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Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister, elected by parliament, heads the government; the president, also elected by parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During 2018 parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into general civilian and military criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. The National Security Service and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president upon the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the heads of the Special Investigative Service and Investigative Committee upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, re-established control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan near Tavush from July 12 to July 16. Following the September 27 outbreak of hostilities, the government declared martial law under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. The restrictions were lifted December 2, and only provisions for partial mobilization of troops remained in effect at year’s end. (See sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan for conflict-related abuses.)

Significant human rights issues included: torture; arbitrary detention, although with fewer reports than in 2019; harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting civil society figures and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and use of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings and civilian casualties.

The government took steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. For example, throughout the year, an investigation continued into the culpability of former high-ranking government officials surrounding events that led to the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers during postelection protests in 2008.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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.

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

Following the 2018 change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Civil society organizations considered the change in government a window of opportunity for closer collaboration. The initially high expectations, however, led to growing civil society criticism of government reforms, especially in the areas of law enforcement and the judiciary, where some observers argued that the slow speed of reforms not only allowed former regime representatives to enjoy continued impunity for past crimes, but also gave them the time to regroup and try to push back against reforms. On June 23, a group of prominent human rights and other civil society organizations released a statement urging the government to make an immediate assessment of past human rights violations and implement systemic changes to foster the administration of justice, separation of powers, judicial independence, and parliamentary oversight.

In a trend that increased dramatically in 2019 and grew rapidly throughout the year, human rights and other civil society organizations, and individual human rights advocates continued to be vilified and threatened, including via death threats. Some journalists who promoted democratic reforms also received threats. Such intimidation took several forms. In at least two cases, government officials threatened or vilified human rights protectors. On November 10, the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Society Foundation-Armenia (OSF) were ransacked; on November 13 the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor (HCAV) office was attacked. Subsequently, NGO members reported increasing threats to their persons, while online users urged attacks on personnel “and not just offices.” In December a group of young persons entered the premises of the Article 3 Club (an organization that raises awareness of and promotes human rights), live-streaming as they insulted and intimidated those present. NGO members reported little was done to protect them. The intimidation also came from online trolls, media outlets, malign news outlets, and nationalist groups, many of which were affiliated with the former government and, some local experts alleged, Russian actors. The following were especially targeted: those promoting human rights, women’s and children’s rights, and deeper law enforcement and judicial reforms, particularly OSF.

According to civil society reports, the NSS harassed members of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights NGO and launched a criminal case on the basis of material that lawyers assessed as unsubstantiated. On December 5, the anti-OSF “Veto” movement published a video vilifying multiple human rights organizations, which was broadcast the same day by ArmNewsTV (a channel belonging to the opposition).

There was no strong government support for the role of human rights defenders and civil society more broadly, but there were occasional government efforts to push back against attacks on civil society. On December 29, parliament voted to end parliamentarian Naira Zohrabyan’s chairmanship of the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee due to intolerant statements she made. On December 30, the ombudsman noted the increase in the number of “insults” directed at civil society at large and called on the government to protect them.

As a result of hate campaigns, increasing numbers of academics and other opinion makers became reluctant to voice their opinions in public, particularly online. As a result, constructive discourse around human rights and other important matters decreased. The government adopted legislation criminalizing public calls for violence. It did not, however, take any effective measures to prevent the increasing marginalization of civil society actors. Rather, on some occasions, officials’ public comments contributed to the problem.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. The office improved its outreach to regions and collaboration with regional human rights protection organizations. The office continued to report a significant increase in the number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased public expectations and trust in the institution. In December 2019 the government adopted the 2020-22 National Strategy for Human Rights Protection and related action plan and launched the e-rights.am portal as a public oversight tool.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.

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

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Tovuz from July 12 to July 16. During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, authorities restricted freedom of movement and access to information.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.

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

On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.

On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.

From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.

On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.

The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.

Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.

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

While the government provided access to certain areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, it restricted access to other areas, limiting reporting from local and international journalists, as well as international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, on August 3, former political prisoner and human rights defender Rufat Safarov was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office and warned he would face arrest after he publicized reports concerning detentions and alleged torture of political opposition activists Fuad Gahramanli and Seymur Ahmedov after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

As of December 31, human rights defender Oktay Gulaliyev remained in a coma after having been struck by a car in October 2019 while crossing a Baku intersection, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until the following day. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his announced 2019 campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. They also noted that Gulaliyev had been warned by authorities not to report on repression and torture. Other activists stated there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey. During the year Gulaliyev’s family reported delays in the government’s investigation of the case. Gulaliyev’s lawyer complained that law enforcement bodies did not provide him with the findings of the investigation. On October 30, the Nasimi District Court initiated a hearing on the case. At his family’s request, on November 7, Gulaliyev was transported to his home in Baku where he continued to receive medical treatment.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the same high level as recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev. On March 30, human rights defender and journalist Elchin Mammad was detained based on allegations of theft and illegal possession of a weapon. On October 14, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Human rights defenders viewed this verdict as politically motivated.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds. On December 17, however, the ministry registered the Baku Human Rights Club, an organization cofounded by prominent human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Javad Javadov.

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies, criticizing what authorities termed interference in the country’s internal affairs. In response to the adoption of a resolution on political prisoners by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on January 30, member of parliament Nagif Hamzayev commented that the country was treated unfairly and discriminated against. Although government officials and members of the National Assembly had previously criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, government officials referred to the ODIHR assessment of the 2020 parliamentary elections as “balanced.”

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

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

Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

The country experienced massive civil unrest following the August 9 presidential election as demonstrators protested widespread vote rigging by Lukashenka as well as the government’s widespread use of brute force against and detentions of peaceful protesters. Weekly protests drawing at their peak up to hundreds of thousands of protesters began election night and continued through the end of the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, internet blockages, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel, slander, and defamation of government officials; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including the imposition of criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws penalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and restrictions on independent trade unions; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.

The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.

Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.

Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.

Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”

There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.

Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.

Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.

By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.

Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.

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

There were a number of active domestic human rights NGOs, although authorities were often hostile to their efforts, restricted their activities, selectively cooperated with them, and were not responsive to their views.

Prominent human rights NGOs–such as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register some other NGOs, placing them at risk of fines. Some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.

Authorities at times harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to inspections and threats of deregistration and reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations. Beginning in August, human rights activists were also arrested during the government’s violent crackdown. For example, on September 17, Vyasna human rights activist and volunteer coordinator Marfa Rabkova was detained and later charged with criminal activity for the “training or other preparation of persons to participate in riots, or funding such activities.” Vyasna asserted that Rabkova’s detention and charges were politically motivated in response to her efforts to train short-term election observers for the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections volunteer initiative and her work in documenting severe abuses of detainees. As of December, Rabkova remained in detention along with two other Vyasna volunteers, Andrei Chapiuk and Ksenia Syramalot. Vyasna considered all three individuals to be political prisoners.

The government largely ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with unregistered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.

During the year the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding the organization received in the early 2000s, on which the government places restrictions, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law, including the law on mass events. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Justice Ministry to monitor NGO activities and review their documents. NGOs must also submit detailed annual reports to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, and total number of members.

Authorities were generally reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country in their official capacity. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country, as well as requests to stop harassing the human rights community.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The government continued to speak against “the politicized and senseless” mandate of the rapporteur, refused to recognize the mandate, and denied Marin entry to the country. On September 17, a total of 17 OSCE participating states invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” against the country to look into reports of serious human rights abuses, including election fraud and substantial interference with freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly. The country did not cooperate with the mechanism’s expert mission or allow it access to the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country does not have an ombudsman or other national human rights institution. A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of the National Assembly was ineffective.

Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

In February 2014 Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and occupied it militarily. In March 2014 Russia announced the peninsula had become part of the Russian Federation following a sham referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 on the “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine” of March 27, 2014, and Resolution 75/192 on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”of December 28, 2020, called on states and international organizations not to recognize any change in Crimea’s status and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. In April 2014 Ukraine’s legislature (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a law attributing responsibility for human rights violations in Crimea to the Russian Federation as the occupying state. The United States does not recognize the attempted annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Russian law has been applied in Crimea since the Russian occupation and purported “annexation” of the peninsula. For detailed information on the laws and practices of the Russian Federation, see the Country Report on Human Rights for Russia.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

A local occupation authority installed by the Russian government and led by Sergey Aksyonov as “prime minister” of the “state council of the republic of Crimea” administers occupied Crimea. The “state council” is responsible for day-to-day administration and other functions of governing. In 2016 Russia’s nationwide parliamentary elections included seats allocated for purportedly annexed Crimea, a move widely condemned by the international community and that contravened the Ukrainian constitution.

Russian government agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Investigative Committee, and the Office of the Prosecutor General, applied and enforced Russian law in Crimea as if it were a part of the Russian Federation. The FSB also conducted security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism activities and combatted organized crime and corruption. A “national police force” operated under the aegis of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian authorities maintained control over Russian military and security forces deployed in Crimea. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by Russia or Russia-led “authorities,” including punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and transfer of prisoners to Russia; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the occupation judiciary; pervasive arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and website blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.

Occupation authorities took few steps to investigate or prosecute officials or individuals who committed human rights abuses, creating an atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

Russian occupation authorities restricted free expression on the internet (see section 2.a. of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia), by imposing repressive Russian Federation laws on Crimea. Security services routinely monitored and controlled internet activity to suppress dissenting opinions. According to media accounts, occupation authorities interrogated and harassed residents of Crimea for online postings with pro-Ukrainian opinions (see Censorship or Content Restrictions, above).

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

Most independent human rights organizations ceased activities in Crimea following Russia’s occupation. Occupation authorities refused to cooperate with independent human rights NGOs, ignored their views, and harassed human rights monitors and threatened them with fines and imprisonment.

Russia continued to deny access to the peninsula to international human rights monitors from the OSCE and the United Nations.

Czech Republic

Executive Summary

The Czech Republic is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in a bicameral parliament, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies (Poslanecka snemovna) and a Senate (Senat). The president is head of state and appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition. Voters re-elected President Milos Zeman to a second five-year term in 2018 and held elections for seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 2017. The most recent elections for one-third of the seats in the Senate were held in two rounds on October 2-3 and October 9-10. Observers considered the elections free and fair.

The national police report to the Ministry of Interior and are responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining public order, including protecting the border and enforcing immigration law. The General Inspection of Security Forces reports to the Office of the Prime Minister and is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct involving police, customs officials, fire fighters, and the prison service. General Inspection of Security Forces inspectors investigated allegations of criminal misconduct and carried out “integrity tests,” or sting operations, to catch violators in action. The Ministry of Defense oversees the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: crimes involving violence or threats of violence against members of the Romani community and some nongovernmental organization representatives, and the lack of accountability for violence against women.

The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses in the security services and elsewhere in the government.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

The law prohibits, among others, speech that denigrates a nation, race, ethnic, or other group of persons; incites hatred toward members of a group or advocates the restriction of their civil rights; and publicly denies, questions, endorses, or vindicates genocide.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without governmental restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views, although some politicians disparaged NGOs in public remarks.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Government has a commissioner for human rights as well as several advisory and working-level bodies related to human rights, including the Government Council for Human Rights, the Council for Roma Minority Affairs, the Council for National Minorities, and the Board for Persons with Disabilities. The Governmental Council for Coordination of the Fight against Corruption was placed under the Ministry of Justice, and the Agency for Social Inclusion was placed under the Ministry of Regional Development.

The ombudsperson (public defender of rights) operated without government or party interference and had adequate resources. The ombudsperson’s office issued quarterly and annual reports to the government on its activities in addition to reports and recommendations on topics of special concern.

Human rights observers generally regarded the office of the ombudsperson as effective. The new ombudsperson elected in March, however, was widely criticized by NGOs, the Romani community, and some politicians who contended the ombudsperson had publicly downplayed the extent of discrimination faced by Roma and other minorities. The ombudsperson also stated that the protection of human rights was not among the functions of his office. Many observers called for the establishment of an independent institute for human rights. In addition to the public defender of rights, the country has ombudspersons for security forces and for education.

Estonia

Executive Summary

Estonia is a multiparty, constitutional democracy with a unicameral parliament, a prime minister as head of government, and a president as head of state. The prime minister and cabinet generally represent the party or coalition of parties with a majority of seats in the parliament. The most recent parliamentary elections took place in March 2019. The coalition is composed of the Center Party, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, and the Pro Patria party, and is headed by Prime Minister Juri Ratas (Center Party), who took office in April 2019. Observers considered the elections free and fair.

The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service report to the Ministry of the Interior. The Defense Forces report to the Ministry of Defense. The Police and Border Guard Board and the Internal Security Service investigate civilian cases, while military police investigate defense force cases. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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.

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 without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The legal chancellor, an independent official with a staff of more than 45, performs the role of human rights ombudsman. The chancellor reviews legislation for compliance with the constitution; oversees authorities’ observance of fundamental rights and freedoms and the principles of good governance; and helps resolve accusations of discrimination based on gender, race, nationality (ethnic origin), color, language, religion, social status, age, disability, or sexual orientation. The legal chancellor also makes recommendations to ministries and local governments, requests responses, and has authority to appeal to the Supreme Court. The chancellor compiles an annual report for the parliament. Public trust in the office was high, and the government was responsive to its reports and decisions.

Georgia

Executive Summary

Georgia’s constitution provides for an executive branch that reports to the prime minister, a unicameral parliament, and a separate judiciary. The government is accountable to parliament. The president is the head of state and commander in chief. Under the constitution that came into force after December 2018, future presidents are not elected by popular vote, but by members of parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 parliamentary elections due to COVID-19; in a preliminary assessment, the observers stated the first round of the elections was competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of public order. The ministry is the primary law enforcement organization and includes the national police force, the border security force, and the Georgian Coast Guard. The State Security Service of Georgia is the internal intelligence service responsible for counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and anticorruption efforts. There were indications that at times civilian authorities did not maintain effective control of domestic security forces. Members of the security forces allegedly committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious problems with the independence of the judiciary along with detentions, investigations and prosecutions widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; limited respect for freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took steps to investigate some officials for human rights abuses, but impunity remained a problem, including a lack of accountability for the inappropriate police force used against journalists and protesters during June 2019 demonstrations and the 2017 abduction and rendition from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.

Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside central-government control and de facto authorities were supported by Russian forces. The 2008 ceasefire remained in effect, but Russian guards restricted the movement of local populations. Significant human rights issues in the regions included: unlawful killing, including in South Ossetia; unlawful detentions; restrictions on movement, especially of ethnic Georgians; restrictions on voting or otherwise participating in the political process; and restrictions on the ability of ethnic Georgians to own property or register businesses. While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia, de facto authorities refused to permit most ethnic Georgians driven out by the 2008 conflict to return to their homes in South Ossetia. De facto authorities did not allow most international organizations regular access to South Ossetia to provide humanitarian assistance. Russian “borderization” of the administrative boundary lines increased, further restricting movement and separating residents from their communities and livelihoods. Russian and de facto authorities in both regions committed abuses with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained regarding unauthorized surveillance. Insufficient information was available regarding general internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In February a number of governments criticized Russia for launching disruptive cyberattacks in Georgia in October 2019. The cyberattacks directly affected the population, several thousand government and privately run websites, and interrupted the broadcast of at least two major television stations. In October, according to the Georgian Public Broadcaster website, a “cyberattack” caused it to stop broadcasting in the early evening on election day. It resumed broadcasting shortly after polls closed.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups in most instances operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat responsive to their views.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: While there was little official information on the human rights situation in the Russian-occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted. De facto authorities in the occupied territories continued to deny unimpeded access to the United Nations and other international bodies.

Government Human Rights Bodies: NGOs viewed the Public Defender’s Office, which has a mandate to monitor human rights and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination, as the most objective of the government’s human rights bodies. The constitution limits the public defender to one six-year term in office.

The Public Defender’s Office lacks authority to initiate prosecutions or other legal actions, but it may recommend action, and the government must respond. While the office generally operated without government interference and was considered effective, the office reported government offices at times responded partially or not at all to inquiries and recommendations, despite a requirement to respond to information requests within 10 days and initiate follow-up action within 20 days.

The Public Defender’s Office retains the right to make nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies to investigate individual human rights cases. The office must submit an annual report on the human rights situation for the calendar year but may also make periodic reports. The office may not report allegations of torture unless the victim gives clear consent or a monitor from the office witnessed the torture.

By law the Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights unit of the office monitors government prosecutions overall and supervises compliance with national and international human rights obligations and standards. The unit reviews statistical and analytical activities related to the Prosecutor General’s Office or the justice system at large, and it is responsible for examining and responding to recommendations of national and international institutions involving human rights.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is required to investigate high-profile cases and other criminal offenses. The office may take control of any investigation if it determines that doing so is in the best interest of justice (e.g., in cases of conflict of interest and police abuse cases). In certain politically sensitive cases investigated by the office–including the case of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and instances of political violence–impunity remained a problem. During the year local NGOs expressed alarm regarding what they considered politically motivated investigations and prosecutions (see section 1.e.).

In the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Human Rights Department is in charge of ensuring prompt response and quality of investigations of domestic violence, hate crime, violence against women, human trafficking, crimes committed by or toward minors, and crimes based on discrimination. The ministry’s General Inspection Department investigates cases of human rights abuses by police officers. The human rights unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office has a mandate to monitor and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued training prosecutors on proper standards for prosecuting cases of alleged mistreatment by public officials.

The effectiveness of government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse by law enforcement officials and security forces was limited, and domestic and international concern regarding impunity remained high. As of November the Investigative Department of the State Inspector’s Service had commenced 256 criminal investigations; four of 256 cases investigated by the State Inspector’s Service were prosecuted, and convictions were obtained in three cases.

The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which was designed to cover Abkhazia and South Ossetia and includes security actors from the government, Russia, and de facto authorities of the Russian-occupied regions, considered human rights abuses reported in the occupied territories and along the administrative boundary line. Due to a dispute regarding agenda items, however, IPRM meetings in Gali (Abkhazia) had been suspended since 2018. Regular IPRM meetings in Ergneti (South Ossetia) had also been suspended, although IPRM meetings took place in Ergneti on July 30 and September 24. In August 2019 South Ossetian participants walked out of an IPRM meeting in Ergneti. De facto authorities in the occupied territories did not grant representatives of the Public Defender’s Office access. The government fully supported and participated actively in IPRM meetings.

Hungary

Executive Summary

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in 2018, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with the organization’s commitments” and noted, “The widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.

The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts; it is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. The state of emergency was renewed in September for another six months. On April 29, the government amended a decree passed under the coronavirus state of emergency law that allows the minister of interior to involve police and the military to participate in the protection of medical resources and permits the military during the state of emergency to take part in street patrols and in monitoring compliance with security measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal penalties for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” or libel (although court decisions limited the impact of the latter); exposure of asylum seekers to risk of refoulement; allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups operated with some government restrictions affecting their funding. Government officials were generally uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.

On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law. The ECJ declared that the legislation unduly restricted free movement of capital and interfered with fundamental rights, including protection of personal data and freedom of association, respect for private life, as well as citizens’ right to participate in public life. Reacting to the ECJ ruling, an umbrella organization for the affected NGOs, the Civilization Coalition, wrote, “The decision is particularly important for all of Hungarian society, because the government has for years been trying to undermine NGOs working for the common good.” Justice Minister Judit Varga stated the government was committed to ensuring the transparency of NGOs. Despite the ruling, in September a government-established public foundation rejected an EU grant application from a human rights NGO over alleged noncompliance with the law. The law had not been repealed as of November.

At the beginning of the year, several government officials and progovernment media alleged that NGOs and their attorneys were profiting from “prison business” when, representing inmates, they sued the state for compensation due to poor prison conditions (also see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions). Speaking about the Gyongyospata school segregation lawsuit (see section 6, Members of Minority Groups) and referring to human rights groups as “Soros organizations,” the officials also claimed such NGOs should not be able in future to “use Roma families as a tool to launch fundraising campaigns, disturb social peace, and reward those who do not go to school.”

On December 21, Norway’s Foreign Ministry announced the signing of an agreement with Hungary on the disbursement framework for 214.6 million euros ($262 million) in grants from the Norwegian government to support NGOs, climate protection projects, renewable energy, and other development projects. The government initially insisted on determining which NGOs would receive money designated for civil society but reached a compromise whereby a company acceptable to both parties would be chosen to determine the allocation of grant funds to NGOs. Norway stressed that the company’s independence from governmental influence remained a precondition to the agreement. Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein suspended payment to Hungary in 2014 after the government insisted on playing a bigger role in disbursing funds to NGOs in the country, and the government’s audit office raided the offices of one of the NGOs responsible for managing the grants, in what civil society organizations described as a politically motivated investigation that did not result in any charges.

In October, NGOs reported that authorities had closed the investigation into the October 2019 attack on the Aurora NGO center, during which approximately 50 members from the neo-Nazi Legio Hungaria group vandalized the center and burned the pride flag that was hanging outside, without filing any charges (see section 6).

On November 17, the Budapest Capital Regional Court ruled that police had failed in their duty when they did not take immediate action against a group of far-right extremists who had forced their way into an LGBTI event at the Aurora Center in September 2019, chanting homophobic slurs and physically harassing the event participants for three hours, forcing organizers to cancel it (see section 6).

In November 2019 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements regarding a media report that the state media conglomerate MTVA banned its staff from covering human rights organizations’ reports, which they described as an attempt to undermine media freedom and further restrict NGOs’ work in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution and law establish a unified system for the office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson). The ombudperson has two deputies, one responsible for the rights of national minorities and one for the interests of “future generations” (environmental protection). The ombudsperson is nominated by the president and elected by a two-thirds majority of parliament. The ombudsperson is solely accountable to parliament and has the authority to initiate proceedings to defend the rights of citizens from abuse by authorities and entities providing public services. The constitution provides that the ombudsperson may request that the Constitutional Court review laws. The ombudsperson is also responsible for collecting electronically submitted reports of public benefit, e.g., whistleblower reports on public corruption, and operates the national preventive mechanism against torture. Ombudsperson recommendations are not binding. During the international re-accreditation process of the ombudsperson’s office as a “national human rights institution,” the October 2019 report by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) noted that the office “did not demonstrate adequate efforts in all human rights issues, nor has it spoken out in a manner that promoted and protected all human rights.” During the year GANHRI decided to defer the review of the ombudsperson’s office for one year. On December 1, parliament voted to transfer the mandate and tasks of the Equal Treatment Authority to the ombudsperson as of January 1, 2021 (see section 6).

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president after June 2019 elections that were marked, according to an observation mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and “scant respect for democratic standards” overall. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys broad, lifetime legal authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. On August 12, in the country’s only national election during the year, the legislatures of oblasts and cities of national significance chose 17 of 49 senators for parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in coordination with the presidential administration.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security also oversees internal and border security, as well as national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The committee reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, chaired by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for many in positions of authority as well as for those connected to law enforcement entities.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 with some freedom to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases, although some restrictions on human rights NGO activities remained. International and local human rights groups reported the government monitored NGO activities on sensitive topics and practiced harassment, including police visits to and surveillance of NGO offices, personnel, and family members. Government officials often were uncooperative or nonresponsive to questions about their views.

In recent years the government refused three applications from Atajurt, an advocacy organization for the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China, to register. Each time, the stated basis for refusal was errors in Atajurt’s paperwork. The government continued to pressure Atajurt leader Serikzhan Bilash, and on August 18, the court in Almaty found him guilty of participation in an unregistered organization and punished him with an administrative fine of 138,900 tenge ($330). Bilash denied the charges and called them unreasonable and unlawful. Bilash previously had signed a plea agreement in 2019 that banned him from political activism in connection with his criminal case for incitement of discord. In December international media reported that Bilash fled the country in September and was living in Turkey.

The International Legal Initiative, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Kadyr Kassiyet, the Legal Media Center, and Foundation on Parliamentary Development were among the most visibly active human rights NGOs. Some NGOs faced occasional difficulties in acquiring office space and technical facilities. Government leaders participated–and regularly included NGOs–in roundtables and other public events on democracy and human rights.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government invited UN special rapporteurs to visit the country and meet with NGOs dealing with human rights. The government generally did not prevent other international NGOs and multilateral institutions dealing with human rights from visiting the country and meeting with local human rights groups and government officials. National security laws prohibit foreigners, international organizations, NGOs, and other nonprofit organizations from engaging in political activities. The government prohibited international organizations from funding unregistered entities.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Presidential Commission on Human Rights is a consultative and advisory body that includes top officials and members of the public appointed by the president. The commission reviews and investigates complaints, issues recommendations, and monitors fulfillment of international human rights conventions. The commission does not have legal authority to remedy human rights violations or implement its recommendations.

The Commissioner on Human Rights (Ombudsman) is elected by the Senate upon the president’s recommendation for a five-year term. The ombudsman reviews and investigates complaints about violations of human rights by officials and organizations. The ombudsman issues recommendations and publishes reports on human rights, and also serves as the chair of the Coordinating Council of the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture.

The ombudsman did not have the authority to investigate complaints concerning decisions of the president, heads of government agencies, parliament, cabinet, Constitutional Council, Prosecutor General’s Office, CEC, or courts, although s/he may investigate complaints against individuals. The Ombudsman’s Office has the authority to appeal to the president, cabinet, or parliament to resolve citizens’ complaints; cooperate with international human rights organizations and NGOs; meet with government officials concerning human rights abuses; visit certain facilities, such as military units and prisons; and publicize in media the results of investigations. The Ombudsman’s Office also published an annual human rights report. During the year the office occasionally briefed media and issued reports on complaints it had investigated.

Domestic human rights observers indicated that the Ombudsman’s Office and the human rights commission were unable to stop human rights abuses or punish perpetrators. The commission and ombudsman avoided addressing underlying structural problems that led to human rights abuses, although they advanced human rights by publicizing statistics and individual cases and aided citizens with less controversial social problems and issues involving lower-level elements of the bureaucracy.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The Kyrgyz Republic has a parliamentary form of government designed to limit presidential power and enhance the role of parliament and the prime minister. October 2 parliamentary elections were marred by accusations of vote buying and voter intimidation; opposition parties protested the results. After two nights of violence, the Central Election Commission annulled the elections and parliament approved an interim government led by Sadyr Japarov. On October 15, President Jeenbekov resigned and Japarov became acting president. A new presidential election was scheduled for January 10, 2021 along with a referendum on whether the country should transfer to a presidential system or government or keep its parliamentary system.

The investigation of general and local crimes falls under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while certain crimes such as terrorism and corruption fall under the authority of the State Committee on National Security, which also controls the presidential security service. The Prosecutor General’s Office prosecutes both local and national crimes. Law enforcement falls under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, which falls under presidential jurisdiction. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: use of torture by law enforcement and security services; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; significant acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and impunity for gender based violence; significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute or punish officials known to have committed human rights abuses, especially those involved in corrupt activities, official impunity remained a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

Numerous domestic and international human rights organizations operated actively in the country, although government officials at times were uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.

Government actions at times appeared to impede the ability of NGOs to operate freely.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government permitted visits by representatives of the United Nations and other organizations in connection with the investigation of abuses or monitoring of human rights problems in the country, including those of the OSCE, ICRC, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Organization for Migration. The government provided international bodies largely unfettered access to civil society activists, detention facilities and detainees, and government officials.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman acts as an independent advocate for human rights on behalf of private citizens and NGOs and has the authority to recommend cases for court review. Observers noted the atmosphere of impunity surrounding the security forces and their ability to act independently against citizens, factors that limited the number and type of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Although the Ombudsman’s Office exists in part to receive complaints of human rights abuses and pass the complaints to relevant agencies for investigation, both domestic and international observers questioned the office’s efficiency and political independence.

Latvia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Latvia is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. A unicameral parliament (Saeima) exercises legislative authority. Observers considered the elections in 2018 for the 100-seat parliament to be free and fair.

The State Police and municipal police forces share responsibility for maintaining internal security. The State Border Guard, the armed forces, the Defense Intelligence and Security Service, the Constitution Protection Bureau, the State Security Service, and the National Guard are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities. The State Police, State Security Service, and State Border Guards are subordinate to the Ministry of Interior. Municipal police are under local government control. The armed forces, the Defense Intelligence and Security Service, Constitution Protection Bureau, and National Guard are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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. Internet speech was subject to the same restrictions as other forms of speech and the media.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often cooperated with NGOs and responded to their views and inquiries.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is responsible for monitoring the government’s performance on human rights. The ombudsman received some cooperation from the agencies it monitored and operated without direct government or political interference. The office encountered difficulties resolving problems that required state budget funding or changes in the law, but effectively addressed complex social-economic issues in the Constitutional Court. In a March 2019 report, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) observed that the ombudsman’s mandate does not include providing independent assistance to victims of racism and racial discrimination. The ombudsman cannot enforce its recommendations or levy fines, although it may apply to the Constitutional Court to initiate proceedings against a public institution that has failed to address a source of discrimination. The ombudsman can also file a complaint in an administrative court if it is in the public interest or bring a case to the civil courts if the problem concerns a violation of equal treatment, ECRI stated. As required by law, the Office of the Ombudsman published an annual report describing its activities and making recommendations to the government.

A standing parliamentary committee on human rights and public affairs met weekly when parliament was in session. It considered initiatives related to human rights.

Lithuania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Lithuania is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority resides in a unicameral parliament (Seimas), and executive authority resides in the Office of the President. Observers evaluated the presidential elections and European Parliamentary elections in May 2019 and the national parliamentary elections on October 11 and October 25 as generally free and fair.

Police and the State Border Guard Service are subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior. The Special Investigative Service, the main anticorruption agency, reports to the president and parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police, the State Border Guards Service, the army, and the Special Investigative Service. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included harsh and life-threatening prison conditions.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman has three mandates: to investigate complaints about abuse of office or other violations of human rights involving public administration; to implement the national prevention of torture mechanism under the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture; and to serve as an accredited national human rights institution. In the last capacity, the parliamentary ombudsman is responsible for reporting on and monitoring human rights problems, cooperating with international and domestic human rights organizations, and promoting human rights awareness and education.

The equal opportunities ombudsman operates an independent public institution with responsibility for implementing and enforcing rights under the law.

A children’s rights ombudsman is responsible for overseeing observance of children’s rights and their legal interests. It may initiate investigations of possible violations of such rights, either upon receipt of a complaint or on its own initiative.

Parliament’s human rights committee prepares and reviews draft laws and other legal acts related to civil rights and presents recommendations to government institutions and other organizations about problems related to the protection of civil rights. It also receives reports from the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Moldova

Executive Summary

Note: Except where otherwise noted, all references in this report exclude the secessionist region of Transnistria.

The Republic of Moldova is a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections. The constitution provides for executive and legislative branches as well as an independent judiciary and a clear separation of powers. The president serves as the head of state and the prime minister serves as the head of government, appointed by the president with parliament’s support. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament. Presidential elections were held on November 1, and a run off on November 15, in which former prime minister Maia Sandu defeated the incumbent president, Igor Dodon, with 57.7 percent of the vote, making her the country’s first female president. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observers noted in their preliminary findings that fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected, but divisive campaigning and polarizing media coverage hindered voters’ access to quality information. Local and international election observers noted other irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote-buying of voters from the Transnistria region. Parliamentary elections in February 2019 met most Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe, and other international commitments, although observers noted allegations of vote buying and misuse of administrative resources.

The national police force reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and is the primary law enforcement body, responsible for internal security, public order, traffic, and criminal investigations. The agencies under the ministry are the General Police Inspectorate, Border Police, the Emergency Situations Inspectorate, Carabinieri (a quasi-militarized gendarmerie responsible for protecting public buildings, maintaining public order, and other national security functions), the Bureau for Migration and Asylum, the Internal Protection and Anticorruption Service, and the Material Reserves Agency. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture by government employees; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; criminal libel laws; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.

While authorities investigated reports of human rights abuses, they rarely prosecuted and punished officials accused of human rights violations or corruption. Impunity remained a major problem.

Significant human rights issues in separatist-controlled Transnistria included: forced disappearance by “authorities”; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by “authorities”; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the “judiciary;” arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, the existence of criminal libel laws, and overly restrictive “laws” on nongovernmental organizations; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; existence of the worst forms of child labor.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government did restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

On March 20, the country’s national intelligence agency, the Information and Security Service, blocked 52 online news portals for the duration of the 60-day state of emergency period, claiming that the sites were spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Transnistria the agency on telecommunication services ordered the second largest internet service provider (ISP), Linkservice in Transnistria, operating in Bender/Tighina, to cease operations on January 12 due to violations of the region’s ISP “regulations.” On April 28, an “appeals court” allowed Linkservice to continue its operations throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency in the region. Internet users and civil society in Transnistria suggested that the region’s largest ISP, Sheriff-controlled Inderdnestrcom, was trying to eliminate its competitors in the ISP market in Transnistria.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

Authorities in Chisinau did not have full access to or control over the Transnistrian region. According to local and international experts, authorities in Transnistria continued to monitor and restrict activities of human rights NGOs. There were credible reports that no human rights NGO in the region investigated serious human rights violations due to fear of repression and harassment from authorities.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There are three human rights bodies in the country: The Office of the People’s Ombudsman, the Agency for Interethnic Relations, and the Council for the Prevention of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality (Equality Council). The People’s Ombudsman and the Equality Council are independent institutions that report to parliament, while the Agency for Interethnic Relations is part of the government. All three institutions were fully operational and active in reporting on human rights issues during the year.

The law provides for the independence of the people’s ombudsman from political influence and appointment to a seven-year, nonrenewable term. The Office of the People’s Ombudsman may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the Office of the People’s Ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights conditions, including in prisons and other places of detention. A separate ombudsman for children’s rights operates under the same framework within the Office of the People’s Ombudsman.

The Equality Council is responsible for reviewing complaints of discrimination and making recommendations, but lacks enforcement powers.

The Agency for Interethnic Relations oversees and implements state policies in the area of interethnic relations and the use of languages in the country.

Parliament also has a separate standing committee for human rights and interethnic relations, but the committee’s powers and areas of oversight were narrowed during the year.

Poland

Executive Summary

Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a powerful lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. Incumbent President Duda was re-elected to a second five-year term after a second round of voting July 12. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conducted election observation. It found the presidential election was administered professionally despite legal uncertainty during the electoral process due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rescheduling of the election to a later date. It also noted the public broadcaster “failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as a campaign tool for the incumbent.” The government continued to implement judiciary-related measures that drew strong criticism from the European Commission, some legal experts, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations.

The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the heads and deputy heads of both offices, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Some members of law enforcement entities committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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 or email without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes the (ABW) to block websites without a prior court order in cases relating to combating, preventing, and prosecuting terrorist crimes; shut down telecommunications networks when there is a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals for up to three months without a court order. During the year there were no reports by media or NGO sources that the ABW blocked websites.

The law against defamation applies to the internet as well.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The law entrusts the ombudsperson and the government plenipotentiary for equal treatment with the task of “implementing the principle of equal treatment.”

In cooperation with NGOs, the ombudsperson processes complaints, conducts investigations, institutes and participates in court proceedings, undertakes studies, provides other public bodies with advice, proposes legislative initiatives, and conducts public information campaigns. The ombudsperson has no authority to mediate disputes between private entities, even in cases of racial discrimination. The ombudsperson presents an annual report to the Sejm on the state of human rights and civic freedom in the country.

The government plenipotentiary for equal treatment has a mandate to counter discrimination and promote equal opportunity for all. The plenipotentiary implements the government’s equal treatment policy, develops and evaluates draft acts, analyzes and evaluates legal solutions, and monitors the situation within the scope of application of the principle of equal treatment. In March the plenipotentiary’s position moved to the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. The plenipotentiary also serves as a deputy minister. As such, it does not have the same institutional independence as the ombudsperson and does not have a separate budget.

Both chambers of parliament have committees on human rights and the rule of law. The committees serve a primarily legislative function and consist of representatives from multiple political parties.

Russia

Executive Summary

The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2016 State Duma elections and the 2018 presidential election were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates. On July 1, a national vote held on constitutional amendments did not meet internationally recognized electoral standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities have, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.

The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.

Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.).

The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity. Internet advocates asserted the measure allows for surveillance by intelligence agencies and enables state authorities to control information and block content. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. In July the Account Chamber announced that the proposed plan to create an independent DNS did not meet its deadline, citing COVID-19 related delays.

The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. The law provides that companies refusing to localize Russian users’ data may be subject to penalties ranging from 5,000 rubles ($66) to six million rubles ($78,700), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($236,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In February a Moscow district court fined Twitter and Facebook 4.7 million rubles ($62,800) each for refusing to store the data of Russian users on servers located inside Russia. The two companies were also reportedly at risk of further fines for noncompliance with this requirement.

Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.

Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Companies are fined up to six million rubles ($79,300) if they refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of five million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On August 10, a Moscow court fined Google for repeatedly failing to filter contents prohibited in Russia.

The law requires owners of internet search engines (news aggregators) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.

A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search-engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.”

There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).

The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In March, Roskomnadzor announced the launch of an automated system for checking proxies, VPNs, and search engines for compliance with the requirements for blocking access to prohibited sites.

The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June 2019 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. In March the Digital Revolution hackers group announced that the FSB had purchased the Fronton program, which allows for cyberattacks to crash servers and hack smart devices. On May 5, a political activist in St. Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, reported a spam attack on the anniversary of an anti-Putin protest. Mikhailov noted that he received several hundred telephone calls from unknown numbers on that day.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operating in the country investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and, in many instances, intensified, particularly of groups that focused on monitoring elections, engaging in environmental activism, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted, especially in Chechnya, which closed its borders in April, purportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some officials, including High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova and her regional representatives, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.

Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

Officials often displayed hostility toward the activities of human rights organizations and suggested their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, Mikhail Degtyaryov, who was appointed interim governor of Khabarovsk Kray in July, warned against believing news reports about him, asserting that negative stories reveal “the hand of the West” and “it’s not for nothing that there are so many suspicious NGOs in Russia.”

Authorities continued to apply a number of indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).

Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of government activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains or in the North Caucasus. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities. One NGO in this region reported that the organization’s employees sometimes had to resort to working in an individual capacity rather than as representatives of the organization.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country. Two years after the release of the rapporteur’s report, the government still had not provided the OSCE a substantive response to the report or taken action to address the report’s recommendations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.

Many observers did not consider the 168-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.

The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president appoints some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. In October 2019 President Putin overhauled the HRC, dismissing several well respected human rights defenders from the council and appointing Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, as its head. Experts noted that Fadeyev worked closely with government authorities and often echoed their assessment of well-known human rights cases. In a July 8 interview with Kommersant, Fadeyev stated he did not believe there were more than 300 political prisoners in the country and that organizations such as Memorial needed to be “more careful” with their lists.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudspersons in all regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.

Slovakia

Executive Summary

The Slovak Republic is a multiparty parliamentary democracy led by a prime minister and a 150-member parliament (Narodna Rada or National Council). Prime Minister Igor Matovic heads a four-party coalition that secured a majority of seats in parliament following free and fair parliamentary elections on February 29. In 2019 voters elected Zuzana Caputova to a five-year term as president and head of state in free and fair elections.

The national police force has sole responsibility for internal and border security and reports to the Ministry of Interior. A special anticorruption police department, special prosecution unit, and specialized criminal court address corruption cases. The Bureau of Border and Alien Police, under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for external security, including border control and preventing illegal migration, human smuggling, and trafficking in persons, and conducts investigations of related criminal activities. The Bureau of Border and Alien Police also exercises limited powers in asylum proceedings. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: high-level corruption; violence and threats of violence against Roma and members of other ethnic and racial minorities, including violence by security forces; and violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government investigated reports of abuses by members of the security forces and other government institutions, although some observers questioned the thoroughness of these investigations. Some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Police, however, monitored websites containing hate speech and attempted to arrest or fine the authors.

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

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

Throughout the year member of parliament (MP) and chair of the opposition Smer-SD Party, Robert Fico, continued to claim that countrywide public protests in 2018 that led to the resignation of his cabinet when he was prime minister were financed and organized from abroad as part of a “coup” against his government.

Several members of parliament from both the coalition and opposition criticized the ombudsperson’s attempts to raise awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues. In May parliament refused to recognize formally the ombudsperson’s annual report, with several coalition and opposition MPs criticizing the ombudsperson on the floor of parliament for her outspoken defense of the rights of LGBTI persons.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The justice minister headed the Government Council on Human Rights and National Minorities, an advisory body including government officials and civil society representatives.

Maria Patakyova headed the Office of the Public Defender of Rights (ombudsperson) and submitted an annual report on human rights problems to the parliament. Human rights activists credited Patakyova with raising the profile of fundamental rights problems in the country, despite criticism, obstruction, and a lack of interest from politicians.

Parliament has a 12-member Human Rights and National Minorities Committee that held regular sessions during the year. The committee remained without a chairperson due to disputes between the opposition and coalition. NGOs consistently criticized the committee for failing to address serious human rights issues. Committee members included far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS) MP Milan Mazurek who participated in a 2015 attack against a Saudi family during antirefugee demonstrations, denied the legitimacy of the Holocaust, and praised Hitler on social media. He also made defamatory statements against the Romani minority and Muslim refugees, for which he was convicted and fined, causing him to lose his parliamentary mandate in the previous term.

The Slovak National Center for Human Rights acts as the country’s national human rights institution and as the dedicated equality body but was criticized for inactivity by NGOs and members of the Government Council on Human Rights and National Minorities. Between December 2019 and September 2020, the institution remained without an officially appointed director after the management board failed on multiple occasions to elect new leadership. On September 25, the board elected new director Silvia Porubanova, a sociologist and expert on gender equality.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

Tajikistan is an authoritarian state dominated politically by President Emomali Rahmon and his supporters since 1992. The constitution provides for a multiparty political system, but the government has historically obstructed political pluralism and continued to do so during the year. Constitutional amendments approved in a 2016 national referendum outlawed religious-affiliated political parties and abolished presidential term limits for the “leader of the nation,” a title that has only been held by the incumbent, allowing President Rahmon to further solidify his rule. Rustam Emomali, the 33-year-old mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, and eldest son of President Rahmon, became speaker of the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, on April 17, placing him next in line for succession. The March 1 parliamentary elections lacked pluralism and genuine choice, according to international observers, many of whom called the process deeply flawed. The October 11 presidential election reelected President Rahmon for a new seven-year term but lacked pluralism or genuine choice and did not meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Drug Control Agency, Agency on State Financial Control and the Fight against Corruption (Anticorruption Agency), State Committee for National Security, State Tax Committee, and Customs Service share civilian law enforcement responsibilities. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is primarily responsible for public order and manages the police. The Drug Control Agency, Anticorruption Agency, and State Tax Committee have mandates to investigate specific crimes and report to the president. The State Committee for National Security is responsible for intelligence gathering, controls the Border Service, and investigates cases linked to alleged extremist political or religious activity, trafficking in persons, and politically sensitive cases. All law enforcement agencies report directly to the president, and the Customs Service also reports directly to the president. Agency responsibilities overlap significantly, and law enforcement organizations defer to the State Committee for National Security. Nonlaw enforcement authorities only partially maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: kidnapping and forced repatriation of the country’s citizens in foreign countries, only to reappear in custody in the country; forced disappearances; torture and abuse of detainees by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; censorship, blocking of internet sites, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as arrest of peaceful protesters and overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including through the prevention of free or fair elections; significant acts of corruption and nepotism; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and forced labor.

There were very few prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses. Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government mostly acted with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic human rights groups encountered increased difficulty monitoring and reporting on the general human rights situation. Domestic NGOs and journalists were careful to avoid public criticism of the president or other high-ranking officials and refrained from discussing issues connected to the banned IRPT. Human rights and civil society NGOs faced increasing pressure from the government. Authorities investigated a number of NGOs for alleged registration problems and administrative irregularities.

In June a Dushanbe court issued a two-month suspension of operations of the Zerkalo Center for Social Studies, the country’s leading independent pollster. The Ministry of Justice told reporters that the ministry initiated proceedings against the organization for its failure to correct “shortcomings” that violated its charter, in particular hiring new employees without necessary or correct documentation. The Zerkalo Center denied the charges and argued that it responded in a timely manner to a routine inspection by the ministry.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government facilitated visits to prison facilities by high-ranking officials from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations but continued to deny access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman made little effort to respond to complaints from the public. The ombudsman’s office met with NGOs to discuss specific human rights cases and general human rights problems in the country, but no government action resulted.

The government’s Office for Constitutional Guarantees of Citizens’ Rights continued to investigate and answer citizens’ complaints but staffing inadequacies and inconsistent cooperation from other governmental institutions hampered the office’s effectiveness.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

Turkmenistan is a secular democracy constitutionally, although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov effectively controls the country along with a small inner circle. Berdimuhamedov became president in 2006 and was last re-elected in 2017. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights determined the election involved limited choice between competing political alternatives and found “serious irregularities.” On September 25, the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty) approved amendments to the constitution to create a bicameral parliament, so that the Halk Maslahaty becomes the upper house and the Mejlis (Parliament) becomes the lower house. The change was scheduled to become effective after the March 28, 2021, parliamentary elections. If implemented, the Halk Maslahaty will consist of 56 members (eight representatives from each of the country’s five provinces and eight representatives directly appointed by the president), and the Mejlis will consist of 125 members.

The national police and the Ministry of National Security maintain internal security. The military and border security forces are responsible for external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. In the past there were many examples of security forces committing human rights abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence and threats of unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; censorship and site blocking; interference with the freedoms of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; gender discrimination; trafficking in persons; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men; restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and the existence of forced and child labor.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

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

There were no domestic NGOs that work exclusively on human rights, although some NGOs worked on related social issues, due to the government’s refusal to register such organizations and restrictions that made activity by unregistered organizations illegal. The government continued to monitor the activities of nonpolitical social and cultural organizations.

There were no international human rights NGOs with a permanent presence in the country, although the government permitted international organizations, such as the OSCE, to have a resident mission. Government restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, and association severely restricted international organizations’ ability to investigate, understand, and fully evaluate the government’s human rights policies and practices.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances requested an invitation to visit the country in 2016. The working group again requested an invitation in January 2019 but had not conducted a visit by year’s end.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2018 the government-run National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights changed its name to the Institute of State, Law, and Democracy. It is not an independent body, and its ability to obtain redress for citizens was limited. The institute, established in 1996, has a mandate to support democratization. The Interagency Commission on Enforcing Turkmenistan’s International Obligations on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law meets biannually to coordinate the implementation of a limited number of recommendations from international human rights bodies. The parliamentary Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Liberties oversees human rights-related legislation, and during the year it worked with the UN Development Program to draft the country’s National Action Plan for Human Rights.

By law the ombudsman must be nominated by the president and confirmed by parliament. The law empowers the ombudsman to receive and review human rights violations reported by citizens and confirm or deny the violation and advise the complainant regarding legal redress. The ombudsman is obliged to submit an annual human rights report to the president and parliament, which shall be published and distributed via local media. The ombudsman’s report was completed and published for the first time in 2019 and again during the year. The ombudsman enjoys legal immunity and cannot be prosecuted, arrested, or detained for official acts while in office. In 2019 the Ombudsperson’s Office recorded a total of 740 appeals.

Ukraine

Read A Section: Ukraine

Crimea

Note: Except where otherwise noted, references in this report do not include areas controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine or Russian-occupied Crimea. At the end of this report is a section listing abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Ukraine is a republic with a semipresidential political system composed of three branches of government: a unicameral legislature (Verkhovna Rada); an executive led by a directly elected president who is head of state and commander in chief, and a prime minister who is chosen through a legislative majority and as head of government leads the Cabinet of Ministers; and a judiciary. In April 2019 Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers. In July 2019 the country held early parliamentary elections that observers also considered free and fair.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for maintaining internal security and order. The ministry oversees police and other law enforcement personnel. The Security Service of Ukraine is responsible for state security broadly defined, nonmilitary intelligence, and counterintelligence and counterterrorism matters. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reports to the Cabinet of Ministers, and the Security Service reports directly to the president. The Ministry of Defense and Ukrainian armed forces are responsible for defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by deterring armed aggression. The Ministry of Defense ensures sovereignty and the integrity of national borders and exercises control over the activities of the armed forces in compliance with the law. The president is the supreme commander in chief of the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense reports directly to the president. The State Fiscal Tax Service exercises law enforcement powers through the tax police and reports to the Cabinet of Ministers. The State Border Guard Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs implements state policy regarding border security, while the State Migration Service, also under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, implements state policy regarding migration, citizenship, and registration of refugees and other migrants. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces in the territory controlled by the government. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees by law enforcement personnel; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; abuses in the Russia-led conflict in the Donbas, including physical abuse of civilians and members of armed groups held in detention facilities; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and blocking of websites; refoulement of refugees; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence or threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minority groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity. Human rights groups and the United Nations noted significant deficiencies in investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by government security forces.

In the Russia-instigated and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region, Russia-led forces reportedly engaged in unlawful or arbitrary killings of civilians, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Other significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement across the line of contact in eastern Ukraine; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and unduly restricted humanitarian aid.

Significant human rights issues in Russia-occupied Crimea included: forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees to extract confessions and punish persons resisting the occupation; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea reportedly continued to engage in widespread violence against and harassment of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in response to peaceful opposition to Russian occupation (see Crimea subreport).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”

On May 14, President Zelenskyy renewed sanctions on several Russian websites that were introduced in 2017 in retaliation for Russian cyberattacks. The sanctions included a ban on popular Russian social networks VKontakte and OdnoKlassniki, although the sites could easily be reached with use of a virtual private network connection. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites at government behest based on national security concerns. As of September, 475 sites were blocked in the country on such grounds. According to monitoring by Digital Security Lab Ukraine, internet service provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied widely.

Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts continued to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. Freedom House reported thousands of websites, including some self-described news sites, were blocked for alleged involvement in cybercrime, fraud, and other illegal activities. For example, on January 27, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 59 websites, including the media platforms smi.today, capital.ua, and ukr.fm, at the request of the Kyiv Oblast prosecutor’s office on grounds related to violations of intellectual property rights.

There were reports of the disclosure of personally identifiable information of persons to penalize expression of opinions. On July 11, a Ukrainian journalist with more than 130,000 followers on his social media account posted a picture of journalist Kateryna Serhatskova with her son as well as details about her personal life, suggesting she worked for Russian intelligence services. In the comments responding to the post, users posted her address, photos of her home, and death threats against her. The threats and disclosures came in response to Serhatskova’s July 3 publication of an article about the alleged influence of violent radical groups on a fact-checking organization, StopFake.org. Human Rights Watch called on authorities to provide for her safety. On July 14, Serhatskova left the country out of concern for her safety and that of her family.

The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. For instance, in early August the website published personally identifiable information of the editor and host of the television program Nashi Hroshi (Our Money), Denys Bihus. Myrotvorets published the information in retaliation for Bihus’s investigative reporting on Ihor Hladkovsky, the son of a former National Security and Defense Council official. Myrotvorets justified its actions by citing a July court ruling that dismissed the claims of Bihus and other journalists regarding Hladkovsky’s alleged involvement in embezzlement.

There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, after publishing an investigative report in July on the pro-Russian influence of certain Telegram channels closely followed by members of parliament, journalist Lyubov Velychko reported repeated attempts to hack her social network and messenger accounts as well as numerous online death threats against her.

Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russia’s aggressive actions in the Donbas region and its occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of trolling and harassment on social media.

In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in November, Freedom House concluded that the country has made cautious improvements in regards to internet freedom. Improvements included the removal of telecommunications licensing requirements that were previously tied to corruption and a reduction in the practice of administratively blocking websites, with the exception of President Zelenskyy’s extension of sanctions to several Russian-owned technology companies in May.

There were reports the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example, according to press reports, in early August, the Security Service in Sumy searched a house and detained a man who allegedly posted calls on social networks to break the ceasefire in Donbas.

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

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

Authorities in Russia-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine routinely denied access to domestic and international civil society organizations. Human rights groups attempting to work in those areas faced significant harassment and intimidation (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution provides for a human rights ombudsperson, officially designated as parliamentary commissioner on human rights.

In 2018 parliament appointed Lyudmila Denisova parliamentary commissioner on human rights. The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner on Human Rights cooperated with NGOs on various projects to monitor human rights practices in various institutions, including detention facilities, orphanages and boarding schools for children, and geriatric institutions. Denisova took a proactive stance advocating on behalf of political prisoners held by Russia as well as Crimean Tatars, Roma, IDPs, and persons with disabilities.

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his supporters. In 2016 Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister, won the presidential elections with 88 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted in its final election observation report that “the campaign lacked competitiveness and voters were not presented with a genuine choice of political alternatives,” with the European observers citing “serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing.” Parliamentary elections took place in December 2019. The OSCE observer mission’s preliminary conclusions noted the elections occurred under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not demonstrate genuine competition and full respect for election-day procedures.

The government authorizes four different entities to investigate criminal activity and provide security. The Ministry of Interior controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of general crimes. It also investigates and disciplines its officers if they are accused of human rights violations. The National Guard ensures public order and security of diplomatic missions, radio and television broadcasting, and other state entities. The State Security Service, whose chairperson reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence issues, including terrorism, corruption, organized crime, border control, and narcotics. The Prosecutor General’s Office ensures rule of law, protects the rights and freedoms of citizens and legally protected interests of the state, conducts preliminary investigations of crimes, and prosecutes persons and entities accused of crimes. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services permeated civilian structures. Civilian authorities opaquely interacted with security services’ personnel, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority. There were reports that members of the security and law enforcement agencies, particularly police and prison officials, committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of physical and psychological abuse of detainees by security forces, including abuses that resulted in the death of detainees; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado and prolonged detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against an individual located outside of the country; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship and intentional slowing of social media digital platforms; restrictions on assembly and association, including restrictions on civil society, with human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government subject to harassment, prosecution, and detention; restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation in which citizens were unable to choose their government in free, fair, and periodic elections; human trafficking, including forced labor; criminalization of sexual relations between men; and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and consensual same-sex sexual conduct.

Impunity remained pervasive. Government prosecutions of officials on abuse charges increased somewhat during the year.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

A number of domestic human rights groups operated in the country, although the government often hampered their ability to operate, investigate, and publish their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, but at times the government harassed and intimidated human rights and civil society activists. Governmental decrees and administrative orders on civil society sought to encourage its growth and offered procedural rules and some new limitations for the actions of Ministry of Justice inspectors (see section 2.b.).

Two domestic human rights NGOs, Ezgulik and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, were registered with the government. Ezgulik representatives reported improved cooperation with government officials during the year. The government continued to deny the registration requests submitted by most other domestic groups.

Harassment of activists took place. On September 4, three strangers who introduced themselves as journalists allegedly visited local human rights activist Haitboy Khaydarov at his home in Khorezm to speak to him about human rights issues. When the three men began taking photographs of him and demanding information about journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev (extradited to the country in August), Khaydarov became concerned and asked to see their documentation as journalists. The men then threatened him, telling him it would be better to “talk” about where and when he had worked with Abdullayev and suggested they could “take him” away.

International NGOs, including those that focus on human rights, continued to face obstacles in legally registering. The government did not allow unregistered international organizations to open or use local bank accounts, limited the periods of validity for international NGO workers’ visas for them to legally live and work in the country, and did not create a path to overcome previous Supreme Court rulings banning certain organizations from the country, thereby allowing them to register again.

Human rights activists and political opposition figures generally assumed that security agencies covertly monitored their telephone calls and activities. Government officials spoke informally with domestic human rights defenders, some of whom were able to resolve cases of human rights abuses through direct engagement with authorities if they did not publicize these cases.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The goals of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office included promoting observance and public awareness of fundamental human rights, assisting in shaping legislation to bring it into accordance with international human rights norms, and resolving cases of alleged abuse. The Ombudsman’s Office is tasked with mediation of disputes among citizens who contact it and makes recommendations to modify or uphold decisions of government agencies, but its recommendations are not binding. The Ombudsman’s Office is permitted to make unannounced inspections of prisons and had a separate division to investigate government abuse of businesses.

The National Human Rights Center is a government agency responsible for educating the public and officials on the principles of human rights and democracy and for ensuring that the government complies with its international obligations to provide human rights information.

In its 2019 annual report, the Geneva-based UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted it still had seven outstanding cases from previous years. In its September 2019 report, the working group reiterated its request to visit the country. The request was first issued in 2011, with the most recent formal reminder was sent in January 2019.

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