El Salvador

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

During the year there were no verified reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in unlawful killings. As of October the attorney general was investigating 53 possible cases of extrajudicial killings. One took place in 2013, none in 2014, 11 in 2015, and 41 in 2016. The Attorney General’s Office also announced the formation of a Special Group Against Impunity, dedicated to investigating this type of crime. As of March the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) had received 12 complaints of alleged unlawful killings committed by security, military, and other public officials and found substantial evidence in two cases. In September the PDDH stated that it was aware of approximately 50 cases involving potential extrajudicial killings. From January to July, the Office of the Inspector General of the National Civilian Police (PNC) reported that 12 PNC officers faced charges of homicide. All but one of the alleged homicides were committed while the accused officers were on duty.

On April 25, the PDDH found indications that the PNC and the armed forces had committed extrajudicial killings during the March 2015 San Blas case (involving the killing of seven alleged gang members and one other person) and the August 2015 Pajales case (which involved the close-range killing of four unarmed gang members). The PDDH criticized the PNC and the armed forces for issuing a press release portraying the killings as the product of clashes with gang members. The PDDH also noted weak internal controls in the PNC and the armed forces and regretted the lack of interagency collaboration in the investigations. On July 9, the attorney general ordered the arrest of seven police officers accused of committing extrajudicial killings in the San Blas case on charges of homicide and obstruction of justice. Seven officers were charged in the Pajales case, although there was no confirmation arrests were made.

On July 9, the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrest of five police officers and five civilians for their participation in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel; on July 13, a judge ordered preventive detention of the accused. Eleven additional defendants fled from justice, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadorans living abroad.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cristosal compared PNC data that showed 366 armed confrontations through July 2016, during which 350 suspected gang members died. A total of 359 suspected gang members were killed in 676 armed confrontations in 2015, and 83 were killed in 256 confrontations in 2014. The mortality rate of suspected gang members in confrontations with police during the first six months of the year was 109 percent higher (i.e., more than double) that the 2015 mortality rate, which was itself 41 percent higher than in 2014. On October 4, the digital newspaper El Faro cited a Brazilian expert who analyzed PNC data and concluded that the data demonstrated a pattern of abuse of lethal force by police authorities.

As of August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice had received two complaints of extrajudicial killings against police members and two complaints for violations to the right of life.

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances, abductions, or kidnappings. As of September, the NGO Association for the Search for Missing Children (Pro-Busqueda) received five new complaints regarding children who disappeared during the 1980-92 civil war. Pro-Busqueda reported in August that it was investigating 960 open cases, had solved 425 cases, and determined that in 15 percent of solved cases the child had died.

According to the PNC inspector general, eight complaints of forced disappearances were filed against the PNC between January and August.

The law prohibits such practices, but there were multiple reports of violations. The PDDH received 21 complaints of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the PNC, armed forces, and other public officials.

As of August, the Office of the Inspector General reported 31 complaints against police officers for alleged cruel treatment. The NGOs Foundation of Studies for the Application of the Law, and Passionist Social Service, as well as other civil society institutions reported that poor male youths were sometimes targeted by the PNC and armed forces because they fit the stereotype of gang members. Other credible sources indicated that youths suspected to have knowledge of gang activity were mistreated by law enforcement personnel.

NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the LGBTI community stated that the agencies in charge of processing identification documents, the PNC, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The LGBTI community reported authorities harassed LGBTI persons by conducting strip searches and questioning their gender in a degrading manner. The government responded to these abuses primarily through PDDH reports that publicized specific cases of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a serious threat to prisoners’ health and lives. As of August 15, the prison directorate reported 34,938 inmates were being held in correctional facilities with a designed capacity of 10,035 inmates. As of July 11, the minister of security noted that his office had moved 1,600 inmates from pretrial detention into the regular prison system. The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) estimated that, as of June 30, prison overcrowding was 346 percent. The prison population included 24,675 inmates with convictions and 10,263 inmates in pretrial detention. In many facilities, provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate. On November 14, the PDDH published a report on deteriorating prison conditions, observed during fact-finding missions between April and July. The report highlights worsening conditions since the April implementation of extraordinary measures, including decreased access to medical care while infectious diseases increased, lack of sanitation facilities for the number of inmates, inmates sleeping on the floor without blankets, and inmates lacking space to sleep because of extreme overcrowding.

Men and women had separate accommodations within the prisons. A separate women’s prison in Ilopango was generally clean and allowed inmates to move freely within and inmates’ children under the age of five to stay with their mothers.

Due to prison overcrowding, police authorities held some pretrial detainees in small detention centers at police stations, which had a combined capacity of 2,102 persons. FUSADES reported in February that authorities held approximately 83 percent of these pretrial detainees in detention centers longer than the 72 hours legally permitted before presenting them to a court, some for up to two years. Similarly, due to the lack of holding cells, authorities often held pretrial detainees in regular prisons with violent criminals.

On March 16, the Legislative Assembly approved temporary provisions to allow parole for inmates considered low-level threats and with prison sentences of less than eight years (291 inmates).

On May 27, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the systematic violation of basic human rights by prison overcrowding, citing the government for violating prisoners’ right to health, and ordered periodic visits by the Ministry of Health. The court ordered prison authorities to build new prisons and to remodel others to shelter inmates humanely and the judicial system to review the inmate rosters with an aim of reducing the number of prisoners. Authorities closed one prison during the year, and another was under construction.

In November 2015 the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP-UCA) released the findings of its 2009-15 study on the penitentiary and prison system. The report estimated that 9 percent of the prison population was ill, including with highly communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. In August the General Directorate of Prisons (DGCP) began addressing tuberculosis within the prison system by creating mobile tuberculosis treatment teams and separate holding cells for infected inmates.

Prisoners conducted criminal activities from their cells, at times with the complicity of prison guards. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell-phone SIM cards was a major problem in the prisons. On April 1, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved “extraordinary security measures” to prevent gang members from orchestrating crimes from within the prison system. These measures included preventing communication between inmate gang leaders and their members outside prison, suspending all private communication and contact with their families and limiting access to their lawyers, and detaining and isolating known gang leaders in higher security prisons. The measures also subjected the inmates in prisons designated for convicted gang members to isolation and restriction to their cells for 24 hours per day. According to the PDDH, prison authorities modified some of the measures in July and August and allowed prisoners up to one hour outside of their cells. The extraordinary measures affected 13,162 inmates housed in seven prisons: Izalco, Quezaltepeque, Chalatenango, Ciudad Barrios, Gotera, and Zacatecoluca penitentiaries, as well as one sector of Ilopango penitentiary. In response, approximately 200 relatives of imprisoned gang members organized a march on June 29 to demand the government reinstate family visits and file a complaint with the PDDH. On November 18, the government launched additional extraordinary measures in response to an increase in homicides of police officers and soldiers by gang members. These measures included moving gang members considered responsible for attacks against police officers to higher-security prisons and increasing their isolation.

Gang activities in prisons and juvenile holding facilities remained a serious problem. As of August 15, detention center facilities held 16,215 inmates who were current or former gang members. On October 22, the Prison Directorate ordered 235 inmates moved to different prisons in an effort to break up gang “cliques” within prisons. As of May, the Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) reported that two adolescents died in juvenile detention facilities. ISNA also reported that there were 418 juveniles convicted and 230 juveniles awaiting trial.

According to news reports, 25 prisoners were killed within prisons between January and August, including 11 prisoners killed in the Gotera Penitentiary by fellow inmates. As of August, the Prison Directorate had reported only 11 homicides within prisons.

As of September 6, prison authorities removed two guards from duty for carrying illegal objects and sanctioned 29 guards for misconduct. Prison authorities received 17 complaints of human rights violations allegedly committed by prison personnel.

There was no information available regarding abuse of persons with disabilities in prisons, although the government’s National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD) previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse.

Administration: The IUDOP-UCA report noted that, between 2009 and 2015, parole board staffing decreased by 48 percent. In 2015 the prison system had 69 technical employees (including attorneys, sociologists, social workers, and psychologists) to provide services to more than 31,000 inmates. The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has authority regarding the protection of constitutional rights.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison-monitoring visits by independent human rights observers, NGOs, and the media, except to those prisons covered by the extraordinary measures. The PDDH continued to monitor all prisons. Church groups, the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute, LGBTI activists, and other groups visited prisons during the year. After the implementation of the extraordinary measures, which restricted monitoring of the prisons subject to the measures, the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended all prison visits until visitation was restored in the prisons subject to the extraordinary measures.

Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. As of August, the Office of the Inspector General had received 45 complaints against police officers for alleged violations of freedom of movement. NGOs reported that the PNC had arbitrarily arrested and detained groups of persons on suspicion of gang affiliation. According to these NGOs, the accused were ostracized by their communities upon their return, even when they were not affiliated with gangs.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The PNC, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and the Ministry of Defense has responsibility for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” President Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties through the end of the year.

The three quick reaction military battalions that were created in 2015 to support PNC operations and whose troops have arrest and detention authority continued to operate. The military is responsible for securing the international border and conducting joint patrols with the PNC.

On April 20, the government announced the launch of the Fast Reaction Force (FERES), a joint operation consisting of two 200-officer police units supported by 250 Special Forces military soldiers. Battalion soldiers are legally able under citizen’s arrest authority to detain persons they believe have committed criminal acts.

In response to an alleged rise in extrajudicial killings, the PNC in January launched a newly organized internal investigative office, the Secretariat for Professional Responsibility. The body is composed of a Complaints Office, a Disciplinary Office, and the Inspector General’s Office.

From January to August, the Inspector General’s Office received 492 complaints of human rights violations–31 for inhuman and cruel treatment, 181 for physical abuse, 117 for personal security, 40 for violence against women (including rape and sexual abuse), 15 for failure to provide access to justice, two for extrajudicial killing, and two for deprivation of life. The Inspector General’s Office referred three of the cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal charges.

In June the PDDH released its annual findings on the status of human rights. The report stated that, between June 2015 and May 2016, the PDDH received 1,883 complaints of human rights violations, 1,284 of which were reportedly committed by the PNC and the military.

Inadequate training, lack of enforcement of the administrative police career law, arbitrary promotions, insufficient government funding, failure to enforce evidentiary rules effectively, and instances of corruption and criminality limited the PNC’s effectiveness. The PDDH has the authority to investigate (but not prosecute) human rights abuses and refers all cases it deems to involve human rights abuse to the Attorney General’s Office.

In May PNC director Howard Cotto stated that since January 80 police officers had been arrested for illicit activities, such as extortion, theft, and murder for hire. In June the Inspector General’s Office reported that it sanctioned 781 officers in response to complaints filed during the year and in prior years. These sanctions included 84 arrests and 165 officers suspended without pay. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it had filed charges against 587 police officers and 14 judges for unspecified crimes. The office also reported that it successfully convicted 15 police officers for criminal activities.

The Inspector General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense Human Rights Office reported most PNC officers, police academy cadets, and all military personnel had received human rights awareness training, including training by the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women, the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. The Inspector General’s Office reported that 633 police officers received human rights training in the past year. The Ministry of Defense Human Rights Office reported that 6,097 soldiers received human rights training during the year.

On May 29, the PNC revised its guidelines on the use of force to improve accountability of police personnel. The guidelines specifically outline situations that permit the use of force, proportionality of force for various confrontational situations, and internal investigation procedures for alleged misconduct.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is in the act of committing a crime. Authorities apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.

The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result, PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. Detainees normally had access to counsel of their choice or to an attorney provided by the state. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court, after which the judge may order detention for an additional 72 hours to determine if an investigation is warranted. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case. In exceptionally complicated cases, the prosecutor may ask an appeals court to extend the deadline for three or six months, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of November 8, the PDDH reported 62 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention during the year.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of June 30, 29 percent of the general prison population was in pretrial detention. Lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and staff shortages caused trial delays. Because it could take several years for a case to come to trial, some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances, detainees may request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution grants detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination on the legality of their detention, and persons arrested or detained may obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. In some cases persons were not promptly released and/or did not receive compensation for unlawful detention.

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption, and the Solicitor’s Office (responsible for public defenders) of the Attorney General’s Office and the PDDH suffered from insufficient resources. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it had initiated 14,162 cases and obtained 3,268 convictions.

As of August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice reported 15 cases of violations of access to justice committed by police officers, and one police officer was accused of obstructing due process.

On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court struck down the 1993 Amnesty Law on the grounds that it violated citizens’ constitutional right of access to justice and the right to compensation for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The law provided blanket protection against criminal prosecution and civil penalties for crimes committed during the country’s civil war (1980-92), and the court’s ruling held that the Legislative Assembly did not have authority to grant an absolute amnesty. Nevertheless, the court held that the law continues to be enforced for those crimes committed during the civil war years that do not constitute serious human rights abuses. The ruling declaring the Amnesty Law unconstitutional empowered parties to request judges to reopen cases related to civil war era crimes and for individuals to petition the attorney general to open new cases.

On August 25, the Supreme Court denied the extradition to Spain of former colonel Guillermo Benavides for the 1989 murder of four Jesuit priests. The court ordered Benavides to remain in prison to await a hearing before the Fourth Instruction Court of San Salvador to determine whether he would be held criminally responsible for the murders as a result of the Amnesty Law ruling. On September 30, in response to a petition by the victims, a judge issued an order to reopen the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 800 persons were killed. On October 17, the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America filed five complaints with the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of victims of torture, forced disappearances, and murder from 1975 to 1989, allegedly by agents of the state. On October 20, Armando Duran filed a complaint against former Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) commanders, including the sitting president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, for their alleged participation in a kidnapping in 1987. On November 15, the Constitutional Court ordered a lower court judge to determine how to investigate and prosecute the 1982 “El Calabozo” massacre, in which approximately 200 persons were killed.

Substantial corruption in the judicial system contributed to a high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. Between January 1 and June 30, the Supreme Court heard 201 cases against judges due to irregularities, removed four judges, suspended 10 others, and brought formal charges against 63 judges.

The Legislative Assembly did not always comply with Supreme Court rulings. As of September 8, the Legislative Assembly had not complied with a ruling from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber that mandated the Legislative Assembly renominate magistrates on the Court of Accounts (a transparency oversight body) by July 29 because those nominated by the legislature had political party affiliations in contravention of legal standards. On September 6, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court admitted a complaint against the Legislative Assembly for failing to nominate members to the National Judicial Council after a delay of more than a year. The council is responsible for selecting judicial candidates.

Between January and June 20, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Executive Technical Unit (UTE), which provides witness protection services, provided protection to 682 victims, 821 witnesses, and 457 victim/witnesses. The unit also provided household protection for 55 persons. In 2015 the unit provided protection to 4,218 victims and witnesses. Some judges denied anonymity to witnesses at trial, and gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides for the right to a fair public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political and economic influence. Although procedures called for juries to try certain crimes, including environmental pollution and certain misdemeanors, judges decided most cases. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints, to which the law does not assign to judges. After the jury’s determination of innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence in such cases.

Defendants have the right to be present in court, question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay, protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to confront adverse witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence, the right to appeal, access for defendants and their attorneys to government-held evidence relevant to their cases, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent. In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through the appeals process if the defendant does not understand Spanish. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case. The law extends these rights to all citizens.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to bring civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.

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

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

In many neighborhoods, armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons, interfered with privacy, family, and home life, and created a climate of fear that the authorities were not capable of restoring to normal.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent municipal and legislative elections were held on March 1, 2015. The release of final election results by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) electoral authorities was delayed until March 27, 2015, due to problems with the transmission, tabulation, and public dissemination of the vote count. International and domestic electoral observers participated in the election and counting process. The election report published by the Organization of American States electoral mission noted that, while the votes were being tabulated, “inconsistencies were discovered in a large number of records, due to erroneous data and information input by many voting centers.”

In April 2015 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ordered a vote-by-vote recount for the 24 legislators elected in the municipality of San Salvador, the country’s largest constituency. The results of the recount did not alter any of the election results.

During the elections, as in the 2014 presidential elections, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the FMLN political parties accused each other of fraud, including reports of double voting and voter intimidation.

On June 22, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Article 195 of the electoral code, which prohibited police and soldiers from voting in polling stations where they provide security.

The law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, although this provision was not always enforced.

Participation of Women and Minorities: In 2013 the Legislative Assembly approved a law stipulating 30 percent of all candidates in municipal, legislative, and city council elections must be women. The law took effect during the March 2015 municipal and Legislative Assembly elections. There were 18 women in the 84-member Legislative Assembly, five women on the 15-member Supreme Court, and three women in the 13-member cabinet.

On October 18, newspapers reported that the TSE had taken action to advise a political party that its recent elections did not comply with the minimum quota and that it may need to substitute a woman for a man to comply with the law.

No members of the Supreme Court, the legislature, or other government entities identified themselves as members of an ethnic minority or indigenous community, and there were no political party positions or legislative seats designated for ethnic minorities.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Autonomous government institutions initiated several investigations into corruption. In late 2015 the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began, for the first time, to investigate seriously allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. The Supreme Court reported that, as of July 22, the Probity Section investigated 72 current and former public officials for evidence of illicit enrichment and submitted five cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal investigation. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported investigating 93 cases related to corruption, resulting in seven convictions.

Attorney General Douglas Melendez, elected by the legislature in January, initiated criminal investigations of several public officials for corruption during the year. On June 6, the police arrested Apopa mayor Elias Hernandez on gang-related charges of illicit association, making threats, and aggravated homicide. On August 17, the Attorney General’s Office executed search warrants on seven properties related to former president Mauricio Funes (2009-14) and opened a criminal corruption case against him. The government of Nicaragua granted Funes asylum on September 2. On August 22, police arrested former attorney general Luis Martinez and businessperson Enrique Rais on charges related to corruption. On October 30, former President Antonio “Tony” Saca (2004-09) was arrested on corruption-related charges, including embezzlement and money laundering, stemming from an alleged conspiracy to divert $18 million in government funds to private accounts. On November 5, a judge denied his bail.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The declarations are not available to the public, and the law does not establish sanctions for noncompliance. On May 12, the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting which cases to investigate: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), the relevance of the position, and the seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

Public Access to Information: The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities did not always effectively implement the law. The law establishes mechanisms to appeal denials of information and report noncompliance with other aspects of the law. As of July, the Institute for Access to Public Information had formally received 1,001 cases, 81 percent of which had been resolved. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for noncompliance.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and the criminal code’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. Cases may be dropped for lack of evidence if the victim refuses to provide it. The penalty for rape is generally six to 10 years’ imprisonment, but the law provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years for raping certain classes of victims, including children and persons with disabilities.

Incidents of rape continued to be underreported for several reasons, including societal and cultural pressures on victims, fear of reprisal, ineffective and unsupportive responses by authorities to victims, fear of publicity, and a perception among victims that cases were unlikely to be prosecuted. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.

Rape and other sexual crimes against women were widespread. On February 26, the PDDH criticized the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s UTE general director Mauricio Rodriquez, for failing to provide adequate security to seven female witnesses and victims of sex trafficking, one of whom was sexually assaulted by a security guard in a shelter supervised by the UTE. Although the victim filed a complaint, the security guard was not sanctioned or removed.

The Attorney General’s Office reported that, as of July 18, 658 women had been victims of sexual-related crimes and 63 defendants had been convicted for sexual-related crimes against women. As of March 9, the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU) reported 385 cases of rape against women.

ISDEMU provided health and psychological assistance to women who were victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, mistreatment, sexual harassment, labor harassment, trafficking in persons, commercial sexual exploitation, or alien smuggling.

Violence against women, including domestic violence, was a widespread and serious problem. A large portion of the population considered domestic violence socially acceptable; as with rape, its incidence was underreported. The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence were not well enforced, and cases were not effectively prosecuted. The law prohibits mediation in domestic violence disputes.

Between January and July 2016, ISDEMU reported 21 cases of femicide, 458 cases of physical abuse, 385 cases of sexual violence, and 2,259 cases of psychological abuse. ISDEMU reported 3,070 cases of domestic violence against women during the same period. In June ISDEMU issued its 2015 annual report on violence against women and reported that 230 died due to violence in the first six months of 2015, compared with 294 during the same period in 2014 and 217 in 2013.

ISDEMU coordinated with the judicial and executive branches and civil society groups to conduct public awareness campaigns against domestic violence and sexual abuse. The PDDH, the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court, the Public Defender’s Office, and the PNC collaborated with NGOs and other organizations to combat violence against women through education, increased enforcement of the law, and programs for victims. The Secretariat of Social Inclusion, through ISDEMU, defined policies, programs, and projects on domestic violence and continued to maintain one shared telephone hotline and two separate shelters for victims of domestic abuse and child victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The government’s efforts to combat domestic violence were minimally effective.

Women’s rights NGOs claimed that many violent crimes against women occurred within the context of gang structures, where women were “corralled” and “disposed of at the whims of male gang members.”

On March 3, women’s rights activist for the NGO Hablame de Respeto (“Speak to me about respect”) Aida Pineda was found dead, shot 11 times in front of her house in Milagrosa, San Miguel. Colleagues of Pineda contended that her killing was a femicide and that she was targeted for being a “powerful woman” who challenged the control of the Barrio 18 gang’s repressive behavior toward women.

As of August, the Office of the Inspector General reported 40 cases of alleged violations of police officers against women due to their gender.

In an effort to sensitize the judicial system to gender-based violent crimes, the Legislative Assembly approved the creation of specialized courts for violence against women. The San Salvador courts began operations on June 1, while the San Miguel and Santa Ana courts were scheduled to start in 2017.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and provides imprisonment of up to five years if the victim is an adult and up to eight years if the victim is a minor. Courts may impose fines in addition to a prison term in cases where the perpetrator is in a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law also mandates that employers take measures to avoid sexual harassment, violence against women, and other workplace harassment problems. The law requires employers to create and implement preventive programs to address violence against women, sexual abuse, and other psychosocial risks. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively. Since underreporting by victims of sexual harassment appeared to be widespread, it was difficult to estimate the extent of the problem.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of having children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to reproductive health services outside of the capital city San Salvador, however, was limited.

Civil society advocates expressed concern that the country’s complete abortion ban had led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages. Between 1999 and 2011, 17 women (referred to as “Las 17”) were charged for having an abortion and convicted of homicide following obstetric emergencies and were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. A petition was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that highlighted violations of due process and of women’s rights. Amnesty International and the UN Development Program claimed the women had miscarriages, while the Legal Medicine Institute argued that the women committed infanticide through abortion. In December 2014 one of “Las 17,” Mirna Isabel Rodriguez, “Mima,” was released after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. On May 20, San Salvador’s Third Tribunal Sentencing Court ruled there was not enough evidence to prove charges against a second member of the group, Maria Teresa Rivera, for aggravated homicide after having a miscarriage in 2011. On October 24, an appellate court did not admit a case against a third member, Santos Elizabeth Gamez Herrera. The Legislative Assembly was reviewing the remaining 14 cases. During the year the NGO Colectiva Feminista reported that two more women presented their cases, which included similarities with those of the “Las 17” women.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights but women did not enjoy equal treatment. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials who deny a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers who discriminate against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.

Although pregnancy testing as a condition for employment is illegal, some businesses allegedly required female job applicants to present pregnancy test results, and some businesses illegally fired pregnant workers.

The law prohibits discrimination based on gender; nevertheless, women suffered from cultural, economic, and societal discrimination. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but according to the 2015 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the average wage paid to women for comparable work was 60 percent of compensation paid to men. Men often received priority in job placement and promotions, and women did not receive equal treatment in traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as agriculture and business. Training was generally available for women only in low- and middle-wage occupations where women already held most positions, such as teaching, nursing, apparel assembly, home industry, and small business.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from one’s parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a $2.85 fine. While firm statistics were unavailable, many births were not registered. Failure to register resulted in denial of school enrollment.

Education: Education is free, universal, and compulsory through the ninth grade and nominally free through high school. Rural areas, however, frequently did not provide required education to all eligible students due to a lack of resources and because rural parents often withdrew their children from school by the sixth grade to allow them to work.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was a serious and widespread problem. Incidents of abuse continued to be underreported for a number of reasons, including societal and cultural pressures on victims, fear of reprisal against victims, ineffective and unsupportive responses by authorities toward victims, fear of publicity, and a perception among victims that cases were unlikely to be prosecuted. During the year an appellate judge issued a report noting serious deficiencies in technical criteria for determining whether minors are victims of child abuse.

The Salvadoran Institute for the Comprehensive Development of Children and Adolescents (ISNA), an autonomous government entity, defined policies, programs, and projects on child abuse; maintained a shelter for child victims of abuse and female child victims of commercial sexual exploitation; and conducted a violence awareness campaign to combat child abuse. From January to May, ISNA reported providing psychological assistance to 131 children for physical and psychological abuse and 134 for sexual violence.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, although the law authorizes marriage from the age of 14 if both the boy and girl have reached puberty, if the girl is pregnant, or if the couple has a child.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual exploitation of children, including girls and boys in prostitution, remained a problem. Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law, which prescribes penalties of 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for trafficking crimes. An offense committed against a child is treated as an aggravating circumstance, and the penalty increases by one-third, but the government did not effectively enforce these laws.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone under the age of 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment.

The law prohibits paying anyone under the age of 18 for sexual services. The Secretariat of Social Inclusion, through ISDEMU, continued to maintain one shared telephone hotline for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and victims of domestic abuse. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for violations.

Displaced Children: Surveys indicated the primary motivations for migration were family reunification, a lack of economic and educational opportunity in the country, and fear of violence.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, and the provision of other state services. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the government agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but it lacked enforcement power. According to CONAIPD, the government did not allocate sufficient resources to enforce prohibitions against discrimination effectively, particularly in education, employment, and transportation. The government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. There were almost no access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities. Children with disabilities generally attended primary school, but attendance at higher levels was more dependent on their parents’ financial resources.

According to CONAIPD, only 5 percent of businesses and nongovernment agencies fulfilled the legal requirement of hiring one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. There was no information available regarding abuse in educational or mental health facilities, although CONAIPD previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse, in those facilities.

CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. Some schools would not accept children with disabilities due to a lack of facilities and resources. There was no formal system for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government.

Due to their use of sign language, several young deaf individuals were confused with gang members (who also used signs to communicate) by police officers and soldiers and suffered mistreatment.

On May 25, CONAIPD and the Cooperative Transport Association Ciudad Delgado launched 10 bus units with platform access for persons with disabilities.

Several public and private organizations, including the Telethon Foundation for Disabled Rehabilitation and the National Institute for Comprehensive Rehabilitation (ISRI), promoted the rights of persons with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Foundation, in cooperation with ISRI, continued to operate a treatment center for persons with disabilities. CONAIPD reported that the government provided minimal funding for ISRI.

Indigenous People

A 2014 constitutional amendment recognizes the rights of indigenous people, but no laws provide indigenous people rights to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources on historically indigenous lands. The government did not demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities. Because few possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit were extremely limited.

During the year the municipalities of Conchagua and Santo Domingo de Guzman, which have relatively higher populations of Nahuat speakers, approved regulations to improve the living conditions for women, persons with disabilities, and older indigenous individuals in the towns and made reference to their historic lands.

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

Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, discrimination against LGBTI persons was widespread, including in employment and access to health care. In May the PDDH conducted a survey of transgender individuals and reported that 52 percent had suffered death threats or violence, of which 23.7 percent had reported the incidents.

NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. Members of the LGBTI community stated that PNC and Attorney General’s Office personnel ridiculed them when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The NGO Space for Lesbian Women for Diversity claimed that, as of November, the Attorney General’s Office had not prosecuted any cases of killings and other violent acts or of possible human rights violations committed by public officials against LGBTI persons. The Secretariat for Social Inclusion reported that 11 LGBTI persons were killed during the year because of their sexual orientation. The PDDH reported that since 2009 a total of 18 LGBTI persons were killed because of their sexual orientation.

Wilber Leonel Flores Lopez, a former soldier, was charged with attempted murder of a transgender individual on April 9. Flores was arrested on August 23. On August 26, an initial hearing was held in the First Court of Peace of Santa Ana, where the testimony of the victim, medical reports, and other forensic evidence were analyzed. The judge, however, did not order prison detention for Flores. The trial was pending, and prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision not to jail Flores.

On May 30, the newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported that police had uncovered the body of a transgender woman who had been beaten and strangled to death. An autopsy report by the Forensic Science Institute showed that the victim’s body was mutilated and showed indications that the victim was sexually violated. The PNC did not declare a motive for the killing. LGBTI NGOs alleged the victim was targeted due to her transgender identity and that authorities refused to investigate the crime from that angle.

On August 10, the Attorney General’s Office pressed assault charges against five officers involved in the assault in January 2015 of Alex Pena, a transgender man and municipal police officer. On October 6, police officers Melvin Neftali, Hernandez Alvarado, and Francisco Balmore Hernandez were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for assault. The other officers were acquitted. On October 6, the government reported on the convictions using Pena’s female birth name.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, a LGBTI NGO, reported that discrimination due to HIV was widespread. Lack of public information and medical resources, fear of reprisal, fear of ostracism, and mild penalties incommensurate with the seriousness of the discrimination remained problems in confronting discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS or in assisting persons suffering from HIV/AIDS. As of June 30, the PDDH reported four cases of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS. As of October, the Ministry of Labor had reported one case of discrimination against an HIV-positive employee based on the illness.

Section 7. Worker Rights

The law provides the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Several restrictions limit these rights. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. Workers who are representatives of the employer or in “positions of trust” also may not serve on the union’s board of directors. The law does not define the term “positions of trust.” The labor code does not cover public sector workers and municipal workers, whose wages and terms of employment are regulated by the 1961 civil service law. The constitution guarantees the formation of associations by employees but prohibits police, military, and certain judicial sector employees from forming either a union or a formal association.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register legally and to have the right to bargain collectively, including a minimum membership of 35 workers. If the Ministry of Labor denies a union’s legal registration, the law prohibits any attempt by the union to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents the majority of workers.

While workers have the right to strike, the law contains cumbersome and complex registration procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services, which include those services where disruption would jeopardize or endanger life, security, health, or normal conditions of existence for some or all of the population. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore apply this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law places several other restrictions on the right to strike, including the requirement that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. In addition, unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many groups often skipped or went through these steps quickly. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

The Labor Court ruled 10 strikes illegal. These rulings covered the strikes of the following unions: the Social Security Institute strike in May, the Bloom Hospital strike in July, the Nurses’ Union strike in November, the Health Labor Union strike in November, and the Ministry of Economy strike in November. They also covered the strikes of the Bloom, San Bartlo, Zacamil, Nueva Guadalupe, Sensuntepeque, La Union, Jiquilisco, Usulutan, Ciudad Barrios, and Sonsonate hospitals, which, during a national labor reduction, demanded enforcement of a salary step increase as provided by law. No arrests were made during the strikes. During the hospital strikes, there were reports of intervention by activists and one legislator of the governing party.

In lieu of requiring employers to reinstate illegally dismissed workers, the law requires employers to pay them the equivalent of 30 days of their basic salary for each year of service completed, plus the corresponding proportion for any partial year. This compensation must never be less than 15 days of basic salary. The law specifies 30 reasons for which an employer can legally terminate a worker’s contract without triggering any additional responsibilities on the part of the employer. Such reasons include consistent negligence by an employee, leaking of private company information, or committing immoral acts while on duty. Short of terminating workers, an employer may also legally suspend workers in a variety of situations, including for reasons of economic downturn or market conditions. As of June, the Ministry of Labor had encountered 339 cases of unpaid salary in the course of 11,065 inspections of employers.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in all cases. Resources to conduct inspections were inadequate, and remedies remained ineffective. Penalties for employers who disrupt the right of a union to exist by directly or indirectly firing workers with the goal or effect of ensuring the union no longer met the minimum number of members ranged from 10 to 28 times the monthly minimum salary. The maximum penalty for employers who interfere with the right to strike was $114. Such penalties were generally not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor acknowledged it lacked sufficient resources, such as vehicles, fuel, and computers, to enforce the law fully. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government did not consistently enforce labor rights for public workers, maquila/textile workers, subcontracted workers in the construction industry, security guards, informal sector workers, and migrant workers. As of June, the Ministry of Labor had received five claims of violation of the freedom of association.

As of June, the Ministry of Labor imposed 181 fines on businesses and individuals for workplace violations. The ministry received 3,325 complaints of illegal firing and ordered 115 workers to be returned to work. Although not required by law, the ministry continued to request that some employers rehire fired workers, basing its requests on International Labor Organization (ILO) Administrative Court rulings. The ministry did not perform inspections in the informal sector. News reports indicated that 66 percent of the economically active population worked in the informal economy. According to the 2015 census, 42 percent of all workers in urban areas worked in the informal sector. The ministry does not have jurisdiction over public employees, most of whom are under the civil service law.

Workers faced problems exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, including, according to allegations by some unions, government influence on union activities and antiunion discrimination on the part of employers. Unions were independent of the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with ARENA, the FMLN, or other political parties.

There were reports of antiunion discrimination, including threats against labor union members, dismissals of workers attempting to unionize, and blacklisting. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally did not effectively enforce such laws. Resources to conduct inspections were inadequate. The labor code allows penalties for violations of up to 28 times the minimum monthly wage, which was generally not sufficient to deter violations. The lack of sufficient resources for inspectors reduced their ability to enforce the law fully. There were no reports of forced labor, according to the Ministry of Labor. Gangs subjected children to forced labor in illicit activities, including selling or transporting drugs (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

The law prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14. The law allows children between the ages of 14 and 18 to engage in light work if the work does not damage the child’s health or development or interfere with compulsory education. The law prohibits children under the age of 16 from working more than six hours per day and 34 hours per week; those under the age of 18 are prohibited from working at night or in occupations considered hazardous. The Ministry of Labor maintained a list of the types of work considered hazardous and prohibited for children, which include repairing heavy machinery; mining; handling weapons; fishing and harvesting mollusks; and working at heights above five feet while doing construction, erecting antennas, and working on billboards. Children who are 16 and older may engage in light work on coffee and sugar plantations and in the fishing industry so long as it does not harm their health or interfere with their education.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but did so with limited effectiveness. The law specifies a default fine of no more than $60 for each violation of most labor laws, including child labor laws; such penalties were insufficient to act as a deterrent. The ministry’s labor inspectors focused almost exclusively on the formal sector. As of June, the ministry reported that it had conducted 511 inspections related to child labor during which inspectors reported two incidents of child labor and three incidents of adolescents working without permits. There was no information on any investigations or prosecutions by the government. The ministry lacked adequate resources for effective enforcement of child labor laws in the agricultural sector, especially in coffee and sugarcane production, or in the large informal sector.

The government continued to participate in an ILO project to provide educational opportunities to children while offering livelihood alternatives for their families. Through this project the Ministry of Education promoted child labor awareness and encouraged school attendance, including operating after-school programs in 2,000 schools during the year. The ILO project concluded in March. During the year the ministry developed a permanent work plan for child labor verification aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor and creating a culture of compliance and respect for the law among employers.

Child labor remained a serious and widespread problem. According to the 2015 Permanent Household Survey published in 2016, there were approximately 140,700 child workers (between the ages of five and 17). The worst forms of child labor occurred in coffee and sugarcane cultivation, fishing, mollusk shucking, and fireworks production. In order to survive, orphans and children from poor families frequently worked as street vendors and general laborers in small businesses. Children also worked as domestic servants and endured long work hours and abuse by employers. Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children) and were recruited into illegal gangs to perform illicit activities related to the arms and drug trades, including committing homicide.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution, labor law, and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction (except in cases determined to protect local workers), social origin, gender, disability, language, or HIV-positive status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the constitution, although the PDDH and Ministry of Labor actively sought to protect workers against discrimination on those grounds.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, and sexual orientation and/or gender identity (see sections 6 and 7.e.). According to the Ministry of Labor, migrant workers have the same rights as citizens, but the ministry did not enforce them.

There is no national minimum wage; the minimum wage is determined by sector. According to the Ministry of Labor, the minimum daily wage was $8.39 for retail and service employees, $8.22 for industrial laborers, and $7.03 for apparel assembly workers. The agricultural minimum wage was $3.94 per day. The government reported that the poverty income level was $179.67 per month in urban areas and $126.97 in rural areas.

The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours, limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day, but allows overtime if a bonus is paid. The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double-time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law states that domestic employees are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request, but they are entitled to double pay in these instances. The government did not adequately enforce these laws.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting workplace safety standards, and the law establishes a tripartite committee to review the standards. The law requires all employers to take steps to ensure that the health and safety of employees are not at risk in the workplace. To provide for the health and safety of workers, the law requires employers to take preventive safety measures, including providing proper equipment and training and a violence-free environment. Employers who violate most labor laws can receive a default fine of no more than $57 for each violation. For serious infractions employers can be fined up to an amount equivalent to 28 minimum monthly wage salaries. These penalties were insufficient to deter violations, and some companies reportedly found it more cost effective to pay the fines rather than comply with the law. The law promotes occupational safety awareness, training, and worker participation in occupational health and safety matters.

As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it had received 379 complaints against employers for not paying pension quotas to the pension administration companies and that it filed judicial charges against 82 employers. The judiciary dismissed charges in 48 cases and suggested alternative solutions in 46 cases.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the law. The government was more effective in enforcing the minimum wage law in the formal sector than in the informal sector. Unions reported that the ministry failed to enforce the law for subcontracted workers hired for public reconstruction contracts. The government provided its inspectors updated training in both occupational safety and labor standards. As of June, the ministry’s 183 inspectors had conducted 11,065 inspections. Allegations of corruption among labor inspectors continued.

The ministry received complaints regarding failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, unpaid salaries, and cases of employers illegally withholding benefits (including social security and pension funds) from workers.

There were reports of overtime and wage violations in several sectors. According to the ministry, employers in the agriculture sector did not generally grant annual bonuses, vacation days, or days of rest. Women in domestic service and the industrial manufacturing sector for export industry, particularly in the export processing zones, faced exploitation, mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, and generally poor work conditions. Workers in the construction industry and domestic service were reportedly subject to violations of wage, hour, and safety laws. There were also reports of occupational safety and health violations in other sectors. The government was ineffective in pursuing such violations.

In some cases the country’s high crime rate negatively affected acceptable conditions of work as well as workers’ psychological and physical health. Some workers, such as bus drivers, bill collectors, messengers, and teachers in high-risk areas, reported being subject to extortion and death threats.

As of June, the Ministry of Labor reported 4,189 workplace accidents. The sectors registering the highest levels of incidents were the following: 1,822 accidents in the services sector, 1,435 in the industry sector, 484 in the commerce sector, 315 in the government sector, 67 in the municipal sector, 47 in the agricultural sector, and 19 in autonomous entities. The ministry did not report any deaths from workplace-related accidents.

Workers can legally remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities lacked the ability to protect employees in this situation effectively.

Nicaragua

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

There were several reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, many during confrontations with illegal armed groups in the northern part of the country; however, a lack of clear and impartial investigations into deaths made attribution difficult. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated.

On April 18, Andres Cerrato was kidnapped, shot, and killed in the community of San Martin de Daca, in Ayapal, Jinotega. As early as February, Cerrato reportedly experienced repeated harassment by the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and army, which accused him of aiding politically motivated armed groups in the region. Cerrato’s family claimed armed men forcibly took him from his home at or after midnight. His body was found approximately three miles from his home later that day, bearing gunshot wounds and signs of torture. Prior to his death, Cerrato had claimed that soldiers entered his home in March and forcibly coerced him into confessing to having information on members of armed groups, although Cerrato denied any ties to the groups. Following Cerrato’s death, the army stated it did not conduct such operations and did not have information on the case.

Reports of shootings were increasingly common in the area of Jinotega. These shootings were widely believed to be related to the army’s pursuit of what many refer to as armed antigovernment groups in the north central region, although the army claims only the presence of criminals and/or delinquents.

There were no developments in or investigations of the January 2015 killing of Modesto Duarte Altamirano or the 2014 killing of Carlos Garcia, a former Contra and member of the Independent Liberal Party (see also section 1.d., “Role of the Police and Security Apparatus”).

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

Although the law prohibits such practices, there were numerous reports that police abused suspects during arrest, used excessive force, and engaged in degrading treatment. In the first six months of the year, the NGO Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) received 610 complaints against the NNP for excessive force, arbitrary detention, and cruel or degrading treatment, including in prisons. CENIDH was able to confirm abuse in 391 of those complaints.

There were numerous claims of torture by agents of the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (DAJ), a special police investigations unit, especially during arrests related to organized crime. Human rights organizations alleged the directorate operated outside the normal NNP chain of authority and was not accountable to normal NNP internal affairs procedures.

Following their release, two prisoners arrested for involvement in a 2014 attack on an FSLN bus caravan claimed to the press that they were regularly beaten while in the DAJ prison. Additionally, a Mexican student reportedly held in custody at the DAJ prison for nine days appeared for his trial with bloodshot eyes and bruises. Prison officials claimed that the bruising was “self-inflicted” to discredit the government.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems in prison facilities.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a problem. Pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners. Juvenile prisoners shared cells with adults due to overcrowding. Human rights organizations reported police regularly left suspects in holding cells during their trials due to negligence or a lack of funds to transport them to court.

Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and increasing inmate populations. Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Inmates also suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, frequent food shortages, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation. Released prisoners and family members of prisoners reported there was poor ventilation and lighting in the DAJ prison. Family members, churches, and charitable organizations supplemented the national budget of 10 cordobas ($0.35) per prisoner per day for food. There was no budget allocation for health or personal care.

Conditions for female inmates were generally better than those for men but were nevertheless overcrowded and unhygienic.

Conditions in jails and temporary holding cells were also harsh. Most facilities were physically decrepit and infested with vermin; had inadequate ventilation, electricity, or sewage systems; and lacked potable water.

Administration: Recordkeeping on prisoners was inadequate, and the government took no steps to improve it. The problem was particularly serious in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN) and the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS). In certain instances, the government restricted prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, physicians, and human rights officials. Although prisoners and detainees could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities often ignored or did not process complaints. The extent to which the government investigated allegations of poor prison conditions was unknown. The government ombudsman could serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees to consider such matters as informal alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, although this generally did not occur. The government announced in February that it had provided early release to more than 8,000 prisoners since 2014, and in November it further stated that approximately 1,600 additional prisoners serving less than five years for misdemeanors had been released on parole. Due to a lack of consistent national statistics from previous years, it was difficult to estimate the impact of these releases on prison conditions.

Independent Monitoring: The government frequently denied prison visits by local human rights groups as well as the media. The government denied CENIDH access to all prison facilities when it attempted to investigate reports of hazardous conditions. NGOs generally received complaints through family members of inmates and often were unable to follow up on cases until after the release of the prisoner, due to lack of access.

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government and its agents did not always comply with or enforce the law. Human rights NGOs noted several cases of arbitrary arrests by the NNP and army, including irregular arrests and detentions while the NNP investigated armed opposition groups in the Pacific north of the country.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The constitution establishes the NNP as an apolitical, nonpartisan institution protecting all citizens equally under the law. The NNP Office of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating complaints and abuses regarding police officers or internal police activities. Many duties previously held by the Ministry of Interior to administer the NNP, with the president as commander in chief, were transferred to the presidency in accordance with changes made to the constitution in 2014. The Ministry of Interior and the NNP each have law enforcement and internal security responsibilities throughout the country. The Ministry of Interior oversees the General Directorate for Migration and Foreigner Services, which works together with the police to oversee topics of migration and border security.

The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic responsibilities, including countering illicit trafficking in narcotics and providing for the transportation of election-related materials, including ballots. Many informed observers in civil society and the independent press regarded the army functionally as an autonomous force responding directly to the president, following a series of constitutional and military code reforms enacted in 2014, which gave the president greater control over the armed forces. The Office of the Inspectorate General is responsible for investigating abuses and corruption in the army, but limited public information was available on its activities.

There were instances in which the government failed to maintain effective control over the NNP, and the government failed to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There continued to be numerous reports of impunity involving security forces.

The NNP Office of Internal Affairs, and to a lesser extent the Office of the Inspector General, are responsible for investigating police abuse; however, corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency of the justice system contributed to a public perception of police impunity. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in 2015 the NNP received 162 complaints of use of excessive force. Of these, the NNP investigated 127 and found officers guilty in 93. Information on the final disposition of those found guilty was not available. Due to the lack of specificity on the activities of the Office of Internal Affairs and a general lack of access to government information, human rights organizations and experts on security found it difficult to assess how the NNP investigated allegations of human rights violations by its members. The government generally did not take action on complaints against security forces.

NGOs reported that President Ortega had politicized the NNP and led many to question its professionalism. For instance, the president renewed the tenure of the national chief of police for a third consecutive term, making her the longest standing police chief since 1990. The extension was legal under changes to the constitution in 2014, but the president had previously extended her term through a 2011 executive decree that allegedly violated term limits prescribed in law at the time. The extension followed after sweeping changes to the police code granted the president greater power over the NNP. The media also highlighted the NNP’s use of an emblem with President Ortega and Sandino’s shadow as part of the officer’s uniform, and the use of the FSLN red and black party flag painted on select police stations or at police celebrations. NGOs and the press alleged the NNP continued to provide preferential treatment for progovernment and FSLN rallies.

The 2015 Sovereign Security Law significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security and established a National Committee of Sovereign Security (NCSS), an executive-level committee with the enforcement backing of the military. The law defines “sovereign security” as the “existence of permanent peace” within the country and states the government is responsible to protect against “any risk, threat, or conflict that puts itself against sovereign security.” The law includes “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation,” when outlining potential risks and threats to the nation’s sovereign security. The law stipulates the NCSS, made up of representatives from the NNP and the military, has the power to dispatch security forces. Human rights groups continued to express strong concern over the law and its implications on democratic space in the country.

Impunity remained a problem. There were no developments in the 2013 killing of four civilians, including former Contra leader Joaquin Torres Diaz, alias “Cascabel,” or the 2013 killing of Yairon Diaz Pastrana in Pantasma, all allegedly killed by military forces. According to local NGOs, there was no effort to investigate police beatings of and use of excessive force against demonstrators during 2013 protests in front of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. The NNP and prosecutors declared they had no official evidence of the event to continue an investigation, despite videos on YouTube and other public media.

Likewise, there were no developments in the 2012 death of former Contra Santos Guadalupe Joyas Borge (“Pablo Negro”) or in the 2012 case of community leaders Pedro Ramon Castro and Miguel Angel Oliva, who allegedly were killed by four NNP members in the municipality of Pantasma.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a judicial authority prior to detaining a suspect and to notify family members of the detainee’s whereabouts within 24 hours. While the law also stipulates a prosecutor accompany police making an arrest, CENIDH claimed irregularities in arrest procedures led to arbitrary arrest and detentions.

Police may hold a suspect legally for 48 hours before arraignment, when they must bring the person before a judge. A judge then must order the suspect released or transferred to jail for pretrial detention. After the initial 48 hours, the suspect should be allowed family member visits. The detainee has the right to bail unless a judge deems there is a flight risk. In most instances detainees were informed of charges against them, although there were instances when this did not occur, and at other times there were delays. Detainees have the right to an attorney immediately following their arrest, and the state provides indigent detainees with a public defender.

Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly. There were numerous reports of the use of the DAJ jail cells for arbitrary arrests for more than the prescribed 48 hours of detention legally allowed. Many arrests were allegedly made without warrants and without informing family members or legal counsel.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem, especially in the RACN and the RACS, where detainees often waited an average of six months for their cases to be presented to a judge. Observers attributed delays to limited facilities, an overburdened judicial system, judicial inaction, and high crime rates. No information was available on the percentage of the prison population in pretrial detention or the national average length of pretrial detention.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: While the law provides detainees the ability to challenge the legality of their detention before a court, procedural information for doing so was not publically available. There were reports on the obstacles legal counsels faced when they attempted to invoke constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus, and courts frequently ignored their requests.

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judicial system did not function independently. The law requires vetting of new judicial appointments by the CSJ, a process unduly affected by nepotism, personal influence, and political affiliation. Once appointed, many judges submitted to political and economic pressures that compromised their independence. NGOs complained of a delay of justice caused by judicial inaction and widespread impunity, especially regarding family and domestic violence and sexual abuse. Authorities occasionally failed to respect court orders.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial, but the judiciary did not always enforce this right. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be fully informed of the charges against them and the right to a fair trial. While the law establishes specific time periods for cases to come to trial, most cases encountered undue delay. Trials are public, but in some cases involving minors or at the victim’s request, they may be private. The law requires that defendants must be present at their trial, although this was not always respected. Defendants have the right to legal counsel, and the state provides public defenders for indigent persons. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to all information and evidence registered with the government, as well as the right to know why and how it was obtained, but only during the discovery and trial phases, not during the pretrial period. Although the constitution recognizes indigenous languages, defendants were not granted court translators. Defendants may confront and question witnesses and have the right to appeal a conviction. Defendants may present their own witnesses and evidence in their defense; however, some judges refused to admit evidence on behalf of the defense. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law extends these rights to all citizens regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, or other status.

Independent press reported the court system had unofficial orders to forego jail time or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. The president of the CSJ did not refute these claims but instead reinforced that judges were free to act independently in these matters, while also referring to issues of overcrowding in prisons and preventive detention facilities. According to reports, this order applied only to domestic violence cases considered mild.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There was no reliable information available on the number or treatment of political prisoners.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for human rights violations, but authorities did not always respect court orders.

The lack of an effective civil law system resulted in some civil matters being pursued as criminal cases because criminal cases were often resolved more quickly. In a number of instances, individuals and groups appealed to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), which passed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

While the government resolved some property claims during the year, it regularly failed to enforce court orders with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. Enforcement of court orders was frequently subject to nonjudicial considerations. Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, were widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. The government failed to evict those who illegally took possession of private property.

Several foreign citizens claimed they were arrested and at times sentenced for unrelated–and they claimed untrue–crimes, due to outstanding property disputes with well-placed citizens of the country. In April, Juan Venerio Espinales was found guilty of shooting and killing two men who were part of a group of squatters allegedly attempting to seize his property in Chinandega. He stated that he did so only after authorities failed to take action in the matter.

The Small Business Enterprise Association, several domestic NGOs, and opposition members alleged the government seized minor private property such as laptops, cell phones, and vehicles without due process.

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

While the law prohibits such actions, several domestic NGOs, members of the Catholic Church, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their e-mail and telephone conversations.

Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACS and the RACN, alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals.

The ruling party reportedly required citizens to demonstrate party membership in order to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot; however, the government in previous years restricted the exercise of this ability and took further measures to do so during the reporting year.

January 2014 constitutional reforms allow uniformed military and police officials to hold public office, allow indefinite re-election, and extend the terms of public officers indefinitely if the National Assembly does not name new officers.

The November 6 elections for president, vice president, national assembly members, and representatives for the Central American parliament did not meet the conditions of being free and fair. Domestic observers, business leaders, representatives of the Catholic Church, and many members of society believed that with the lack of accredited national and international observers, the control of the ruling party over most of the societal checks to prove the fairness of the elections, and the ruling party’s use of its control over other branches of government to halt the participation of any significant opposition resulted in an illegitimate electoral process.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The November 6 presidential and legislative elections were marred by allegations of institutional fraud and the absence of independent opposition political parties. National observers and opposition leaders claimed rates of abstention from 60 to 70 percent, contrary to the 68.2 percent voter participation rate posted by the CSE. Opposition party members also reported that government officials transported supporters of the ruling party to voting centers. Opposition party members and observers claimed the ruling party used its control over the CSE to commit fraud. There were reports of public-sector employees being pressured to vote and show proof the next day at work that they had voted. National observers and opposition representatives claimed that opposition poll watchers were denied accreditation, FSLN-affiliated poll watchers posed as opposition poll workers, and votes were not counted in accordance with the law.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The FSLN used state resources for political activities to enhance its electoral advantage in recent elections. The FSLN made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public sector employees. The CPDH and the Nicaraguan Pro Human Rights Association (ANPDH) reported that employees in various state institutions were required to affiliate with the FSLN, and that to apply for a government position an applicant must receive a written recommendation from the FSLN. The ANPDH also received reports the FSLN automatically deducted party dues from the paychecks of certain state employees.

The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards (cedulas). Persons without identity cards had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was how the FSLN attempted to manipulate past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.

On June 8, the CSJ issued a ruling five years after the filing of a suit over the legal representation of the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI). The CSJ ruled against the PLI’s representative and main opposition coordinator, Eduardo Montealegre, transferring the party to a legal representative widely considered beholden to the FSLN, Pedro Reyes.

As the party receiving the second most votes in the 2011 presidential election, the PLI was constitutionally entitled to designate party representatives to sit on Municipal Electoral Councils (CEMs) and Departmental Electoral Councils (CEDs) along with representatives of the FSLN. The CEMs and CEDs resolve electoral disputes and provide oversight of the electoral process by geographic regions. The timing of the CSJ ruling severely curtailed the PLI’s ability to fill these positions, allowing the FSLN to fill these bodies with its supporters. Observers also noted that these actions, in conjunction with President Ortega’s June 4 announcement that there would be no national or international observation of the elections, left no mechanism for credible, independent oversight during the November elections.

On July 29, at Pedro Reyes’ request, the CSE removed 28 PLI national assembly members from their elected positions because they refused to recognize the new leadership.

On November 18, Pedro Reyes confirmed reports that he had been removed as national president of the PLI, claiming that the CSE informed him that his removal came at the behest of the party’s executive board and was in accordance with PLI party rules. Reyes stated the CSE further advised him that he was blocked from participating in party activities for three years.

Participation of Women and Minorities: Constitutional reforms in 2014 mandated equal representation of men and women in all elected bodies, including councilmembers, mayors and vice mayors, and representatives to the National Assembly. Observers viewed these changes as superficial, noting that women in these positions did not hold significant power or influence within their respective bodies. While the law does not mention the presidential and vice presidential positions specifically, all parties but one presented a man and a woman as their presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively, for the November elections. Some opposition parties expressed fear of being disqualified from the ballot if they did not meet the requirement of equal representation for the presidential ballot, despite this not being an explicit requirement of the law.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not enforce the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Executive branch officials continued to disburse economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which averaged more than $550 million dollars per year from 2010 to 2013 but has recently plummeted to approximately $200 million in 2016, outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. The media reported that ALBA-funded contracts were awarded to companies with ties to the Ortega family and noted the funds from Venezuela served as a separate budget tightly controlled by the FSLN, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by members of the ruling party, rather than by the government entities in charge of oversight of public funds.

Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported President Ortega’s administration blurred distinctions between the FSLN and the government through its use of FSLN-led family cabinets (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) and party-controlled Sandinista leadership committees (CLSs). The government administered subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either the family cabinets or CLS system, which reportedly often coerced citizens into FSLN membership and denied services to opposition members. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. The government continued to devolve legal responsibilities to family cabinets, specifically regarding mediation processes in cases of domestic violence.

Indigenous leaders, property owners, and civil society organizations continued to request detailed information and express objections to the 2013 100-year concession given to the Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Investment Company to build and operate an interoceanic canal through the country. A number of organizations, human rights groups, and landowners, collectively known as the National Council for the Defense of our Land, Lake, and National Sovereignty, tried formally to challenge the law that allows the concession in both the National Assembly and the CSJ. Both institutions, however, blocked these requests.

Corruption: Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common. In a survey of 2,500 companies, one-third of all respondents reported arbitrary and illegal actions by government offices that regulate property rights and business establishment.

The courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and other forms of corruption, especially by the FSLN, giving the sense that the FSLN heavily influenced CSJ and lower-level court actions. In February the press reported on the release of more than 8,000 prisoners since 2014 through a program that existed outside the Ministry of Interior and bypassed the legal judicial process that provides judges sole authorization for prisoner releases. The government confirmed the release and justified it as a program to provide for the humanitarian release of prisoners and reunite families. Human rights organizations, however, noted that several prisoners who had previously received court orders for release, issued through the judicial system, remained incarcerated. Private-sector representatives additionally reported an increase in judicial corruption for extorting money.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials were subject to financial disclosure laws. The law requires these declarations be made public and provides for sanctions in cases of noncompliance. In practice few public officers made these declarations public, and there was no public record of sanctions for noncompliance. The Office of the Comptroller is responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices. Observers, however, questioned the impartiality of the comptroller, especially concerning the lack of oversight of ALBA funds given directly to the government. Since 2007 the comptroller had not investigated any government office or mandated sanctions due to noncompliance as required by law.

Public Access to Information: Although the law mandates public access to government information and statistics, lack of transparency and access to information remained serious problems. Government budget documents were widely and easily accessible to the general public, but they did not provide a complete picture of revenues and expenditures. For example, the government did not account for the expenditure of significant off-budget assistance from Venezuela (see above), and this assistance was not subject to audit or legislative oversight. Delays and denial of information were common, while appeals mechanisms were overly burdensome and slow. Control of government information is centralized in the Communication and Citizenship Council, headed by First Lady Rosario Murillo, but there is no provision for that office in the law. Media and civil society organizations, such as CINCO and Foundation Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, repeatedly reported that requests for official information without express authorization from the council were often refused. The law provides for exceptions to disclosure in cases related to national security and trade secrets. There are no mandated timelines for compliance with disclosure requests.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the accused. Sentences for those convicted of rape range from eight to 12 years, or 15 years in cases of aggravated rape. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides prison sentences ranging from one to 12 years. The government failed to enforce the law effectively, leading to widespread impunity and reports of increased violence from released offenders emboldened by their release. Many women were reluctant to report abuse due to enforced medical examinations for survivors of rape and other sexual crimes, social stigma, fear of retribution, impunity for perpetrators, and loss of economic security if abusive spouses were jailed. While the law provides for the issuance of restraining orders, problems in their effective enforcement continued. Observers reported a general increase in sexual crimes against women compared with 2015. The NNP reported 1,458 cases of rape and aggravated rape and 862 cases of sexual abuse in 2015, the most recent data available. The Institute of Legal Medicine within the judicial branch, however, reported investigating 5,596 incidents of sexual violence in 2015, constituting more than 7 percent of their investigations. There were no comprehensive statistics available on prosecutions or convictions. Human rights organizations and women’s rights groups alleged that many of the early releases of recent years (see section 1.c.) were of men who had been convicted of attacking women, but these claims could not be verified.

Violence against women remained high, according to domestic NGO reports. The NGO Catholics for the Right to Decide reported that between January and July, 41 women were killed, many of whom were raped, beaten, or maimed. NGOs working on women’s issues reported an increase in the severity of these crimes over the past seven years. Women’s rights organizations claimed police generally understated the level of violence against women. For example, in 2015 the NNP recognized 16 femicides, while the NGO Network of Women Against Violence reported 53 that year. Women’s rights NGOs continued to protest the presidential decree on regulations for the Comprehensive Law (Law 779) on Violence Against Women, which encompasses the legal protections for women against violence, because it dilutes protections found in the law.

NNP commissariats were established in 1993 as independent offices designed to provide social and legal help to women, mediate spousal conflicts, investigate and help prosecute criminal complaints, and refer victims to other governmental and nongovernmental assistance agencies. Observers and assistance providers, however, reported that the NNP no longer operated these women’s commissariats and instead had placed them and the investigation of these types of crimes with either regular police or the DAJ. Women’s rights organizations claimed that NGOs or family members were barred from accompanying women when reporting domestic violence or sexual assaults and that the burden of gathering proof of the crime was often placed on the victim. Women’s groups asserted the modest number of shelters (two government and 11 nongovernmental) was inadequate, especially on the Caribbean Coast, where only one shelter (nongovernmental) operated in the RACN.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and those convicted face one- to three-year sentences in prison, or three to five years if the victim is under 18 years old. Observers believed sexual harassment likely was underreported due to the failure of authorities to consider the abuse seriously and victims’ fear of retribution.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The 2015 World Health Organization figures estimated the maternal mortality rate to be 150 deaths per 100,000 live births. Women in some areas, such as the RACN and the RACS, did not have widespread access to medical care or programs, and maternal death was more likely to affect poor rural women than their urban counterparts.

Emergency health care was generally provided, but in some cases women were afraid to seek medical treatment for post abortion obstetric emergencies, due to a “no exceptions” ban on abortion. Observers noted the Ministry of Health continued to make progress in quality, coverage, distribution, and usage of contraceptives through successful family planning programs.

Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality. Nevertheless, women often experienced discrimination in employment, credit, and pay equity for similar work, as well as in owning and managing businesses. Women were much less likely to be senior officials or managers. Authorities often discriminated in property matters against poor women who lacked birth certificates or identity cards. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s special prosecutor for women and the Nicaraguan Women’s Ministry, the government entities responsible for protecting women’s rights, had limited effectiveness.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Local civil registries register births within 12 months; however, many persons, especially in rural areas, lacked birth certificates. Persons without citizenship documents were unable to obtain national identity cards and consequently had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership.

The government continued to register newborns through service desks in public hospitals and through “social-promoter” programs that visited rural neighborhoods. MiFamilia, the Civil Registry, and, to a lesser extent, the CSE are responsible for registering births, but they did not make data available.

Child Abuse: The NNP reported that in 2015, the most recent period for which data was available, authorities received 889 complaints of sex crimes against adolescent girls. Human rights groups expressed concern over levels of child pregnancy throughout the country. High rates of sexual violence against teenage girls contributed to teenage pregnancy rates, according to Plan International.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 years for men and women, or 16 with parental authorization. There were credible reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. The UN Children’s Fund’s 2016 State of the World’s Children reported that 41 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were married or in a union by age 18 and 10 percent were married by age 15. No information was available on government efforts to address or prevent forced and early marriage, and some advocates claimed the government did not enforce the law effectively.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Trafficking in Persons Law, which came into effect in 2015, prohibits sexual exploitation in general and designates enticing children or adolescents to engage in sexual activity as an aggravating condition. The government generally enforced the law when pertaining to child prostitution. Penalties include 10 to 15 years in prison for a person who entices or forces any individual to engage in sexual activity, and 19 to 20 years in prison for the same acts involving children or adolescents. The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with children who are 14 or younger. Several NGOs reported sexual exploitation of young girls was common, as was the prevalence of older men (including foreigners) who exploited young girls under the guise of providing them support.

The law also prohibits child pornography, and the government generally enforced this law. The penalty for an individual convicted of inducing, facilitating, promoting, or using a minor for sexual or erotic purposes is 10 to 15 years in prison.

The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The law imposes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for convicted child-sex tourists. There were anecdotal reports of child-sex tourism in the Granada, Rivas, Chinandega, and Managua departments; there were no officially reported cases.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the Nicaraguan Israelite Congregation, the recognized Jewish community in Nicaragua numbered approximately 50 members. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but such discrimination was widespread in education, transportation, access to health care, the provision of state services, and employment. Laws related to persons with disabilities do not stipulate penalties for noncompliance, although penalties may be issued under the general labor inspection code. MiFamilia, the Ministry of Labor, and the PDDH are among government agencies responsible for the protection and advancement of rights of persons with disabilities. The government did not enforce the law effectively; did not mandate accessibility to buildings, information, and communications; and did not make information available on efforts to improve respect for the rights of persons with disabilities. Independent media reported that persons with disabilities accounted for less than 1 percent of public sector employees, despite the legally mandated minimum representation of 2 percent. Further reports indicated that public institutions did not sufficiently coordinate with the Labor Ministry to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace.

Persons with disabilities faced severe problems accessing schools, public health facilities, and other public institutions. Many voting facilities were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Complaints continued regarding the lack of accessible public transportation in Managua. While some buses were accessible, drivers of these buses reportedly either refused to stop to allow persons with disabilities to board or intentionally broke lift and ramp equipment. The press reported that the Managua Mayor’s Office sponsored training for bus drivers through transportation cooperatives. The PDDH special prosecutor for disability rights was active throughout the year. Government clinics and hospitals provided care for veterans and other persons with disabilities, but the quality of care generally was poor.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Various indigenous and other ethnic groups from the RACN and the RACS attributed the lack of government resources devoted to the Caribbean Coast to discriminatory attitudes toward the ethnic and racial minorities in those regions. While the racial makeup of the RACN and the RACS historically has been Afro-descendent and Amerindian, increasing migration from the interior and Pacific Coast of the country made these groups a minority in many areas.

Exclusionary treatment based on race, skin color, and ethnicity was common, especially in higher-income urban areas. Darker-skinned persons of African descent from the RACN and the RACS, along with others assumed to be from those areas experienced discrimination, such as extra security measures and illegal searches by police.

Indigenous People

Indigenous people constituted approximately 5 percent of the population and lived primarily in the RACN and the RACS. They often did not participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, and traditions or the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, and other natural resources on their lands. Individuals from five major indigenous groups–the Miskito, Sumo/Mayangna, Garifuna (of Afro-Amerindian origin), Creole, and Rama–alleged government discrimination through underrepresentation in the legislative branch.

Indigenous people from rural areas often lacked birth certificates, identity cards, and land titles. Although they formed political groups, these often held little influence and were ignored or used by major national parties to advance the latter’s own agendas. Most indigenous people in rural areas lacked access to public services, and deteriorating roads made medicine and health care almost unobtainable for many. The rates of unemployment, illiteracy, and truancy were among the highest in the country. Some indigenous groups continued to lack educational materials in their native languages and relied on Spanish-language texts provided by the national government.

NGOs and indigenous rights groups claimed the government failed to protect the civil and political rights of indigenous communities. Some observers alleged government involvement in the violence against Miskito populations in the RACN along the Coco River, either as a result of inaction or more directly as accomplices to nonindigenous groups invading indigenous lands. According to media reports and local indigenous groups, violence resulted in as many as 40 deaths between 2015 and the first nine months of 2016, including two beheadings, and accounted for the displacement of as many as 1,000 persons into neighboring towns, such as Bilwi, and across the border into Honduras. The IACHR issued three separate precautionary measures in response to the violence. The government largely ignored the issuances but answered one precautionary measure in a public letter; however, it failed to address potential solutions.

Indigenous women faced multiple levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender, and lower economic status.

The National Commission of Demarcation and Titling, Attorney General’s Office, and Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies did not make any progress in demarcating indigenous lands. Additionally, the government failed to relocate or remove nonindigenous populations from ancestral indigenous lands, leading to significant violence throughout the year, specifically in the RACN.

Representatives of autonomous regions and indigenous communities regularly noted the government failed to invest in infrastructure. Throughout the year indigenous leaders alleged regional and national governments granted logging concessions to private firms and government-affiliated businesses, such as ALBA-Forestal, and logging continued in violation of national autonomy laws in the RACS and the RACN.

Indigenous groups were increasingly concerned about violations of their rights in connection with plans to build an interoceanic canal. Many allege that the concession to do so was granted illegally and without the required consultations with the indigenous community. For example, while the president of the Rama-Creole government had signed an authorization for the canal to be built on Rama-Creole land, members of the indigenous territorial government had not consented to his doing so. Indigenous groups, moreover, are not members of the Grand Canal Authority, which oversees the implementation of the canal project and was also established without consultations. There were a limited number of presentations on the canal to indigenous populations, but groups claim these were inadequate.

Violations of indigenous lands continued in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, RACN, according to press reports. The Mayangna indigenous group, which has territorial rights to much of the Bosawas Reserve, strongly criticized the government’s unwillingness to prevent alleged land grabs by nonindigenous settlers, as well as illegal logging and other exploitation of natural resources. This also occurred regularly in the Indio Maiz Reserve.

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

Although sexual orientation is not mentioned specifically, the law states all persons are equal before the law and provides for the right to equal protection. LGBTI persons, however, continued to face widespread societal discrimination and abuse, particularly in housing, education, and employment. The LGBTI community generally believed the special prosecutor for sexual diversity had insufficient resources. No specific laws exist to punish hate crimes against LGBTI groups. The family code, a set of laws pertaining to family-related matters, establishes that a family comprises a man and a woman joined in marriage or common-law marriage. This discriminatory definition most affected the LGBTI community in the areas of adoption and access to social security benefits.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law provides specific protections for persons with HIV/AIDS against discrimination in employment and health services, but such persons continued to suffer societal discrimination. Although some improvements were recognized among health-care workers after training, a lack of awareness and education persisted in that sector and in the public generally regarding the prevention, treatment, and transmission of HIV/AIDS.

A nondiscrimination administrative resolution issued by the Ministry of Health establishes methods to file complaints against health workers in cases of discrimination against persons working in prostitution, HIV/AIDS patients, or on the basis of gender orientation. The resolution also establishes sanctions for health workers found to have discriminated against patients for these reasons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

The law provides for the right of all workers in the public and private sectors, with the exception of those in the military and police, to form and join independent unions of their choice without prior authorization and to bargain collectively. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, although it places some restrictions on this right. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Nevertheless, employers routinely used their right to obtain the Ministry of Labor’s permission to dismiss any employee, including union organizers, immediately after being reinstated, provided the employer agrees to pay double the usual severance pay. Burdensome and lengthy conciliation procedures impeded workers’ ability to call strikes. Additionally, if a strike continues for 30 days without resolution, the Ministry of Labor has authority to suspend the strike and submit the matter to arbitration.

A collective bargaining agreement cannot exceed two years and is renewed automatically if neither party requests its revision. Companies in disputes with their employees must negotiate with the employees’ union, if one exists. By law several unions may coexist at any one enterprise, and the law permits management to sign separate collective bargaining agreements with each union.

With some exceptions, the government effectively enforced applicable laws and often sought to foster resolution of labor conflicts through informal negotiations rather than formal administrative or judicial processes. The law does not establish specific fines, and observers claimed penalties were generally insufficient to deter violations. Although the law establishes a labor court arbitration process, it was subject to long wait times and lengthy and complicated procedures, and many labor disputes were resolved out of court. The Labor Ministry claimed it oversaw 19,651 labor disputes in 2014, the last year for which information was publicly available. Of these disputes, 7,148 were dealt with through an agreement, and 12,503 were dealt with in court. Labor and human rights organizations continued to allege rulings were often unfavorable to workers. Representatives of a foreign firm alleged that a Ministry of Labor official prohibited them from permanently closing their factory, laying off their employees, and leaving the country ahead of the November 6 presidential election.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were generally respected, but, as in other cases involving independent groups, the government often intervened for political reasons. Most labor unions were allied with political parties, and in recent years the government reportedly illegally dissolved unions and fired workers not associated with the ruling FSLN. Independent organizations, however, were no longer keeping track of the severity of the situation. Former ministry employees and human rights and labor organizations alleged pro-FSLN public sector unions used intimidation and coercion to recruit new members, often pressuring workers to leave non-FSLN unions.

Politically motivated firings of workers continued to be a problem. Observers noted that the firings were carried out for political reasons, such as refusal of the worker to join the FSLN or participate in FSLN demonstrations. Moreover, party affiliation or a letter of recommendation from party secretaries, family cabinet coordinators or other party officials was allegedly required from applicants seeking a public sector job. Several sources argued similar instances of public sector employees being fired without receiving severance pay continued to occur.

There were no known high-profile documented instances of strikes being declared illegal. During a strike, employers cannot hire replacement workers, but unions alleged this practice was common. Wildcat strikes–those without union authorization–have historically been common.

Employers interfered in the functioning of workers’ organizations and committed other violations related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Labor leaders noted employers routinely violated collective bargaining agreements and labor laws with impunity.

Many employers in the formal sector continued to blacklist or fire union members and did not reinstate them. Many of these cases did not reach the court system or a mediation process led by the Ministry of Labor. Employers often delayed severance payments to fired workers or omitted the payments altogether. Employers also avoided legal penalties by organizing employer-led unions that lacked independence and frequently using contract workers to replace striking employees. There were reports party dues were automatically deducted from paychecks.

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for violations range from 10 to 20 years in prison but were generally insufficient to deter violations. There was no information available regarding government enforcement of these laws. Despite reported political will to combat human trafficking, including labor trafficking, during the year the government prosecuted and convicted fewer traffickers than in the previous year and provided only limited information about its law enforcement efforts.

Observers noted reports of forced labor, including of men, women, and children subjected to forced labor in agriculture and domestic servitude.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

The law establishes the minimum age for employment at 14 and limits the workday for any individual between ages 14 and 18 to six hours and the workweek to 30 hours. Those between 14 and 16 must have parental approval to work or enter into a formal labor contract. The law prohibits teenage domestic workers from sleeping in the houses of their employers. It is illegal for minors to work in places the Ministry of Labor considers harmful to their health or safety, such as mines, garbage dumps, and night entertainment venues, and to undertake certain agricultural work. The law provides for eight-year prison terms and substantial fines for persons employing children in dangerous work and permits inspectors to close those facilities.

The government used its limited resources to concentrate on child labor violations in select sectors in narrow geographic areas, such as coffee growing regions, and gave only limited attention to the large informal sector.

The government continued Programa Amor, which aimed to eradicate child labor by reintegrating abandoned children into society. Information on the program’s activities, funding, and effectiveness was unavailable.

Child labor remained widespread. A 2005 National Institute of Development Information national survey of adolescent and child labor (the most recent statistics available) estimated there were 238,800 working children between five and 17 years old, of whom 80 percent performed high-risk labor and 36 percent were younger than 14. According to organizations that worked on children’s rights, this likely increased to almost 320,000 children working in some form of child labor. A common feature of child labor was the prevalence of unpaid family work, and the institute stated 80 percent of children and adolescents were unpaid workers.

Most child labor occurred in forestry, fishing, and the informal sector, including on coffee plantations and subsistence farms. Child labor also occurred in the production of dairy products, oranges, bananas, tobacco, palm products, coffee, rice, and sugarcane; cattle raising; street sales; garbage-dump scavenging; stone crushing; street performing; and transport.

Children working in agriculture suffered from sun exposure, extreme temperatures, and dangerous pesticides and other chemicals. Children working in the fishing industry were at risk from polluted water and dangerous ocean conditions.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, HIV or other communicable disease status, or social status. The government did not effectively enforce these laws and regulations.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women, persons with disabilities, sexual orientation, and gender identity (see section 6).

The law establishes a statutory minimum wage for 10 economic sectors. It is calculated differently for each sector, and the average was 5,151 cordobas ($180) per month. According to the Ministry of Labor, the average legal minimum wage covers 35 percent of the cost of basic goods.

In general, the minimum wage was enforced only in the formal sector, estimated to be approximately 20 percent of the economy. The Ministry of Labor is the primary enforcement agency, but the government did not allocate adequate staff or resources to enable the Office of Hygiene and Occupational Safety to enforce occupational safety and health provisions. Established penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.

The standard legal workweek is a maximum of 48 hours, with one day of rest. The law dictates an obligatory year-end bonus equivalent to one month’s pay, proportional to the number of months worked. The law mandates premium pay for overtime, prohibits compulsory overtime, and sets a maximum of three hours of overtime per day not to exceed nine hours per week. The law establishes occupational health and safety standards. Such standards were not current or appropriate for the main production activities in the country.

The National Council of Labor Hygiene and Safety, including its departmental committees, is responsible for implementing worker safety legislation and collaborating with other government agencies and civil society organizations in developing assistance programs and promoting training and prevention activities. According to the Ministry of Labor’s 2014 annual report, it carried out 1,382 labor hygiene and safety inspections, leading to 14 fines.

Health and safety standards were not widely enforced in the large informal sector, which represents 77 percent of employment and 90 percent of businesses. The informal sector included the bulk of workers in street sales, agriculture and ranching, transportation, domestic labor, fishing, and minor construction. Legal limitations on hours worked often were ignored by employers, who claimed workers readily volunteered for extra hours for additional pay. Violations of wage and hour regulations in the informal sector were common and generally not investigated, particularly in street sales, domestic work, and agriculture. Compulsory overtime was reported in the private security sector, where guards often were required to work excessive shifts without relief.

By law workers can remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. It was unclear if authorities effectively protected employees in all such cases.

Panama

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

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

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh, due primarily to overcrowding, a shortage of prison guards, lack of adequate medical services, and inadequate sanitary conditions. There were no private detention facilities.

Physical Conditions: As of November the prison system, with an intended capacity of 14,174 inmates, held 17,165 prisoners. Pretrial detainees shared cells with convicted prisoners due to space constraints. Prison conditions for women were generally better than for men, but conditions for both populations remained poor, with overcrowded facilities, poor medical care, and a lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene. Some older facilities lacked potable water and adequate ventilation. There were no reports of inadequate lighting.

Juvenile pretrial and custodial detention centers also suffered from a lack of prison officials. There were 1,005 prison guards nationwide, including 176 new guards hired during the year, almost double the 547 guards in 2010. Officials estimated the system required 1,400 guards. In adult prisons, inmates complained of limited time outside cells and limited access for family members. Authorities acknowledged that insufficient Panama National Police (PNP) agent coverage limited exercise time for inmates on certain days.

In March, prompted by a motion filed before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR), authorities transferred the six high-level gang leaders who were detained in the Punta Coco facility on a Pacific island to the Gran Joya complex on the mainland, leaving the facility vacant. Since Punta Coco’s 2015 opening, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had complained that there was no physician on the island; inmates could receive medical assistance only from the sole National Air Naval Service paramedic stationed there. In September, using public safety as a justification, President Varela ordered the transfer of four high-risk Chorrillo gang members to Punta Coco after they injured a child. The gang members’ lawyer argued that the poor conditions of the detention center, including mosquito infestation, violated the detainees’ human rights. They were transferred to a mainland prison in late November, leaving the facility vacant, and subsequently released pending trial.

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office reported that the principal prisoner concern was poor or inadequate medical attention. Hypertension, diabetes, dermatitis, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and respiratory illnesses were the most-common diseases among the prison population. Prison medical care was inadequate due to lack of personnel, transportation, and medical resources. As of August there were 73 medical staff (39 physicians, and 34 nurses and technical staff) assigned to all prisons nationwide. Authorities transferred patients with serious illnesses to public clinics, but there were difficulties arranging for the inmates’ transportation. The penitentiary system did not have an ambulance; inmates were transported in police vehicles or in emergency services ambulances when available. As of September prison medical units continued to lack sufficient medicine. Authorities permitted relatives of inmates to bring medicine, although some relatives paid bribes to prison personnel, including PNP members, to bypass the required clearances.

As of October, 25 male inmates had died in custody. Twenty-one of these deaths resulted from chronic illnesses, including tuberculosis and HIV, and all but two occurred after inmates had been transferred to medical centers for attention. An additional four individuals died in prison from inmate-on-inmate violence.

Administration: The computerized system installed in 2015 to update and ensure accurate information on all inmates, including biographical data on inmates, their legal status, and information related to rehabilitation programs in which they participated, remained inaccessible to prosecutors at the Attorney General’s Office, legal authorities of the judiciary, and the judicial investigative directorate within the National Police. During the year the penitentiary system’s new Office for Special Projects installed more sophisticated software to allow interagency access, but as of August the software was not fully functional.

The penitentiary system continued to apply a policy of “two-for-one” reduction in time served, in which two days’ work and/or study resulted in a one-day reduction in time remaining on the sentence. Prisoners could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, but authorities did not make the results of such investigations public. The Ombudsman’s Office negotiated and petitioned on behalf of prisoners and received complaints about prison conditions. The Ombudsman’s Office continued to conduct weekly prison visits to prisons in Panama City and Colon and, twice a year, to prisons elsewhere in the country. The government generally did not monitor its meetings with prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. The Roman Catholic NGO Justice and Peace visited the two prisons in David, Chiriqui. The NGO reported overcrowding and corrupt behavior by prison officials, which included smuggled weapons, cigarettes, and cell phones for the inmates. Human rights NGOs wishing access to the prisons during fixed visiting hours must send a written request to the National Directorate of the Penitentiary System 15 days in advance.

Improvements: During the year the government reduced overcrowding at juvenile centers, including by employing alternatives to detention. The government also continued to transfer nonviolent prisoners to the La Nueva Joya complex; as of July, 2,283 inmates occupied 48 percent of the complex. By August authorities released 963 inmates throughout the penitentiary system due to sentence reductions and conditional releases. In September the president signed amendments to Law 42, which provides a career path for civilian prison officials, technicians, and administrative personnel within the National Directorate of the Penitentiary System.

In October, 139 prison inmates were the first beneficiaries of a higher learning partnership program between the prison system and Panamanian institutions of higher education.

During the year La Joyita’s 60-bed clinic was remodeled and better equipped, although only available for limited hours.

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The country has no military forces. The PNP is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order. Civilian authorities in the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of the Presidency maintained effective control over all police, investigative, border, air, maritime, and migration services in the country. The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, but information on the process and results of investigations were rarely made public. Due to the lack of prison guards, the PNP was increasingly responsible for security both outside and inside of the prisons. Its leadership expressed concern over insufficient training and equipment.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

There were two judicial systems operating during the year, as the country completed its transition to an accusatory justice system in September, but cases opened prior to September 2 in the country’s largest judicial districts (Panama, Colon, Darien, and Guna Yala continued to be tried under the old inquisitorial system.

Under the inquisitorial system, the prosecutor’s office issues detention orders based on evidence. The law provides for suspects to be brought promptly before a judge. Lack of prompt arraignment continued to be a problem for cases tried under the old system; under the new system, a magistrate must arraign suspects expeditiously.

A functioning bail system existed for a limited number of crimes but was largely unused for most cases tried under the old system. Most bail proceedings are at the discretion of the Prosecutor’s Office and cannot be independently initiated by detainees or their legal counsel.

The law requires arresting officers to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel. Detainees gained prompt access to legal counsel and family members, and the government provided indigent defendants with a lawyer.

The law prohibits police from detaining adult suspects for more than 48 hours but allows authorities to detain minor suspects for 72 hours.

The preliminary investigation phase of detention under the old system lasted eight days to two months and the follow-up investigation phase lasted two to four months, depending on the number of suspects. In the new system, arrests and detention decisions are made on the basis of probable cause.

Pretrial Detention: The government regularly imprisoned inmates under the inquisitorial system for more than a year before a judge’s pretrial hearing, and in some cases pretrial detention exceeded the minimum sentence for the alleged crime. As of July according to government statistics, 66 percent of prisoners were pretrial detainees. Some criticized the judiciary for applying unequal pretrial restrictive measures for individuals facing substantially similar charges.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis of arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained.

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judicial system was inefficient and susceptible to corruption and outside influence, and faced allegations of manipulation by the executive branch.

During the year the judiciary hired 931 lawyers to serve as public defenders, judges, and magistrates under the new accusatory system; however, the NGO Pro-Justice Alliance and the National Bar Association complained that the Supreme Court did not comply with Law 53 of 2015, which establishes hiring practices and merit-based promotions in the judiciary. In addition, the NGO alleged that the new hires lacked independence, as some of them previously worked for current Chief Justice Jose Ayu Prado. The Supreme Court hired the 931 new employees on a “temporary” basis allegedly due to insufficient time and budget for permanent staff.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

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

During the year the government completed the transition from an inquisitorial to an accusatory system of justice. In July the judiciary received 9.5 million balboas ($9.5 million) of the 20 million balboas ($20 million) requested in order to implement the new system, an amount the judiciary said, that only covered the salaries of newly hired justice employees, procurement of basic equipment, staff training, and facility costs. The Public Ministry received an additional 10 million balboas ($10 million) funding to implement its requirements under the new accusatory system of justice.

On September 2, the government implemented the accusatory system in the provinces of Panama (including the Special District of San Miguelito), Colon, Darien, and the Guna Yala, Wargandi, Madugandi, and Embera Wounnan comarcas (indigenous regions with a high degree of administrative autonomy). On September 3, a woman received a 60-month prison sentence for drug trafficking–the first conviction under the accusatory system in Panama Province.

Under the accusatory system, trials are open to the public. Judges may order the presence of pretrial detainees for providing or expanding upon statements or for confronting witnesses. Trials are conducted based on evidence presented by the public prosecutor. Defendants have the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Defendants may confront or question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants and their attorneys have access to relevant government-held evidence. Defendants have a right of appeal. The law extends these rights to all citizens, and the judiciary generally enforced them.

The judiciary complained that many hearings were canceled due to inmates’ failure to appear. The penitentiary system cited lack of sufficient PNP agents to transfer the inmates to the courts. As of September amendments to Law 42 give prison officials the authority to provide security during transfers, providing an alternate mechanism to transport inmates for court, medical, and other appointments.

The judiciary continued to promote videoconference hearings. Judges were increasingly receptive to using this tool, and during the year the government added several video conference and hearing rooms to prison facilities.

According to judiciary statistics, judicial response time has decreased since the accusatory justice system was implemented–from 278 days to 86 days in the Second Judicial District (Cocle, Veraguas), from 422 days to 18 days in the Third Judicial District (Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro and Comarca Ngabe Bugle), and from 170 days to 60 days in the Fourth Judicial District (Herrera, Los Santos).

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees. Some individuals detained under corruption charges claimed their charges were politically motivated because they had served under former president Ricardo Martinelli’s administration.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

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

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

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

The law also sets forth requirements for conducting wiretap surveillance. It denies prosecutors authority to order wiretaps on their own and requires judicial oversight.

The investigation of the 2015 illegal wiretapping case against former president Martinelli, as well as against Alejandro Garuz and Gustavo Perez, two former intelligence directors in his administration, continued during the year. In October the Foreign Ministry announced it had formally sought Martinelli’s extradition from the United States.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage. The law provides for direct popular election every five years of the president, vice president, legislators, and local representatives. Naturalized citizens may not hold specified categories of elective office, such as the presidency.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In May 2014 voters chose Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, the candidate of the opposition party, The People First Alliance, as president in national elections independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were 71 national legislators, 77 mayors, 648 local representatives, and seven council members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. The law also requires that political parties obtain the equivalent of 4 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing. The Revolutionary Democratic Party, Panamenista Party, Democratic Change Party, and Popular Party all complied with the requirement. In July the Broad Front for Democracy gathered more than 57,000 petition signatures in support of its registration as a party, short of the 74,000 needed to regain legal recognition following its failure to obtain 4 percent of the vote in the 2014 election. The Electoral Tribunal also oversees internal party elections.

Participation of Women and Minorities: Women participated in political life on the same basis as men. Women represented 12 of 71 members in the National Assembly, 1 of 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 12 of 40 cabinet level officials, including the vice president and vice ministers.

Five seats in the legislature are designated to represent the country’s recognized indigenous regions. Afro-Panamanians make up a majority of the country’s ethnic minorities. There were three Afro-Panamanians on the Supreme Court and nine Afro-Panamanian deputies in the National Assembly; no Afro-Panamanians served in the cabinet or in any other high-level government positions.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively; however, there were allegations that government officials and members of the previous government administration engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corruption remained a problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces.

Anticorruption mechanisms such as asset forfeiture, whistleblower, and witness protection, plea bargaining, and professional conflict-of-interest rules exist.

Corruption: The National Authority for Transparency and Access to Public Information (ANTAI) combats and investigates government corruption. During the year there were several credible allegations of corruption against current or former members of the government.

In March the government established the High Level Secretariat to Prevent Corruption (SEPRECO) to improve transparency. As a pilot program under ANTAI’s authority, SEPRECO was tasked with preventing corruption in public bids and payment of bribes and protecting foreign investment.

In April, the Tenth District Penal judge sentenced a former Social Security Fund finance and managing director, Alberto Maggiori, to eight years in prison for embezzlement in awarding two linked companies contracts of more than two million dollars in 2011 and 2012. Maggiori also faced criminal charges in a different corruption case.

The anticorruption prosecutor continued the investigation of Panama Canal Authority board member Lourdes Castillo, her business partner Samuel Israel, and his wife Alexandra de Israel, for alleged payment of bribes in 2014 in exchange for a contract with the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP). Former president Martinelli approved a contract for Pele System without its participation in the bidding process. The new administration filed a complaint based on an alleged overpayment of 12 million balboas ($12 million) to Pele System. The anticorruption prosecutor’s investigation found that Pele System made payments to Castillo and the Israel couple’s businesses incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.

Corruption and a lack of accountability among the police continued to be a problem, though the government took steps to address violations. Thirty-two agents were dismissed on corruption grounds and were under investigation by the Public Ministry. The agents included a police captain and a lieutenant arrested in August along with 11 others for allegedly falsifying prisoners’ records and altering criminal sentences as well as former civilian agents from the penitentiary system who allegedly charged up to 70,000 balboas ($70,000) to assist gang members to leave prison early.

To address police corruption at the prisons, the 2015 PNP policy requiring members of the PNP who serve as prison guards to rotate to other police functions after two years continued. The policy aims to reduce corrupt behavior by preventing PNP guards from remaining at one prison for an extended period; the PNP also began to provide a monthly bonus of 35 balboas ($35) for each agent assigned to the prisons to reduce incentives for corruption.

The case against former minister of labor Alma Cortes related to charges of illicit enrichment continued. The prosecutor claimed Cortes could not justify how she accrued two million dollars in assets and bank accounts while serving as minister of labor. Cortes was detained in August.

In August, ANTAI opened an investigation regarding AMP Director General Jorge Barakat’s alleged receipt of basketball game tickets valued at more than 1,000 balboas ($1,000) from an AMP contractor; he attended the game during an official trip.

In August the former Agriculture Institute director general under the current administration, Edwin Cardenas, was detained under charges of mismanagement of more than six million dollars of public funds. The fourth anticorruption prosecutor charged Cardenas for wrongdoings from July 2014 through April 2015.

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

Public Access to Information: The law provides for public access to information about public entities, with the exception of cabinet meeting minutes. Public procurement notices are posted online. ANTAI statistics as of July showed 24 of 43 new requests for access to information had been fulfilled; the others remained pending as of August. Citizens can appeal denials of information to the Supreme Court. Deadlines are 30 days, and there are no processing fees. There are sanctions, primarily fines, for noncompliance.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years, or eight to 10 years under aggravating circumstances, such as use of a weapon. The government generally implemented criminal aspects of the law better than protection aspects of the law. Rapes constituted the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the PNP and its Directorate of Judicial Investigation. NGOs reported that many women were reluctant to report rapes due to fear of retaliation, perceived low likelihood of a response, and social stigma.

The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment and both physical and emotional abuse and provides for prison terms of up to 30 years for murder. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious and underreported crime. Statistics varied widely between reporting authorities, as prosecutorial discretion contributed to an uneven application of laws and statistics surrounding domestic violence.

The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program “Mujer Conoce tus Derechos” (Woman, Know Your Rights), which included a wide distribution of flyers featuring women of different ages, professions and ethnic groups, with a quotation expressing their views on gender problems.

There is a lack of shelters for victims of domestic abuse. The government, through the National Institute for Women Affairs, operated a shelter in Panama City for victims of domestic abuse and offered social, psychological, medical, and legal services.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, and pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable. The lack of formal reports was attributable to the absence of a follow-up protocol after initial complaints are filed, the difficulty of providing proof in the absence of third-party witnesses, the lack of favorable results in the few past cases, and the likelihood a woman filing a complaint would be fired.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and manage their reproductive health; they also have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law provides for medical professionals to perform abortions only in the case of danger to the fetus or to the mother.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law mandates equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. The Ministry of Social Development and the National Institute of Women promoted equality of women in the workplace and equal pay for equal work, attempted to reduce sexual harassment, and advocated legal reforms. Although an illegal hiring practice, some employers continued to request pregnancy tests.

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates. The National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family estimated the registration level of births at 92 percent.

Child Abuse: The Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs in seven provinces and continued a program that used pamphlets in schools to sensitize teachers, children, and parents about mistreatment and sexual abuse of children.

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

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Officials continued to prosecute cases of sexual abuse of children in urban and rural areas, as well as within indigenous communities. Officials believed that commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

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

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, and the provision of other state services; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.

Panama City’s bus fleet was not wheelchair accessible. Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the stations. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces as required by law, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.

Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities.

In April the Ombudsman’s Office submitted a complaint against a public junior high school for not providing an appropriate curriculum to a 16-year-old student with learning disabilities. As of August the Ministry of Education Integration Directorate had not resolved the issue, and the teenager continued to miss school.

Few private schools admitted children with disabilities. The high costs of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–burdened parents of students with disabilities.

The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of 80 balboas ($80) for children with significant physical disabilities. To qualify, the parents or guardian of a child must be living in poverty and must submit a medical certification specifying the degree of the disability and the child’s dependency on another person. Authorities conducted home visits to ensure the beneficiaries’ guardians used the funds for the intended purpose.

As of March the National Secretariat for the Social Integration of Persons with Disabilities (SENADIS) had issued 324 new certifications that, in the form of an identification card, allowed persons with disabilities to receive discounts on medications, health services, utilities, transportation, and entertainment. Recipients reported that private medical facilities and pharmacies honored the discounts but that entertainment establishments lacked awareness about the certifications.

In May, President Varela signed Law 15 to expand the rights of persons with disabilities. The law establishes that disability issues are not only a matter of public health but also a human rights concern. It mandates the government to coordinate internally to assign more program funds to disabilities issues, to provide timely medical attention to persons with disabilities and to waive import taxes on medical equipment.

In June the Ministry of Labor provided job-skills training to persons with disabilities. As of September, 59 local companies reportedly hired 64 persons with disabilities through Ministry of Labor-sponsored job fairs.

SENADIS continued to operate the Family Businesses Project, which assisted low-income families with members with disabilities to start microbusinesses. By July the government provided 50 balboas ($50) per month to 59 new beneficiaries. Throughout the year the government also donated rehabilitation equipment to low-income persons with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent immigrants and the Afro-Panamanian community. Cultural and language differences and immigration status hindered the integration of immigrant and first-generation individuals from China, India, and the Middle East into mainstream society. Additionally, some members of these communities were themselves reluctant to integrate into mainstream society.

The Afro-Panamanian community continued to be underrepresented in positions of political and economic power. Areas where they lived conspicuously lacked government services and social investment. In October the National Assembly passed a bill to create a National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians to focus on social and economic advancement of that minority group. The bill also provides for a mechanism for the secretariat to work with the national census to ensure an accurate count of Afro-descendant residents in the country.

The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; few complaints were filed. The Ombudsman’s Office intervened in several cases before students with Rastafarian braids were permitted entry into public school classrooms.

There were reports of racial discrimination against various ethnic groups in the workplace (see section 7.d.). Lighter-skinned persons continued to be disproportionately represented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.

The terms for board members of the National Council for the Afro Ethnic Group, an organization created in 2005 by an executive decree to combat discrimination against Afro-Panamanians, expired, and they did not have successors as of August. The government appointed a paid manager to work for the council, but the national coordinator reported a lack of communication between the manager, the council, and the national coordinator for the country’s black organizations.

Indigenous People

The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized. Traditional community leaders governed legally designated areas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups. The government did not recognize such areas for the smaller Bri Bri and Naso communities. In June companies building a dam project signed an agreement with Ngabe communities to resume the construction of 26 housing units to be used to resettle residents from the dam area following the IACHR’s review of the case.

There were multiple conflicts between the government and indigenous groups regarding decisions affecting indigenous land and autonomy. In April the Guna General Congress declared in a letter to President Varela that it was breaking relations with the Panamanian government. Guna authorities also demanded that the National Migration Service and the Maritime Authority vacate their offices inside the Guna Yala comarca. Guna leaders claimed the Maritime Authority’s ruling in favor of an Austrian tourist who refused to pay tax for using scuba gear in a prohibited area of the comarca represented government interference with indigenous autonomy. Also in April the National Assembly approved a law establishing the right of indigenous groups to public consultation and free and informed consent of legislative and administrative measures, programs, and plans that affect their collective rights. The Supreme Court also voided a 2010 executive decree, which allowed traditional authorities of the Ngabe Bugle to choose their electoral system.

The Ngabe Bugle and the Naso continued to clash with the government over the issue of hydroelectric plants on territorial lands, including over the Barro Blanco dam project, which would flood approximately 14 acres of “annexed lands,” as well as submerge a pre-Columbian petroglyph that practitioners of the main Ngabe Bugle religion, Mama Tatda, worship. In May the government’s support of Generadora del Istmo, S.A.’s (GENISA) conducting a test fill of the Barro Blanco dam reservoir resulted in a wave of protests in the Ngabe Bugle comarca and Panama City that briefly closed major highways and resulted in the arrests of several protest leaders. In late August the government signed an agreement with the Ngabe Bugle leader to place GENISA as the plant operator; allocate 50 percent of the jobs created by the project to indigenous workers; and terminate all other concessions on the Tabasara River, with future concessions within the region to be approved by a plenary of Ngabe Bugle congresses at the local, regional and supraregional level.

The Ngabe Bugle people in the area of Bocas del Toro also protested against the Chan 2 thermoelectric projects and demanded their cancellation.

Although the country’s law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous persons misunderstood their rights and, due to their inadequate command of the Spanish language, failed to employ legal channels when threatened.

Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently did not afford indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s sugar, coffee, and banana plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Employers were less likely to provide adequate housing or food to indigenous migrant laborers, and indigenous children were much more likely to work long hours of farm labor than nonindigenous children (see section 7.d.). The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.

Education continued to be deficient in the comarcas, especially beyond the primary grades. There were not enough teachers in these remote and inaccessible areas, with many multigrade schools often poorly constructed and lacking running water. In April the government began a project to eliminate “escuelas rancho” (rural impoverished schools) with an overall budget of 100 million balboas ($100 million). Access to health care was a significant problem in the indigenous comarcas, as reflected in high rates of maternal and infant mortality and malnutrition. The government continued to invest in transport infrastructure by repairing roads in the comarca to improve access to basic services.

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

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and there was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities (see section 7.d.).

The PNP’s internal regulations describe homosexual conduct by its employees as an offense. Harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons by security forces was a major complaint of the New Men and Women of Panama, the main LGBTI organization, but formal complaints were rare due to the perception that the reports were not taken seriously or that complaints could be used against claimants in the absence of nondiscrimination legislation. On July 2 gay rights advocates organized and participated without impediment in the 12th annual gay pride parade. Panama City Mayor Jose Blandon and his family led the march for the second consecutive year with a record attendance of 4,000 participants.

The country does not recognize any relationship between LGBTI partners in terms of health care, parental rights, property rights, or any publicly provided services.

In August a homemade video showing a mother physically abusing her minor son for his alleged homosexual tendencies went viral. With the public’s assistance, the National Secretariat for Children Issues (SENNIAF) identified the mother and took her into custody, but a SENNIAF official angered LGBTI groups when referring to the minor’s alleged homosexual tendency as a “deviation” on national television.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in employment and education, but discrimination continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. The 2015 MIDES National Network for the Continued Integral Attention of Persons with HIV/AIDS continued during the year. MIDES collaborated with NGO PROBIDSIDA to conduct HIV/AIDS outreach to students in public junior and high schools. During the year PROBIDSIDA also worked with the Ministry of Public Security “Barrios Seguros” program to provide HIV/AIDS training and free testing services to at-risk youth from vulnerable communities. Youth who tested positive received medical treatment.

LGBTI citizens reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines. PROBIDSIDA reported a case of discrimination, whereby co-workers did not want to work with an HIV-positive employee, resulting in his transfer to multiple departments. As of August PROBIDSIDA was working with health authorities to resolve the case.

Section 7. Worker Rights

The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join unions of their choice subject to the union’s registration with the government. Public servants may not form unions but may form associations that can bargain collectively on behalf of members.

The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to strike. The Administrative Career Law grants public-sector employees the same right when the strike has been deemed legal and when a minimum percentage of workers cover essential positions, as set out in the law. The right to strike does not apply in areas deemed vital to public welfare and security, including the police. The law provides all private sector and public-sector workers the right to bargain collectively, prohibits employer antiunion discrimination, and protects workers engaged in union activities from loss of employment or discriminatory transfers. It requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity.

The law places several restrictions on these rights, including requiring Panamanian citizenship to serve on a trade union’s executive board, requiring a minimum of 40 persons to form a private-sector union (either by company across trades or by trade across companies), and permitting only one trade union per business establishment. The International Labor Organization (ILO) continued to criticize the 40-person minimum as too large for workers wanting to form a union within a company; Panamanian unions, as well as the government and private sector, reiterated their support for keeping the figure at 40 individuals.

Fifty public servants are required to form a worker’s association. Member associations represent public-sector workers such as doctors, nurses, firefighters, and administrative staff in government ministries. The law stipulates there may not be more than one association in a public-sector institution and permits no more than one chapter per province.

In the private sector, the Labor Code provides that if the government does not respond to a registration application within 15 days, the union automatically gains legal recognition. In the public sector, unions gain legal recognition automatically if the General Directorate for Administrative Public Sector Careers does not respond to registration applications within 30 days.

A majority of employees must support a strike, which must be related to improvement of working conditions, a collective bargaining agreement, or in support of another strike of workers on the same project (solidarity strike). In the event of a strike, at least 20 to 30 percent of the workforce must continue to provide minimum services, particularly public services as defined by the law, such as transportation, sanitation, mail delivery, hospital care, telecommunications, and public availability of essential foodstuffs.

Strikes in essential transportation services are limited to those involving public passenger services. The law prohibits strikes for the Panama Canal Authority’s employees but allows unions to organize and bargain collectively on such issues as schedules and safety. It also provides for arbitration to resolve disputes. By law the National Federation of Public Servants (FENASEP), an umbrella federation of 21 public-sector worker associations, is not permitted to call strikes or negotiate collective bargaining agreements. Individual associations under FENASEP may negotiate on behalf of their members. FENASEP leaders noted that collective bargaining claims were heard and recognized, but they reported a lack of changes afterwards, particularly regarding firings without cause. FENASEP discussed structural changes with President Varela to promote equity and provide adequate treatment of the public sector as a sector with established rights like that of unionized groups. During the year FENASEP focused on the following problems: the lack of job stability, the lack of a policy for salary beyond the minimum wage, salary gap and equal pay for men and women, and the lack of indemnity pay for unjustified firings.

Supreme Court decisions recognize that collective agreements negotiated between employers and unorganized workers have legal status equivalent to collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions. Executive decrees provide that an employer may not enter into collective negotiations with nonunionized workers when a union exists and that a preexisting agreement with nonunionized workers cannot be used to refuse to negotiate with unionized workers. The labor ministry’s Manual of Labor Rights and Obligationsprovides that unorganized workers may petition the ministry regarding labor rights violations and may exercise the right to strike.

An executive decree protects employees from employer interference in labor rights, specifically including “employer-directed unions,” and mandates that workers be able to choose unions freely, without penalty.

Since the beginning of the Varela administration in July 2014, the government approved more than 20 applications it received for union formations and denied two based on evidence of company owners’ influence. The three main focal points for Ministry of Labor during the year were to create jobs, to ensure that persons with disabilities had access to the workforce, and to address unjustified firings and payment of back salaries owed to workers.

In addition to the court system, the Conciliation Board of the labor ministry has the authority to resolve certain labor disagreements, such as internal union disputes, enforcement of the minimum wage, and some dismissal issues. The law allows arbitration by mutual consent, at the request of the employee or the ministry in case of a collective dispute in a public service company. It allows either party to appeal if arbitration is mandated during a collective dispute in a public-service company. The separate Labor Foundation’s Tripartite Conciliation Board has sole competency for disputes related to domestic employees, some dismissal issues, and claims of less than 1,500 balboas ($1,500).

For public-sector workers, the Board of Appeal and Conciliation in the Ministry of the Presidency hears and resolves complaints. The board refers complaints it cannot resolve to an arbitral tribunal, which consists of representatives from the employer, the worker’s association, and a third member chosen by the first two. Tribunal decisions are final.

The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; however, the inspections and notifications departments lacked funding and inspectors to adequately enforce labor laws. Employers often hired employees under short-term contracts to avoid paying benefits that accrue to long-term employees. Article 222, Item 1, of the Labor Code states that employers have the right to dismiss any employee without justifiable cause before the two-year tenure term. As a result employers frequently hired workers for one year and 11 months and subsequently laid them off to circumvent laws that make firing employees more difficult after two years of employment. This practice is illegal if the same employee is rehired as a temporary worker after being laid off, although employees rarely reported the practice.

The law prohibits all forms of forced labor of adults or children. The law establishes penalties of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment for forced labor involving movement (either cross-border or within the country) and six to 10 years’ imprisonment for forced labor not involving movement.

While prostitution is legal, according to media reports, forced labor continued to be a problem in the commercial sex industry, often due to disputes between women and their employers over wage amounts agreed in oral contracts.

Also, see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

The law prohibits the employment of children under age 14, although children who have not completed primary school may not begin work until age 15. Article 716 of the Family Code permits children ages 12 to 14 to perform domestic and agricultural work as regulated by the Labor Code with regard to schedule, salary, contract, and type. Article 119 of the Labor Code allows children ages 12 to 15 to perform light work in agriculture if the work is outside regular school hours. Article 123 of the Labor Code allows children over the age of 12 to perform light domestic work and says employers must ensure the child attends school through primary school. The law does not limit the total number of hours these children may work or define what kinds of light work children may perform. The law prohibits 14- to 18-year-old children from engaging in potentially hazardous work such as work with electrical energy, explosives, or flammable, toxic, and radioactive substances; work underground and on railroads, airplanes, and boats; and work in nightclubs, bars, and casinos. In January the Ministry of Labor updated the list of hazardous occupations and established a minimum age of 14 for minors enrolled in training programs to perform activities designated as hazardous provided these activities are carried out in accordance with conditions prescribed by the appropriate authority and after consultation with worker and employer organizations.

Youths under age 16 may work no more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week, while those 16 and 17 may work no more than seven hours per day or 42 hours per week. Children under 18 may not work between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.

The Ministry of Labor (MITRADEL) generally enforced the law effectively in the formal sector, enforcing child labor provisions in response to complaints and ordering the termination of unauthorized employees. It did not do so in the informal economy. By law violators can be fined up to 700 balboas ($700) for a first-time violation. Employers who endanger the physical or mental health of a child may face two to six years’ imprisonment. The law includes punishment of up to 12 years’ imprisonment for anyone who recruits children under age 18 or uses them to participate actively in armed hostilities.

In April, MITRADEL and Consejo Nacional de la Empresa (CONEP) signed an agreement of cooperation wherein they formed an alliance to eradicate child labor by 2020. MITRADEL and CONEP will establish a series of joint programs to prevent and eradicate child labor in Panama through actions and activities within public policies, awareness raising, and job training for adolescents.

During the year MITRADEL, through its Anti-Child Labor and Protection of Adolescent Workers division (DIRETIPAT), launched a new program called Planting Values for the Future. Under this program, DIRETIPAT publicly recognized 18 companies that offer paid internship programs designed for adolescents. DIRETIPAT follows the standards of Panamanian law and ILO recommendations in assessing the internship programs.

The National Office for Children, Youth, and Family implemented programs to identify children engaged in the worst forms of child labor, to remove them from exploitative situations, and to provide them with services. The Ministry of Labor offered training on the topic of child labor and lessons learned to various stakeholders.

The government ratified ILO Convention 189 Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers and adopted a policy framework on the elimination of child labor in domestic work. The Committee for the Eradication of Child Labor and the Protection of Adolescent Workers also updated the Roadmap towards the Elimination of Child Labor, and outlined interagency action plans and budgets for 2016-19. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education began structural improvements to 1,000 schools in indigenous areas, where there was a high prevalence of child labor.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, gender, religion, political opinion, citizenship, disability, language, social status, HIV status and other communicable diseases, but they do not do so on the basis of sexual orientation, and/or gender identity.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, sex, gender, disability, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and HIV-positive status (see section 6). Discrimination against migrant workers also occurred (see section 6).

The minimum hourly wage for private sector employees ranged from 1.46 balboas ($1.46) to 4.18 balboas ($4.18), depending on the region and sector. Working 45 hours per week, a worker would receive monthly earnings between 285 balboas ($285) to 815 balboas ($815). Public servants received a monthly minimum wage of 500 balboas ($500). The monthly poverty line was 98 balboas ($98) in rural areas and 131 balboas ($131) in urban areas. Food and the use of housing facilities were considered part of the salary for some workers, such as domestic and agricultural workers. Minimum monthly salaries for domestic workers ranged from 225 balboas ($225) to 250 balboas ($250). The agricultural sector and the marine and aviation sectors received the lowest and highest minimum wages, respectively.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 48 hours, provides for at least one 24-hour rest period weekly, limits the number of hours worked per week, provides for premium pay for overtime, and prohibits compulsory overtime. There is no annual limit on the total number of overtime hours allowed. If employees work more than three hours of overtime in one day or more than nine overtime hours in a week, excess overtime hours must be paid at an additional 75 percent above the normal wage. Workers have the right to 30 days’ paid vacation for every 11 months of continuous work, including those who do not work full time. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting health and safety standards. Standards set were generally current and appropriate for the main industries in the country. The Labor Code requires employers to provide a safe workplace environment, including the provision of protective clothing and equipment for workers.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced these standards in the formal sector. The inspection office comprises two groups: the Panama City-based headquarters group and the regional group. As of November within the headquarters there were 34 inspectors reported, including nine general labor inspectors, four child labor inspectors, and 12 safety inspectors in the construction industry. The construction industry paid the salaries of construction industry inspectors, although the inspectors remained ministry employees. The regional branches had 55 inspectors. As of September the Ministry of Labor had conducted labor inspections nationwide. Allowable fines for violations were low–often between 25 balboas ($25) and 500 balboas ($500)–and generally insufficient to deter violations. During the year, however, the government levied fines according to the number of workers affected, resulting in larger overall fines. The ministry had issued fines for migration violations, for safety and security violations, for general labor issues violations, and for violations related to child labor.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and the occupational health section of the Social Security Administration reported conducting periodic inspections of hazardous employment sites. The law requires the resident engineer and a ministry construction industry inspector to remain on construction sites, establish fines for noncompliance, and identify a tripartite group composed of the Chamber of Construction, SUNTRACS (the largest union of construction workers in the country), and the ministry to regulate adherence.

Most workers formally employed in urban areas earned the minimum wage or more. Approximately 40 percent of the working population worked in the informal sector, and many earned well below the minimum wage. In most rural areas, unskilled laborers, including street vendors and those involved in forestry, fishing, and handicraft production, earned three to six dollars per day without benefits. The Ministry of Labor was less likely to enforce labor laws in most rural areas (see section 6, Indigenous People).

Some construction workers and their employers were occasionally lax about basic safety measures, frequently due to their perception that it reduced productivity. Equipment was often outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices, due in large part to a fear that the replacement cost would be prohibitive.

Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect workers in this situation.

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