander lawsuit brought by former president Perez-Balladares. Corprensa had been appealing the case for seven years. The National Council for Journalism called the ruling the result of a “failed state that violates the principles and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and international law.”

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

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.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation but due to the pandemic, the government issued several resolutions limiting movements nationwide and closing entries through airports, ports, and borders. Limitations included strict quarantine rules and long curfews. Government health authorities divided movement within communities based on gender. As COVID-19 spread, government movement restrictions unduly affected men–who were allowed to circulate only two days a week–while women were authorized to leave their homes three days a week. Movement within provinces was also forbidden unless the individual had a government-issued waiver. Local lawyers filed suits before the Supreme Court of Justice alleging the movement restrictions violated human rights. As of September the Supreme Court had not ruled on the complaints.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status, which normally takes two to three years, allows only asylum seekers admitted into the process the right to work. The asylum application process could take up to one year for applicants just to be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval. ONPAR, like many other government offices, was required to work remotely during the pandemic. Movement restrictions reduced the number of asylum requests received, but ONPAR continued to receive requests through virtual referrals from NGO partners such the Norwegian Refugee Council and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.

The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the region did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. Because of the closure of international borders due to COVID-19 restrictions, migrants remained in temporary camps in Darien for more than six months, resulting in at least one violent protest in which migrants burned property and clashed with government officers. Authorities reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa, nearly all whom entered by foot through the Darien Gap, a roadless expanse of jungle on the eastern border with Colombia.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.

Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained they faced discriminatory hiring practices. To prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.

Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.

Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.

g. Stateless Persons

The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, used a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngobe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between the two countries and whose births were not registered in either country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were national legislators, mayors, local representatives, and council members. A group of international observers from the Organization of American States, the EU, electoral NGOs, regional electoral authorities, and the diplomatic corps considered the elections fair and transparent.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. Political parties must obtain the equivalent of 2 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing. Six registered political parties and five movements filed their paperwork with the Electoral Tribunal in September to gain temporary recognition as political parties, including one led by former president Martinelli and the 2019 third runner-up, Ricardo Lombana (Movimiento Otro Camino, or Another Path Movement). The Electoral Tribunal confirmed recognition for Lombana’s party in January and for Martinelli’s party in September.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Corruption remained a serious problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces.

Corruption: The Public Ministry continued investigations into allegations of corruption against public officials, but the courts dismissed high-profile corruption cases due to “lack of evidence” or “procedural mistakes” by the prosecutors. In September the Supreme Court dismissed the Tonosi Irrigation millionaire embezzlement case against several 2009-14 administration authorities, including former president Martinelli.

Two former presidents, Ricardo Martinelli and Juan Carlos Varela, and two former ministers, Demetrio “Jimmy” Papadimitriu and Jaime Ford, were under investigation for corruption related to the Odebrecht case. Martinelli was also accused of using $43 million in public funds to purchase the pro-Martinelli Editora Panama America newspaper group.

There were also allegations of corruption by the sitting administration. Several high-profile scandals related to procurements to combat the coronavirus pandemic emerged during the year. In April and September, the Public Ministry opened separate investigations against central government institutions for allegedly overpaying for ventilators as well as purchasing used ventilators.

Corruption and a lack of accountability among police continued to be a problem. In July authorities filed weapons and weapons-trafficking charges against more than 25 individuals, most of whom were high-level security officials during the previous government. The charges involved the illegal distribution to the officials of legally imported weapons, some designated “weapons of war.” The Public Security Affairs Directorate, the office within the Security Ministry that regulates and licenses firearms, was associated with corruption in the past, and at least two former officer directors were facing charges, with one of them implicated in the July weapons-trafficking case.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain executive and judiciary officials to submit a financial disclosure statement to the Comptroller General’s Office. The information is not made public unless the executive or judiciary official explicitly gives permission.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and making public their findings on human rights cases.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, elected by the National Assembly, is an office with moral but not legal authority. The Ombudsman’s Office refers cases to the proper investigating authorities. In August the National Assembly elected a commercial lawyer as the new ombudsman. Opposition assembly members and civil society criticized his lack of experience in the human rights field.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. In August the Supreme Court began a case against National Assembly member Arquesio Arias, a Guna Yala native, for sexual assault. Arias was a physician in his indigenous comarca (a legally designated semiautonomous area) and was denounced by several Guna Yala women for sexual misconduct and abuse. A second case was opened against Arias in September, again based on charges of sexual misconduct.

The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment, gender-based violence, and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is 25 to 30 years in prison. The law was not effectively enforced. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime.

As of October the Public Ministry had reported 12,540 new cases of domestic violence nationwide, including three attempts of femicide and 24 femicides, an increase of almost 50 percent in femicides from July 2019. The province of Colon and Ngobe-Bugle Comarca led the numbers with six femicides each, followed by San Miguelito Special District with five cases.

The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which began distributing pamphlets in supermarket chains located outside the province of Panama. The National Institute for Women’s Affairs continued to operate its 24/7 hotline to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence. If the caller was at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence within the police department.

Reported cases of domestic violence plummeted during the lockdown period following the president’s emergency declaration in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Some government officials credited the government’s “dry law,” which prohibited alcohol sales from March 25 through June 22, for a reduction in violence. Women’s rights organizations, however, considered closed government offices and limited access to the justice system as principal reasons for the reduction in reported cases.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations but not between colleagues. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports (only 15 cases had been reported as of August).

In August a female pilot at the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) filed a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against her immediate supervisor. The Public Ministry opened an investigation and ordered SENAN authorities to transfer four individuals to different offices. In September the ombudsman made an unannounced visit to SENAN headquarters and discovered that the pilot in question experienced workplace harassment after she filed the criminal complaint. The man accused of the harassment was transferred to another department and given new duties, while the female accuser was stripped of all duties and relegated to sitting in a corner without a desk. Additionally, restrooms for women at SENAN remained locked due to the pending case. Women needed to obtain a key from a specific office to access their restrooms, while restrooms for men continued to be open at all times.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Some couples and individuals also had access to information about reproductive rights and the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law provides for medical professionals to perform abortions only if the fetus, the mother, or both are in danger, or, in some very limited cases, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Most women had access to skilled health-care providers during pregnancy and to free contraceptives through the Ministry of Health’s Health Promotion Department. Contraceptives were available at pharmacies without a prescription and minors did not need parental approval to use contraceptives of any type (oral, injections, IUD, or the emergency contraception pill).

The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men, but the law was not enforced. For example, SENAN permitted female pilots to fly only as copilots, while male newcomers with less seniority were allowed to fly as principal pilots without restrictions. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law does not mandate equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Some employers continued to request pregnancy tests, although it is an illegal hiring practice. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months’ to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of July reported that 2,887 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed this figure was underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security prosecuted cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. As of July only one case of child sexual tourism was reported.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.

Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Disability rights NGOs noted for the second consecutive year that Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the old stations, although the Metro Line 2 had ramp access. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces to avoid fines, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.

The National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities continued with its free shuttle service from the city’s largest bus terminal for individuals with disabilities who needed to visit their offices, which were located in a residential neighborhood with limited public transportation.

Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities. Few private schools admitted children with disabilities, since they are not legally required to do so. The high cost of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–precluded many students with disabilities from attending.

The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of $80 for children with significant physical disabilities living in poor conditions. As of July the program had more than 19,100 beneficiaries. There were no additional efforts from the authorities to assist persons with disabilities during the pandemic movement restrictions. In addition one wing at the public Physical Rehabilitation Institute was adapted for COVID-19 patients, reducing the availability of space and times for patients with disabilities to receive their scheduled therapies.

COVID-19-related lockdown regulations by the health authorities further limited the mobility of persons with disabilities, who were unable to access public and private facilities to obtain medications. The movement restrictions imposed during the gender-based lockdown disproportionately affected individuals with disabilities whose caretakers were of the opposite sex. In August a young man with Down syndrome and his adult sister, who was serving as his companion, were detained by security agents because they left their home on a Saturday, a day designated for only males to circulate. Their mother had to pay a fine of $50 to obtain their release. An NGO submitted a legal complaint against the authorities. Legal companions also faced difficulties obtaining mobility permits from government agencies to accompany their patients.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians.

The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in governmental positions and in political and economic power. Areas where they lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community. In August the government appointed a new head of SENADAP, Krishna Camarena-Surgeon, a native of Colon, considered by observers to be well equipped to head an institution whose mission is to promote the rights and development of the Afro-Panamanian community.

The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no complaints were filed. Lighter-skinned individuals continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.

Indigenous People

The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups.

One of the groups faced internal governance problems, since it did not have legally elected authorities, and the pandemic prevented the elections scheduled for March. This complicated receiving and using government funds allotted to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The government unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities, on the basis that these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories that were excluded from the constitution when the original comarcas were designated in 1938. All of these traditional government authorities are organized under a national coordinating body for indigenous affairs, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples. In August the coordinating body requested a high-level meeting with government authorities to discuss discrimination against indigenous peoples during the government’s COVID-19 response. Issues discussed included the lack of culturally sensitive information during the government’s COVID-19 response, which caused the disease to spread unchecked for several months in many indigenous communities, and lack of communication between indigenous authorities and the government.

Government officials continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the indigenous community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. Several Embera communities in Darien Province claimed that illegal settlers continued to enter their lands during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the nationwide movement restrictions, and that their complaints to the authorities were not being addressed. In November the Supreme Court of Justice ruled the Naso Comarca is constitutional; formal notification was pending to begin the legal process for its creation.

The Ngobe and Bugle peoples continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The two groups and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.

Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous peoples had not received sufficient information to understand their rights. Additionally, due to the inadequate educational system available in the comarcas, many indigenous peoples were unaware of or failed to use available legal channels.

Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.

Access to health care continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and culturally inadequate strategies implemented by health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several members of the Guna Yala tribe died of COVID-19 because they refused treatment and transfer to medical facilities due to fear and lack of understanding of the disease as well as a lack of trust in modern medicine. In the early stages of the pandemic, local leaders refused health authorities entry into their communities for testing purposes. Deficiencies in the educational system deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic at all levels. Although the public school system reopened virtually in July, the comarcas typically had very limited access to internet and radio signals. These technological barriers prevented indigenous students from accessing educational opportunities.

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

During the COVID-19 pandemic, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons reported harassment by government and private security forces. The government instituted a five-month gender-based nationwide quarantine lockdown, regulating movement according to gender and the last number of one’s national identification card. During this period the transgender community was disproportionately affected by these restrictions, since transgender persons did not identify by the biological sex listed on their identification cards. Transgender persons were singled out for profiling by police and private security guards, and in some cases they were arrested, harassed, and fined or prevented from buying groceries during their scheduled hours. Discrimination from security forces occurred regardless of whether they attempted to go out on days assigned to their biological gender or their transgender identity.

Local transgender activists collected and recorded dozens of examples of harassment of transgender persons. In one prominent case, on April 9, police in Panama Province detained a transgender woman when she attempted to enter a supermarket. April 9 was a day designated for men to circulate, so the woman presented her national identification card to police officers, but they took her to a nearby police station, where they physically and sexually assaulted her and mocked her for being a man during a body search. She also claimed that police threatened to put her in a cell with 200 men. Police made her pay a fine of $50 to be released.

On May 11, the Ministry of Security tweeted that it had instructed its security services to observe the rights of the LGBTI population: specifically, the right to movement to buy food and medicine and to not be detained or harassed while attempting to do so. Ministry officials did not clarify if transgender individuals could circulate on days that matched their gender instead of the biological sex listed on their identification cards; as a result transgender activists reported many persons in their community were afraid to leave their homes due to the lack of official clarity.

Despite the ministry’s statement, the transgender community reported discrimination and harassment from the national police and private security forces, according to transgender activists. On July 15, the government issued a press release regarding transgender rights, but it was placed in inconspicuous locations in daily newspapers and was not published online. The transgender community continued to report cases of police discrimination until the movement restrictions were relaxed on August 24. In September transgender activists said many members of their community had not left their residences for more than five months due to fear of harassment and discrimination.

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTI individuals with HIV or AIDS reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines.

Human rights NGOs reported receiving complaints of labor discrimination when employers learned employees were HIV positive, despite the fact that the law prohibits discrimination against persons with sexually transmitted diseases, as well as against their immediate relatives. Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. Employers may be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential. The government was not active in preventing discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for private-sector workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. By law the majority of public-sector employees may strike but may not organize unions. Instead, those public-sector employees may organize a professional association to bargain collectively on behalf of its members, although the public entity is not legally obligated to bargain with the association. The National Federation of Public Servants (FENASEP), an umbrella federation of 25 public-sector worker associations, traditionally fought to establish rights similar to those of private-sector unions. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity but does not provide adequate means of protecting this right.

Unions and associations are required to register with the Ministry of Labor. If the ministry does not respond to a private-sector union registration application within 15 calendar days, the union automatically gains legal recognition, provided the request is submitted directly with supported documentation established by law. In the public sector, professional associations gain legal recognition automatically if the General Directorate for Administrative Public Sector Careers does not respond to registration applications within 30 days. From January to September, the General Directorate approved applications for formation of seven public-sector and 10 private-sector unions.

The law allows arbitration by mutual consent, at the request of the employee or the ministry, in the case of a collective dispute in a privately held public company. It allows either party to appeal if arbitration is mandated during a collective dispute in a public-service company. The Ministry of Labor Board of Appeals and Conciliation has the authority to resolve certain labor disagreements within the private sector, such as internal union disputes, enforcement of the minimum wage, and some dismissal issues. For example, as a mediator in biennial minimum wage negotiations between unions and businesses in 2019, the minister of labor announced a minimum wage increase of 3.3 percent when negotiations failed. The minimum wage increase took effect in January.

Government regulations on union membership place some restrictions on freedom of association. The constitution mandates that only citizens may serve on a union’s executive board. In addition the law requires a minimum of 40 persons to form a private-sector union (either by a company across trades or by trade across companies) and allows only one union per business establishment. The International Labor Organization criticized the 40-person minimum as too large for workers wanting to form a union within a company. Many domestic labor unions, as well as the public and private sectors, reiterated their support for keeping the figure at 40 individuals.

In the public sector, professional associations represent the majority of workers. The law stipulates only one association may exist per public-sector institution and permits no more than one chapter per province. At least 50 public servants are required to form a professional association. No law protects the jobs of public-sector workers in the event of a strike. FENASEP contended there was no political will to allow all public servants within ministries to form unions, because this could eliminate positions for political appointees.

The law prohibits federations and confederations from calling strikes. Individual professional associations under FENASEP may negotiate on behalf of their members, but the Ministry of Labor can order compulsory arbitration. FENASEP leaders noted that collective bargaining claims were heard and recognized by employers but did not result in tangible results or changes, particularly in cases of dismissals without cause.

According to the labor code, the majority of private-sector employees must support a strike, and strikes are permitted only if they are related to the improvement of working conditions, to a collective bargaining agreement, for repeated violations of legal rights, or in support of another strike of workers on the same project (solidarity strike). In the event of a strike, at least 20 to 30 percent of the workforce must continue to provide minimum services, particularly public services as defined by law as essential, such as transportation, sanitation, mail delivery, hospital care, telecommunications, and public availability of essential food.

Strikes in essential transportation services are limited to those involving public passenger services. The law prohibits strikes for Panama Canal Authority employees but allows professional associations to organize and bargain collectively on issues such as schedules and safety, and it provides arbitration to resolve disputes. The canal authority is an autonomous entity, independent from the national government.

The Ministry of the Presidency Conciliation Board is responsible for resolving public-sector worker complaints. The board refers complaints it cannot resolve to an arbitration panel, which consists of representatives from the employer, the professional association, and a third member chosen by the first two. If the dispute cannot be resolved, it is referred to a tribunal under the board. Observers, however, noted that the Ministry of the Presidency had not designated the tribunal judges. The alternative to the board is the civil court system.

Outcomes of cases presented in the courts tended to favor employers. FENASEP noted that one public-sector institution had appealed more than 100 complaint decisions to the Supreme Court, only two of which resulted in rulings in favor of the public-sector employee. While Supreme Court decisions are final, labor organizations may appeal their case results in international human rights courts.

In August, two union organizations, the National Confederation of United Independent Unions and the National Council of Organized Workers, presented lawsuits to the Supreme Court against Ministry of Labor decrees issued in March that permitted businesses to furlough workers and modify working hours, in an attempt to mitigate the COVID pandemic’s impact on businesses. The decrees were followed by laws in August that extended these provisions through the end of the calendar year. According to the unions, these changes violate the labor code emergency provisions, which only permit furloughs for up to four months.

The Allied Association of Transport Port Ex-Employees (ASOTRAP) held a protest in September to pressure both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Cortizo administration to address claims that terminated Balboa and Cristobal port workers did not receive severance pay guaranteed by law when the ports were privatized. In 2015 ASOTRAP filed a case before the commission, but as of November the commission had not accepted the case. The case represented 139 port workers who were dismissed during the 1996 privatization of the Balboa and Cristobal ports in former president Perez-Balladares’ administration.

The government effectively enforced the law in the formal sector but was less likely to enforce the law in most rural areas (see section 6, Indigenous People). The government and employers respected freedom of association, inspection was adequate, and penalties for violations were commensurate with similar offenses.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of human trafficking, including forced labor of adults and children. The penal code requires movement to constitute a trafficking offense, which is inconsistent with international protocols. The law establishes criminal penalties commensurate with those for other similar serious crimes. The government effectively enforced the law and prosecuted five cases involving 12 persons for sex trafficking in 2019. There continued to be reports of Central and South American and Chinese men exploited in forced labor in construction, agriculture, mining, restaurants, door-to-door peddling, and other sectors; traffickers reported using debt bondage, false promises, lack of knowledge of the refugee process and irregular status, restrictions on movement, and other means. There also were reports of forced child labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14, although children who have not completed primary school may not begin work until age 15. The law allows children ages 12 to 15 to perform light work in agriculture if the work is outside regular school hours. The law also allows a child older than 12 to perform light domestic work and stipulates employers must ensure the child attends school through primary school. The law neither defines the type of light work children may perform nor limits the total number of light domestic work hours these children may perform. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from engaging in hazardous work but allows children as young as 14 to perform hazardous tasks in a work-training facility, in violation of international standards.

Minors younger than age 16 may work no more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week, while those ages 16 and 17 may work no more than seven hours per day or 42 hours per week. Children younger than 18 may not work between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. The government inconsistently enforced the law; criminal penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes but were not enforced in all sectors. Children were exploited in forced labor, particularly domestic servitude, and sex trafficking.

In September a three-judge panel of a trial court in Penonome, Cocle Province, sentenced two traffickers to six years and eight months in prison and payment of $2,000 in damages to the victim, a 17-year-old girl of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group. The girl had been enticed to Cocle Province under false promises of a salary of $100 per month, then denied access to her family, mistreated, and compelled to work as a maid. This was the country’s first sentence for human trafficking through forced labor exploitation.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination regarding race, sex, religion, political opinion, citizenship, disability, social status, and HIV status. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the country is a member of the International Equal Pay Coalition, which promotes pay equality between women and men, a gender wage gap continued to exist, and no law mandates equal pay for equal work. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.

The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. Despite legal protections, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, sex, disability, and HIV-positive status. During the job interview process, applicants, both citizens and migrants, must complete medical examinations, including HIV/AIDS testing. The law requires all laboratories to inform applicants an HIV test will be administered, but private-sector laboratories often did not comply. It was common practice for private-sector human resources offices to terminate applications of HIV-positive citizens without informing the applicant. While private laboratories often informed law enforcement of HIV-positive migrants, the National Immigration Office did not engage in deportation procedures specifically based on a migrant’s HIV status. NGOs noted that during job interviews, women were often asked if they were married, pregnant, or planned to have children in the future. It was common practice for human resources offices to terminate the applications of women who indicated a possibility of pregnancy in the near future (see section 6, Women). Persons with disabilities continued to face discrimination in hiring and accessing the workspace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage only for private-sector workers. The wage was above the poverty line. Public servants received lower wages than their private-sector counterparts. Most workers formally employed in urban areas earned the minimum wage or more. Approximately 45 percent of the working population worked in the informal sector, and some earned well below the minimum wage; the Ministry of Labor estimated COVID-19 would increase the informal labor participation in the market to as much as 55 percent by year’s end.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 48 hours, provides for at least one 24-hour rest period weekly, limits the number of hours worked per week, provides for premium pay for overtime, and prohibits compulsory overtime. There is no annual limit on the total number of overtime hours allowed. If employees work more than three hours of overtime in one day or more than nine overtime hours in a week, excess overtime hours must be paid at an additional 75 percent above the normal wage. Workers have the right to 30 days’ paid vacation for every 11 months of continuous work, including those who do not work full time.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting health and safety standards. Standards were generally current and appropriate for the industries in the country. The law requires employers to provide a safe workplace environment, including the provision of protective clothing and equipment for workers. Equipment was often outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices, due in large part to a fear that the replacement cost would be prohibitive. After the beginning of the pandemic, all workplaces were required to establish a health committee to enforce the mandatory health standards established by the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced the law in the formal sector. The inspection office consists of two groups: The Panama City-based headquarters group and the regional group. The number of inspectors and safety officers was sufficient to enforce labor laws adequately in the formal sector. As of July, due to pandemic limitations, the ministry conducted 4,060 safety inspections, a decrease of 57 percent from the same period in 2019. Fines were low and not commensurate with those for similar violations. During the year, however, the government levied fines according to the number of workers affected, resulting in larger overall fines.

Employers often hired employees under short-term contracts to avoid paying benefits that accrue to long-term employees. Employers in the maritime sector also commonly hired workers continuously on short-term contracts but did not convert them to permanent employees as required by law. The law states that employers have the right to dismiss any employee without justifiable cause during the two-year tenure term. As a result, employers frequently hired workers for one year and 11 months and subsequently dismissed them to circumvent laws that make firing employees more difficult after two years of employment. This practice is illegal if the same employee is rehired as a temporary worker after being dismissed, although employees rarely reported the practice.

Construction was the most dangerous sector for workplace accidents. Equipment was often outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices. In February a construction worker in Capira District, in the province of West Panama, died in a work-related accident. In late May another construction worker fell from the fourth floor of a building in Panama City on which he was working. He was injured but survived the accident. In June a construction worker died in an accident at the Manzanilla International Terminal in Colon. The accident occurred when a crane lifting a container onto a ship accidentally dropped it and hit the worker in the head.

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