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Armenia

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; while the government generally respected this right, it restricted it in the COVID-19-related state of emergency and war-related declaration of martial law.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. On April 15, the National Assembly amended the criminal code to criminalize public calls for violence. Penalties for violations include a fine of 50,000 or 100,000 drams ($100 to $200), detention for up to two months, or imprisonment for up to one month. The law is stricter for officials, who may be deprived of the right to hold office. Sexual and gender identity is not among the protected grounds enumerated in the law.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: During the first month of the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed restrictions on media, setting administrative fines for posting or publishing information on the pandemic that did not reflect reports from official government sources. The government justified the measure as needed to prevent panic and the potential spread of misinformation during the state of emergency. As a result, police officers conducted a spate of visits to the editorial offices of various media outlets, forcing them to remove certain articles under threat of fines.

Media representatives, along with local and international media watchdogs, criticized the move. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media stated: “Publishing only information provided by the authorities is a very restrictive measure which would limit freedom of the media and access to information disproportionately.” Similar views were expressed by Reporters without Borders, which stated, “control of information does not help in the fight against the epidemic but rather spreads gossip and fear.” On April 13, the government lifted all COVID-related restrictions on media.

Following the outbreak of fighting beginning September 27, the government declared martial law. Martial law restrictions included a requirement that local media outlets and broadcasters provide only official government information regarding military activity. Subsequent amendments adopted to the decree on martial law in October banned the publication of reports criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict, refuting actions of state and local government bodies and officials taken in the context of martial law and state security, and questioning or deprecating the effectiveness of those actions “in any way.”

Media outlets in general lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television, which underwent leadership change during the year, continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint. On several occasions independent media experts expressed concern about cases of bias on public television, claiming such bias was especially obvious during critical political debates and coverage of developments. Nonetheless, public television was largely balanced and open and accessible to opposition voices and continued to cover more diverse topics of public interest than prior to the 2018 revolution.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” anonymous Telegram channels, and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government. There was a particular spike in misinformation on COVID-19-related topics, which led to stronger fact-checking efforts by a number of journals and other local organizations.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived only through international donations and support, with limited revenues from advertising and subscription fees.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. The July 17 Law on Audiovisual media that replaced the Law on Television and Radio did not foster ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. According to local media watchdogs, the July 17 Law on Audiovisual media did not provide a realistic path for the creation of private multiplexes, did not solve the issue of digital broadcasting for regional television stations, and did not reform outdated television licensing procedures.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported two cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. In one case, on June 16, journalists were injured in a scuffle near the NSS building. News.am news correspondent Liana Sargsyan, Tert.am journalist Ani Ghorgyan, Yerkir.am correspondent Tatik Kostandyan, Kentron TV journalist Arthur Hakobyan, and MegaNews.am website editor Margarita Davtyan said that they incurred injuries while covering a protest by supporters of Prosperous Armenia Party head and National Assembly member Gagik Tsarukyan in front of the NSS building. Local media organizations condemned the violence against media representatives performing their professional duties and demanded that police conduct an investigation into the incident. Since the events were taking place during the state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19, media organizations urged outlets to refrain from exposing their staff to crowds while covering mass gatherings and to provide clear security instructions if this was not possible.

There were cases of current or former officials impeding the work of journalists or attempting to do so. For example, on August 8, former chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan obstructed the work of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Armenian Service crew working on a report about government plans to dismantle some private houses illegally constructed near Lake Sevan. Gasparyan, who was already facing charges for abuse of office, fraud, and embezzlement, drove his vehicle towards the two reporters and reportedly came close to hitting them as they filmed near the lakeside area where his house was located. Gasparyan then threatened the reporters, saying “I’ll shoot you” and “I’ll slaughter you.” Using epithets, the former police chief demanded that the reporters not show his house in their report. Police opened a criminal case into the incident on charges of obstructing journalistic activity.

On December 1, police reportedly interfered with the work of journalists and attempted to detain Yerkir Media TV cameraman Hayk Sukiasyan during a protest against the government’s agreement to a Russia-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

There also were reports of intimidation of journalists by law enforcement bodies. For example, on July 3, police visited ArmNews and Channel 5 television stations, which were affiliated with the former government, purportedly with the aim of initiating administrative proceedings against them because their personnel were not wearing masks on air. Media watchdogs condemned the actions as abuse of power, exhorted law enforcement officials to refrain from interfering with media activities, advocated loosening pandemic-related restrictions on media outlets, and called on outlets not to violate state of emergency regulations, given their role in protecting the health of both the public and their employees.

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts noted a decrease in the number of libel and defamation cases against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 55 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year.

Internet Freedom

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2018 the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated, but free and competitive, campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won more than 70 percent of the vote and most seats in the National Assembly; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) 2018 preliminary and March 2019 final reports noted, “Early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The final report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by the Prosperous Armenia Party, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

ODIHR observers stated contestants “were able to conduct their campaigns freely; fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression and movement were fully respected.” At the same time, they emphasized that disinformation, as well as inflammatory exchanges between some candidates, on social networks, were noted during the campaign. Among the few issues that marred the electoral process, the observers noted, “The integrity of campaign finance was undermined by a lack of regulation, accountability, and transparency.” For example, organizational expenses such as for office space, communication, transportation, and staff were not considered election-related and therefore could remain unreported, “undermining the credibility of the reporting system and the transparency of information available to election stakeholders.” Other shortcomings highlighted by OSCE observers included the narrow legal standing for submitting electoral complaints.

On June 18, the National Assembly adopted amendments to the electoral code and other relevant laws, which transitioned the system for local elections from majoritarian to proportional representation. The amendments apply to communities with more than 4,000 voters and multisettlement communities. The amended law was a result of cooperation between the government and all three parliamentary factions aimed at elevating the role of political parties at the local level and enhancing the scope for their participation and development.

Political participation was sometimes marred by mutual personal insults between members of the ruling My Step faction and some opposition parties, which at times were followed by violence. For example, on May 8, verbal altercations led to violence on the National Assembly floor when My Step member of parliament Sasun Mikaelyan hit Edmon Marukyan, chair of the opposition Bright Armenia faction, leading to a scuffle between members. The prime minister denounced the violent incident but blamed the opposition, stating it provoked the ruling faction and was serving the former administration’s interests.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political and economic life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. Women held 7 percent of ministerial positions, 9 percent of elected seats in local legislatures, and 23 percent of the elected seats in parliament. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the 2018 parliamentary elections noted all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender-quota requirement and that women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. The OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not provide for the same proportion of representation of women in parliament, as one-half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns; women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies. Female parliamentarians and other female officials often faced gender-related insults, rather than content-based criticism.

There are government-mandated seats in parliament for the country’s four largest ethnic minorities: Yezidi, Kurdish, and the Assyrian and Russian communities. Four members of parliament represented these constituencies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption. After the May 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government opened investigations that revealed systemic corruption encompassing most areas of public and private life. The government launched numerous criminal cases against alleged corruption by former high-ranking government officials and their relatives, parliamentarians, the former presidents, and in a few instances, members of the judiciary and their relatives, with cases ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. Many of those cases continued as of year’s end, and additional cases were reported regularly. The government also launched corruption-related cases against several current government officials.

Corruption: The country has a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of state assistance. There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds and involvement of government officials in questionable business activities. Combatting corruption continued to be a top priority for the government, and the government continued to take measures to eliminate corruption throughout the year. Authorities continued to adopt legal measures, such as civil forfeiture laws, integrity checks, new forms of asset declaration, and changes to the bank secrecy law, to institutionalize anticorruption measures. The government initiated criminal corruption cases in the tax and customs services, environmental and social affairs ministries, parliament’s urban development committee, and the judiciary.

On July 17, the Supreme Judicial Council upheld the motions of the Prosecutor General’s Office to detain Bankruptcy Court judges Ara Kubanyan and Gevorg Narinyan. Narinyan had been charged with multiple crimes, including illicit enrichment, money laundering, and presenting fake asset declarations, while Kubanyan had been charged with abuse of official authority. On July 21, the Supreme Judicial Council suspended the judges’ authorities while the investigation continued.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of June 30, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations estimated to have caused 129 billion drams (almost $267 million) in damages to the state as a result of embezzlement, abuse of power, illicit enrichment, and bribery. Of this amount, 25 billon drams ($52 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget and assets in the amount of 26 billion drams ($55 million) were frozen or seized. NGOs continued to raise concerns regarding insufficient transparency in this process.

During the year former officials made public announcements of their intent to return assets to the state, allegedly to avoid prosecution. The process and criteria by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements remained unclear.

In June the State Revenue Committee (SRC) announced several criminal cases had been opened against Mikayel Minasyan, former president Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law, who served as Sargsyan’s first deputy chief of staff and ambassador to the Vatican. In March he was charged with illicit enrichment, false asset disclosure, and money laundering. The SRC reported that Minasyan’s asset declarations indicated a significant unexplainable increase in his wealth. Minasyan was also charged with receiving preferential tariffs for the sale of electricity from a hydroelectric power plant in which he had an ownership interest after regulations were changed to benefit him.

In December 2019 the NSS arrested Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport Gevorg Loretsyan, a member of the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party, as part of a corruption investigation. According to the NSS, Loretsyan, who coordinated the sports department within the ministry, helped an Armenian businessperson win government contracts for sportswear and sports equipment in exchange for a bribe. Loretsyan’s case was forwarded to the court in September, and he remained under pretrial detention at year’s end while the trial was in progress.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-ranking public officials and their families to file annual asset declarations, which were partially available to the public on the internet. The Commission on the Prevention of Corruption (CPC), which replaced the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials in November 2019, conducts asset declaration analysis.

The CPC is broadly authorized to check the integrity of appointees to public positions, including candidates for the Constitutional Court, prosecutors, and investigators, but plays an advisory role. The CPC also supports development of anticorruption policy and conducts anticorruption awareness and training.

For several years a number of public officials, including judges and members of parliament and their spouses, disclosed large sums of unexplained income and assets including large personal gifts and proceeds from providing loans. After the 2018 change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in the declarations. In October 2019 the government adopted an anticorruption strategy that, among other actions, envisages the creation by 2021 of a separate special law enforcement body, the Anticorruption Committee, as well as specialized anticorruption courts.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes apply to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence and carried various sentences depending on the charge (murder, battery, light battery, rape, etc.). Law enforcement bodies did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread and was exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions on movement. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in cases of sexual and domestic violence and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center NGO, the investigation of sexual violence cases did not differ from the investigation of any other criminal case in terms of secrecy, investigator sensitivity, or number of interrogations, and survivors were obliged to testify or otherwise participate in investigations multiple times, including in face-to-face encounters with their abusers. In reports on standard forensic examinations into alleged rape, the expert reportedly addressed whether the subject was a virgin. Most domestic violence cases were considered by law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for fieldwork to address these crimes appropriately.

According to the NGO Women’s Rights Center, during the COVID-19 state of emergency, cases of domestic violence increased; experts blamed the rise in part on social isolation. The persisting social stigma against seeking support, along with the inaccessibility of some support services during the pandemic, further worsened the situation. The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women registered an increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and noted that the ban on public transportation during the state of emergency made it very difficult for some women to reach police precincts or support centers. In one case, a woman escaped from her husband, who had abused her for 25 years, without any money and approached a police officer on the street asking for help. He referred her to a police station without offering any assistance in reaching it. She only managed to reach a shelter after persuading a taxi driver to help her. According to the coalition, the incident demonstrated the need for more sensitivity training and referral mechanisms throughout the police force, especially for those patrolling the streets.

During the year a number of domestic violence cases captured widespread attention, leading to calls for stronger legislation against domestic violence. On March 5, media outlets reported the death of a woman at the hands of her partner in Gyumri. The perpetrator had also beaten the woman’s 13-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized with numerous injuries and underwent a long recovery. Visiting the daughter in the hospital, Prime Minister Pashinyan commented, “many of us feel sorry for this girl and her murdered mother, but let’s finally admit that this girl and her mother are also victims of the notion that violence in general and violence against women in particular can be justified.”

Activists and NGOs that promoted gender equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” On July 7, a former police official, who was registered as a domestic violence offender, verbally assaulted a lawyer for the Women’s Support Center and other employees after a civil case hearing. According to the NGO, there were no legal measures in place to protect the center’s employees or to bring the offender to criminal responsibility.

The narrow definitions in the law combatting family violence prevented abuse survivors who were not married or in common law relationships with their partners from receiving protections and support under the law. During the year the government continued to support domestic violence victims’ support centers throughout the country.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. There are no criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment experienced in the workplace.

Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace and the political arena was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

Reproductive Rights: The law gives couples and individuals the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They generally had the information to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Due to the patriarchal nature of Armenian society, however, the husband and his parents often sought to control decisions on the number, spacing, timing, and sex of a couple’s children (see section 6, Gender-biased Sex Selection). Skilled attendance during childbirth was more accessible in large towns and other population centers where birthing facilities were located. There were no government programs to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation, employment, and pay. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government. The law does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on sex.

Socioeconomic factors, women’s household responsibilities, as well as a lack of opportunities for women to gain leadership skills played a role in limiting women’s political participation, as did their lack of access to the informal, male-dominated communication networks that form the foundation of the country’s politics. Women also lacked the necessary sponsorships and funds to build a political career. Even when elected, the visibility of female politicians was limited in the public domain. Women politicians and officials experienced severe hate speech targeting their gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Despite legislative changes banning such practices and related public-awareness campaigns, data on newborns continued to indicate a skewed sex ratio. According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the boy to girl ratio at birth was 110 to 100 in 2019, a slight improvement from the 2018 ratio of 112 to 100. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country. According to a household survey conducted from February to March by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, for the first time, more than one-half of those questioned (55 percent) said they did not have a gender preference for a child if a family had one child, and 34 percent reported they would prefer a boy. These figures represented a significant change since the question was last asked in 2010, when 54 percent of respondents reported preferring a boy, while 35 percent said it “did not matter.”

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one or both parents. A centralized system generated a medical certificate of birth to make avoidance of birth registration almost impossible. A low percentage of births were registered in Yezidi and Kurdish communities practicing homebirths.

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities and children with disabilities lacked access to early learning programs despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. Slightly more than half of children between the ages of three and five benefited from preschool education, with far fewer in rural areas. Inclusive preschool education was limited to a few preschools located in the capital.

Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. Only a few schools throughout the country offered Yezidi, Assyrian, Kurdish, or Greek language classes at the primary and secondary level. These classes–not part of the formal academic curriculum–were not regulated. Yezidi parents, in particular, continued to complain that the classes did not adhere to any standards and were largely ineffective.

According to a December 2019 NGO report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, most Yezidi children grew up speaking their native tongue and had little or no command of Armenian upon entering schools. The absence of preschool educational services in most Yezidi villages created problems for Yezidi children, who struggled in school and fell behind their Armenian-speaking classmates.

The COVID-19 global pandemic reduced access to education and exacerbated existing inequalities. Surveys indicated that more than 10 percent of the school-aged student population was likely left out of the educational process due to a lack of equipment, internet access, and tech-savvy teachers. Public criticism was directed at the government for providing insufficient online instruction or virtual learning alternatives and failure to include all students equally in the educational process, particularly students with disabilities. The government tried to make up for the gaps by offering training for teachers, finding resources for technical equipment, and offering additional instruction during the summer, but these efforts failed to close the learning gaps.

Two of every three children attended schools in earthquake-prone areas where school buildings did not comply with earthquake-resistant standards. To address the problem, the government introduced a new program for safer schools in 2019 and allocated funding for constructing 22 new small-size schools in rural or remote areas incorporating safety standards.

In a March 2019 report on monitoring the water and sanitation situation in 121 schools and 80 preschools throughout the country, the Ombudsman’s Office raised concerns regarding poor sanitary conditions in many of the buildings and lack of accessible restrooms in most.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, although violence against children continued to be reported and gaps in both legislation and practice remained. In late August media outlets reported the hospitalization of seven children from one household, two of whom were gravely beaten while the others were poisoned by family members. One of the children, a six-year-old boy, died in the hospital from his injuries.

According to observers, psychological and physical violence were widely used to discipline both boys and girls, and there was a lack of state supported positive parenting programs. Indirect data showed that peer-to-peer violence was quite common in schools, with no mechanisms in place to address it. Gender inequality and stereotyping also contributed to violence against both girls and boys, and created barriers to access to justice for victims. Complex regulations on referrals and reporting within the child protection system, together with an unclear division of duties and responsibilities within the system, resulted in ineffective responses to violence against children. Despite the 2017 law on prevention of family violence, secondary legislation to ensure its implementation was still not in place.

According to observers, two-thirds of the sexual crimes in the country were committed against minors. According to official statistics, during the first six months of the year, the Investigative Committee examined 206 crimes against children, almost a quarter of which involved sexual violence. According to observers, however, the real picture of sexual violence was even worse, since the strong stigma around such violence led to nonreporting by victims and their families.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly widespread within Yezidi communities, and girls consequently left school. The government did not take measures to document the scale of the problem or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for conviction of violations. Conviction for child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. On June 18, the government established a referral mechanism for child victims of trafficking and exploitation.

According to NGOs, although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in legislation, training, awareness raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: The closure and transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care continued, with the government allocating resources for family support and prevention services. The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in institutional care from 2,400 in 2018 to 1,300 as of January. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while a smaller number of children were provided with alternative family and community-based options.

Despite the decrease in the number of institutionalized children, the number of children with disabilities in residential and educational institutions remained high, and children with disabilities continued to be less able to access community-based and family-type care options. Nonresidential services for children with disabilities and expansion and accessibility for children and families remained a government priority.

The government continued support for the development of foster-care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in state funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families continued to increase, from 45 in 2018 to 75 as of August.

During the year the government made efforts to promote the emergency foster-care system to address the needs of children left without parental care in emergency situations, including due to COVID-19. The government, with UNICEF support, took efforts to prevent child abandonment due to disabilities.

In December 2019 the ombudsman published an ad hoc report on the right to be heard among children and legally incapable adults who were placed in psychiatric institutions. The report noted that the consent of an individual’s legal representative was considered legally sufficient for children and incapable adults to be put into psychiatric care, including placement into a psychiatric hospital. As a result, the rights of such individuals to be heard and to give informed consent were violated. Due to legal gaps, there were frequent cases of persons who were officially kept in psychiatric hospitals “on a voluntary basis” due to the consent of their legal representatives, but who were in fact subjected to compulsory confinement. Legal regulations prevented them from obtaining a court decision for their treatment. Following the ombudsman’s application, in February the Constitutional Court found that the failure to take the opinion of children and incapable adults into consideration when deciding on their placement in psychiatric institutions was unconstitutional.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

In November 2019 the NSS announced it had uncovered an organized crime ring that dealt in illegal adoption, resulting in the sale of more than 30 children to foreigners. According to the press release, the suspects used blackmail, coercion, and fraud to force mothers in vulnerable social situations to carry pregnancies to term and to give up their newborns. In some cases mothers were told that the children were born with grave health problems or were stillborn. The group first transferred the children to orphanages and then falsified documents to permit adoptions by foreign families (local law prioritizes local adoption). The investigation continued at year’s end.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. During the intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan from September 27 to November 10, atrocities were reportedly committed by all sides (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

Azerbaijan

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

NGO estimates of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end ranged from at least 90 to 146. Political prisoners and detainees included journalists and bloggers (see section 2.a.), political and social activists (see section 3), religious activists (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report), individuals arrested in connection with the Ganja and Terter cases (see section 1.c.), and the relative of a journalist/activist in exile (see section 1.f.).

In a particularly high profile case, on March 22, a member of the Coordination Center of National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested and ordered held for three months in pretrial detention for “hooliganism” in connection with a car accident. Human rights defenders considered the arrest a staged provocation against Yagublu. On September 3, the Nizami District Court convicted Yagublu and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. On September 18, the Baku Court of Appeal released Yagublu to house arrest after he was on a hunger strike for 17 days. At year’s end Yagublu was awaiting a ruling on his appeal.

In another case, on April 16, Popular Front Party activist Niyamaddin Ahmadov was detained and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention. After serving his administrative sentence, on May 18, he was sentenced to four months’ pretrial detention, allegedly on the criminal charge of funding terrorism. Human rights defenders considered the case politically motivated. He remained under pretrial detention at year’s end.

From July 14-15, during a spontaneous rally of more than 20,000 persons supporting the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, a group entered the National Assembly and reportedly caused minor damage before being removed. Some protesters allegedly clashed with police and damaged police cars. On July 16, President Aliyev accused the Popular Front Party of instigating protesters to enter the National Assembly and stated law enforcement bodies would investigate the party.

Human rights defenders reported that authorities used these events to justify the arrest of political activists, including those who did not attend the rally. Law enforcement officials opened criminal cases against at least 16 members of the Popular Front Party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. The formal charges against the remaining individuals included damaging property, violating public order, and using force against a government official. In addition Popular Front Party activists Fuad Gahramanli and Mammad Ibrahim were accused of trying to seize power by force in an alleged attempted coup. Popular Front Party member Mahammad Imanli, along with Mammad Ibrahim’s son and ruling party member Mehdi Ibrahimov, were also accused of spreading COVID-19 during the demonstration, which included thousands of demonstrators who were not wearing masks.

On August 19, the Khatai District Court released Mehdi Ibrahimov, placing him under house arrest. On November 16, the Sabayil District Court released 21 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, placing them under house arrest. These individuals included 12 members of the Popular Front Party and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. On December 7, the remaining 15 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, including three Popular Front Party activists and a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, were released and placed under house arrest. On December 1, the Sabunchu District Court convicted and sentenced Mahammad Imanli to one year in prison.

There were developments during the year in long-standing cases of persons considered to have been incarcerated on politically motivated grounds. On April 23, the Plenum of the Supreme Court acquitted opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party chairperson Ilgar Mammadov and human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. As a result Mammadov and Jafarov no longer faced restrictions based on their criminal records, including restrictions on seeking political office. The court ruled the government must pay 234,000 manat ($138,000) in compensation to Mammadov and 57,400 manat ($33,900) to Jafarov for moral damages, and both could seek additional compensation in civil court. The government paid these compensations to Mammadov and Jafarov. In 2014 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated. In 2017 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov had been denied a fair trial. Six others considered to be former political prisoners whose acquittal was ordered by the ECHR were waiting court decisions at year’s end.

On March 17, after serving three years of his six-year prison term, authorities released investigative journalist Afghan Mukhtarli under the condition that he leave the country and relocate to Germany immediately after his release. He remained in Germany at year’s end (also see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Georgia).

Political prisoners and detainees faced varied restrictions. Former political prisoners stated prison officials limited access to reading materials and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.

Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.

During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.

Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.

Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.

During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.

On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council continued to require that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by obstructing the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In December 2019, the president dissolved the National Assembly in response to an appeal to do so by the National Assembly and announced early elections for the body to be held on February 9.

Some opposition parties boycotted the election, citing the restrictive environment, while other opposition parties and groups took part. According to the OSCE ODIHR election observation mission, the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the February 9 elections. ODIHR concluded that voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political competition and discussion. Although many candidates utilized social media to reach out to voters, use of social media generally did not compensate for the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. ODIHR observed several instances of pressure on voters, candidates, and candidates’ representatives. International and local observers reported significant procedural violations during the counting and tabulation of votes, including ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting. ODIHR concluded the flaws “raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.” Domestic nonpartisan election observers concluded the election results did not reflect the will of the people.

Similarly, in 2018 the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October 2018 to April 2018. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the ODIHR mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. The mission concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the 2016 referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting–a method of vote rigging usually involving voters casting ballots multiple times–and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. Observers reported significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The number of registered political parties increased from 55 to 63 during the year due to the registration of eight political parties, including the REAL party, the first such registrations since 2011. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party, however, continued to dominate the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. Following the February 9 National Assembly elections, the body included only one representative of the country’s main opposition parties. The National Assembly had not included any opposition representatives since 2010.

During the year a Presidential Administration official established direct communication with some of the country’s 63 political parties and groups. The official held meetings with political figures, including representatives of selected opposition parties, throughout the year. Despite the dialogue, however, restrictions on political participation continued.

Opposition members were generally more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). From mid-March to mid-May, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention mainly for violating the quarantine regime and resisting police charges. Human rights defenders estimated the country’s courts sentenced Popular Front Party activists to periods of administrative detention approximately 40 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, eight opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Babek Hasanov, Agil Maharramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, Pasha Umudov, Elchin Ismayilli, Alizamin Salayev, and Niyamaddin Ahmadov.

Prior to its registration on August 31, the REAL party was unable to rent space to hold a founding congress. In light of this difficulty, the Presidential Administration official responsible for liaising with political parties suggested that the party hold its congress online, which REAL did in August. Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and employing economic pressure on their family members.

Restrictions on local civil society organizations limited their ability to monitor elections. Such restrictions included legal provisions severely constraining NGO activities and the inability of NGOs to obtain registration, which was required for legal status. For example, two nonpartisan election-monitoring organizations (the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) and the Institute for Democratic Initiatives) remained unregistered. The EMDS Center also reported that independent election observers were subjected to physical and psychological pressure during the February 9 National Assembly elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA), a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 17.6 percent of members of the National Assembly, including the speaker of the Assembly, were women.

Female activists often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, local officials launched a gender-based harassment and intimidation campaign against Vafa Nagi, a member of the Kholgaragashli municipal council of the Neftchala District, after she publicly raised governance concerns regarding water access and the illegal sale of lands. On June 16, the local municipal council chair reportedly ordered authorities to hang photographs of Nagi dressed in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout the conservative village to shame her and her family members.

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, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combating low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody. These problems persisted throughout the year. Media outlets reported the arrests for accepting bribes of the mayors of Neftchala on February 20, Bilasuvar on April 29, Imishli on May 5, and Jalilabad on December 7.

Similar to previous years, authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. For example, authorities continued punitive measures against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, including freezing of her bank accounts since 2017, banning her travel since 2016, and failing to implement three ECHR rulings in her favor (see section 1.e.). In March 2019 the Baku Court of Appeals rejected Ismayilova’s appeal of the 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court holding her accountable for 45,143 manat ($26,600) of RFE/RL’s alleged tax debt, despite RFE/RL’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit entity. In August 2019 the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Ismayilova’s reporting on elite corruption was widely considered the reason for the targeting, which also included her imprisonment from 2014 to 2016.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it completed investigation of 180 criminal cases against 281 officials and sent them to the courts during the year. While no senior officials were prosecuted, several high-ranking officials were arrested and charged. Several such cases remained under investigation at year’s end, including charges of corruption against the minister of culture and other high-ranking ministry officials, multiple ambassadors, several department heads at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several heads and deputy heads of regional executive committees (governors). Although those accused were charged with corruption, the arrests were not accompanied by systemic reforms, such as requiring all officials to comply with the asset declaration law or ending punitive measures against persons who exposed corruption. As a result observers considered the arrests to have political or economic motives that were unrelated to combating corruption.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article in April on the SerbAz company, which brought more than 700 workers from the Balkan region to Baku to build or renovate some its most prominent buildings between 2006 and 2009. The OCCRP revealed that SerbAz’s most powerful backer in the country was Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov. According to the OCCRP, there was strong evidence that the minister awarded contracts to his wife’s company, using public money to benefit his own family. SerbAz appeared to be a subsidiary of a major luxury importer, ItalDizain, a company owned jointly by Rahimov’s wife, Zulfiya Rahimova, and a man who appeared to be Rahimov’s associate. The Ministry of Youth and Sports signed contracts with SerbAz for the renovation of the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Concert Complex, the restoration of the “Palace of Happiness” marriage registration center, and the reconstruction of the Kur Olympic Training and Sports Center. While engaged in construction, workers were kept in inhuman conditions, were deprived of their passports, and reported physical abuse; several workers died.

There was widespread belief that a bribe could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between ages 18 and 35. Citizens also reported military personnel could buy assignments to easier military duties for a smaller bribe.

The government continued efforts to reduce low-level corruption and improve government services by expanding the capabilities and number of State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations service centers, which functioned as one-stop locations for government services, such as obtaining birth certificates and marriage licenses, from nine ministries.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires officials to submit reports on their financial situation and requires all candidates to submit financial statements. The process of submitting reports was complex and nontransparent, with several agencies and bodies designated as recipients, including the Anticorruption Commission, National Assembly, Ministry of Justice, and Central Election Commission, although their monitoring roles were not well understood. The public did not have access to the reports. The law permits administrative sanctions for noncompliance, but there were no reports that such sanctions were imposed.

The law prohibits the public release of the names and capital investments of business owners. Critics continued to state the purpose of the law was to curb investigative journalism into government officials’ business interests.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Spousal rape is also illegal, but observers stated police did not effectively investigate such claims.

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, including in cases where husbands ultimately killed their wives.

The SCFWCA tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. On November 27, the president approved the National Action Plan to Combat Domestic Violence for 2020-23. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence. On December 1, the SCFWCA, together with the UN Population Fund, established an emergency hotline for gender-based violence. Callers could use the hotline to access free legal assistance, counseling support, and information concerning gender and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was available, but limited supplies and lack of education and counseling limited usage. Patriarchal norms based on cultural, historical, and socioeconomic factors in some cases limited women’s reproductive rights.

No legal, social, or cultural barriers or government policies adversely affected access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. In vitro fertilization procedures were available.

The government referred survivors of sexual violence to free medical care including sexual and reproductive services.

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

Discrimination: Although women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal and employment-based discrimination remained a problem. According to the State Statistical Committee, there was discrimination against women in employment, including wide disparities in pay and higher rates of unemployment.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the SCFWCA. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of and address the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. Registration at birth was routine for births in hospitals or clinics. Some children born at home were not registered.

Education: While education is compulsory, free, and universal until age 17, large families in impoverished rural areas sometimes placed a higher priority on the education of boys and kept girls in the home to work. Social workers stated that some poor families forced their children to work or beg rather than attend school.

Child Abuse: There is criminal liability for sexual violence against children. The law also stipulates punishment for child labor and other abuse against children. The SCFWCA organized multiple events prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to address the problem of child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The problem of early marriage continued during the year. The law provides that a girl may marry at age 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam.

In July the SCFWCA organized two awareness-raising online events on prevention of early marriages.

The law establishes substantial fines or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction of recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography, its production, its distribution, or its advertisement, for which conviction is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Conviction of statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school.

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. During the intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists from September 27 to November 10, all sides reportedly committed atrocities (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

On May 26, the ECHR rendered a judgment in the case of Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary, finding that Azerbaijan had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of discrimination). In 2004 Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov killed sleeping Armenian soldier Gurgen Markarian while both were attending NATO training in Budapest. Convicted by Hungarian authorities to life imprisonment in 2006, Safarov was pardoned and feted after his transfer to Azerbaijan in 2012. The court did not find the government of Azerbaijan responsible for Ramil Safarov’s actions but criticized Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to enforce the punishment of Safarov, effectively granting him impunity for a serious hate crime. Moreover, the court found Safarov’s pardon and other measures in his favor had been ethnically motivated, citing statements by high-ranking officials expressing their support for his actions targeting Armenian soldiers.

Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

Belarus

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The local human rights group Vyasna maintained what is widely considered a credible list of political prisoners in the country. As of December its list contained more than 160 names, including the cases of leading political opposition figures and their staff.

In one case, on September 2, authorities detained four employees of the IT company PandaDoc (Viktar Kuushynau, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, Yulia Shardyka, and Uladizlau Mikhalap). Two weeks earlier, the owner of the company, Mikita Mikada, publicly condemned political repression in the country and had colaunched a public initiative, Protect Belarus, aimed at financially supporting law enforcement officers who refused to take part in repression. Authorities charged the four employees with theft, for which conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The charges were widely viewed as both retaliation against Mikada and intended to deter political activism by other technology companies. On October 12, authorities released Rabtsevich, Shardyka, and Mikhalap to house arrest, but the charges were not dropped. As of late December, Kuushynau remained in detention, and Vyasna considered all four PandaDoc employees to be political prisoners.

Former political prisoners continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and selectively enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies without giving room for critical voices.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.

Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.

The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.

The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.

On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.

The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.

On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.

The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.

The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.

On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.

Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.

Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.

By law, the government may close a publication–printed or online–after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.

In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).

There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.

There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.

Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.

The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).

The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.

The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.

Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.

The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.

Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation.

On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.

National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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 and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government consistently denied citizens this ability by not conducting elections according to international standards.

Since his election in 1994 to a four-year term as the country’s first president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka steadily consolidated power in the executive branch to dominate all branches of government, effectively ending any separation of powers among the branches. Flawed referendums in 1996 and 2004 amended the constitution to broaden his powers, extend his term in office, and remove presidential term limits. Subsequent elections, including the National Assembly elections held in November 2019 and the presidential election held on August 9, continued to deny citizens the right to exercise their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: According to independent local observation groups, the August 9 presidential election was marred by numerous abuses, the use of administrative resources in favor of the incumbent, the absence of impartial election commissions, unequal access to media, coercion of voters to participate in early voting, nontransparent vote tabulation, and restrictions on independent observers. Irregularities identified by NGOs and independent observers raised significant doubts regarding authorities’ claims that Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 80 percent of votes during the presidential election.

Government pressure against potential opposition presidential candidates began three months prior to the presidential election and continued afterward. Authorities prior to the presidential election restricted the ability of challengers to register as candidates, restricted candidates from campaigning, pressured and detained presidential campaign teams, pressured citizens who showed support for opposition candidates, and detained press to limit opposition coverage.

The OSCE rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the August 9 presidential election, released by the OSCE on November 5, detailed a wide range of allegations of electoral irregularities concerning: “1) nontimely invitation of international observers, 2) shortcomings in the appointments of election management bodies on all levels, 3) restrictions of the right to stand (for office), 4) limitations in election dispute resolution, 5) overall disregard for freedom of assembly, 6) unequal playing field for candidates, including nontransparency in campaign financing, 7) nontransparent early voting process, 8) overcrowding of polling stations, 9) missing checks and balances, lack of possibility for verifying the electoral results, and 10) inaccessibility of all steps of the electoral process for observation inhibiting the effective assessment of the elections.” The report stated that “in view of the evident shortcomings of the presidential elections which did not meet the basic requirements established on the basis of previous election monitoring and the observations by citizen the presidential election have to be evaluated as falling short of fulfilling the country’s international commitments regarding elections. Allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”

Authorities detained and at times charged opposition campaign team members, including regional representatives, with allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events, which placed additional pressure on opposition campaign teams. Progovernment candidates or teams did not face similar police pressure.

During the campaign season, authorities arrested or forced into exile the candidates observers described as posing the greatest threats to his re-election.

On May 6, authorities detained presidential hopeful Syarhey Tsikhanouski and held him for 15 day for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event in December 2019, which kept him imprisoned past the May 15 deadline for registering signature collection groups for presidential candidates. Tsikhanouski was prevented from signing the documents necessary to register his signature collection group by the deadline. Although officials admitted Tsikhanouski’s candidacy met the election law criteria, they claimed his signature was required. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, instead submitted her own name, which authorities accepted.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Authorities claimed he was involved in a brawl in which police were attacked. State media highlighted the detention and allegations against Tsikhanouski. Independent media and video footage captured by multiple bystanders showed a pair of women who followed Tsikhanouski and attempted to provoke him into arguments. He first spoke with and then attempted to avoid the pair. Police grabbed Tsikhanouski’s arm after one woman complained he was avoiding her questions. Members of the crowd moved to assist Tsikhanouski and separate him from police, during which one officer fell to the ground. Moments later, riot police detained Tsikhanouski and nine of his associates, including his local campaign representative who had not been near the alleged brawl. In June, Tsikhanouski was charged with various criminal offenses (see section 2.b.). As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in detention.

On June 18, authorities detained former Belgazprombank chairman and presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard while on their way to submit the necessary signatures to register his presidential candidacy with the Central Election Commission. Babaryka was taken to the facility of the State Control Committee’s Department of Financial Investigations for questioning, and authorities barred Babaryka’s lawyers from speaking with him. Independent media and human rights NGOs reported that, on June 21, authorities charged Babaryka with large-scale money laundering, tax evasion, large-scale theft, fraud, and bribery. The charges carry criminal penalties, including fines and multiyear prison sentences. The court rejected Babaryka’s appeal to have his detention overturned. Authorities declined to register Babaryka as a candidate after his campaign team gathered more than 400,000 valid signatures, citing inconsistencies in his income and property declaration as well as the “participation of a foreign organization in his election campaign.” NGOs stated that Babaryka was arrested in response to his political activities and general popularity during his presidential campaign. As of December, Babaryka and his son remained in detention.

On June 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had started preliminary investigations into alleged “facts of illegal activities” committed by presidential candidate, High-Tech Park founder, and former diplomat Valery Tsapkala. On July 14, the Central Election Commission barred him from running in the presidential campaign claiming that many of his support signatures were invalid, and that information regarding his income declaration and wife’s assets was inaccurate. On July 21, a court in Minsk held an initial hearing without Tsapkala present on a lawsuit filed against him by a Turkish businessman who accused Tsapkala of bribery. On July 24, Tsapkala fled the country with his children after he heard authorities planned to arrest him (see section 2).

The government appeared to manipulate administrative procedures or the criteria for candidate registration in order to restrict political competition. In order to become a presidential candidate, authorities required each hopeful to collect 100,000 signatures. Citizens were allowed to sign for multiple candidates. In order for the signatures to count, authorities required campaign teams to have official representatives for each region who would submit the signatures with accompanying proof of citizenship to local level government offices. Citizen signatures were only valid in the districts where they were registered; this placed a higher burden on smaller campaign teams. For example, the Central Election Commission rejected Tsapkala’s application to run as a presidential candidate because he allegedly failed to submit enough valid signatures. Tsapkala’s campaign team claimed it submitted 200,000 signatures, but authorities only counted 75,000 as valid, causing him to fall short of the 100,000 threshold. Tsapkala appealed the decision, which the Supreme Court rejected on July 20.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, authorities introduced amendments that interfered with the transparency of the formation of election commissions, sought to decrease the proportion of independent and opposition participation in election commissions, and rejected or did not consider complaints and appeals concerning the nomination of election commissions. According to independent domestic monitors, authorities discriminated against the opposition members seeking seats on electoral commissions. Of 25 opposition members who applied for seats on territorial election commissions, only two were included. Of 545 opposition members applying for seats on precinct electoral commissions, only six were included. The other seats went to progovernment associations. As a result, observers maintained that these commissions remained biased against the opposition.

Authorities used an assortment of measures to support claims that vote tabulation on August 9 was legitimate. Key among these were restricting independent observation by domestic and international observers in favor of government-affiliated observers and claiming higher early voting participation to increase the number of ballots that could be fraudulently counted in Lukashenka’s favor.

Authorities restricted domestic and international observers during the election. After thousands of government-affiliated observers registered, on July 22, Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna stated that due to COVID-19, the government would limit observers at each polling station to three during early voting and five on election day. The majority of independent observers had not yet registered (as they had not expected registration to be limited, and assumed they had more time to register as deadlines for registration in previous elections had been much closer to the day of the election), and commission chairs at each polling station who controlled observation gave precedence to those who registered first.

There were extensive reports of state employees being coerced to vote early. Independent domestic observers who tallied voters estimated the early voting figure was inflated by a factor of two to three at some polling stations, undermining government claims early voting turnout was higher than election day turnout. On election day, independent observers at some precincts noted that combined early official voting numbers and tallies of observed voters on election day yielded a turnout of more than 100 percent of voters registered in the precinct. As in prior elections, voting tabulation remained nontransparent to observers.

Authorities allowed the diplomatic community to participate in observation, and noted COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers. At vote-tabulation time, however, commission chairs at a number of poll stations claimed five observers were already in the room and so barred some international observers from observing tabulation.

Human rights monitors, independent observers, and the OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism concluded that elections did not comply with international standards. Opposition candidates, their representatives, and independent observers reported authorities dismissed the vast majority of complaints they filed.

After authorities announced preliminary election results on August 10 claiming Lukashenka won the election, the government forced presidential contender Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Results at the small number of polling stations that counted votes transparently showed that Tsikhanouskaya received more votes at these locations and suggested she could have received a majority of the votes or enough to force a second round runoff. According to independent NGO monitoring, the state’s control over all broadcast media was employed to promote the candidacy of the incumbent, while state-controlled outlets provided only critical coverage of opposition candidates, largely focused on criminal charges authorities had brought against them.

According to NGOs, the electoral process at all stages failed to comply with a number of international standards for democratic and fair elections. Numerous violations of international standards and the country’s law were reported.

Authorities largely denied or dismissed petitions and complaints about violations of the electoral code during various stages of the election. Courts received 484 appeals regarding decisions on the formation of election commissions, of which 415 were denied and 69 went without consideration. Independent observers who were part of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, a volunteer election observation initiative, submitted approximately 3,000 complaints to various state bodies and higher election commissions during early voting and on election day. Authorities reportedly denied all complaints.

According to the OSCE, it required a timely invitation to observe the August 9 presidential election, meaning notification at least 12 weeks before election day. When the government announced the presidential election date on May 8 it also stated the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would be invited to observe after the candidate registration period closed on July 14. The OSCE informed the country’s authorities it needed a timely invitation on several occasions and on July 15, the ODIHR Director announced that ODIHR had not received a timely invitation and would be unable to send an observation mission. Belarus authorities sent an invitation on July 15. When authorities were later criticized for a lack of ODIHR observers, the government blamed ODIHR, claiming the country had invited ODIHR to attend and monitor the vote. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report noted that the government sent an invitation four months before the 2019 National Assembly election, “which raises the suspicion that (delaying the invitation) was done on purpose in order to avoid international monitoring of part of the pre-election process, in particular the registration of candidates, where numerous problems were observed.”

In March international observers previously assessed that the November 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards. According to the ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe election observation mission intermediate report, while the National Assembly elections proceeded calmly with a high number of candidates and observers, they did not meet important international standards for democratic elections and there was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

The observation mission report on the National Assembly elections found that a high number of candidates stood for election, but an overly restrictive registration process inhibited the participation of opposition candidates. A limited amount of campaigning took place within a restrictive environment that, overall, did not provide for a meaningful or competitive political contest. Media coverage of the campaign did not enable voters to receive sufficient information about contestants. The election administration was dominated by the executive authority, limiting its impartiality and independence, and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded. Significant procedural shortcomings during the counting of votes raised concerns about whether results were counted and reported honestly, and an overall lack of transparency reduced the opportunity for meaningful observation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely impeded the activities of opposition political parties and activists. Some opposition parties lacked legal status because authorities refused to register them, and the government routinely interfered with the right to organize, run for election, seek votes, and publicize views. The government allowed approximately six largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely. The government used its monopoly on broadcast media to disparage the opposition and promote pro-Lukashenka parties and to restrict the ability of opposition candidates to publicize their views. There were reports of government resources being used to benefit the incumbent, such as government officials campaigning for Lukashenka during working hours.

During the year authorities fined and arrested opposition political parties’ leaders for violating the Law on Mass Events and participating in numerous unauthorized demonstrations (see section 2). The law allows authorities to suspend parties for six months after one warning and close them after two. The law also prohibits political parties from receiving support from abroad and requires all political groups and coalitions to register with the Ministry of Justice. Members of parties that continued to operate when authorities refused to register them, such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, continued to be subjected to harassment and arbitrary checks.

Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna reported that the COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers, proxies of presidential candidates, members of the House of Representatives and members of the Council of the Republic, members of local councils who could observe the election in accordance with their status, or registered media. The vast majority of observers at polling stations and during voting and vote tabulation were government affiliated, while domestic independent observers waited outside poll stations and sought to count individuals who entered the premises. Domestic independent observers faced significant restrictions, including limitations on their ability to be present at polling stations, purportedly because of the threat of COVID-19. The government, however, did not take any other precautions related to the pandemic, such as enforcing social distancing, limiting the number of voters in buildings at any given time, or requiring the wearing of masks. In a number of cases, commissions removed independent domestic observers from polling stations for allegedly interfering with their work and banned them from videotaping or taking photographs. Some government officials responsible for polling sites called police to detain independent domestic observers for various alleged inappropriate behavior. Police for the most part took these observers to police stations, checked their documents, and released them. Human rights activists reported 86 domestic observers were detained during the early voting period.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, but the government’s patriarchal attitude disfavored women’s efforts to achieve positions of authority. Of the country’s 24 government ministers, only one was a woman. Women increasingly joined the opposition as leaders, served as vocal members of the opposition, led regular “women’s marches,” and participated in protests more broadly. Women told independent media that they were inspired to become more politically active after hearing Lukashenka’s remarks regarding his female opponent Tsikhanouskaya. He stated, “Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Because the Constitution gives strong authority to the president.” In later remarks to clarify his statement, Lukashenka said that the presidency was a heavy burden for anyone, but female candidates in particular would be “unable to handle the pressures of the presidency.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government appeared to prosecute regularly officials alleged to be corrupt. There were, however, also allegations that some high level officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country. In March 2019 the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO’s executive secretary, “casted a dark shadow over the country’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.” In October 2019 GRECO’s executive secretary repeated its concerns regarding the country’s “continuous noncompliance.”

Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.

The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a harried independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.

The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education.

There were numerous corruption prosecutions during the year. For example, in January the BKGB announced it arrested four general managers of sugar refineries, including the head of the Belarusian Sugar Company and the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and corruption department, Uladzimir Tsikhinya. They were reportedly charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes, and Lukashenka accused them of “pocketing kickbacks and corruption” for allegedly selling sugar through intermediaries at lower price, which exported it to Russia and illegally re-exported back at higher prices. On August 25, independent media reported that Tsikhinya, who purportedly notified general managers of possible inspections and abuses against them, was charged and released, while other suspects reportedly remained in pretrial detention.

In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.

Financial Disclosure: Anticorruption laws require income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials, their spouses, and members of households who have reached legal age and continue to live with them in the same household. According to the law, specialized anticorruption departments within the Prosecutor General’s Office, the BKGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitor and verify anticorruption practices, and the prosecutor general and all other prosecutors are mandated to oversee the enforcement of anticorruption law. These declarations were not available to the public; an exception applies to candidates running in presidential, National Assembly, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men and women in general but does not include separate provisions on marital rape. The penalty for conviction of rape with aggravating factors is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. While sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems, the government generally prosecuted cases against nonspouses committing rape. For example, on March 3, the Vileika District Court convicted a 26-year-old man of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. The case was considered under the law as rape of a known minor, which is punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to 13 years. According to NGOs, authorities often did not consider spousal rape and did not prosecute such cases unless they involved severe aggravating factors and direct threats to victims’ lives.

Domestic violence was a significant problem and the government did not take effective measures to prevent it during the year. The government continued to issue protective orders mandating the separation of victims and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to survivors.

The law on crime prevention establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the code on administrative offenses prescribes a substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

According to a number of women’s rights NGOs, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of victims’ rights. Efforts to prosecute offenders and ensure legal and other remedies to correct their behavior were also lacking. NGO experts continued to note the lack of state-supported designated shelters and specialists that work with victims, children, and aggressors.

According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, from January-March officers registered 655 offenses related to household and domestic violence crimes, which was reportedly down by 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Of those, 58 cases included causing severe bodily harm, 27 deaths caused by family members, and 225 cases of death threats and causing severe bodily harm. Police reported they prosecuted 186 individuals on charges of abusing family members. Police issued 1,903 protective orders from January-March.

According to press reports, on May 14, a 38-year-old man in the town of Cherikau severely beat his 39-year-old wife. The woman did not make a police report or seek medical attention until two days later, when she was hospitalized and died of her injuries the same day. The man was detained and charged with battery.

A Ministry of Internal Affairs representative was reachable once a month through July on a NGO-run nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. In August the NGO running the hotline stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of June the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, although this may have been associated with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Healthcare and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence.” The campaign was shifted online during the pandemic but was covered by government media.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem. Victims of sexual harassment did not have access to criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some religious groups may oppose it on religious grounds. Although there were no barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, and skilled postpartum care was widely available, there were fewer professionals with the skills to assist with difficult pregnancies outside of Minsk. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected. Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment as well as discrimination in the workplace (see section 7.d.).

During the year Lukashenka made multiple disparaging comments regarding female political opposition leaders that reflected a discriminatory attitude against women participating in the political arena (see section 3).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.

Child Abuse: Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of a person older than 18 engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 carry is a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children was common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted to beating their children. In a number of resonant cases of child abuse and assault, at least one parent, who committed a crime against the child, suffered from alcohol addiction, and the other was reluctant to report the crime. For example, a court in the town of Zelva convicted and sentenced a male resident to 25 years in prison for continuously abusing his minor daughters, one of whom suffered severe injuries and died. Authorities generally intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions and provided foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, lacking effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner. The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve childcare and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child-abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned child-abuse victims to testify at hearings. More experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.

As of January the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors in vulnerable and dangerous conditions, but independent observers questioned the quality of services. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriage in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Prostitution of children was a problem, and the government took some steps to address it. From January through September, the government identified 354 minors as victims of child sexual abuse and 24 minors exploited for pornography. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for conviction of production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The government generally enforced the law. The government claimed that the law did not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 27 minor trafficking and trafficking-related victims. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods like sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December.

Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not report any child-abuse incidents in institutions. There have been allegations of abuse in foster families; the government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.

According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared with children living in families: they had two to three times more exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrarily detain, investigate, profile, and harass Roma, including by forcing fingerprinting, mistreating them in detention, and subjecting them to ethnic insults.

Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 6,848 (according to the 2019 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Roma. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various forms of discrimination, high unemployment, low levels of education, and lack of access to social services. Roma generally held citizenship, but many lacked official identity documents and refused to obtain them.

Crimea

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, as of August, 105 Crimeans were being deprived of freedom in occupied Crimea or in Russia on political or religious charges, 73 of whom were Crimean Tatar Muslims prosecuted on terrorism charges.

Charges of extremism, terrorism, or violation of territorial integrity were particularly applied to opponents of the occupation, such as Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, independent journalists, and individuals expressing dissent on social media.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution. Occupation authorities’ reported failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Speech: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” On July 31, occupation authorities began enforcing a law that prohibited the unauthorized dissemination of information damaging to the FSB’s reputation without the FSB’s approval. Enforcement of this law in Crimea deprived Crimean residents of the opportunity to publicly criticize and disseminate information about reportedly unlawful actions of FSB officers and alleged violations or abuses of human rights.

Individuals could not publicly criticize the Russian occupation without fear of reprisal. Human rights groups reported the FSB engaged in widespread surveillance of social media, telephones, and electronic communication and routinely summoned individuals for “discussions” for voicing or posting opposition to the occupation. These unlawfully obtained recordings were often used against those who were arbitrarily arrested in closed trials.

Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on January 18, the FSB placed a 34-year entry ban on Taras Ibrahimov, a Ukrainian journalist who covered politically motivated lawsuits and human rights violations in Crimea. Occupation authorities officially informed Ibrahimov of the ban but did not provide a justification.

Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, on March 9, police dispersed a small group of women who began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during an authorized ceremony next to a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Police told the women their actions constituted an “act of provocation.”

Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, on May 22, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged in absentia Crimean Tatar television channel ATR deputy director Ayder Muzhdabaev with violating a Russian law against “public calls for committing terrorist activities.” The charges were purportedly due to his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he routinely expressed on the daily talk show that he cohosted.

There were multiple reports that occupation authorities detained and prosecuted individuals seeking to film raids on homes or court proceedings. For example, according to press reports, journalist Amet Suleimanov was among those arrested on “terrorism” charges in the FSB’s March 11 raid on multiple Crimean Tatars’ homes in Bakhchisaray district. Occupation authorities first detained Suleimanov in 2017 for filming security forces during a raid on the home of a fellow member of Crimean Solidarity. Occupation authorities have detained and released him multiple times since 2017, citing vague “terrorism” concerns. As of October Suleimanov was under house arrest.

During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts. For example, on May 28 a “district court” in occupied Crimea fined the acting chairman of the Alushta Muslim community, Ruslan Emirvaliev, for a social media post made in 2016 containing an image of a boy pointing at a banner displaying the words of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith, in Arabic script. Court documents characterized these words as “an inscription in an unknown language, of an unknown nature and content.”

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent print and broadcast media could not operate freely. Most independent media outlets were forced to close in 2015 after occupation authorities refused to register them. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, after the occupation began, many local journalists left Crimea or abandoned their profession. With no independent media outlets left in Crimea and professional journalists facing serious risks for reporting from the peninsula, civic activists were a major source of information on developments in Crimea.

Violence and Harassment: There were numerous cases of security forces or police harassing activists and detaining journalists in connection with their civic or professional activities. For example, on November 3, occupation authorities detained two journalists of the Russia-based Grani.ru website near a Russia-controlled military court building in Simferopol on administrative charges related to public order. The journalists had come to the military court building to report on the sentencing of three Crimean Tatars by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, which was due to be delivered on the same day. Occupation authorities suggested the reporters had been involved in protests in support of the defendants, although local media reported the crowds of protesters had already dispersed when the journalists were arrested.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting.

There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. As of September Russia-led authorities blocked 30 websites in Crimea, including the websites of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a representative body that Russia deems extremist), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Ministry of Integration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and several independent Ukrainian news outlets, among others. Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).

Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. On June 22, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that occupation authorities were continuing to block Ukrainian FM radio stations in northern Crimea by broadcasting their stations on the same wavelength. The signal of Ukrainian FM radio stations was heard in only five of the area’s 19 settlements.

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.

National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to justify retaliation against opponents of Russia’s occupation.

The Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service included prominent critics of the occupation on its list of extremists and terrorists. Inclusion on the list prevented individuals from holding bank accounts, using notary services, and conducting other financial transactions.

Authorities frequently used the threat of “extremism,” “terrorism,” or other purported national security grounds to justify harassment or prosecution of individuals in retaliation for expressing opposition to the occupation. For example, on May 25, the Russia-controlled “supreme court” in occupied Crimea began hearing the in absentia trial of Lenur Isliamov, the owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR. In 2015 occupation authorities charged Isliamov with “organizing an illegal armed group, committing sabotage, [and] public calls for extremist activities.” In 2015 Isliamov led a group of volunteers near the administrative border in blocking the transport of commercial goods to and from occupied Crimea. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the act an “essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea,” and the Ukrainian government subsequently approved the formal registration of Isliamov’s organization.

Internet Freedom

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Recent Elections: Russian occupation authorities prevented residents from voting in Ukrainian national and local elections since Crimea’s occupation began in 2014.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Corruption: There were multiple reports of systemic rampant corruption among Crimean “officeholders,” including through embezzlement of Russian state funds allocated to support the occupation. For example, on March 28, a “district court” found the former head of the Feodosiya city administration, Dmitri Shchepetkov, guilty of abuse of office and attempted bribe taking. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 42 million rubles ($560,000).

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

Children

Birth Registration: Under both Ukrainian law and laws imposed by Russian occupation authorities, either birthplace or parentage determines citizenship. Russia’s occupation and purported annexation of Crimea complicated the question of citizenship for children born after February 2014, since it was difficult for parents to register a child as a citizen with Ukrainian authorities. Registration in the country requires a hospital certificate, which is retained when a birth certificate is issued. Under the occupation regime, new parents could only obtain a Russian birth certificate and did not have access to a hospital certificate. In 2016 the Ukrainian government instituted a process whereby births in Crimea could be recognized with documents issued by occupation authorities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Since the beginning of the occupation, authorities singled out Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians for discrimination, abuse, deprivation of civil liberties and religious and economic rights, and violence, including killings and abductions (also see sections 1.a.-1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 2.b., and 2.d.). The June UN secretary-general’s report noted, “Law enforcement authorities seemed to target actual or perceived critics of the occupation of Crimea and the policies of the Russian Federation on the peninsula, such as the Mejlis and Crimean Solidarity.”

There were reports that Russian occupation authorities openly advocated discrimination against Crimean Tatars. Occupation authorities harassed Crimean Tatars for speaking their language in public and forbade speaking it in the workplace. There were reports teachers prohibited schoolchildren from speaking Crimean Tatar to one another. Crimean Tatars were prohibited from celebrating their national holidays and commemorating victims of previous abuses (see section 2.b.).

Occupation authorities also restricted the use of Crimean Tatar flags and symbols (see section 2.a.).

By the end of 2014, Ukrainian as a language of instruction was removed from university-level education in Crimea. According to the Crimean Resource Center, schools in Crimea no longer provided instruction in Ukrainian. Crimean Tatar was the sole instruction language for seven schools, and five schools that previously offered all instruction in Crimean Tatar added Russian language instruction. In 2017 the International Court of Justice ruled on provisional measures in proceedings brought by Ukraine against the Russian Federation, concluding unanimously that the Russian Federation must “ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language.”

Occupation authorities have not permitted churches linked to ethnic Ukrainians, in particular the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to register under Russian law. Occupation authorities harassed and intimidated members of the churches and used court proceedings to force the OCU in particular to leave properties it had rented for years. On July 24, “court bailiffs” issued an order to Archbishop Klyment of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to dismantle the only OCU church in Yevpatoriya within five days.

The largest OCU congregation in Crimea closed in September 2019 following a ruling by occupation authorities that the cathedral located in Simferopol must be “returned to the state.” The church was shut down after repeated refusals by the authorities to allow it to register.

Russian occupation authorities prohibited Crimean Tatars affiliated with the Mejlis from registering businesses or properties as a matter of policy.

Georgia

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

In a joint September 2019 statement, 16 local NGOs expressed alarm concerning what they termed an “increased number of politically motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions.” They cited as examples the criminal case against the two founders of TBC Bank (see section 4), the criminal cases against the former director of the television station Rustavi 2 and against the father of the owner of TV Pirveli (see section 2.a.), and some cases of incarceration of those who in June 2019 protested Russia’s occupation of parts of the country’s territory, including opposition party leader Irakli Okruashvili (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).

Opposition party members and family members of prisoners stated the government held political prisoners. On May 15, President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned and released from incarceration European Georgia leader Gigi Ugulava and Victorious Georgia founder Irakli Okruashvili. Opposition parties had demanded their release based on a March 8 pre-election agreement with the ruling Georgian Dream party. Opposition parties and the international community welcomed the pardons.

The opposition continued to urge the release of opposition figure Giorgi Rurua, characterizing him as a political prisoner whose release was envisioned under the March 8 political agreement between ruling and opposition parties. In addition to election system changes, the agreement contained a provision that the government would address the appearance of political interference in the judicial system. On July 30, Rurua was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on two charges. On August 4, nine NGOs expressed concerns the case against Rurua was politically motivated and stated, “Prosecution on political grounds has recently become a weapon to influence political opponents or critical media outlets.”

The government permitted international and domestic organizations to visit persons claiming to be political prisoners or detainees, and several international organizations did so.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised serious concerns regarding the environment for media pluralism. In addition to raising such concerns, the Public Defender’s Office noted in its April parliamentary report covering 2019 that the country continued to lack proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists.

Freedom of Speech: NGOs accused the justice minister of attempting to restrict freedom of speech by suspending notary Bachana Shengelia from office on June 19 for comments he posted on Facebook regarding the controversial 2018 death of his mother, school principal Ia Kerzaia (see the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia, section 3). GYLA described the suspension as a restriction on freedom of expression and submitted a case on Shengelia’s behalf to the Constitutional Court on July 6.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to express concern regarding the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, the public broadcaster’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party, decreased media pluralism, and a number of criminal prosecutions against owners of media outlets that appeared politically motivated.

In June parliament appointed Bondo Mdzinarishivli as a member of the nine-member Georgian Public Broadcaster Board of Trustees. Many media watchers expressed concern about Mdzinarishvili’s appointment, as he was known for his homophobic rhetoric at TV Obiektivi.

Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding decreased media pluralism and continuing political influence in media. Concerns also persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. Persistent allegations of political pressure on public broadcasters remained. During the year civil society groups alleged the ruling party continued to attempt to gain undue influence over Adjara Public Broadcaster following the controversial dismissal of Natia Kapanadze, the former director of Adjara Television, in April 2019. Kapanadze appealed the decision in court but lost. After several attempts, in November 2019 the Adjara Public Broadcaster Advisory Council elected a new director, Giorgi Kokhreidze, who fired and harassed dozens of employees who were vocally critical of the management.

On February 2, Natia Zoidze, deputy director of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, resigned as a result of what Reporters without Borders termed “political pressure.” Approximately one-third of the station’s employees (100) founded an alternative trade union to protect their rights. Solidarity rallies were held in several cities, including Batumi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi, in support of Adjara Public Broadcaster’s employees and editorial policy. In March the public defender expressed concern regarding the possible negative effect the developments might have on freedom of expression, as did Reporters without Borders; Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media; and 33 local NGOs. Former employees of Adjara Public Broadcaster and their respective trade unions filed several lawsuits and applied to the Prosecutor’s Office alleging harassment, interference with journalistic activities, and unlawful termination by Giorgi Kokhreidze.

Concerns continued regarding decreased media pluralism and an increase in the concentration of media outlets in favor of the ruling party following the July 2019 ECHR ruling in favor of a former owner of Rustavi 2, Kibar Khalvashi. Whereas the previous owner had been affiliated with the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, Khalvashi was affiliated with the ruling party. During the year some journalists who had been fired due to changes of management and staff sought to defend their labor rights in court. Many media watchers expressed concern and called upon international watchdog groups to monitor thoroughly developments around the station. As of December, Rustavi 2’s reporting critical of the government had softened, particularly in the pre-election period. Rustavi 2’s former general director, Nika Gvaramia, and many journalists who formerly worked for Rustavi 2 moved to media outlet Mtavari Arkhi, which was established in September 2019 and was aligned with the opposition UNM party and one of the harshest critics of the ruling party. Other journalists who had worked at Rustavi 2 joined Formula TV, launched in August 2019, or TV Pirveli.

The Public Defender’s Office, some media watchers, NGOs, and opposition parties expressed suspicion that a number of criminal prosecutions against critical media outlets or their owners were politically motivated. On July 9, for example, the public defender stated that multiple criminal cases against owners of independent television companies raised questions about “attempts to persecute independent and critical media in the country.” On August 4, nine NGOs questioned the legality of the July 30 Tbilisi City Court criminal conviction of Giorgi Rurua, a shareholder of Mtavari Arkhi, and four-year prison sentence on charges related to the illegal purchase, storage, and carrying of firearms and ammunition. They also stated they saw reason to suspect the case was politically motivated. Several rights groups and opposition parties attributed the criminal proceedings against Rurua, and the verdict against him, to his activism during the June 2019 protest rallies (see Section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly) and his acquisition of a share in the opposition television station.

On December 1, Mtavari Arkhi’s general director Nika Gvaramia was notified a court case against him would resume on December 7. The opposition perceived this as the ruling party’s retribution for Mtavari Arkhi’s favorable coverage of the UNM. The case involved allegations that Nika Gvaramia exchanged advertising for two vehicles from Porsche Center Tbilisi. In summer 2019 Gvaramia was charged with abuse of power, misappropriation of property, and commercial bribery. The public defender stated that holding a company director civilly liable for the company’s decision should apply only in exceptional circumstances and that criminal liability should be even rarer. Gvaramia and a number of media advocacy groups disputed the charges, claiming they were politically motivated. Earlier in the year, Gvaramia claimed to have been physically assaulted and his family surveilled. His trial date remained postponed at year’s end.

In early January journalists from a business program at Maestro, a member of Imedi Media Holding, alleged censorship and political interference from Imedi TV’s director shortly before the program was shut down in March. The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics (GCJE) described the case as a violation of the charter’s principle providing noninterference with journalists’ work.

Media rights groups alleged the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of the broadcast media through controversial amendments passed by parliament to the electronic communication law. The amendments, which were adopted on July 17, allow the GNCC to appoint special “media managers” to telecommunications companies–which include a number of broadcasters that operate as electronic communication companies through multiplexes–to enforce GNCC decisions. Local telecommunication companies also criticized the amendments, as did Reporters without Borders, which characterized the amendments as a government attempt to control radio stations and television channels.

Passage of the July amendments occurred in the context of concerns the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of expression through its online platform, Media Critic, created in December 2019. The platform was designed to examine and guide media content, and many media watchers voiced concern that the GNCC had overstepped its operational mandate. Mediachecker, a self-regulatory media monitoring platform, asserted Media Critic’s main activity was to criticize independent media outlets.

On November 1, the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission reported that during the parliamentary election campaign the diverse and pluralistic media were highly polarized, and there was little analytical reporting and policy-based discussion, detracting from the voters’ ability to make a fully informed choice. The November 9 monitoring report on parliamentary elections by the GCJE stated the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s newscasts dedicated the largest portion of the time to the ruling party and that the government enjoyed the highest indicators of positive coverage.

By law media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners.

Violence and Harassment: There were attacks on journalists during the October election campaign allegedly by political party representatives. The GCJE, in a statement released in November, complained of verbal and physical abuse against media on Election Day by unknown assailants. On one occasion at a voting precinct, a journalist from online Publika.ge was assaulted and injured and his camera was broken. A criminal investigation was underway. In addition, a TV Pirveli journalist was hit in the face, and an On.ge reporter’s camera was damaged.

The GCJE also reported disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials at a rally near the Central Election Commission. According to media reports, police injured four journalists and damaged their equipment. The GCJE alleged police intentionally targeted the media representatives with water cannons.

Throughout the year the Prosecutor General’s Office repeatedly claimed it continued to investigate attacks on journalists by law enforcement officers during the June 2019 protests in which several journalists were injured. Some journalists and NGOs claimed these injuries occurred as a result of the deliberate targeting of journalists. For example, GYLA stated law enforcement officers “deliberately fired rubber bullets” at media representatives, despite their identification badges. According to the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, 39 journalists were among the 240 injured, and GYLA and TI Georgia asserted they should be recognized as victims. The Prosecutor General’s Office questioned several journalists as witnesses. As of year’s end, the Prosecutor General’s investigation continued.

On June 12, the State Security Service of Georgia arrested a Russian citizen suspected in an alleged plot to kill Giorgi Gabunia, a Mtavari Arkhi journalist who in July 2019 insulted President Putin on a live show. The station’s general director and local media said the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, ordered the killing. The latter denied his involvement. The Media Advocacy Coalition and Reporters without Borders urged the government to investigate the incident in a timely manner. On November 27, Gabunia received victim status. As of year’s end, the investigation continued.

There were some reports of harassment against media. For example, NGOs considered the State Security Service of Georgia’s investigation of Mtavari Arkhi for a report it broadcast to constitute harassment. On June 20, a number of media observers announced they considered the investigation gross interference in the editorial independence of the media, creating a risk of self-censorship. TI Georgia and the Media Advocacy Coalition advised the government to use the GCJE or a self-regulatory body operating at the television channel instead of opening a criminal investigation. The investigation was opened under the charge of discrediting the government, inflaming mistrust toward the authorities, which is punishable under the criminal code.

On June 24, the general secretary of the ruling party, Mayor Kakha Kaladze, posted to Facebook a photograph depicting three opposition-leaning media outlets (Mtavari Arkhi, Formula TV, and TV Pirveli) as generators of lies. The page referred to “Mtavari (main) Lie,” “Formula of the Lie,” and “Pirveli (first) Lie.” The post advertised a new initiative from the mayor of Tbilisi’s office, “Truth Punch,” a Facebook live series that was intended to combat disinformation in the media. On June 25, the Media Advocacy Coalition along with 11 member rights groups characterized the mayor’s post as an attempt “to use his political power to intensify attacks on media.” The mayor’s office took down the Truth Punch platform after two live streams, attributing the move to the summer season and criticism by media experts.

On October 21, a few days before parliamentary elections, Avtandil Tsereteli, father of the TV Pirveli owner, stated his life was threatened by some unknown persons if he did not change the station’s editorial policy.

Some watchdog groups, such as TI Georgia, expressed concern that law enforcement bodies summoned journalists for questioning and asked them to identify their sources. The law allows journalists to maintain the anonymity of their sources and not to be compelled to testify as a witness.

Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged Georgian Dream party chair and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continued to exert a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions against the owner of TV Pirveli and the general director of Mtavari Arkhi.

On May 5, Facebook removed a network of pages, groups, and accounts linked to news agency Espersona, a media organization owned by a former Georgian Dream public relations consultant, claiming these were “fake news” pages. At the same time, Facebook took down a set of assets connected to the UNM party. Both parties denied any connection to the pages in question.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by Russian and de facto authorities.

Internet Freedom

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In December 2018 a new constitution went into effect that eliminates direct election of the president and establishes a fully proportional electoral system for the 2024 parliamentary elections, among other provisions. Parliament adopted a series of constitutional amendments and electoral reforms aimed at strengthening electoral processes and transitioning to a more proportional electoral system for the October 31 parliamentary elections. The measures included a prohibition on teachers campaigning during work hours, third-party financing regulations, and a mandatory gender quota aimed at increasing women’s participation in parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held parliamentary elections on October 31 and second-round runoff elections in 17 of 30 electoral districts on November 21. The OSCE deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its November 1 preliminary statement, the OSCE mission assessed the October 31 elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but stated “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state” reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process. The mission particularly highlighted concerns about ruling party dominance in election commissions. It also reported continuing shortcomings in the complaints and appeals process, noting that during the pre-election period, of more than 300 complaints, the majority were rejected, “many without due consideration, undermining the right to effective legal remedy.”

Credible domestic civil society organizations deployed approximately 3,000 election observers across the country. They alleged misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party, voter intimidation, vote buying, violations of ballot secrecy, obstruction of journalists and domestic election observers, and inaccurate and altered vote tabulation at the precinct and district level. Domestic organizations submitted hundreds of electoral complaints and were highly critical of the Central Election Commission’s management of the elections. On November 4, a total of 26 domestic NGOs issued a statement describing the conduct of the October 31 elections as the worst held under Georgian Dream. In addition, opposition parties alleged the number of missing ballots in certain precincts indicated there was widespread “carousel voting.” Leading domestic nonpartisan election monitors reported the majority of their postelection complaints were rejected by the election administration and courts, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and the outcome of the election.

As a result of the alleged violations leading up to and on election day, opposition parties boycotted the runoff elections on November 21 and refused to take their seats in parliament. On December 11, the new parliament was sworn in, but only the ruling Georgian Dream members of parliament took their seats (Georgian Dream won 90 of 150 seats). The OSCE did not observe the November 21 runoff elections, and most domestic observer groups significantly scaled back their observation efforts or did not observe because of the boycott. Despite the boycott, domestic election monitoring organizations raised concerns regarding electoral violations on election day.

Throughout November and December, foreign embassies facilitated a series of negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition parties, at the request of the parties. Negotiations continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Reports of political violence continued. For example, in its November 2 election report, the international NGO National Democratic Institute stated that parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets reported “multiple incidents of violence and intimidation during the campaign period.” Altercations between supporters of competing political parties in September, including violent street fights in Marneuli and Bolnisi, left several persons injured. On November 16, the office of a UNM candidate was reportedly firebombed with Molotov cocktails. On December 24, TI Georgia reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs had commenced investigations into all election-related violence and arrested several individuals. Citing the Ministry of Internal Affairs, TI Georgia noted that, as of October 20, police had opened investigations into 59 cases of election-related violence, of which six were terminated. In nine of the remaining 53 cases, prosecutions were underway. TI observed, however, that the Internal Affairs Ministry had not released updated statistics on investigations underway since October 20.

Following a 2018 assault by the then mayor of Marneuli, Temur Abazov, on a citizen whom he forced to apologize to “41” (the Georgian Dream party’s ballot number) and whose face he allegedly smeared with his own urine, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened an investigation into those involved, including the mayor, UNM member of parliament Azer Suleymanov, and a Georgian Dream member of the Marneuli city council, Ramin Allahverdiyev. The mayor was charged with degrading and inhuman treatment and faced five to 10 years in prison if convicted. The Rustavi City Court acquitted Abazov on February 12. The Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the case to the Tbilisi Appellate Court; at year’s end the case was pending.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides for a gender quota for candidates for seats in parliament. The law aims to increase the number of women in the electoral process by 2024 and requires that every third candidate on a party list be a woman by 2028.

De facto authorities in Abkhazia stripped ethnic Georgians of their Abkhaz “citizenship” in 2014, preventing them from participating in de facto elections. Ethnic Georgians willing to apply for Abkhaz “passports” generally did not receive them in time to participate in de facto elections due to extensive delays. Ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia were also required to accept a South Ossetian “passport” and “citizenship” to participate in political life. International actors, including the OSCE Group of Friends of Georgia, did not recognize the legitimacy of de facto “elections.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for officials convicted of corruption. While the government implemented the law effectively against low-level corruption, NGOs continued to cite weak checks and balances and a lack of independence of law enforcement agencies among the factors contributing to allegations of high-level corruption. NGOs assessed there were no effective mechanisms for preventing corruption in state-owned enterprises and independent regulatory bodies. While noting that petty bribery was extremely rare, TI Georgia stated the country failed to pursue a “result-oriented anticorruption policy that would make it possible to investigate cases of corruption, especially those at high levels of government.” In June, TI Georgia, in its National Integrity System Assessment for Georgia, noted enforcement of the law was inadequate with respect to preventing conflicts of interest and corruption in the public sector. The country also lacked an independent anticorruption agency to combat high-level corruption.

The Anticorruption Coordination Council included government officials, legal professionals, business representatives, civil society, and international organizations. In October 2019 the minister of justice announced the government had approved its 2019-21 anticorruption strategy.

TI Georgia in its October report, Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policy in Georgia: 2016-2020, noted the government annually approves national action plans to combat corruption. It reported some shortcomings, however, including ineffective investigations of cases of alleged high-level corruption. Although the law restricts gifts to public officials to a maximum of 5 percent of their annual salary, a loophole allowing unlimited gifts to public officials from their family members continued to be a source of concern for anticorruption watchdogs.

Corruption: In a high-profile case, the head of the Omega Group, a large conglomerate including independent Iberia TV, alleged in 2018 that current and former high-level officials had demanded bribes and engaged in violent racketeering, to include the physical abuse of a former minister. During the year there were no developments in the case. In a separate case involving Iberia TV, on March 5, the Tbilisi City Court convicted former prosecutor general Zurab Adeishvili and former deputy prosecutor general Giorgi Latsabidze of exceeding official powers in 2004-07 by illegally seizing the broadcasting license of Iberia TV so the television station could be controlled by the Saakashvili government. The Tbilisi City Court sentenced Adeishvili to two years’ imprisonment. The length of sentence was reduced by 25 percent under the amnesty law; as a result, he was sentenced to imprisonment for 18 months. Latsabidze was fined 40,000 lari ($12,000). In the same ruling, the court restricted Adeishvili and Latsabidze from holding any position in public sector.

As of August, 13 sitting or former public servants had been charged with corruption since January.

In 2018 authorities questioned the former ministers of infrastructure and economy in connection with a high-profile corruption case. Some observers considered the investigations politically motivated. The investigations continued at year’s end but lacked transparency, and authorities did not update the public on their progress.

As of year’s end, the Anticorruption Agency of the State Security Service of Georgia had detained nine public servants at the local and central levels for taking bribes, including the mayor of Borjomi, Levan Lipartia, and the chair of the city council, Giorgi Gogichaishvli. NGOs continued to call for an independent anticorruption agency outside the authority of the State Security Service, alleging its officials were abusing its functions.

The trial of TBC Bank cofounders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, which began in December 2019, continued during the year. The case stemmed from bank transactions in 2008 when TBC Bank issued a $16.7 million loan to Avtandil Tsereteli’s companies Samgori Trade and Samgori M. Within seconds of receiving the loan, the companies transferred the same amount to Khazaradze and Japaridze. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, TBC Bank released Tsereteli’s companies from financial liabilities in 2012 despite their failure to repay the loans. In a March 2019 interview with Imedi TV, Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili accused Khazaradze of directing an assault against the government. July 2019 charges by the Prosecutor General’s Office came just weeks after Khazaradze’s announcement of his intent to establish a civil movement. Khazaradze established the movement “Lelo” and in December launched the movement as a political party. Tsereteli’s son was the owner of TV Pirveli, an independent media outlet that accused the government of attempting to interfere with its operations (see section 2.a.). In August 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Avtandil Tsereteli with providing support to Khazaradze and Japaridze in the alleged money-laundering scheme. A group of 20 NGOs, including TI Georgia, the Open Society Fund Georgia, the Atlantic Council of Georgia, and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, considered the charges against all three men to be politically motivated, given the amount of time that had transpired. In April the public defender’s annual report for 2019 stated there was no evidence in the case files for the July 2019 charge of money laundering in 2008. On May 14, TI Georgia released an assessment by an international expert that there was no proof that Mamuka Khazaradze, Badri Japaridze, or Avtandil Tsereteli committed a money-laundering offense, either individually or as coconspirators.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual declarations of their income and property for tax inspection; these were posted online. Declarations were not subject to verification, and TI Georgia estimated six members of parliament had undeclared assets in 2019. The Civil Service Bureau received annual financial declarations from public officials and published them in mid-January.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but criminal law does not specifically address spousal rape. A convicted first-time offender may be imprisoned for up to eight years. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

At the end of 2019, the head of the Sapari women’s organization, Baia Pataraia, alleged the enforcement of the law on sexual crimes was problematic. Investigative authorities lacked training on effective procedures on case handling and evidence collection. Victims were often told to focus on physical violence as proof of sexual violence. GYLA reported sexual violence was prevalent and underreported. In only a small number of reported cases were perpetrators convicted. Prosecutors applied overly burdensome evidence requirements for bringing charges against perpetrators of sexual violence, while overwhelmingly strict requirements for convictions of sexual violence crimes were applied by judges.

During the year a study by the Public Defender’s Office into cases of sexual violence revealed a number of serious legislative shortcomings in regulation of crimes involving sexual violence, as well as in investigation, criminal prosecution, and court hearing of such crimes, falling short of the standards of Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and international human rights. The analysis of the cases showed that in the cases of rape and other sexual violence, the court did not consider the absence of a victim’s consent an integral part of the definition of crime. Furthermore, the legislation does not consider a broad spectrum of circumstances that may affect the victim’s will and provides for a disproportionately lenient punishment for a crime committed in certain conditions.

The law criminalizes domestic violence. In cases that do not result in injury, penalties for conviction of domestic violence include 80 to 150 hours of community service or imprisonment for up to one year. Domestic and gender-based violence remained a significant problem that the government took several steps to combat. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had a risk assessment tool that enables a police officer to decide whether to issue a restraining order based on a questionnaire available in the restraining order protocol, the data assessment, and risk analysis. In addition, if there is a high risk of recurrence of violence, a system of electronic surveillance allows the Ministry of Internal Affairs permanently to monitor abusers 24 hours a day. The high rate of domestic violence showed reporting of incidents increased in the country and that police were responding. Shortcomings, however, remained. In one example, in October 2019 an employee of the Tbilisi City Council accused councilmember Ilia Jishkariani of sexual assault and beating. The Prosecutor’s Office charged Jishkariani with sexual and other violence; however, the trial at Tbilisi City Court had not begun as of year’s end.

The Public Defender’s Office highlighted a shortage of measures to prevent violence against women and to empower survivors of domestic violence. The office analyzed gender-based killings (femicides) and concluded they demonstrated an absence of mechanisms to prevent violence against women in the country.

As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened 90 investigations into allegations of rape and the Prosecutor General’s Office prosecuted 44 individuals on rape charges, compared with 29 in 2019.

During the year and in 2019, parliament approved amendments to the Law on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that eliminated shortcomings in the law concerning the detection of domestic violence in minors by crisis and shelter staff. The law also promotes a prevention-oriented approach to correct abusers’ behavior and reduce recidivism. Overall, the Public Defender’s Office and women’s rights NGOs welcomed the new legislation but emphasized the need for the government to improve coordination between government agencies working on the issue.

NGOs and the government expanded the services provided to survivors of domestic violence in recent years. GYLA reported that considering the increase of domestic violence cases by one-third worldwide during the pandemic, the official statistics on domestic violence and violence against women did not change significantly, which indicated a possible underreporting of domestic violence incidents by victims.

Domestic violence laws mandate the provision of temporary protective measures, including shelter and restraining orders that prohibit an abuser from coming within 330 feet of the survivor and from using common property, such as a residence or vehicle, for six months.

Local NGOs and the government jointly operated a 24-hour hotline and shelters for abused women and their minor children, although space in the shelters was limited and only four of the country’s 10 regions had facilities.

In 2019 UN Women conducted a population-level survey and a study on gender-based violence, according to which women’s biggest risk in Abkhazia was violence from intimate partners, with 15 percent of respondents having experienced physical abuse, 30 percent emotional abuse, and 8 percent sexual violence in their lifetime, while 5 percent experienced physical abuse, 14 percent emotional abuse and 7 percent sexual violence in the last 12 months. This risk was more pronounced in rural areas, where 22 percent experienced physical violence, 32 percent emotional violence, and 15 percent sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence by nonpartners was also a problem, with 15 percent of the women surveyed reporting at least one form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime by a nonpartner.

Authorities worked to combat domestic and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. In cooperation with the NGO Women’s Information Center, short text messages were sent to the population on April 14-15 in Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian, explaining the mechanisms and forms of reporting domestic violence to police. The short text message had a built-in link that allowed the user to download an emergency services application and, if necessary, use the silent alarm button to send a message. After sending the text message, up to 5,000 users downloaded the application. The government also produced a video with information on legal instruments and services available in the country against domestic violence and gender-based violence that was shown on both public and commercial television channels.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and ethnic minority communities but was rare. The Public Defender’s Office reported some cases of kidnapping for forced marriage and early marriage in its 2019 report. The practice of early marriage and engagement remained a significant challenge. Similar to previous years, the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement was problematic. There was no effective referral mechanism to identify and prevent incidents of early marriage and engagement. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that in the first half of the year, the Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department held a number of meetings and participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the problem as well as provide timely reporting to police.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal under the code of administrative offenses but is not criminalized; it remained a problem in the workplace. Under the law sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination and is defined as an unwanted physical, verbal, or nonverbal action of a sexual nature that aims to or results in the degradation of a person or creation of a hostile environment for that person. Based on amendments to laws on sexual harassment in 2019, the public defender analyzes the case and provides recommendations on the case to authorized persons at the institution where the violation took place. During the year the Public Defender’s Officer examined eight allegations of sexual harassment and identified violations in five instances. For example, in June the public defender found evidence of sexual harassment committed by a doctor against a woman in quarantine. Under May 2019 amendments to the code of administrative offenses, sexual harassment victims may file complaints with police. If found guilty, a person can be fined 300 lari ($90); repeated violations result in a fine of 500 lari ($150) or correctional work for up to one month. Repeated violations in the case of a minor, a pregnant woman, a person unable to resist due to physical or mental helplessness, a person with a disability, or in the presence of a minor with prior knowledge leads to a fine of 800 to 1,000 lari ($240 to $300), correctional labor for up to one month, or administrative detention for up to 10 days.

The public defender considered especially problematic a selective approach applied by the state to instances of violence against women and domestic violence involving influential persons as abusers. In such cases, the approach of the state changed and response was delayed, leaving the impression that preference was given not to victims’ rights but to abusers’ interests. Victims often had to go public to prompt action by relevant authorities.

Reproductive Rights: The law does not regulate the number, spacing, or timing of children for single people or couples. The country regulated the use of surrogacy services, and only heterosexual couples have a right to surrogacy services. In August the Ministry of Justice amended the decree regulating civil acts, restricting the right to surrogacy to heterosexual couples who have been married or living together for more than one year. Women and LGBTI rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women and LGBTI persons who wanted to have a child. The law requires gender confirmation surgery for legal gender-identity change and does not provide transgender individuals who do not wish to undergo confirmation surgery the legal ability to change their gender identity.

The UNFPA reported that women from minority communities, women from rural areas, and poor women faced barriers in accessing information related to their reproductive health.

There were no legal, social, or cultural barriers to access contraception, and contraceptives were available in pharmacies or by prescription, with a prescription exemption for emergency contraceptives. The UNFPA reported, however, that financial barriers limited access to customized contraceptive options for many women.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, limited access to information about contraceptives remained a challenge for girls and women of childbearing age. The office stated human sexuality education was not fully integrated into school curriculums. Programs in schools failed to provide information to teenagers about safe sexual relations. The lack of comprehensive education prevented girls from defending themselves from early marriage and early pregnancy. According to a UNFPA 2020 report, during 2019 there were 29 births per 1,000 girls 15 to 19 years of age.

The Public Defender’s Office stated in 2019 that poor funding and lack of information limited the use of contraceptives and resulted in unplanned pregnancies for women of childbearing age. Women in rural areas, especially remote mountain villages, lacked regular access to family planning services and clinics. Women often had to travel to larger towns for these services, causing additional financial burden.

There were no barriers to receiving skilled personal medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth. During the year, however, the use of maternal health

services decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both due to fear of infection and movement restrictions.

The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of post-partum care needed for the prevention of maternal mortality and for maintaining women’s mental and physical well-being. Maternal health services were somewhat limited for women who spoke languages other than Georgian.

The Agency for Social Care, under the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health and Social Affairs, provided medical, psychological, legal, and other kinds of help to survivors of sexual violence. The agency operated two shelters for survivors and their minor children.

The UNFPA reported that the state funded services for victims of sexual violence based on a 2018 decree. The decree stipulates the state budget will fund certain services, including, but not limited to, emergency contraceptives and postexposure prophylaxis. Regulations, however, require victims of sexual assault–who may hesitate to come forward–to notify police to receive these services, which can be a barrier for victims and health specialists. Victims of trafficking in persons and domestic violence do not need to cooperate with police to receive services.

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

Discrimination: Civil society organizations continued to report discrimination against women in the workplace. The Public Defender’s Office monitored gender equality complaints, in particular those involving domestic violence and workplace harassment, and stated that gender equality remained a problem, despite a number of steps taken in the past few years to enhance legislative and institutional mechanisms. The office considered the small number of government projects, programs, and initiatives designed to empower women to be inadequate to achieve gender equality.

In August the Ministry of Justice passed amendments to the decree regulating the procedure for approving the registration of civil acts. As of September 1, only couples who are officially married for at least one year or can prove they have lived together for at least one year have the right to hire a surrogate and have a child. Women’s rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women who are not officially married and want to have a child. The Ministry of Justice’s stated goal was to decrease trafficking risks, but the decision affected single women and men who cannot have children and planned to use surrogacy services. The legislation gives the right to become a parent with surrogacy help only to couples.

Children

Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory; children born to stateless parents in the country are citizens. According to UNICEF, 99 percent of children were registered before reaching the age of five.

While IDP returnees were in principle able to register their children’s births with de facto authorities, they reportedly preferred to have their births registered with Georgian authorities.

Education: Children of noncitizens often lacked documentation to enroll in school. The level of school attendance was low for children belonging to disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as street children and children with disabilities or in foster care.

According to a multiple indicator cluster survey conducted in 2018 by the national statistics office GEOstat and the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health with UNICEF support, total enrollment of preschool children between the ages three and five was 81.8 percent. Enrollment rates were lower for children of ethnic minorities (the rate for Azeri children was 28.8 percent, while the rate for Armenian children was 68.8 percent) as well as children from socially vulnerable groups (poor or large families, single parent families, IDPs, families with persons with disabilities) (63.6 percent) and rural communities (70.2 percent). In 2019 the Public Defender’s Office reported that in spite of efforts by municipalities, availability of preschool care and education remained problems. Kindergarten infrastructure, classroom overcrowding, and sanitary compliance with official standards were particularly problematic.

The school dropout rate remained high. Identifying the reasons for the high rate and adopting effective measures to reduce dropouts remained significant problems. The public defender emphasized the problem in several reports, highlighting the impact of early marriage, child poverty, and child labor on the ability of children to access education. In 2019, more than 14,000 minors dropped out of school, compared with 10,433 in 2018. In 2019 the public defender reported schools had no uniform mechanism to process statistical data of school dropouts or to indicate the grounds for dropping out.

According to a UNICEF study released in 2018, the majority of street children did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care.

Child Abuse: Conviction of various forms of child abuse, including trafficking, forced labor, or forced begging, is punishable by a spectrum of prison terms and fines. Conviction of domestic violence against minors is punishable by imprisonment for one to three years, and conviction for trafficking minors is punishable by eight to 20 years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstance. The Public Defender’s Office reported general education institutions and preschools lack qualified professionals who could detect and respond to signs of violence against children in a timely manner.

Authorities referred children who suffered abuse to the relevant community and government services in coordination with stakeholders, including police, schools, and social service agencies. In 2019 there were 3,881 alleged cases of violence against children reported to the government’s Social Service Agency, 87 of which involved allegations of domestic violence. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 2019 courts issued 740 restraining orders in domestic violence cases involving victims who were minors.

On September 1, the Code on the Rights of Children, adopted in 2019, entered into force. The code is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols and recognizes child-specific needs and rights, including the right to dignity, life, survival, and development, and prohibits discrimination.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18. Conviction of forced marriage of an individual younger than 18 is punishable by two to four years’ imprisonment. During the year the Public Defender’s Office reported the practice of early marriage and engagement remained problematic. The lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement also remained a problem. Due to COVID-19, home-based learning made it more difficult for social workers to detect cases and intervene promptly. The Public Defender’s Office noted that the social service agency did not have guidelines for case management and their response to child marriages was often superficial and fragmented. The Ministry of Internal Affairs launched an information campaign against the practice. The ministry’s Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the issue, as well as provide timely reporting to police. Reports of child marriages continued throughout the year. A 2019 report by the public defender indicated child marriages occurred more frequently among certain ethnic and religious groups. Further, immediate and adequate response to unlawful imprisonment and forced marriage remained a problem, often due to preconceptions and stereotyped attitudes about ethnic minorities. Inadequate response to such incidents encouraged this type of crime, according to the public defender, because it emboldened potential offenders who believed they would not be held responsible for their crimes. According to the report, male elders (aqsaqals) decided the fate of girls in cases of early marriage in the Kvemo Kartli region . The response of the state entities in such cases was belated and unproductive, according to the report, potentially because authorities may have been reluctant to enter into conflict with influential locals.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction for commercial sexual exploitation of children or possession of child pornography is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Authorities enforced the law. Street children and children living in orphanages were reportedly particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The law considers sexual intercourse with a juvenile as rape, provided the perpetrator is proven to be aware of the victim’s age. The penalty for conviction for rape is up to nine years’ imprisonment; the government generally enforced the law. Conviction of other sexual crimes carried increased levels of punishment if the victim was a juvenile.

In 2019 the public defender described children living and working in the street as a vulnerable social group that faced a high risk of domestic and sexual violence. They lacked protections from labor and sexual exploitation and had limited access to health care and education. The government’s detection, outreach, and actions to protect and assist street children were limited, and access to services for them and their families remained inadequate.

Due to their homelessness and lack of sanitation, street children had a higher risk of COVID-19 infection. The Public Defender’s Office reported, based on information received from the A-TIPFUND, that a quarantine area where children were placed was opened in Tbilisi. Mobile groups working under the state subprogram, if necessary, placed street children in this quarantine area as well.

Displaced Children: The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of information regarding street children and noted the inadequacy of resources devoted to them. It was unclear how many children were geographically displaced, and a significant portion belonged to families that migrate seasonally to Georgia from Azerbaijan. In 2019 the office reported that stereotypical public attitudes toward children living or working in the street and their families posed a problem. The population of street children was diverse, consisting of ethnic Georgians, members of two Romani language groups, Kurds from Azerbaijan, children of Armenian refugees, and children of IDPs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Law enforcement officers and labor inspectors began to take enforcement action, but more work was needed to protect children from being trafficked or being exploited through illicit work and forced labor.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued replacing large-scale orphanages with alternative arrangements. The government provided grants for higher education for institutionalized and foster-care children, including full coverage of tuition and a stipend, and provided emergency assistance to foster families.

The government continued to transfer children, including those with disabilities, who are institutionalized in large-scale orphanages to family and family-type services (small group homes for specialized care). The government increased the pool of foster parents and specialized foster parents available to receive children from orphanages and avoid an inflow of new cases to orphanages.

The Public Defender’s Office reported protection of minors in state care remained a problem. The protection of children in state care from violence, care for their mental health, protection of right to education, preparation for independent life, improvement of care-taking personnel, and allocation of sufficient human and financial resources posed a challenge. Teachers in small family-type homes as well as foster parents lacked the knowledge and skills to handle children with behavioral problems or children victims of violence. This resulted in children being moved between different types of care, creating additional stress and worsening their situation. Minors with disabilities presented a particular challenge for protection, preparation for independent living, and the right to education because programs were not oriented for individual need. The trend of placement of children with behavioral problems or mental health problems together was also problematic, which further aggravated their situation.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported some instances of discrimination against minority communities. As of November 30, the office had received 12 claims of discrimination based on nationality or ethnic origin. When the government declared the Bolnisi-Marneuli region a quarantine zone, for example, one public official encouraged discrimination against ethnic Azeris on their personal Facebook pages. The Public Defender’s Office received several other complaints alleging racial discrimination by law-enforcement bodies. In one case, a police officer purportedly commented on the skin color of an individual while on duty. Several claims came from prisons. In one case, the claimant alleged poor treatment by the prison administration because he was ethnically Armenian.

In 2019 two of the 15 cases of alleged discrimination received by the Public Defender’s Office involved commercial banks refusing to provide services to individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. As of November 30, the courts had not determined whether any had suffered discrimination. According to the office, authorities had not taken steps to address discrimination in the provision of commercial financial services. NGOs noted that victims of such discrimination rarely registered claims due to a lack of knowledge about their rights and criticized authorities for not raising greater awareness in minority communities.

During the year the Prosecutor General’s Office charged six individuals with committing a crime on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.

Media outlets reported numerous cases of hate speech targeting minority groups during the year.

On May 24, during a weekly Sunday service, the bishop of Marneuli and Hujabi Eparchy, Giorgi Jamdeliani, criticized the mayor of Marneuli, Zaur Durgali, for renovating the statue of Nariman Narimanov, an ethnic Azerbaijani Bolshevik writer and revolutionary born in Georgia and active in Baku and Moscow, and threatened to dismantle the statue. Far-right nationalist radical groups, such as Georgian March, publicly endorsed the bishop’s statements and began an aggressive social media campaign. Although the bishop later commented that his criticism was prompted by Narimanov’s personality rather than his ethnicity, many local residents perceived his statements as xenophobic.

On May 30, the State Security Service of Georgia initiated an investigation of the events surrounding the Narimanov statue controversy under the law on racial discrimination. Civil society organizations noted the aims of the investigation were not made clear to the public. On July 16, Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani, Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center head Dimitri Lordkipanidze, and other nationalist leaders affiliated with Georgian March held a protest rally in Marneuli with the same demands. Press reports suggested the protest was followed by a spontaneous counterrally by young Azerbaijani residents. Police were present to ensure security.

In addition to political, civic, economic, and cultural obstacles, weak Georgian-language skills remained the main impediment to integration for members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Some minorities asserted the law requiring “adequate command of the official language” to work as a civil servant excluded them from participating in government. The Public Defender’s Office reported that involving ethnic minorities in national decision-making processes remained a problem due to the small number of representatives of ethnic minorities in the central government.

The government continued its “1+4” program for ethnic minorities to study the Georgian language for one year prior to their university studies. Under a quota system, the government assigned 12 percent of all bachelor or higher certificate-level placements to students with ethnic minority backgrounds. Of these reserved slots, ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities each received 40 percent (5 percent of the total), while Ossetian and Abkhaz communities received 10 percent each (1 percent of the total).

The law permits the repatriation of Muslim Meskhetians deported in 1944. The government, however, closed its review of repatriation applications in 2017.

De facto Abkhaz authorities enacted policies that threatened the legal status of ethnic minorities, including Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Roma, and Syrians, living in the Gali district of Abkhazia. They closed village schools and did not provide ethnic Georgians opportunities for education in their native language. De facto authorities dismissed ethnic Georgian teachers in Abkhazia deemed to have insufficient knowledge of Russian. The language of instruction for students in first through fourth grades in Lower Gali was Russian. Russian was the only instructional language in the Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire zones, and the de facto authorities prohibited Georgian-language instruction there.

The Public Defender’s Office noted that in the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli districts, ethnic Georgian students and teachers had poor command of Russian, and therefore Russian-only instruction had significantly affected the quality of their education. Local communities had to either pay for teachers, arrange for teachers to cross from Tbilisi-administered territory to teach, or send their children across the administrative boundary line for Georgian-language lessons. According to the EUMM, some Gali students faced difficulties in crossing the administrative boundary line to take university entrance examinations. In autumn 2019 the EUMM noted a small increase in the number of schoolchildren crossing the administrative boundary line, and there were more reports of barriers to studying in their mother tongue. During the year, as de facto authorities fully closed the line, purportedly because of the pandemic, prospective students residing in the occupied territories were unable to take the national examinations for university enrollment. The government subsequently decided to enroll all of the applicants without the exams.

De facto South Ossetian authorities also required ethnic Georgians of all ages to study in Russian.

The government continued to report discrimination against ethnic Georgians in the Russian-occupied territories. The Public Defender’s Office noted the case of Tamar Mearakishvili, an activist in South Ossetia who alleged persecution by the de facto authorities because of her Georgian ethnicity. In July 2019 de facto authorities in Akhalgori cleared Mearakishvili of all charges and lifted all restrictions imposed on her, including the restriction on leaving South Ossetia. The de facto “prosecutor” appealed the decision in September 2019; in October 2019 the court dismissed all charges. The “prosecutor” appealed the decision; on January 17, the de facto “supreme court” partly satisfied the “prosecutor’s” appeal, returning one case to the trial court. At the same time, on February 25, the “prosecutor” filed the same charges against Mearakishvili in the other case in which the “supreme court” had acquitted Mearakishvili. In September, Mearakishvili reported she had been without electricity since September 16, in what she characterized as an act of retribution by Akhalgori “prosecutor” Alan Kulumbegov. Prior to the cut-off of her electricity, she reportedly complained to the de facto “prosecutor general’s office” that Kulumbegov repeatedly sought to blackmail her.

Kazakhstan

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government severely limited exercise of this right.

Although constitutional amendments in 2017 increased legislative and executive branch authority in some spheres, the constitution concentrates power in the presidency itself. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, cabinet, prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court and lower-level judges, and regional governors. A presidential decree signed October 9 requires most of these appointments to be made in consultation with the chairman of the Security Council, a position that was granted in 2018 to then president Nazarbayev for his lifetime.

The 2018 law on the first president–the “Leader of the Nation” law–establishes then president Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, grants him lifetime membership on the Constitutional Council, allows him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulates that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.

The Mazhilis (the lower house of parliament) must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the Senate must confirm the president’s choices of prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court judges, and National Bank head. Parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March 2019 and under the constitution the presidency immediately passed to the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thereafter, the government conducted presidential elections in June 2019. Out of seven presidential candidates, Tokayev won with 70.96 percent of the vote. According to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission’s report, the election “offered an important moment for potential political reforms, but it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The report cited a number of violations, such as ballot-box stuffing and problems with vote counting, including cases of deliberate falsification. Other problems included lack of transparency, such as by not releasing election results by polling station, and violations of the rights of assembly, expression, and association. The report also noted the widespread detention of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Overall, the conduct of the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards.”

The OSCE report further observed that the problems went beyond election day itself. According to the final report, in recent years some opposition parties have either been banned or marginalized through restrictive legislation or criminal prosecution, and the ability of new political parties to register was significantly restricted by the Law on Political Parties. Moreover, the legal framework for candidate eligibility was highly restrictive. The OSCE report also noted that 2017 constitutional and legislative amendments abolished self-nomination and introduced further eligibility requirements that significantly reduced the candidate pool, with requirements for education, residency, and experience in the civil service or elected government office.

The most recent elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, took place in 2016. The ruling Nur Otan Party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party won seven seats. An observer mission from the OSCE noted irregularities and limitations on civil and political rights.

The country held Senate elections on August 12, following the legal requirement that 17 of 49 senators rotate every three years. Senators were selected by members of maslikhats (local representative bodies) acting as electors to represent each administrative region and the cities of national significance. Four incumbent senators were re-elected, and the majority of the newly elected senators were affiliated with the local authorities.

In June 2018 the government amended the election law. One change reduced the independence of members of maslikhats. Previously, citizens could self-nominate and vote for individual candidates running in elections for the maslikhats. Under the amended law, only parties may select candidates for party lists, citizens vote for parties, and the parties then choose whom from their list would join the maslikhat.

Another election law change affected public opinion surveys ahead of elections. According to the amendments, only legal entities may conduct public opinion surveys about elections after notifying the Central Election Commission (CEC). Such entities must be legally registered and have at least five years’ experience in conducting public opinion surveys. Violation of the law leads to a fine of 37,875 tenge ($98) for an individual and 75,750 tenge ($197) for an organization. The law prohibits publishing, within five days of elections, election forecasts and other research related to elections or support for particular candidates or political parties.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As part of the set of amendments in the political parties law signed by President Tokayev on May 25, the registration threshold was reduced from 40,000 to 20,000 members, with a minimum of 600 members from each region.

By law if authorities challenge the application by alleging irregular signatures, the registration process may continue only if the total number of eligible signatures exceeds the minimum number required. The law prohibits parties established on an ethnic, gender, or religious basis. The law also prohibits members of the armed forces, employees of law enforcement and other national security organizations, and judges from participating in political parties.

There were six registered political parties: Adal (formerly Birlik), Ak Zhol, Kazakhstan People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party), National Social Democratic Party, Nur Otan Party, and People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl.” All parties generally did not oppose Nur Otan policies.

In 2018 the Yesil district court in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) banned, as an extremist organization, the DCK movement, which was organized by the fugitive banker and opposition figure, Mukhtar Ablyazov. The movement’s declared goal was the peaceful change of the country’s authoritarian regime into a parliamentary republic. The court ruled that the DCK incited social discord, created a negative image of state authorities, and provoked protest.

On February 8, a group of activists announced that they were founding the Koshe Party (“Street Party”), with the stated goal to change the country into a parliamentary republic, release all political prisoners, and combat corruption. On May 19, the Yesil district court in Nur-Sultan banned the Koshe Party as a successor organization of the DCK. The party was not represented at the court hearing. Human rights observers criticized the lack of fair court proceedings as a violation of the freedom of association.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: On May 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on national elections and political parties that mandate a combined 30 percent quota for women and youth in the lists of candidates of political parties running in elections. Youth are defined as those between the ages of 14 and 29. The amendments do not, however, specify the same ratio among the actually elected members of parliament and the maslikhats.

Traditional attitudes sometimes hindered women from holding high office or playing active roles in political life, although there were no legal restrictions on the participation of women or minorities in politics.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: In December 2019 President Tokayev signed into law legislative amendments that increased punishments for sexual abuse and rape to eight years of imprisonment, and if committed against a minor, to life imprisonment. There were reports of police and judicial reluctance to act on reports of rape, particularly in spousal rape cases.

On August 27, an Almaty court held a trial for a rape case in which both a former prosecutor and a former manager of a local bank were charged with a November 2019 rape. When the victim first submitted a complaint to police, they refused to record the complaint. Due to her lawyer’s persistence, the complaint was later officially registered. Police resistance, procrastination, attempts to hush up the complainant, and other hurdles delayed the investigation. The victim faced pressure and intimidation by the assailants’ relatives who tried to force her to withdraw the complaint. Her lawyer resorted to making an effort to draw public attention to the case and publicize appeals to the president and parliamentarians. The investigation took nine months to complete and submit to the court. The case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to human rights defenders, approximately 2,000 complaints of rape were registered annually, but fewer than 1 percent of them made it to court.

Legislation identifies various types of domestic violence, such as physical, psychological, sexual, and economic, and outlines the responsibilities of local and national governments and NGOs in providing support to domestic violence victims. The law also outlines mechanisms for the issuance of restraining orders and provides for the 24-hour administrative detention of abusers. The law sets the maximum sentence for spousal assault and battery at 10 years in prison, the same as for any assault. The law also permits prohibiting offenders from living with the victim if the perpetrator has somewhere else to live, allows victims of domestic violence to receive appropriate care regardless of the place of residence, and replaces financial penalties with administrative arrest if paying fines was hurting victims as well as perpetrators.

NGOs estimated that on average 12 women each day were subjected to domestic violence and more than 400 women died annually as a result of violence sustained from their spouses. Due in part to social stigma, research conducted by the Ministry of National Economy indicated that a majority of victims of partner abuse never told anyone of their abuse. Police intervened in family disputes only when they believed the abuse was life threatening. Police often encouraged the two parties to reconcile. NGOs also noted that the lenient penalty for domestic violence–an administrative offense with a maximum penalty of 15 days’ imprisonment–does not deter even convicted offenders.

In August 2019 the Almaty city court placed Baurzhan Ashigaliyev under pretrial arrest for two months on charges of deprivation of freedom and assault against his wife, well-known singer Kseniya Ashigaliyeva. According to Ashigaliyeva, her husband of seven years regularly beat her, but previous reports to police had resulted in no change in his behavior and no penalty to him. In July 2019 he abducted Ashigaliyeva off the street, tied her up in the basement of a building, and beat her severely. Ashigaliyeva turned to police and also the NeMolchi (Speak Out) movement for help, asking the organization to raise awareness of her case and share photographs of her injuries on the internet in order to reduce stigma against speaking out about domestic violence. On March 13, Almaty court acquitted Ashigaliyev. His wife appealed the court ruling, but the Almaty city court declined her appeal in June and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

The government maintained domestic violence shelters in each region. According to the NGO Union of Crisis Centers, there were 31 crisis centers throughout the country providing reliable services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence, including 10 government-funded shelters.

Human rights activists noted an upsurge of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they attributed to several causes. When tight quarantine was imposed on the country, families were locked in their houses, and some individuals began to experience emotional problems because there was no way to vent emotions. According to these activists, many persons lacked the skills to control anger. The fear of COVID-19 exacerbated the negative emotional atmosphere. Alcohol consumption was often an aggravating factor. Assailants often seized the victims’ telephone and cut them off from communication with the outside world. Because of the lockdown, victims could not leave their houses to escape from their assailants, stay with relatives, or elsewhere.

Activists criticized the government for failure to ensure that all vulnerable persons–women, men, children, elderly individuals, and persons with disabilities–were protected against domestic violence. Due to COVID-19 quarantines, some crisis centers were closed, health care was limited, and law enforcement agencies and courts were focused on quarantine-related tasks. When victims found the courage to report violence, activists reported that police were reluctant to act, sometimes did not issue restrictive orders to assailants, and tried to dissuade the victim from filing a complaint, creating an environment of impunity for aggressors.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued in some remote areas. The law prescribes a prison sentence of seven to 12 years for conviction of kidnapping. A person who voluntarily releases an abductee is absolved of criminal responsibility; because of this law, a typical bride kidnapper is not necessarily held criminally responsible. Law enforcement agencies often advised abductees to resolve their situations themselves. According to civil society organizations, making a complaint to police could be a very bureaucratic process and often subjected families and victims to humiliation.

In December 2019 a 20-year-old girl was kidnapped at a bus stop in Turkestan. Three men grabbed her and forced her into their car. The kidnappers took her to another town, Kentau, and pressured her to marry a man whom she barely knew. The girl was held against her will for two days. When she refused to marry the man, he physically assaulted and raped her. The girl managed to escape and return home, where she submitted a complaint to police. After the complaint was filed, the girl and her parents faced pressure from the local community and the kidnapper’s family. As a result of this campaign of pressure and humiliation, the girl and her mother attempted suicide. The investigation was completed in January, and two men were convicted and sentenced to 7 and 8 years in prison.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. No law protects women from sexual harassment, and only force or taking advantage of a victim’s physical helplessness carries criminal liability in terms of sexual assault. In no instance was the law used to protect the victim, nor were there reports of any prosecutions. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace were hesitant to lodge complaints out of shame or fear of job loss.

Reproductive Rights: By law couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. They have the right to manage their reproductive health, and they have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Individuals have the right to use contraception and generally have access to it through individual health care providers.

There are no legal, social, or cultural barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. Over 95 percent of pregnant women benefit from prenatal care and more than 99 percent of births were attended by skilled medical personnel, according to World Health Organization reporting.

Access to government-provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of violence is limited but improving. In April 2020, with UN Population Fund assistance, the national government adopted its first clinical protocol for health assistance to victims of gender violence and organized online training for the staff of primary health centers. The UN Population Fund also arranged training for health workers, police, and social workers to strengthen coordination of their work in detecting and handling incidents of violence against women.

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

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights and freedoms for men and women. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. Significant salary gaps between men and women remained a serious problem. According to observers, women in rural areas faced greater discrimination than women in urban areas and suffered from a greater incidence of domestic violence, limited education and employment opportunities, limited access to information, and discrimination in their land and other property rights.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. The government registers all births upon receipt of the proper paperwork, which may come from the parents, other interested persons, or the medical facility where the birth occurred. Children born to undocumented mothers were denied birth certificates.

Education: According to the constitution, secondary school education is compulsory. The government provides for free, universal secondary education in public schools. Some children did not attend schools. Education authorities reported that 55 percent of schools were equipped and had staff for inclusive education for children with specific needs. Independent observers alleged that the number of such schools was in fact lower. There were no statistics on the number of children with disabilities who attended preschool institutions. Twenty percent of children with specific needs between the ages of 7 and 18 attended regular schools. The majority attended special correctional classes or were homeschooled. Some parents refused to send children with disabilities to school and viewed their education as unnecessary. Other parents did not know where they could refer their children. Some children from migrant families, particularly undocumented migrants and stateless persons, did not get education because they could not enroll in school.

Child Abuse: Human rights defenders demanded improvement of legislation to protect children from abuse, to include a clearer definition of the authority of the children’s ombudsman and a legislative ban on corporal punishment.

Child abuse is a serious problem. According to UNICEF polls, 75 percent of adults supported corporal punishment of children by parents. According to a survey, 40 percent of children in institutions and 18 percent of children attending regular schools said they were subjected to physical abuse by adults. Children faced abuse, cruel, and disparaging treatment in families, schools (particularly special schools for delinquent children), and boarding schools.

Police reported that approximately 1,000 individuals were annually deprived of their parental rights. During the first five months of the year, more than 300 parents lost their parental rights, and more than 2,000 parents were punished by administrative penalties for failure to perform parenting duties.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, but it may be reduced to 16 in the case of pregnancy or mutual agreement, including by parents or legal guardians. According to the UN Population Fund, approximately 3,000 early and forced marriages occurred annually. Many couples first married in mosques and then registered officially when the bride reached the legal age. The government did not take action to address the issue.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law does not specify the minimum age for consensual sex, but it provides for eight to 15 years in prison for individuals convicted of forcing boys or girls younger than age 18 to have sexual intercourse. UNICEF reported that data on sexual abuse of children, child prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking, bride kidnapping, and forced marriage of girls remains scarce, making it difficult to assess the scale of rights violations.

The law criminalizes the production and distribution of child pornography and provides administrative penalties to cover the sale of pornographic materials to minors. The country retains administrative penalties for child pornography. Perpetrators convicted of sexual offenses against minors received a lifetime ban on working with children.

Sexual abuse and rape remained serious problems. Available police statistics showed a 49 percent increase in the number of rapes of children during the first eight months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.

On July 24, a 5-year-old girl went missing in Satpayev town near Karaganda city, where she and her parents were visiting with relatives. Police and volunteers scoured the neighborhood and finally found the girl bound under a sofa in the apartment of a 58-year-old man. She was taken to the hospital, and police arrested the man. An angry crowd formed and wanted to punish the alleged pedophile themselves. Reportedly, the crowd gathered because the participants did not trust police, since abusers apparently go unpunished. (Note: According to human rights defenders, 39 percent of perpetrators of crimes against children were convicted by courts.) The crowd tried to break into the apartment and demanded that police hand the man over. Calls by police, local government officials, and local imams on the crowd to calm down had no effect. The crowd smashed windows and doors at the building and the local police station, and smashed and set fire to police vehicles. Authorities deployed riot police, and the crowd dispersed. The next day Minister of Internal Affairs Yerlan Turgumbaev stated publicly that the suspect was charged with kidnapping and raping a child. Authorities reported the suspect was found dead on October 6 in the detention facility.

Displaced Children: Human rights observers noted that the number of street children, mainly in large cities, was high. Street children were referred to Centers for Delinquent Children or the Support Center for Children in Difficult Life Situations. Some were returned to their families. According to the 2019 report of the Committee for Protection of Children Rights of the Ministry of Education and Science, there were 15 adaptation centers (AC) for delinquent children and 17 support centers (SC) for children in difficult life situations. More than 4,000 children were held in the ACs, and more than 2,000 in the SCs.

Institutionalized Children: Incidents of child abuse in state-run institutions, such as orphanages, boarding schools, and detention facilities for delinquent children, were “not rare,” according to government sources. NGOs stated one-half the children in orphanages or closed institutions suffered from abuse by teachers or other children. According to the Committee for Protection of Children Rights, the number of orphans who lived in orphanages decreased from 6,223 in 2017 to 4,606 during the year. The government continued its policy of closing orphanages and referring children to foster families and other forms of home care. Activists criticized the policy as ineffective because of the lack of a clear plan of children’s deinstitutionalization, properly trained staff, infrastructure, or funds. They alleged that authorities focused on the closure of orphanages instead of working with families and preventing the placement of children in institutions. They also said critical decisions on the removal of a child from its family and placement in an institution were based on police, not social workers’, reports.

Between April 2 and April 29, four children died at the Ayagoz Children’s Center for Specialized Social Services, a facility for children with mental disabilities. The management of the facility and the local government tried to conceal the deaths, but on May 14, information was leaked to media and became public. The government established an ad hoc group to investigate the deaths. The group discovered numerous violations in their investigation. The report stated that the deaths were the result of underestimating the seriousness of child health problems by medical staff and of delayed hospitalization. Children’s Rights Commissioner Aruzhan Sain called for a thorough investigation and highlighted past allegations of abuse against the facility. Police opened a criminal investigation.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The official policy for languages in the country is termed trilingualism. Kazakh is the official state language, Russian has equal status as the language of interethnic communication, and English is the language of successful integration into global economics. The law requires that presidential candidates are fluent in Kazakh. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language, but all prospective civil servants are required to pass a Kazakh language exam.

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. Ethnic minorities, however, faced problems in various areas of life. In May the government set up a Committee on Development of Interethnic Relations as part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development. The new committee is responsible for implementation of the government policy on interethnic relations, and the Institute of Ethnic-Political Studies under the ministry performs analysis and research and provides expert professional recommendations on government policy.

At the high levels of national government, three of the 23 cabinet members were non-Kazakhs. Ethnic minorities were underrepresented in other government bodies as well. Human rights observers noted that ethnic minorities were not incorporated into the country’s social and political mechanisms and their role was shrinking. They also noted that the government should–but did not–provide minorities equal participation in social life, equal access to government service, equal business opportunities, and most importantly, equal treatment before the law. Observers further noted that pushing a significant part of the population out from the country’s social and political field (marginalizing) would likely result in social tension.

On February 8, riots broke out in Masanchi, Sortobe, Bular Batyr, and Aukhatty villages in Qorday district. The riots were provoked by the following two incidents the day before the riots: a road traffic incident in which an elderly man was beaten by men of Dungan origin, and a fight between local Dungans and ethnic Kazakh police officers. Information about the incidents was shared in the community and on social media, and as a result rioting began and led to looting and the destruction of homes. Thousands of Dungans fled to the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic. Authorities declared an emergency situation in the Qorday district, deployed police special forces, and established police checkpoints around the four villages. Authorities launched more than 120 criminal investigations, 11 of them on homicide charges. Prosecutors reported that 11 victims died and dozens of rioters were arrested. There were 192 individuals, including 19 policemen, injured, and 168 houses and 122 vehicles were damaged. The province governor, his deputy, several other senior government officials, and police officers were dismissed. On March 1, President Tokayev visited the region and met with local residents. He stated that the riots were a result of a conflict between two organized criminal groups that were fighting for control over illegal economic activities.

On April 24, the Qorday local court convicted two participants of the February riots. Ersman Yunhu was sentenced to 2.5 years of restriction of freedom and six months of correction works. His son, Marat Yunhu, received 2.5 years of imprisonment.

Observers criticized authorities for failing to admit that the violence was primarily aimed against Dungans, since the majority of the destroyed property was owned by Dungans, and 10 ethnic-Dungan citizens were killed, compared with a single ethnic-Kazakh citizen. On May 14, the Association of Dungans in Kazakhstan appealed to the UN and other international organizations to urge the country’s authorities to stop persecution, stop violations of the rights of Dungans, and hold accountable those who were responsible for torture and abuse. The association also called for an independent investigation of the February 8 incident, for restitution of the damage inflicted during the riots, and for punishment of those who disseminate anti-Dungan, offensive, and hateful statements in media and social media.

In May prosecutors reported that they were investigating 29 criminal cases with 59 suspects charged for homicide, mass disorder, attempts on lives of law enforcement officers, theft, and looting.

In August the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed information about the Qorday incident and requested that the government provide a response before October 30; “conduct [an] effective, impartial and transparent investigation of the events;” ensure effective protection of the Dungan minority; provide reparation, including health and psychological support; and guarantee access by independent observers to the Qorday district. By year’s end there was no publicly released response from the government.

Lithuania

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Speech: The constitutional definition of freedom of expression does not permit slander; disinformation; or incitement to violence, discrimination, or national, racial, religious, or social hatred. Inciting hatred against a group of persons is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. Inciting violence against a group of persons is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years.

It is a crime to deny or “grossly to trivialize” Soviet or Nazi German crimes against the country or its citizens, or to deny genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. They are subject to the same laws that prohibit hate speech and criminalize speech that grossly trivializes international and war crimes.

It is illegal to publish material that is “detrimental to minors’ bodies or thought processes” or that promotes the sexual abuse and harassment of minors, sexual relations among minors, or “sexual relations.” Human rights observers continued to criticize this law. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) groups claimed it served as a rationale for limiting LGBTI awareness-raising efforts and that agencies overseeing publishing and broadcast media took prejudicial action against the coverage of stories with LGBTI themes.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania (LRTK) may impose a 72-hour suspension on television programs that posed a threat to public and national security. The LRTK may impose this suspension without a court order on television programs from countries both inside and outside the EU, the European Economic Area, and from European states that ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Transfrontier Television.

On July 8, the government banned five Russian RT television channels in the country. It argued it was implementing the EU’s sanctions against Dmitriy Kiselyov, RT’s general director.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law makes insulting or defaming the president of the country in mass media a crime punishable by a fine. Authorities did not invoke it during the year.

Internet Freedom

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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: Presidential elections, including a runoff between the two candidates receiving the most votes, as well as European Parliamentary elections, took place in May 2019. National parliamentary elections took place on October 11 and October 25. Observers evaluated all these elections as generally free and fair.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government continued to prohibit the Communist Party.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. In October’s parliamentary elections, women won 38 of the 141 seats, 27 percent of the seats. Women held 8 percent of ministerial positions.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Government officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption was a problem.

Corruption: On June 2, authorities arrested Valdas Sutkus, president of the Lithuanian Business Confederation; Mantas Zalatorius, president of the Association of Lithuanian Banks; and four other persons after obtaining information on their alleged large-scale active and passive bribery, trading in influence, squandering of property, and forgery of documents. In 2019 the Special Investigative Service started 47 pretrial investigations of corruption.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets and incomes annually. The declarations were available to the public. Administrative sanctions were imposed for noncompliance.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape and domestic violence are criminal offenses. Penalties for domestic violence depend on the level of injury to the victim, ranging from required public service to life imprisonment. In the first eight months of the year, authorities received 63 reports of rape, compared with 77 during the same period in 2019. Convicted rapists generally received prison sentences of three to five years. No law specifically criminalizes spousal rape, and no data on spousal rape was available.

The law permits rapid government action in domestic violence cases. For example, police and other law enforcement officials may, with court approval, require perpetrators to live separately from their victims, to avoid all contact with them, and to surrender any weapons they may possess. According to the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, eight out of 10 victims of domestic violence were women, and the law still does not follow a gender-sensitive approach.

Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem. In the first eight months of the year, police received 35,130 domestic violence calls and started 7,006 pretrial investigations, 17 of which were for killings. In 2018 approximately 80 percent of all domestic violence reports were against women.

There are a 24/7 national hotline and 29 crisis centers for victims of domestic violence. The Ministry of Justice also continued its Action Plan for Domestic Violence Prevention and Assistance to Victims for 2017-2020 and allocated 1.17 million euros ($1.4 million) for the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the basic right of couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to access the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.

Despite there being no barriers for access to contraception, there was a lack of publicly available information about contraception as a method of family planning, and teenage pregnancies were common. Other family-planning methods were more widespread.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The country had no rape crisis center, but a network of specialized NGOs provided social, psychological, health, and legal assistance to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. A national women’s helpline also assisted survivors.

Coercion in Population Control: The law prohibits coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization. In July the Kaunas Regional Court awarded 31,000 euros ($37,200) to a woman with cerebral palsy after a hospital in Lazdijai sterilized her involuntarily shortly after she gave birth.

Discrimination: Men and women have the same legal status and rights. Women continued to experience unequal access to pension benefits and the gender wage gap remained significant, leaving women more exposed to poverty risk (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship can be acquired either by birth in the country or through one’s parents. The government registered all births promptly.

Child Abuse: The law bans all violence against children. Sexual abuse of children remained a problem despite prison sentences of up to 13 years for the crime. In the first eight months of the year, the Ministry of the Interior recorded 23 cases of child rape and 171 cases involving other forms of child sexual abuse. The government operated a children’s support center to provide medical and psychological care for children, including those who suffered from various types of violence. It also operated a national center in Vilnius to provide legal, psychological, and medical assistance to sexually abused children and their families.

According to the Ministry of Social Security and Labor Affairs, there were 5,469 reports of violence against children in 2019. In the first eight months of the year, the children’s rights ombudsman reported receiving 392 complaints.

During the first eight months of the year, Child Line (a hotline for children and youth) received 105,415 telephone calls from children, and was able to respond to 77,944 of those calls. Child Line also received and answered 385 letters from children, whose concerns ranged from relations with their parents and friends to family violence and sexual abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Individuals involving a child in pornographic events or using a child in the production of pornographic material are subject to imprisonment for up to five years (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). Persons who offer to purchase, acquire, sell, transport, or hold a child in captivity are subject to imprisonment for three to 12 years. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights reported receiving one complaint of alleged sexual exploitation of children during the first eight months of the year. According to the Ministry of the Interior, during the first eight months of the year, officials opened 32 criminal cases involving child pornography. The age of consent is 16.

Institutionalized Children: As of September 1, the children’s rights ombudsman received four complaints and started one investigation regarding violations of children’s rights in orphanages and large-family foster homes.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Moldova

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of numerous alleged politically motivated criminal cases initiated by the former ruling Democratic Party of Moldova. Many of the cases were initiated against political rivals of the former party leader, Vlad Plahotniuc, and some prosecutors reported being pressured to pursue cases selectively of corruption, money laundering, and fraud against certain individuals, while ignoring or dropping charges against others who were tied to Plahotniuc’s network. Many of those involved in these politically motivated cases saw their cases proceed more quickly than others in the justice system. In addition many of those subjected to pretrial detention were held in Penitentiary No. 13 in Chisinau, which was notorious for its poor conditions and violence between inmates. On October 27, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had closed 19 out of 38 alleged politically motivated cases. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued to investigate the remaining 19 cases through the year.

In Transnistria there were reports of several political prisoners held during the year, many of whom were held for exercising their freedom of expression or criticizing the de facto authorities. Oleg Horjan, the leader of the Communist Party and formerly the sole opposition member of the “Supreme Soviet” (“parliament”) of Transnistria, continued to serve a four-and-a-half year sentence in Hlinaia Penitentiary on assault charges and for “insulting” de facto authorities. Human rights lawyers and NGOs have called the charges politically motivated. Horjan’s lawyers and family alleged that he was subject to abuse in detention. Transnistrian “authorities” denied the Moldovan ombudsman access to his place of detention. In early August, Horjan went on a hunger strike to protest restrictions by the Hlinaia penitentiary administration, including solitary confinement and denial of visits, mail or other outside communications, and reading materials. He was reportedly hospitalized in the prison infirmary on September 10 after his health had rapidly deteriorated and then moved to the Tiraspol Veteran’s Hospital on September 15 in serious condition. Horjan was returned to prison after ending his hunger strike on September 23.

Tatiana Belova and her spouse, Serghei Mirovici, were arrested in August 2019 for insulting Transnistrian “leader” Vadim Krasnoselsky on social media. Transnistrian “authorities” kept Belova and Mirovici’s arrest, pretrial detention, and trial secret. In March, Belova and Mirovici were sentenced to three years in prison in a closed trial without a defense attorney. On July 14, Belova was released following “an admission of guilt,” request for clemency, and promise to refrain from all political activity. Human rights activists asserted that the actions were coerced. Mirovoci remained imprisoned and was reportedly on a hunger strike as of September 10.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression and allows individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. Restrictions apply only in cases when such discussion poses a threat to national security, territorial integrity, public order, or safety. Nonetheless, there were allegations that authorities did not always respect freedom of expression for the press. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Concentration of ownership of major media outlets in the hands of a few political figures, and oligarchs further limited the independence of the press.

Freedom of Speech: In Transnistria a 2020-2026 Strategy for Combating Extremism was approved on March 20 that provides “authorities” new repressive tools to silence dissent and further repress freedom of expression, complementing the existing 2007 “law” on fighting extremism activities. There were at least five individuals facing charges pursuant to the “antiextremism” law for publicly criticizing the de facto “authorities” during the year.

Larisa Calic, a writer from Transnistria, was charged with extremism after she published a book about violent hazing and corruption in the Transnistrian “army.” Calic fled Transnistria and was in hiding. Alexandr Samonii, a member of the Tiraspol “city council” for the opposition Communist Party, has been under investigation since June 2 for extremism based on social media postings in which he criticized the ruling regime in Transnistria. Samonii reportedly fled Transnistria and remained in hiding. Individuals such as Oleg Horjan, Tatiana Belova, and Serghei Mirovici (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees) were sentenced to prison for criticizing “authorities” by “insulting a public official,” an act which is prohibited under the region’s “criminal code.”

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to media, NGOs, and international monitors, independent media were active and expressed a plurality of views but were often marginalized by larger outlets owned or controlled by a few politicians and oligarchs. Large media outlets pressured smaller outlets, including by colluding to prevent advertisers from buying advertising space from those smaller outlets, which brought several to the brink of closing. Prominent journalists left key outlets acquired by oligarchs. Internal and external propaganda and manipulation, concentration of ownership of mass media in the hands of some politicians and oligarchs, unfair competition within the television advertising market, and limited independence of the broadcasting regulatory authority, the Audiovisual Council (CCA), were among the major problems that restricted independent media space.

Oligarchs closely supervised content and maintained editorial control over reporting from outlets they owned or controlled. Russian news channels rebroadcast in the country continued to disseminate propaganda and presented distorted information about regional and international events.

Media outlets supportive of President Dodon and the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova expanded their dominance in the media market, replacing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vlad Plahotniuc as having the largest media holdings.

On March 24, during the state of emergency that was declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCA issued a ruling blocking media outlets from criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic or reporting information that contradicted the government or World Health Organization’s official statements. The CCA cancelled the order on March 26 after public outcry from NGOs, opposition parties, and diplomatic missions.

On July 9, parliament approved the appointment of three new CCA members; opposition parliamentarians claimed the selection process was not transparent or inclusive.

Independent media NGOs and watchdogs accused the CCA and the public broadcaster, Teleradio Moldova, of progovernment bias. The NGOs also noted the government discriminated against media outlets that were not affiliated with President Dodon or the Socialist Party by refusing them access to senior officials for interviews.

On October 26, the CCA penalized TV8 with a 7,000 lei (approximately $400) fine for “not ensuring impartiality” during the talk show “Natalia Morari’s Politics.” The CCA ruled that the show failed to uphold impartiality and balance of opinion when one of the guests on the talk show, lawyer Ștefan Gligor, said there were risks of election fraud in the upcoming November 1 presidential election. The CCA stated that TV8 failed to give airtime to the opposing view. TV8 representatives stated that the channel ensured balance of opinion throughout the show and did not limit the right to freedom of expression. TV8 characterized the CCA’s action as an attempt to silence media discussion of possible electoral fraud and “an attack on freedom of expression.” On October 31, the Chisinau Court of Appeal struck down the CCA fine and ruled that TV8 did not violate the requirement for balance of opinion. On November 1, the Supreme Court of Justice affirmed the Court of Appeal ruling cancelling the fine.

Media freedom in separatist-controlled Transnistria remained a concern despite the local “authorities’” declarations that they would promote competition and media freedom. During the year, Freedom House again assessed the Transnistrian region’s media as “not free.” Transnistrian television channels and radio stations are regulated by the “state media service” and “state telecommunications service.” The “state media service” oversees “state-run” media and “state” policy in the information sector.

Two organizations controlled the Transnistrian mass media market: the “Public Agency for Telecommunication,” which controlled official news information agencies, newspapers, and one of the two most popular television channels; and Sheriff Holding, a business conglomerate with considerable influence in the Transnistrian “Supreme Soviet.”

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of government and political leaders obstructing freedom of the press by restricting the media’s ability to cover events. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Female journalists, in particular, were subjected to intimidation.

On May 20, the Nordnews.md portal team was denied access to the headquarters of the Drochia district council where President Dodon met representatives of local public authorities. Employees of the State Protection and Guard Service (SPPS) also prohibited filming of the presidential motorcade.

On May 18, journalist Natalia Cebotari was fined 2,400 lei (approximately $140) by police for alleged defamation for her coverage of abusive and unhealthy work conditions at a textile factory in the town of Ceadir-Lunga that had also violated COVID-19 safety guidelines. She was charged only after the factory manager filed a complaint with local police. The media community condemned the move as interference with media freedom.

There were also reports of government officials initiating lawsuits against media outlets for their investigative reporting into corruption allegations and the officials’ personal assets.

In January, Deputy Prosecutor General Ruslan Popov filed a defamation lawsuit against the Center for Independent Journalism in response to two investigative reports implicating him in corruption.

In May the Ziarul de Garda newspaper was targeted in a defamation lawsuit by President Igor Dodon in response to an investigation revealing his wealth and assets. The second hearing was scheduled for September, but did not take place due to Dodon’s refusal to attend. The hearing was postponed to November.

Censorship or Content Restriction: In many cases, journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the sponsors or owners of their media outlets, many of whom are politicians or oligarchs connected to political parties.

Journalists voiced concern that a personal data protection law restricted journalists’ access to information. In addition investigating journalists complained of problems accessing websites of legal entities. Journalists also noted that a March 18 decision by the Emergency Situation Commission’s to extend the deadline for authorities to respond to public information requests from 15 days to 45 days during the state of emergency, undermined the public’s right to access to information.

In Transnistria journalists similarly practiced self-censorship and avoided criticizing separatists’ goal of independence or their “foreign policy” to avoid “official” reprisals.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are punishable by a fine, community service, being barred from holding certain public offices for a period of months, or a combination of these punishments. Defamation is not a crime, but individuals and organizations can be sued civilly for defamation. Some newspapers practiced self-censorship and avoided controversial issues due to concerns that government officials and other public figures could use slander or defamation accusations to retaliate against critical news reports (see the Natalia Cebotari case under Violence and Harassment, above).

As modified in March 2019, the “law” in Transnistria criminalizes public insults of the region’s “leader,” which may be punished by a fine or up to five years in prison.

On April 7, Transnistrian “law enforcement” arrested Irina Vasilachi, a civic activist and opposition politician, after she accused Igor Nebeigolova, a close ally of former Transnistrian “leader” Igor Smirnov, of corruption and criminal activity on her YouTube channel, where she posted videos criticizing the Transnistrian leadership and its associates. Vasilachi was found guilty of slander and fined the equivalent of $170. Irina Vasilachi fled the region for Chisinau with her children on December 20, fearing arrest in a criminal case opened against her in Transnistria on accusations of using force against Transnistrian law enforcement officials on April 7. Tatiana Belova and Serghei Mirovici were similarly arrested and received three-year prison sentences for “insulting” the Transnistrian “leader” online (see also section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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 and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential elections were held on November 1, with a runoff November 15, in which former prime minister Maia Sandu defeated the incumbent president, Igor Dodon, with 57.7 percent of the vote, making her the country’s first female president. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observers noted in their preliminary findings that fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected, but divisive campaigning and polarizing media coverage hindered voters’ access to quality information. Local and international election observers noted other irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote buying of voters from the Transnistria region. Parliamentary elections in February 2019 met most Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe, and other international commitments, although observers noted allegations of vote buying and misuse of administrative resources.

Due to challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided a limited election observation mission that primarily monitored the campaign climate, campaign financing, and media freedom in the lead up to the elections with a limited presence observing election-day procedures. Local observers worked to largely fill this gap. International and local observers from ODIHR and local NGO Promo-LEX released preliminary reports November 2 and 16, noting the elections generally respected fundamental freedoms and preliminary results reflected voters’ will. Observers noted some election irregularities, including allegations of illegal mass transportation and vote-buying of voters from the Transnistria region.

A pre-election report by the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations found some deficiencies and electoral code violations, including: unclear electoral legislation which allowed for varying interpretations of the law; negative campaign tactics and candidates’ use of hate speech; candidates making electoral promises which are not within the president’s powers to fulfill; and unlawful campaigning during the candidate signature collection process.

On March 15, authorities conducted parliamentary by-elections in single-mandate district No. 38 in Hincesti after the parliamentary seat became vacant. Opposition parties and civil society criticized the government for conducting elections amid COVID-19 outbreaks in two district villages. On March 16, an entire village was quarantined. Promo-LEX reported correct voting procedures were generally followed but that the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of clear health and safety precautions led to low turnout.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties reported fewer incidents of intimidation and politically motivated criminal cases against their members by authorities. Some 20 parliamentarians from the Democratic Party of Moldova defected to join the Pro Moldova Party or the Shor Party amid allegations of bribery and intimidation. Pro Moldova parliamentarians complained of alleged intimidation, wiretapping, and illegal surveillance. Political migration resumed on the eve of the November 1 presidential elections. Several days before the election, five Pro Moldova members of parliament announced their defection from the party and their merger with the Shor Party parliamentary faction to create a new “For Moldova” Platform. As of mid-November, the “For Moldova” Platform consisted of 16 members.

Several alleged politically motivated cases against members of parliament and political party leaders ensued throughout the year. On July 2, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a criminal investigation into a complaint by parliamentarian Stefan Gatcan alleging he was kidnapped, threatened, and forced to resign from parliament after defecting from the ruling Party of Socialists to join Pro Moldova. After reportedly fleeing the country, Gatcan withdrew his criminal complaint and returned to parliament and the Party of Socialists.

On March 13, the Supreme Court of Justice ordered Shor Party candidate Vitalie Balinschi to be removed from the ballot in the parliamentary by-election for the single-mandate district No.38 in Hincesti two days before the election. Balinschi was removed from the ballot for exceeding the electoral expenditures threshold. The Shor Party complained that the removal was politically motivated, and independent election monitors noted that similar infractions committed by other candidates were not punished.

The criminal case against Gheorghe Petic, the leader of the opposition Dignity and Truth Platform Party branch in Ungheni, was under review at year’s end. Petic was sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment on charges of rape after harshly criticizing the ruling party’s leadership and the country’s Border Police for allegedly covering up illegal smuggling activities, in what Petic alleged was a politically motivated case. In July 2019, after the Democratic Party of Moldova ceded power, Petic was released from detention and his case was sent for reconsideration to the district court.

After he fled the country in June 2019 due to alleged threats against him and his family, prosecutors in May charged former Democratic Party of Moldova chairman Vladimir Plahotniuc for his role in a $1 billion banking fraud in 2014-15, issued an arrest warrant, and sought his extradition.

Court hearings in Shor Party leader Ilan Shor’s case resumed in September after an almost two-year delay. Shor was appealing his seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for large-scale fraud and money laundering related to the 2014 billion dollar banking fraud. In November the case was put on hold again after the judge examining the case resigned, allegedly under pressure, and Shor’s lawyers appealed a nonconstitutionality exception clause to the Constitutional Court.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the ability of women and members of minority groups to participate in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides that each gender must have a minimum of 40 percent of candidates on the party lists of candidates for parliamentary and local elections. As of September, 35 percent of national legislature candidates were women, and 25 percent of the elected positions in the national legislature were occupied by women. The law provides for a 10 percent financial supplement from the state budget for political parties to promote female candidates elected in single-mandate districts. The law requires that 20 percent of public subsidy allocations to parties and candidates be used to promote women candidates. The law provides for sanctions against political parties that publicly promote discriminatory messages or stereotypes, use discriminatory language in mass media, or fail to meet the required gender quotas. Civil society observers reported this law was not enforced.

The president, Maia Sandu, is a woman.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government failed to implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Despite some improvement, corruption remained a serious problem. Corruption in the judiciary and other state structures was widespread.

The law authorizes the National Anticorruption Center to verify wealth and address “political integrity, public integrity, institutional integrity, and favoritism.” The National Integrity Authority (NIA), which was formed to check assets, personal interests, and conflicts of interest of officials, was not fully operational due to prolonged delays in selecting integrity inspectors, as required by law. The former ruling coalition harshly criticized both the National Anticorruption Center and the NIA for lack of action in investigating corrupt officials. For example the National Anticorruption Center detained 10 persons on corruption charges in 2018, including three judges from the Court of Appeals, two judges from the Chisinau Central Court, and a prosecutor from the Chisinau prosecutor’s office. During preliminary hearings in April, only seven of the 10 suspects showed up in court; the cases continued at year’s end. In December, Socialist and Shor Party members of parliament adopted a law that limited NIA powers and reduced the term for asset reviews for dignitaries from three years to one year following their term in office. The opposition criticized the law and challenged its constitutionality at the Constitutional Court.

Corruption: Two key anticorruption institutions, the NIA and the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency, made limited progress on investigations of illicit enrichment or asset seizures.

The 2019 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index report noted that the government hindered anticorruption efforts through stagnant reform of the judiciary, lack of true investigation of banking fraud and state capture, and lack of progress in recovering stolen money. The report concluded that these practices were indicative of high-level corruption and political corruption, which led to what it labelled “state capture” (i.e., private interests significantly influencing a state’s decision-making processes).

On June 24, the Prosecutor General’s Office decided against opening an investigation into alleged corruption by President Igor Dodon after a video was released showing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vladimir Plahotniuc handing Dodon a plastic bag during a private meeting. The Prosecutor’s Office stated there was not sufficient evidence that a crime was committed to open an investigation.

In 2016 the Anticorruption Prosecution began a criminal case to investigate 30 million lei (over $1.3 million) transferred before that year’s presidential election from an offshore company in the Bahamas that allegedly ended up on the accounts of some Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova members of parliament. No progress was reported in the investigation as of year’s end.

The criminal investigation of former Supreme Court of Justice president Ion Druta and four other judges accused of money laundering and illicit enrichment that began in September 2019 continued during the year. In July the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office announced it was still waiting for financial investigation data from the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency before it could send the case to court. In December the Chisinau Court of Appeals canceled the Superior Council of Magistrates decision that allowed Druta’s criminal investigation and closed the case.

On October 26, the Superior Council of Magistrates approved a request to reinstate five judges detained in September 2016 on money laundering charges in the “Russian Laundromat” scheme that illegally channeled millions of dollars through the Moldovan banking and legal system. The requests for reinstatement came after the Prosecutor General’s controversial September decision to drop the money laundering investigation against 13 judges involved in the scheme. It was also ruled that the five judges would receive approximately five million lei ($300,000) in damages for back pay from the state budget. The decision drew criticism from anticorruption advocates, opposition parties, and civil society.

Financial Disclosure: Laws require financial disclosure by public officials, including state officials, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and local officials holding leadership positions. The NIA has the legal power to apply sanctions. The law provides that officials who fail to declare their assets may be dismissed from office and barred from holding public office. NIA integrity inspectors have authority to alert relevant authorities, the Tax Office and the Prosecutor’s Office, and request seizure of illegally acquired assets by a court decision. The law requires the heads of state enterprises and local councilors to submit income statements and provides for an online system for wealth and interest statement submissions. By law officials must make public income statements within 30 days of their appointment and before March 31 of each year for the duration of their term in office.

Both opposition and ruling coalition members of parliament sent multiple requests to the NIA to verify assets and incomes of other parliamentarians. Consideration of those requests continued at the year’s end.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law defines domestic violence as a criminal offense, provides for the punishment of perpetrators, defines mechanisms for obtaining restraining orders against abusive individuals, and extends protection to unmarried individuals and children of unmarried individuals. The law covers five forms of domestic violence–physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and spiritual. The maximum punishment for family violence offenses is 15 years’ imprisonment. The law also criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, or forcible sexual assault and establishes penalties for violations ranging from three years to life in prison. It requires, however, that the victim prove they were subjected to violence. Domestic violence resulting in “nonsignificant bodily harm” falls under the Contraventions Code, rather than the Criminal Code, and may be punished by a fine or community service.

The law provides for cooperation between government and civil society organizations, establishes victim protection as a human rights principle, and allows third parties to file complaints on behalf of victims. The international NGO La Strada operated a hotline to report domestic violence, offered victims psychological and legal aid, and provided victims options for follow-up assistance. The Women’s Law Center also offered legal, psychological, and social support to domestic violence victims. During the year 10 centers providing assistance to domestic violence victims were operational in the country. An additional two centers provided counselling and resocialization services to family aggressors.

In July parliament adopted legislation to improve reporting in domestic violence cases, streamline the victims’ referral system and the use of restriction orders, improve access to state-guaranteed legal assistance for domestic and sexual violence victims, and expand the use of electronic monitoring devices in domestic violence cases. Rape remained a problem, and there were no specific governmental rape prevention activities.

In its concluding observations on its sixth periodic report on the country in March, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted concerns about the high prevalence of gender-based violence against women, including domestic violence and economic and psychosocial violence, and underreporting of gender-based violence against women, in particular domestic violence, due to fear of stigmatization and revictimization. The committee also noted limited financial compensation in gender-based violence cases, a lack of shelters and victims’ support services, including psychosocial counselling, legal assistance, and rehabilitation programs, particularly in rural areas and Transnistria.

Police reported a similar number of domestic violence criminal cases during the year with 1,409 cases registered in the first nine months, including 10 domestic violence cases that resulted in death. The General Police Inspectorate issued 3,205 restraining orders. From January to September, the courts issued 534 protection orders.

Police protection of victims and proper execution of protective orders improved slightly; the law requires that authorities issue protective orders within 24 hours. This provision was often not implemented, however, particularly for protection order requests filed on Fridays and examined by the courts the next Monday. A law adopted during the year authorizes the Ministry of Justice to expand the use of electronic devices for monitoring accused aggressors in domestic violence cases.

Police and human rights NGOs reported an increase in domestic violence complaints during the COVID-19 state of emergency and the subsequent state of public health emergency. From January through April, the General Police Inspectorate reported a 24 percent increase in the number of complaints of domestic violence received, and the Women’s Law Center reported that the number of calls to their domestic violence hotline doubled during the state of emergency. NGOs attributed the increase to domestic violence victims staying in isolation with their abusers for lengthy periods of time without the ability to seek assistance. From March 17 to May 31, the NGO La Strada’s Women and Girls’ Trust Line received 390 calls, including 247 complaints of domestic violence. During the state of emergency (March 17-May 15), shelters for domestic violence victims did not accept new applicants to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Authorities did not take steps to provide placement for survivors. While police and courts established protection measures for victims of violence, in most cases a lack of coordination between members of local multidisciplinary teams (which are meant to bring together law enforcement, health professionals, social workers, spiritual leaders, and local public officials to assist victims) left victims without the resources and protections the courts intended to provide for them.

According to La Strada, the subject of sexual violence remained sensitive for the country. Societal attitudes affected the behavior and the reticence of sexual violence victims to report incidents. Sexual abusers frequently used information technologies to threaten, frighten, humiliate, or cause the victim not to report abuses to law enforcement agencies. Specialists responsible for intervening in sexual violence cases were affected by prejudice and stereotypes and sometimes contributed to the victimization of or discrimination against victims of sexual crimes. Media outlets sometimes reinforced stereotypes and contributed to social stigma in their reporting on cases of sexual violence.

In Transnistria domestic violence without “substantial bodily harm” (such as broken bones or a concussion) remains an administrative, rather than criminal, offense only punishable by a fine.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. The law provides criminal penalties for sexual harassment ranging from a fine to a maximum of three years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits sexual advances that affect a person’s dignity or create an unpleasant, hostile, degrading, or humiliating environment in a workplace or educational institution. There are no criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment in employment. According to NGOs, law enforcement agencies steadily improved their handling of sexual harassment cases, addressing harassment of students by university professors and several instances of workplace harassment. Civil society groups, however, criticized the judicial system for displaying inadequate concern for the safety of victims and for not holding perpetrators accountable for their behavior.

According to an informative note on a January bill published by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection calling for the review of national legislation on sexual harassment, one in five women in the country experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Similarly, a 2018 Partnership for Development Center survey concluded that one in five women reported being sexually harassed by a teacher. Societal attitudes and lack of interest from law enforcement discouraged victims from reporting instances of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. By law minors under the age of 16 must have permission from a parent or legal guardian to obtain reproductive health services; a medical provider may waive this requirement if the minor’s life or health are in danger.

The state provides contraception free of charge to citizens through primary care providers. Although minors have access to contraception without parental consent through a network of Youth-Friendly Health Centers, many are reluctant to request contraception from family doctors due to social stigma.

Victims of sexual violence have access to sexual and reproductive health services on the same basis as other citizens.

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

Discrimination: Women and men enjoy the same legal status in family, labor, property, nationality, inheritance law, and in the judicial system. The law requires equal pay for equal work, which authorities generally respected. The law requires that women fill a minimum of 40 percent of decision-making positions in government and political offices; prohibits sexist and discriminatory language and images in the media and advertising; and spells out employers’ responsibilities in ensuring that workplaces are free of discrimination and sexual harassment. The law also establishes a minimum quota of 40 percent female representation on the electoral lists of political parties and sanctions for noncompliance. During the February 2019 parliamentary elections, 41.8 percent of candidates were women on the political parties’ electoral lists and over 25 percent of members of parliament were women. During the November presidential elections, only one woman ran for office. While launching his electoral campaign for the second round, incumbent president Igor Dodon made gender-based discriminatory statements against his political opponent in the runoff, Action and Solidarity Party leader Maia Sandu.

According to a report issued in February by the Union for HIV Prevention and Harm Reduction and Promo-LEX, female drug users, sex workers, and inmates were the most vulnerable to multiple risks, such as HIV or AIDS, human trafficking, harassment, and violence due to discrimination, criminalization, stigmatization, and exclusion from society. Despite such vulnerabilities authorities did not protect basic rights to health care and justice for women in these categories.

Discrimination with respect to employment, pay, and access to pension benefits persisted in the country (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Persons may acquire citizenship through birth to a citizen parent, birth in the country to stateless persons, birth to parents who cannot transmit their citizenship to the child, or through adoption by citizen parents. Registration of birth is free of charge for all citizens. The lack of registration certificates for a number of children, especially in rural areas and in Romani families, remained a problem.

Education: Primary education was free and compulsory until the ninth grade. Education of Romani children remained a problem; only half of Romani children attended school and one in five attended preschool. According to Romani representatives, absenteeism and school dropout rates in Romani communities stemmed from poverty and fear of discrimination.

All schools, kindergartens, and other educational institutions closed and were replaced with online schooling during the COVID-19 state of emergency that began on March 17. While some schools had the necessary resources and human capacity to hold classes online, most educational institutions, particularly in rural areas, failed to provide proper education through the end of the academic year. At the start of the new academic year on September 1, there were 11 schools out of 1,252 that remained closed due to COVID-19 cases among teachers and students. An additional eight schools closed after the school year started. By September 14, there were over 200 COVID-19 cases in schools in Chisinau; 1,325 students and 57 teaching and technical staff from 21 educational institutions were quarantined and there were 35 active cases in kindergartens.

Child Abuse: Although the law prohibits child neglect and specific forms of abuse, such as forced begging, child abuse remained a problem. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection has noted that social norms created a permissive environment for violence against children at home and at school.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research reported 4,738 cases of violence against children in the first half of the 2019-20 academic year. Some 2,171 children reported physical violence and 1,316 children reported neglect, while there were 40 cases of labor exploitation and 17 of sexual abuse. Local public authorities failed to monitor all cases of abuse against children, claiming a lack of experts. The ombudsman for children’s rights stated that most child neglect cases were due to alcohol abuse in the family.

An April study by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse noted that children were exposed to more risks during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased psychosocial stress, a sense of fear and panic generated by the pandemic, the suspension of school activity, infection with coronavirus or quarantine, access to and improper use of disinfectants and alcohol, their increased vulnerability to exploitation for child labor, social discrimination, and the limited availability of services for children with disabilities. Following the closure of schools and kindergartens, 32 children who were left home unsupervised died from accidents in the first six months of the year.

A special unit for minors in the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Juvenile Justice Unit, is responsible for ensuring that particular attention and expertise are devoted to child abuse victims and child offenders.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men. There were no official statistics regarding child marriages.

Child marriage was most common in Romani communities, where it was reportedly acceptable to marry off girls between the ages of 12 and 14. This either took the form of a forced marriage, whereby a girl is married off to an adult man against her will, or an arranged marriage, whereby “match makers” arranged for two children to be married in the future. In such cases marriage takes place without official documentation or registration. After marriage, girls commonly dropped out of school to take on household duties.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The exploitation of a child in a commercial sex act is punishable by 10 to 12 years’ imprisonment. Authorities punished commercial sex with minors as statutory rape. The law prohibits the production, distribution, broadcasting, import, export, sale, exchange, use, or possession of child pornography, for which the punishment is one to three years’ imprisonment and fines. These laws were generally enforced. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The country is a destination for child sex tourism. According to the International Organization for Migration’s 2020 Violence against Children and Youth Survey report for Moldova, 7.6 percent of girls and 5.4 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 experienced sexual violence in the previous year.

The Prosecutor’s Office to Combat Organized Crime and Special Cases is responsible for investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse cases, and the Antitrafficking Bureau of the Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for investigating and prosecuting child trafficking and child sexual exploitation. During the first 10 months of the year, law enforcement officials identified 42 victims of child online sexual exploitation, ranging in age from eight to 17 years old. La Strada’s Child Safeguarding Team registered 81 new cases of child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse that included 27 cases of child pornography, 21 cases of child trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and 33 cases of sexual abuse. Law enforcement bodies referred 63 cases for assistance.

Institutionalized Children: During the year the number of children placed in residential institutions decreased to 961, including 195 children with disabilities. The government also operated family-type homes, maternal centers, and daycare centers that provided various services for deinstitutionalized children, including children with disabilities. Another 26 mobile teams assisted over 840 beneficiaries across the country, including 485 children with disabilities. Children raised in residential institutions were at greater risk of unemployment, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and suicide as adults compared with their peers raised in families. According to human rights watchdogs and the ombudsperson for children’s rights, legal protective mechanisms to prevent recidivism and reinstitutionalization of homeless children were not functional during the year.

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 HYPERLINK “” HYPERLINK “https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html”https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Roma continued to be one of the most vulnerable minority groups in the country and faced a higher risk of marginalization, underrepresentation in political decision making, illiteracy, and social prejudice. Roma had lower levels of education, more limited access to health care, and higher rates of unemployment than the general population (see section 7.d.). According to a study released during the year by the Partnership for Development Center, the employment rate among Roma was only 6.4 percent. The unemployment rate among the Romani community stood at 45 percent. Romani women were particularly vulnerable to social exclusion and discrimination.

Approximately 60 percent of Romani families lived in rural areas. Some Romani communities lacked running water, sanitation facilities, and heating. Other problems facing Roma included lack of emergency health-care services in secluded settlements, unfair or arbitrary treatment by health practitioners, and lower rates of health insurance coverage. Authorities lacked an effective mechanism to address vulnerable families whose children did not attend school.

According to a 2019 survey of 476 Romani women from 48 localities conducted by the Roma Women Network in Moldova, the most serious problems reported were limited access to education, the job market, medical services, and information about health and hygiene. The survey showed that only 36.6 percent of Romani women attended some form of state-guaranteed education, while 57.8 percent said they did not have an opportunity to continue their studies. About 84.7 percent of respondents were unemployed, and many of them alleged that they were subject to discrimination when trying to get a job. According to the survey, one-third of women reported discrimination when consulting a doctor; 70 percent of women reported not having access to information about health and hygiene. There were no measurable improvements to these metrics reported in during the year.

According to Romani leaders, the community faced a high rate of emigration and the state did not provide financing for Romani community mediators, as prescribed by law. A total of 54 Romani community mediators were active during the year. The government earmarked 3.5 million lei ($210,000) for Romani community mediators during the year, but its 2016-20 action plan for the community was unfunded.

Russia

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.

As of December Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 358 names, including 295 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. Nevertheless, Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be two to three times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first individual charged under the “undesirable foreign organizations” law; students and activists jailed for participating in the Moscow protests in July and August 2019; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and murder attempts; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Belarus, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, COVID-19, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters further stifled freedom of assembly and association.

Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of August the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,080 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of approximately 80 items from 2019. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 585 extremism cases in 2019, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.

On March 27, the State Duma passed legislation criminalizing the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events. This law in effect toughened a March 2019 law that prohibited the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” Authorities used the law to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 15, Agora International Human Right Group published a report showing that over the course of 450 days, authorities initiated approximately 200 cases against the dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information.” A total of 33 of the cases were filed between April 3 and June 9 and involved criminal complaints that mainly targeted activists, journalists, bloggers, and legislators.

In early May prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the activities of Grigoriy Vinter, the head of the Vologda chapter of the NGO For Human Rights, after posts criticizing authorities for transporting prisoners who showed COVID-19 symptoms were published on a social media page that he administered. Vinter had previously faced similar politically motivated investigations for his human rights advocacy.

By law authorities may close any organization a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.

During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, Russian media reported that on July 10, LGBTI artist and activist Yuliya Tsvetkova was fined by a local court in the Russian Far East for social media posts and drawings depicting same-sex couples with their children, rainbow-colored cats, and matryoshka dolls holding hands. Tsvetkova was also under investigation for spreading pornography among minors for her body-positive projects in 2019. On September 22, her case was returned to the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Kray for further investigation in what experts believe was an attempt to prolong the trial.

Authorities investigated individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, at the end of January, popular stand-up comic Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation into one of his performances from 2019. Media reported that an audience member complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, possibly with a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. In March, Dolgopolov announced that he had returned to Russia; the status of the investigation was unclear.

During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 8, media reported that the Investigative Committee opened a case against Voronezh resident Aleksandr Khoroshiltsev for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on the website of the Immortal Regiment, the name given to the yearly procession of individuals with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Authorities told journalists that posts such as Khoroshiltsev’s were aimed at rehabilitating the Nazi regime.

The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On May 15, a district court in Kemerovo sentenced Vladislav Koretskiy, an 18-year-old student, to 10 days incarceration for publishing social media posts in 2016 and 2017 containing images of swastikas.

The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 3, a district court in Tomsk fined activist Sergey Chaykovskiy, the executive director of the National Bureau for the Development of Democracy, for an Instagram post that showed a speech by Nancy Pelosi accusing Putin of interfering in the conflict in Ukraine. Chaykovskiy captioned the post “Vladimir Putin will answer for his crimes in Ukraine” and was found guilty of disrespecting authorities online.

During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, in January the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders to block the distribution of an article by independent journalists chronicling the story of a heroin user. Free speech advocates expressed concern that the law allowed the government to ban any nonfiction article on drug use it deemed inappropriate.

During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, in March authorities opened an administrative case against the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for publishing a text from the Open Russia movement on its website. Prosecutors accused the foundation, which aids drug addicts and advocates for changes to laws on narcotics, of cooperating with an “undesirable foreign organization.”

Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”

By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of August there were 11 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.

The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this legislation would be used to further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($133 to $66,500).

A parliamentary commission investigated alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. After the September 13 regional elections, the commission reported that “foreign agent” NGOs tried to discredit the election and undermine the confidence of Russians in the democratic procedures. According to the commission, the interference tactics were diverse and included disinformation on social networks and round-the-clock hacker attacks on the servers of the Russian Central Election Commission.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included one killing, 42 attacks, 97 detentions by law enforcement officers, 46 prosecutions, 27 threats, and six politically motivated firings. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.

There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, according to press reports, on June 30, a police officer severely injured David Frenkel, a journalist with the independent MediaZona outlet, as he was reporting on the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in St. Petersburg. Frenkel was at a polling station investigating alleged violations of voting procedure. The head of the local voting commission requested that police remove Frenkel from the premises for purportedly interrupting the polling station’s work. A video widely circulated on social media showed the police officer tackling Frenkel, breaking his collarbone in the process. Frenkel was charged with three administrative offenses for allegedly interfering with the election commission’s work, ignoring police orders, and violating COVID-19 restrictions. Frenkel was eventually fined a nominal sum for the violations. His fines were upheld on appeal. Frenkel filed a lawsuit against the police officer involved; a preliminary investigation of the officer’s actions was reportedly launched but found no grounds for the opening of a case.

There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, on May 5, OVD-Info reported that police detained journalist Sergey Poznyakov as he was traveling to the editorial office of the newspaper Communists of Russia, where he worked as a correspondent. Police claimed they detained him because he did not show his documents, although Poznyakov asserted that he did. Police allegedly blocked the entrance to the newspaper’s office for five days, possibly in retaliation for its staff releasing red balloons, a symbolic gesture to communism, during a May Day celebration.

There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July. Safronov was working as an aide to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, at the time of his arrest. The charges alleged Safronov was recruited by Czech intelligence agents in 2012 to pass sensitive Russian military information to another foreign government. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. Safronov was subsequently fired from Kommersant, according to some accounts, due to government pressure on the publisher. Safronov’s supporters noted the treason charges complicated his defense in that independent examination of the evidence would likely be impossible. If convicted, Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison. As of December Safronov remained in custody.

There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, in July police raided the offices and private homes of the opposition organization MBK Media and its associated human rights foundation, Open Russia. These raids were ostensibly connected to the continuing investigation of the Russian groups’ founder, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, for alleged tax violations in 2003. Independent journalists believed the raids were actually tied to planned protests against recent constitutional amendments. MBK Media representatives pointed out that many of the staff members were only children in 2003, emphasizing their view that the raids were intended to interfere with their work.

In another example, in January Leonid Krivenkov, a retired cameraman for a major Russian state television broadcaster, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants. The attack came several weeks after Krivenkov gave multiple interviews detailing political censorship and corruption at the broadcaster. Krivenkov alleged the two men disparaged him for not respecting his homeland as they beat him. He was treated for a broken nose and severe bruising.

On October 15, journalist Sergey Plotnikov was abducted and beaten by unidentified persons in Khabarovsk, where he had been reporting on continuing protests in the city. He was reportedly handcuffed, driven into the forest outside the city, and threatened by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet. Plotnikov sustained a wound on his temple and was released the following morning.

Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. On April 13, Chechnya head Kadyrov posted a video statement on social media condemning Novaya Gazeta over an article alleging that local authorities’ response to COVID-19 was abusive. Kadyrov made death threats against the newspaper, stating that Russian authorities needed to stop Novaya Gazeta journalists before Chechen authorities would be forced to “commit a crime.” The article’s author, Yelena Milashina, had previously suffered an attack in Chechnya in February after she was ambushed and beaten by unknown assailants at her hotel. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed Kadyrov’s statement by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary in Kadyrov’s reaction to Milashina’s reporting. On September 29, a Moscow court fined Novaya Gazeta for disseminating “fake” information in the article.

There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).

There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, the founder and editor of the independent news site Koza.Press, Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina), was subjected to various forms of harassment and substantial fines by law enforcement in recent years. On October 1, law enforcement officers forcibly entered her Nizhny Novgorod apartment, ostensibly with a search warrant related to the civil society organization Open Russia. On October 2, Murakhtayeva committed suicide by self-immolation outside a regional Ministry of Internal Affairs building, writing on Facebook, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”

There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on June 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ center for combating extremism searched a printing house in St. Petersburg. Authorities detained three activists who ordered leaflets that opposed proposed constitutional amendments and criticized President Putin. The activists were charged under an article on production or distribution of campaign materials in violation of the law during elections and referenda.

Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.

Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on June 15, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal libel case against anticorruption crusader, opposition activist, and prominent blogger Aleksey Navalny after he used social media to criticize a WWII veteran’s participation in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package. Navalny faced penalties ranging from a substantial monetary fine to 240 hours of community service if convicted.

National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, Russian military historian Andrey Zhukov was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Zhukov was arrested in 2018 on allegations linked to “the history of the Russian Armed Forces and his vigorous activity online.” According to Zhukov’s colleagues, his interests included the formation, reassignment, and deployment of the country’s military units from World War I to the present. Before his arrest, Zhukov was also researching participants in World War II, their relatives, and their military awards.

There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, in June 2019 security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiyev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. Conviction on the charges may result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders emphasized the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiyev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case. They maintained that the case against him was fabricated. Gadzhiyev has remained in detention awaiting trial after a court repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In April additional charges were filed against Gadzhiyev in Dagestan accusing him of participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry up to an additional 10 years in prison if Gadzhiyev is convicted. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.

There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, on July 6, Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined in relation to a 2018 radio piece that delved into the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office. In the piece Prokopyeva discussed whether the country’s repressive political environment might have influenced the attack. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva, who was ultimately required only to pay a fine and was able to avoid incarceration. As she had been charged under antiterrorism laws, however, Prokopyeva was placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” barring her from foreign travel as a result.

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While the law 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, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On July 1, the government conducted a national vote on a package of constitutional amendments. This vote was not legally a referendum and was considered by most experts to be extraconstitutional. As such it was not bound by Russia’s normal election laws, and domestic observers were not provided a role in monitoring the poll’s conduct. Authorities mobilized administrative resources to drive up voter participation, which in effect functioned as a de facto campaign in favor of the government’s proposed amendments, while those seeking to campaign publicly against the amendments were denied the opportunity. Because the vote was not legally a referendum, no international observers were present to monitor the process.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted that “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state funded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers widely noted that the most serious potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous politically motivated criminal conviction.

In a statement on the 2016 State Duma elections, the OSCE’s election observation mission noted, “Democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society…Local authorities did not always treat the candidates equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted.”

The September 13 elections of 18 governors and 11 regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Independent election monitors logged thousands of reported abuses during these elections at the regional and local levels. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, the election commission of the Arkhangelsk region announced on August 4 that environmental activist Oleg Mandrykin, nominated by the opposition Yabloko Party to run in the gubernatorial election, had failed to pass the municipal filter. The election commission claimed he had not collected the required number of signatures from the municipal districts and thus was disqualified from running for the post of governor. Mandrykin reported that his supporters had faced “unprecedented pressure” from regional authorities.

Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promoted government-sponsored monitoring instead. Observers were prohibited from being accredited to more than one polling station, limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the law made it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intended to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonpartisan groups.

The election-monitoring NGO Golos announced that the September 13 election took place under the worst electoral regulations in 25 years, with greater limits on the electoral rights of citizens and increased attacks on the rights of election observers. For example, on September 9, in the Ivanovo and Novgorod regions, security officials searched the apartments of public observation organizers, including Ruslan Zinatullin, the head of the Tatarstan branch of the Yabloko Party. Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was made more difficult by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for office was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition parties and their candidates. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Election Commission for certification. Presidential candidates nominated by parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent presidential candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid.

Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, political parties in single-mandate districts, or political parties on their federal list, or they may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. Only political parties that overcame the 5 percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single-mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures, while parties that did not must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate for the Duma. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.

Gubernatorial candidates nominated by registered political parties are not required to collect signatures from members of the public, although self-nominated candidates are. The law also requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered party to meet a “municipal filter” requirement. Such candidates must obtain signatures of support from a defined portion of municipal deputies, the portion of which varies by region, as well as collect signatures from at least one deputy in each of a specified portion of municipal council districts.

Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements.

In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration or faced court-mandated suspensions of their activities. On January 14, the Supreme Court ruled to suspend for three months the work of opposition leader Dmitriy Gudkov’s political party, Party of Change (officially known as Civic Initiative). The Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit against the party after refusing to register its charter because the party purportedly failed to provide the minutes from its meeting.

Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters. On July 23, Dmitry Nizovtsev, the host of the YouTube channel for Navalny’s headquarters in Khabarovsk, was assaulted after he broadcast from a march organized to support ousted Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal. He claimed that his attackers were linked to authorities and beat him because of his reporting and association with Navalny.

Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, media outlets reported on August 31 that representatives of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party were attacked in Novosibirsk in the run-up to the September 13 regional election, including the headquarters of Roman Yakovlev, a candidate from the Communist Party. On July 26, the Communist Party also reported that its candidates had problems with passing the municipal filter in at least three regions.

State entities or entities closely aligned with the state also influenced their employees to vote a certain way. In Omsk workers from Russian Railways told journalists they were encouraged to photograph themselves with their completed ballots for the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments. In Yekaterinburg the clergy of some Russian Orthodox Churches encouraged their parishioners to vote in favor of the constitutional amendments.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women held less than 20 percent of elected seats in the national legislature. As of January women held approximately 5 percent of ministerial positions. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, and the law provides the same punishment for a relative, including a spouse, who commits rape as for a nonrelative. The penalty for conviction of rape is three to six years’ imprisonment for a single offense, with additional time imposed for aggravating factors. According to NGOs, many law enforcement personnel and prosecutors did not consider spousal or acquaintance rape a priority and did not encourage reporting or prosecuting such cases. NGOs reported that local police officers sometimes refused to respond to rape or domestic violence calls unless the victim’s life was directly threatened. Authorities typically did not consider rape or attempted rape to be life threatening.

Domestic violence remained a major problem. There is no domestic violence provision in the law and no legal definition of domestic violence, making it difficult to know its actual prevalence in the country. The law considers beatings by “close relatives” an administrative rather than a criminal offense for first-time offenders, provided the beating does not cause serious harm requiring hospital treatment. The antidomestic violence NGO ANNA Center estimated that 60 to 70 percent of women suffering from some type of domestic violence do not seek help due to fear, public shame, lack of financial independence from their partners, or lack of confidence in law enforcement authorities. Laws that address bodily harm are general in nature and do not permit police to initiate a criminal investigation unless the victim files a complaint. The burden of collecting evidence in such cases typically falls on the alleged victims. The law prohibits threats, assault, battery, and killing, but most acts of domestic violence did not fall within the jurisdiction of the prosecutor’s office. The law does not provide for protection orders, which experts believe could help keep women safe from experiencing recurrent violence by their partners.

COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and general restrictions on movement trapped many victims of domestic violence in the same space as the perpetrators. On May 5, media outlets reported that Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova acknowledged that NGOs recorded an increase of more than 50 percent in the number of domestic violence cases. The ANNA Center reported that 70 percent of the women that called its hotline stated the situation at home worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown. Many victims noted they could not leave their homes due to fear of being punished for violating the stay-at-home order.

There were reports that women defending themselves from domestic violence were charged with crimes. According to a MediaZona study, approximately 80 percent of women sentenced for murder between 2016 and 2018 killed a domestic abuser in self-defense. In one case in 2018, three teenaged sisters allegedly killed their father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, in their Moscow home. In October 2019 authorities confirmed that the father had physically and sexually abused the girls for many years without any repercussions. On July 12, the Attorney General’s Office upheld the murder charges, a reversal to Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Grin’s December 2019 recommendation to reclassify the sisters’ actions as self-defense. As of September the women remained under house arrest as they awaited a jury trial. The case ignited widespread support for the sisters across the country, with many persons calling for their release.

According to the ANNA Center, when domestic violence offenses were charged, articles under the country’s criminal law were usually applied that employed the process of private prosecution. The process of private prosecution requires the victim to gather all necessary evidence and bear all costs after the injured party or his or her guardian took the initiative to file a complaint with a magistrate judge. The NGO noted that this process severely disadvantages survivors. Experts estimated that seven of 10 such cases were dropped due to reconciliation of the parties as a result of the abuser pressuring, manipulating, and intimidating the victim who often had to continue living in the same house.

According to NGOs, police were often unwilling to register complaints of domestic violence, often saying that cases were “family matters,” frequently discouraged victims from submitting complaints, and often pressed victims to reconcile with abusers. On March 15, in response to domestic violence cases presented to the ECHR, the deputy minister of justice and the Russian representative at the ECHR, Mikhail Galperin, asserted that the state should not be held responsible for the law enforcement officials’ inaction in domestic violence cases if the perpetrator was a private person.

The majority of domestic violence cases filed with authorities were either dismissed on technical grounds or transferred to a reconciliation process conducted by a justice of the peace whose focus was on preserving the family rather than punishing the perpetrator. NGOs estimated that 3 percent of such cases eventually reached the courts. Victims of domestic violence in the North Caucasus experienced particular difficulty seeking protection from authorities. On June 26, Human Rights Watch reported that Madina Umayeva died and was buried overnight in the Chechen Republic. Umayeva’s mother, suspecting her son-in-law of beating her daughter to death and burying her to hide the evidence, had the body exhumed for autopsy. Three days after the body was exhumed, Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov publicly accused the mother of spreading gossip about her daughter’s death and dismissed the possibility that it constituted murder. Umayeva’s mother later appeared on television and said, “I apologize for having listened to rumors. I apologize to [you].”

NGOs noted there were government-operated institutions that provided services to affected women such as social apartments, hospitals wards, and shelters. Access to these services was often complicated, since they required proof of residency in that particular municipality, as well as proof of low-income status. In many cases these documents were controlled by the abusers and not available to victims. A strict two-month stay limit in the shelters and limited business hours of these services further restricted victims’ access to social services. After COVID-19-related restrictions forced many shelters to close temporarily, NGOs rented out apartments and hotels to shelter the victims.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. NGOs in Dagestan reported that FGM/C was occasionally practiced in some villages. On May 19, media outlets reported a nine-year-old girl from Ingushetia underwent an FGM procedure at a hospital in Magas in June 2019. The girl’s mother claimed that her former husband and his new wife took the girl to the hospital for the procedure without the mother’s consent. Authorities opened a criminal investigation into the hospital and the doctor who performed the operation. The clinic allegedly advertised FGM procedures performed by a pediatric gynecologist.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights groups reported that “honor killings” of women persisted in Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, but they were rarely reported or acknowledged. Local police, doctors, and lawyers often collaborated with the families involved to cover up the crimes. For example, Russian media reported that in February in Ingushetia, Magomedbashir Mogushkov stabbed and killed his sister, Liza Yevloyeva, to “wash away the shame from the family.” On the eve of the killing, Mogushkov saw his sister on a police surveillance video when a well-known criminal, Isa Altemirov, was being detained. Altemirov’s gang was known to seduce Ingush women into extramarital relationships and blackmail them for money.

In some parts of the North Caucasus, women continued to face bride kidnapping, polygamy, forced marriage (including child marriage), legal discrimination, virginity requirements before marriage, and forced adherence to Islamic dress codes. Women in the North Caucasus often lost custody of their children after the father’s death or a divorce, due to traditional law that prohibits women from living in a house without a man. For example, on August 6, Russian media reported that Liana Sosurkayeva from Chechnya lost her two children to her husband’s brother after the husband died. She has been denied custody of the children, on the basis of Chechen traditional law.

Sexual Harassment: The law contains a general provision against compelling a person to perform actions of a sexual character by means of blackmail, threats, or by taking advantage of the victim’s economic or other dependence on the perpetrator. There is no legal definition of harassment, however, and no comprehensive guidelines on how it should be addressed. Sexual harassment was reportedly widespread, but courts often rejected victims’ claims due to lack of sufficient evidence. In January the newspaper Vedomosti published a survey showing that 16 percent of women and 7 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at least once in their careers. The newspaper noted that the law does little to help victims, as there is no concept of “harassment” in the labor code.

On April 29, media outlets reported that two women had accused Aleksey Venediktov, the head of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, of sexual harassment. According to Anna Veduta, Venediktov made unwanted advances toward her after a company dinner in 2012 and tried to kiss her outside her home. An activist who asked not be named recounted a similar experience in 2017. Although he had told media in 2005 that sexual harassment was a “right” at Ekho Moskvy, Venediktov denied these allegations.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. While there are no legal restrictions on access to contraceptives, very few citizens receive any kind of sexual education, hampering effectiveness. Senior government officials, the Russian Orthodox Church, and conservative groups in the country advocated stridently for increasing the birth rate, and their opposition to family planning initiatives contributed to a social stigma that impacted the use of contraceptives. Access to family planning and skilled medical birth attendants varied widely based on geography and was often extremely limited in rural areas. The government does not deny access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, but survivors may not always seek needed treatment due to social stigma and the lack of follow-through on domestic-violence cases by the criminal justice system. There were significant social and cultural barriers to family planning and reproductive health in the North Caucasus republics, including cases of female genital mutilation. Approximately 100 occupations remained banned to women because they were deemed “dangerous to the women’s reproductive health.”

Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. In October media widely reported allegations of forced sterilizations of 15 women between 2006 and 2016 at the Uktus Boarding House in Yekaterinburg, which houses orphans with health issues, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. Former residents of the institution also alleged that some women were forced to have abortions. One former resident of the institution reportedly died after undergoing sterilization surgery. Regional law enforcement and health authorities in the Sverdlovsk region launched a probe into the reports, and regional human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Merzlyakova called the alleged sterilizations “unacceptable.”

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide that men and women enjoy the same legal status and rights, but women often encountered significant restrictions. Women have experienced discrimination in the workplace, in pay, and access to credit (see section 7.d.). There are 100 jobs that the Ministry of Labor has ruled to be especially physically taxing, including firefighting, mining, and steam boiler repair, that remain off limits to women.

Children

Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory if the parents are unknown or if the child may not claim the parents’ citizenship. Failure to register a birth resulted in the denial of public services.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through grade 11, although regional authorities frequently denied school access to the children of persons who were not registered local residents, including Roma, asylum seekers, and migrant workers.

Child Abuse: The country does not have a law on child abuse, but the law outlaws murder, battery, and rape. The penalties for conviction of such crimes range from five to 15 years in prison and, if they result in the death of a minor, up to 20 years in prison. A 2017 law that makes beatings by “close relatives” an administrative rather than a criminal offense for first-time offenders, provided the beating does not cause serious harm requiring hospital treatment, applies to children as well. Some Duma deputies claimed that children need discipline and authority in the family, condoning beating as a mode of discipline.

Studies indicated that violence against children was fairly common. According to a report published in April 2019 by the National Institute for Child Protection, one in four parents admitted to having beaten their children at least once with a belt. In an extreme case of child abuse, on September 11, media outlets reported that Gulmira Bukenova in Omsk region continuously beat, tied, and starved an 18-month-old boy who lived with her. The mother, Yevgeniya Kabelskaya, was forced to work for free in the household while they lived with Bukenova’s family.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for both men and women. Local authorities may authorize marriage from age 16 under certain circumstances. More than a dozen regions allow marriage from age 14 under special circumstances, such as pregnancy or the birth of a child.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 16. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering, or procuring of children for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Authorities generally enforced the law. For example, on May 8, media outlets reported that authorities detained monk Kliment (Korablev) in Orenburg region for “committing a number of sexual crimes against three minors.” Authorities held him in a pretrial detention center for more than four months. The Orthodox Church prohibited Korablev from taking part in church services until the investigation was over.

The law prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and possession with intent to distribute child pornography, but possession without intent to distribute is not prohibited by law. Manufacture and distribution of pornography involving children younger than 18 is punishable by two to eight years in prison or three to 10 years in prison if children younger than 14 are involved. Authorities considered child pornography to be a serious problem.

Roskomnadzor has the power to shut down any website immediately and without due process until its owners prove its content does not include child pornography. Roskomnadzor reported that from 2012 to 2017, it shut down 38,000 links related to child pornography, or 14 percent of all blocked links.

Institutionalized Children: There were reports of neglect as well as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in state institutions for children. Children with disabilities were especially vulnerable. NGOs pointed to the closing of schools and strict stay-at-home orders during the height of COVID-19 measures as especially detrimental to at-risk children, including children in institutions. NGOs noted that many had limited access to social services and teachers or counselors.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination based on nationality, but according to a 2017 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, officials discriminated against minorities, including through “de facto racial profiling, targeting in particular migrants and persons from Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Activists reported that police officers often stopped individuals who looked foreign and asked them for their documents, claiming that they contained mistakes even when they were in order, and demanded bribes.

Hate crimes targeting ethnic minorities continued to be a problem, although the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported that the number of such crimes declined thanks to authorities’ effectively targeting groups that promoted racist violence. As of August 3, one individual had died and 14 had been injured in racially motivated attacks since the beginning of the year. On June 13, Timur Gavrilov, a 17-year-old medical student from Azerbaijan, died after being stabbed 20 times in Volgograd. Police later detained Vitaliy Vasilyev, an unemployed local man, who confessed to attacking Gavrilov on the basis of his ethnic identity. According to media reports, Vasilyev had ties to radical right-wing organizations and attacked the student because he wanted to “kill a non-Russian.” Authorities charged Vasilyev with murder.

According to a 2018 report by the human rights group Antidiscrimination Center Memorial (ADC Memorial), Roma faced widespread discrimination in access to resources (including water, gas, and electrical services); demolitions of houses and forced evictions, including of children, often in winter; violation of the right to education (segregation of Romani children in low-quality schools); deprivation of parental rights; and other forms of structural discrimination.

On February 21, a court in Leninsk-Kuznetskiy fined a local resident for posts on social media judged to be an “incitement to hatred or enmity” directed against Roma. The man made the posts during large-scale brawls that took place in villages near Leninsk-Kuznetskiy between Romani and non-Romani residents.

Tajikistan

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair elections based on universal suffrage, but the government restricted this right. The president and his supporters continued to dominate the government while taking steps to eliminate genuine pluralism in the interest of consolidating power. The president’s political party, the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), dominated both houses of parliament. PDPT members held most government positions. The president had broad authority, which he exercised throughout the year, to appoint and dismiss officials.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held two major elections during the year, parliamentary elections in March and presidential elections in October.

The October 11 presidential elections resulted in victory for President Emomali Rahmon, his fifth consecutive term. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed a limited election assessment mission for the presidential election. OSCE/ODIHR stated the decision to deploy a limited mission was due to a lack of progress in bringing the country’s electoral legal framework and its implementation closer in line with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards for democratic elections. In the lead up to the election, election authorities denied one presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, Saidjafar Usmanzoda, registration for failing to collect the required 250,000 signatures, deeming an unspecified number of signatures fraudulent. The only opposition party active within the country, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), boycotted the election. Rahmon won 91 percent of the vote with a total turnout of 85 percent of the country’s registered voters. Both figures were disputed by independent political commentators.

The March 1 parliamentary elections resulted in the ruling PDPT winning 47 out of 63 seats in the lower house of parliament. Progovernment parties shared the remaining seats. The SDP declared the elections unfair.

As it did for the subsequent presidential election, ODIHR decided to send a limited election assessment mission for the March 1 parliamentary elections due to the country’s lack of progress in adhering to international standards. ODIHR’S final report released on May 27 concluded that parliamentary elections took place in a tightly controlled environment. Systemic infringements on fundamental political rights and freedoms left no space for a pluralistic political debate, and genuine opposition was removed from the political landscape. Consequently, voters were not presented with genuine political alternatives. Operational aspects of the elections appeared to be efficiently administered, yet this did not offset the long-standing transparency and accountability challenges within election administration, which undermined the integrity and credibility of the process.

On March 18, the Sino District Court of Dushanbe refused to satisfy the claim by Davlat Habibov, candidate for a seat in the Dushanbe city council, to invalidate the results in electoral district N44. The court ruled that the candidate’s claims against the election commission were unfounded and that the deadline for filing a complaint had already passed. Habibov demanded the annulment of the election results in electoral district N44, as none of the six candidates managed to meet the required threshold of 50 percent plus 1 of the votes. The election commission, according to Habibov, promised that a second round of voting would be scheduled, but never took place.

Of the 41 amendments approved by referendum in 2016, three were significant changes to the constitution: one conferred the title of “leader of the nation” upon President Rahmon; removed presidential term limits on the “leader of the nation”; and gave him lifelong immunity from judicial and criminal prosecution. An additional amendment lowered the eligible age to run for president from 35 to 30, in an apparent effort to allow Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali, to become president in case his father was unable to finish his term. One amendment banned all religious-affiliated political parties, a follow-on to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling which made the IRPT, the main opposition group at the time, illegal.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were seven legal major political parties, including the PDPT. With the exception of the SDP, the opposition parties were considered to be “pocket parties” that cooperated with the ruling PDPT to such a degree that they did not represent a significant threat to President Rahmon’s control of government. The opposition political parties had moderate popular support and faced high levels of scrutiny from the government. All senior members of President Rahmon’s government were PDPT members. Most members of the country’s 97-seat parliament were members of the PDPT, progovernment parties, or PDPT affiliates.

In June, SDP leader Rakhmatillo Zoirov wrote on his Facebook page that members of his party had been persecuted for several months across the country. In his statement, Zoirov alleged that an SDP activist from Gharm was arrested on fabricated charges, and that authorities seized the cars of two party activists from Hissor. Zoirov noted that two-thirds of SDP members had been forced to leave the country due to constant harassment.

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

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process. Women were underrepresented in decision-making processes at all levels of political institutions. Female representation in all branches of government was less than 30 percent. There were three female ministers but no ministers from minority groups. Cultural practices discouraged participation by women in politics, although the government and political parties made efforts to promote their involvement, such as the 1999 presidential decree that mandated every ministry or government institution to have at least one female deputy. Civil society criticized the decree as a barrier to women holding top government positions.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, which is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. There is no separate statute for spousal rape. Law enforcement officials usually advised women not to file charges but registered cases at the victim’s insistence. Most observers believed the majority of cases were unreported because victims wished to avoid humiliation.

Domestic violence does not have its own statute in the criminal code. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a widespread problem. Women underreported violence against them due to fear of reprisal or inadequate response by police and the judiciary, resulting in virtual impunity for the perpetrators. Authorities wishing to promote traditional gender roles widely dismissed domestic violence as a “family matter.”

The government Committee for Women’s Affairs had limited resources to assist domestic violence survivors, but local committee representatives referred women to crisis shelters for assistance.

In 2016 the government adopted official guidelines for the Ministry of Internal Affairs on how to refer and register cases of domestic violence, while not having a particular criminal statute to draw from to do so. Domestic violence incidents were registered under general violence and hooliganism, with a special notation in paperwork indicating a distinction for domestic violence.

Authorities seldom investigated reported cases of domestic violence, and they prosecuted few alleged perpetrators. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is authorized to issue administrative restraining orders, but police often gave only warnings, short-term detentions, or fines for committing “administrative offenses” in cases of domestic violence.

A Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence noted violence against women was “pervasive” and emphasized a failure to investigate reports of domestic violence in rural areas.

Sexual Harassment: No specific statute bans sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment can be qualified under other articles of the criminal code, such as petty hooliganism. According to Supreme Court, in the first half of the year, the courts of Dushanbe considered 42 cases of sexual harassment. Of this number, only three cases were related to rape.

The Committee for Women and Family Affairs operated a call center for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace through which a specialist could provide legal and psychological assistance to the victims of harassment.

Victims often did not report incidents because of fear of social stigma. Women reporting sexual harassment faced retaliation from their employers as well as scrutiny from their families and communities. Human rights activists noted that victims of sexual harassment in most cases preferred to remain silent due to fear and public shame. One human rights activist told media that six women visited her with harassment complaints, but none of them agreed to go to court.

On October 27, the Firdavsi District Court of Dushanbe fined fashion designer Parvin Jahongiri and the newspaper Vecherka $400 ($200 each) for insulting Tajikistan Fashion Week director Tohir Ibragimov. The “insult” occurred when Vecherka published an article about Jahongiri’s claim that she faced harassment from Ibragimov, including the threat of sexual violence, while collaborating on the development of a joint brand called T&Z. The court ruled that Jahongiri’s case lacked sufficient evidence and stated that Jahongiri and Vecherka “insulted the honor and dignity” of Ibragimov. Jahongiri’s lawyer, Gulchehra Kholmatova, said they intended to appeal the decision.

A court chairman in the Northern Sughd region reportedly fired his court clerk after she refused to have sexual relations with him. Despite the clerk sending more than 30 letters to various authorities, including the President’s Office, with a request to investigate the case and restore her position, the courts rejected her request. The Supreme Court said the court clerk was dismissed for failing to disclose her brother’s criminal record during her initial background investigation. According to the clerk, however, her brother’s conviction had long been expunged.

Reproductive Rights: The government did not interfere with the rights of individuals and couples to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from coercion and violence. Intimate partner violence remained a significant problem impacting woman’s agency, including on sexual and reproductive health. Stereotypes related to gender roles and the taboo nature of conversations about sex prevented women and girls from obtaining information on reproductive health and access to services.

According to UN data, 54 percent of married or in-union women made decisions on their health care, 83 percent had autonomy in deciding to use contraception, and 60 percent said they could say “no” to sex. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the maternal mortality rate was 17 per 100,000 live births with 95 percent of births attended by skilled health personnel. In data from 2010-19, the most recent available, WHO reported that 58 percent of women did not have their contraception needs fully met. The adolescent birth rate was 54 percent in the period 2010-18.

Survivors of sexual violence have a legal right to protection and social services, although they had difficulty in gaining access to these services. Police and judicial authorities often failed to investigate instances of sexual violence and rarely issued orders of protection to prevent violence. The pervasive nature of victim blaming also meant that sexual violence went underreported and, even if reported, was often not fully prosecuted.

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

Discrimination: Although the law provides for men and women to receive equal pay for equal work, cultural barriers restricted women’s professional opportunities. The law protects women’s rights in marriage and family matters, but families often pressured female minors to marry against their will. Religious marriages were common substitutes for civil marriages due to the high marriage registration fees associated with civil marriages and the power afforded men under religious law.

A fatwa promulgated by the Council of Ulema in 2005 continued to prohibit Hanafi Sunni women, who constitute the vast majority of the female population, from praying in mosques. Religious ceremonies also made polygyny possible, despite the illegality of the practice. NGOs estimated that up to 10 percent of men practiced polygyny. Many of these polygynous marriages involved underage brides. Unofficial second and third marriages were increasingly common, with neither the wives nor the children of the subsequent marriages having legal standing or rights.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country’s territory or from their parents. There were no reports of birth registration being denied or not provided on a discriminatory basis. The government is required to register all births.

Education: Free and universal public education is compulsory until age 16 or completion of the ninth grade. UNICEF reported school attendance generally was good through the primary grades, but girls faced disadvantages, as parents often gave priority in education to their sons, whom they regarded as future breadwinners.

Child Abuse: The Committee on Women and Family Affairs and regional child rights protection departments are responsible for addressing problems of violence against children.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage of men and women is 18. Under exceptional circumstances, which a judge must determine, such as in the case of pregnancy, a couple may also apply to a court to lower the marriageable age to 17. Underage religious marriage was more widespread in rural areas.

The law expressly prohibits forced marriages of girls younger than 18 or entering into a marriage contract with a girl younger than 18. Early marriage carries a fine or prison sentence of up to six months, while forced marriage is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Because couples may not register a marriage where one of the would-be spouses is younger than 18, many simply have a local religious leader perform the wedding ceremony. Without a civil registration certificate, the bride has few legal rights. According to the Office of Ombudsman for Human Rights, in 2018 there were 30 recorded cases of illegal marriage of underage persons in the country, with poverty reported as the main cause for early marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. In January the government amended the criminal code to conform with international law. As a result, the law now prohibits the buying and selling of children and outlines a provision that requires an exploitation act to qualify as human trafficking. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16. According to an NGO working with victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking, there were several cases in which family members or third parties forced children into prostitution in nightclubs and in private homes.

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were occasional reports that law enforcement officials harassed persons of Afghan and Uzbek nationality.

Turkmenistan

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Despite a constitutional provision giving citizens the ability to choose their government in periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, there have been no free and fair elections in the country. There was no bona fide political opposition to the president, and alternative candidates came from derivative party structures, such as the state-controlled Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or were members of individual initiative groups. Elections were conducted by secret ballot. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), the election law does not meet OSCE standards.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In the 2017 presidential election, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov won 97.69 percent of the vote. The government invited an election assessment mission team composed of representatives of the OSCE and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Commonwealth of Independent States Executive Committee, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to observe the election. According to the OSCE/ODIHR team, “The presidential election took place in a strictly controlled political environment. The predominant position of the incumbent and the lack of genuine opposition and meaningful pluralism limited voters’ choice. The lack of clear regulations for key aspects of the process had a negative impact on the administration of the election, especially at lower levels.”

According to the human rights ombudsperson’s report for 2019, the Office of the Ombudsperson received no complaints from citizens about violation of the electoral right, including during the election period.

On September 25, the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty) approved the amendments and additions to the constitution that converted the Parliament into a bicameral parliamentary system. In accordance with constitutional law, the People’s Council approved the removal of one article, added three articles, and amended and included additions to 27 articles of the constitution. When the changes are implemented, the bicameral Parliament (Milli Genesh) will consist of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council, the higher house) and the Mejlis (Parliament, the lower house). The Halk Maslahaty will consist of 56 members (eight representatives from each province and Ashgabat, and eight representatives to be appointed by the president). The Mejlis will consist of 125 members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law makes it extremely difficult for genuinely independent political parties to organize, nominate candidates, and campaign, since it grants the Ministry of Justice broad powers over the registration process and the authority to monitor party meetings. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, region, or profession as well as parties that “offend moral norms.” The law does not explain how a party may appeal its closure by the government. The law permits public associations and organizations to put forth candidates for elected office.

Neither organized opposition nor independent political groups operated in the country. The three registered political parties were the ruling Democratic Party (the former Communist Party), the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the Agrarian Party. The government did not officially prohibit membership in other political organizations, but there were no reports of persons who claimed membership in political organizations other than these three parties and a smattering of representatives of individual initiative groups. Authorities did not allow opposition movements based abroad–including the Republican Party of Turkmenistan–to operate within the country.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate, although their representation and influence were limited. Although women served in prominent government positions, including as speaker of parliament, only one woman served in the 12-member Cabinet of Ministers (as the deputy chairwoman for culture, television, and press). The government gave preference for appointed government positions to ethnic Turkmen, but ethnic minorities occupied some senior government positions. Members of the president’s Ahal-Teke tribe, the largest in the country, held the most prominent roles in cultural and political life.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and penalties range from three to 10 years in prison. Rape of a victim younger than age 14 is punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison. A cultural bias against reporting or acknowledging rape made it difficult to determine the extent of the problem.

The law prohibits domestic violence, including spousal abuse, through provisions in the criminal code that address intentional infliction of injury. Penalties range from fines to 15 years in prison, based on the extent of the injury, although enforcement of the law varied. Anecdotal reports indicated domestic violence against women was common; most victims of domestic violence kept silent because they were unaware of their rights or feared increased violence from husbands and relatives.

Sexual Harassment: No law specifically prohibits sexual harassment, and reports suggested sexual harassment existed in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to manage their reproductive health, and they have access to the information to do so, free from discrimination or violence. The law states that women have the right to medical care including prenatal care and “safe and effective” contraception. Some married women opposed the use of contraception due to cultural attitudes. Some women in remote areas preferred to give birth at home rather than make a long or difficult journey to a hospital or clinic. Official statistics indicated that 76 percent of women of reproductive age satisfied their need for family planning with modern methods and that the adolescent birth rate was 28 percent. Working with the UN Population Fund, the government committed to providing health services including HIV prophylaxis, contraceptive medication, forensic checks, and psychological assistance, to survivors of sexual violence within 72 hours of a reported attack.

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

Discrimination: By law women have full legal equality with men, including equal pay, access to loans, the ability to start and own a business, and access to government jobs. Nevertheless, women continued to experience discrimination due to cultural biases, and the government did not enforce the law effectively.

Children

Birth Registration: By law a child derives citizenship from his or her parents. The new Law on Civil Status Acts provides universal birth registration to any child born within the country’s territory, and a child born to stateless persons possessing permanent resident status in the country is also a citizen.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age of consent is 16. The law forbids the production of pornographic materials or objects for distribution, as well as the advertisement or trade in text, movies or videos, graphics, or other objects of a pornographic nature, including those involving children.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law provides for equal rights and freedoms for all citizens.

The law designates Turkmen as the official language, although it also provides for the rights of speakers of minority languages. Russian remained prevalent in commerce and everyday life in the capital, even as the government continued its campaign to conduct official business solely in Turkmen.

Non-Turkmen speakers in government noted that some avenues for promotion and job advancement were not available to them, and only a handful of non-Turkmen occupied high-level jobs in government. In some cases applicants for government jobs had to provide information about their ethnicity going back three generations.

Ukraine

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There was one individual whom some human rights groups considered to be subjected to politically motivated detention, but during the year the detainee, Zhytomyr journalist Vasyl Muravytskyy, was released on his own recognizance while his case continued. Muravytskyy was charged in 2017 with state treason, infringement of territorial integrity, incitement of hatred, and support for terrorist organizations based on statements deemed pro-Russian for which he could face up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Some domestic and international journalist unions called for his release, claiming the charges were politically motivated.

According to the State Bureau for Investigations, as of mid-August, Russia-led forces kept an estimated 235 hostages in the Donbas region (see section 1.g.).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

In the Donbas region, Russia-led forces suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.

Freedom of Speech: With some exceptions, individuals in areas under government control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal.

The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols as well as the manufacture or promotion of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol associated with Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. On March 29, police issued an administrative offense citation in Odesa to a local resident for publicly displaying a portrait of Stalin. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police fined individuals in Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and Kyiv for carrying banned Soviet symbols.

The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression against the country, and the government prosecuted individuals under these laws (see “Censorship” and “National Security”).

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The NGO Freedom House rated the country’s press as “partly free.” Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views. Privately owned media, particularly television channels, the most successful of which were owned by influential oligarchs, often provided readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners and providing favorable coverage of their allies and criticism of political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies. Editorial independence was particularly limited in media controlled by individuals and oligarchs supportive of or linked to the Russian government and intelligence agencies. The Ministry of Defense on November 25 stated the Russian Federation “has intensified measures to discredit the top state and military leadership of Ukraine. To this end, pro-Russian media, journalists and agents of influence, including in Ukraine, are being used more actively.”

There were reports of continuing financial and political pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company, created to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. The 2020 budget provided only 89 percent of the previous budget’s funding for the broadcaster, which was already reportedly 45 percent lower than what it should have received by law. Parliament consistently failed to comply with legal requirements allocating at least 0.2 percent of the state’s annual budget to the broadcaster. In late February the State Executive Service blocked the broadcaster’s bank accounts pursuant to a Supreme Economic Court order to repay the debt of its predecessor, the National Television Company of Ukraine. On March 6, the Independent Media Council noted the action left the broadcaster unable to continue operations. On June 2, the bank accounts were unblocked.

Jeansa–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the Institute for Mass Information (IMI) of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. Only 11 out of the 50 most-visited information sites did not contain jeansa, according to an IMI study conducted from June to August. The study found that 70 percent of the jeansa materials identified were of a political nature. The IMI attributed the widespread use of political jeansa during this period to an attempt to influence voters ahead of the October 25 local elections.

Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists blamed what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity. Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists.

According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, which is equal to the number of attacks on journalists during the first eight months of 2019. As in 2019, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated the majority of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 20 incidents involving threats against journalists, as compared with 33 during the same period in 2019. The IMI and editors of major independent news outlets also noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they asserted had the tacit support of the government.

There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists by government officials. For example, on August 26, members of the Zaporizhzhya city council physically removed Gvozdi (Nails) newspaper editor Bohdan Vasylenko from the city administrative building. Vasylenko had planned to attend the city council meeting to inquire about local COVID-19 prevention measures. The journalist filed a police report. No charges had been brought as of mid-September.

Media professionals continued to experience pressure from the Security Service, the military, police, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues. For example, on April 29, a police officer beat Hromadske journalist Bohdan Kutyepov, pushed him to the ground, and broke his media equipment while he was live-streaming antiquarantine protests taking place in front of a government building. As of November the State Bureau for Investigations was looking into the incident.

There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors, including numerous attacks against investigative journalists from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) program Schemes that occurred throughout the year. On August 7, RFE/RL investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach found alleged evidence of wiretapping in his apartment and posted images on Facebook of holes drilled into the ceiling of his apartment as evidence of the suspected wiretapping attempt. Shortly thereafter, on the evening of August 16, the car of an RFE/RL Schemes driver and film crew member was set on fire. Tkach claimed he had received anonymous messages indicating that his “journalistic activities are annoying high-level officials.” Schemes journalists believe the attacks were in response to its critiques of President Zelenskyy and its investigative reporting on high-level corruption. Police initiated an investigation, and the case gained a high degree of media attention. The head of the Kyiv Regional Police, Andriy Nebytov, wrote on Facebook, “It is obvious that the arsonist and their ‘curators’ had a goal not only to destroy the vehicle, they wanted more to cause outrage among the journalistic community and the public, to create a perception of insecurity and permissiveness.” As of October, no arrests had been made in the case.

In January, RFE/RL journalist Halyna Tereshchuk’s car was set on fire in Lviv in an arson attack. In February the Security Service detained a 19-year-old believed to be responsible for the attack, and in August a police officer was arrested on charges indicating his complicity in the crime.

There were allegations the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).

There were reports that government officials sought to pressure journalists through the law enforcement system, often to reveal their sources in investigations. For example, the State Bureau for Investigations summoned television anchor Yanina Sokolova and editor in chief of the online news platform Censor.Net, Yuriy Butusov, for questioning. On August 18, Butusov, citing law enforcement sources, reported the detention of Russian mercenaries in Belarus had been part of a special operation by Ukrainian security services that failed due to a leak from the Office of the President. Sokolova announced she was summoned on the grounds that she had potentially disclosed information pertaining to a state secret.

Journalists received threats in connection with their reporting. For example, on July 13, Kateryna Serhatskova, a journalist and cofounder of the online platform Zaborona (Prohibition), left the country, claiming threats to her life and her family believed to be in connection with her reporting. On July 3, Zaborona published an article detailing alleged links between leaders of violent radical groups and the directors of Stop-Fake.org, a project of the nonprofit Media Reforms Center, aimed at stopping the dissemination of false information about the country (see Internet Freedom). According to Serhatskova, police refused to open an investigation into the threats against her, prompting her lawyer to appeal to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which opened an investigation in July. As of November, the investigation continued.

In December 2019 police arrested three suspects and two persons of interest in the 2016 killing of well known Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet (see section 1.a.). In early September the Shevchenkivskyy District Court in Kyiv began hearing the case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for taking an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites, and other content (see subsections on National Security and Internet Freedom).

On September 3, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) revoked the broadcasting license of the Pryamy FM radio station for not broadcasting within a year of the date its license was issued. Derzhkomteleradio is an eight-member executive body charged with overseeing television and radio broadcasters’ compliance with Ukrainian laws. The parliament and the president appoint four members each to the council.

Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose their media owners or political allies to criticism or might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government entities, and public figures in particular, used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists.

National Security: In the context of the continuing Russia-led conflict in the Donbas region as well as continuing Russian disinformation and cyber campaigns, authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat, particularly those emanating from Russia and promoting pro-Russian lines.

The government continued the practice of banning specific works by Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the State Film Agency, as of mid-September approximately 808 films and television shows had been banned on national security grounds since 2014. In response to Russia’s continued barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation as part of its efforts to destabilize the country, the government maintained a ban on the operations of almost 839 companies and 1,605 persons that allegedly posed a “threat to information and the cyber security of the state.” Among them were two widely used social networks based in Russia and major Russian television channels as well as smaller Russian channels that operated independently of state control.

Derzhkomteleradio maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence; promoting violence; inciting interethnic, racial, or religious hostility; promoting terrorist attacks; or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of November the list contained 227 titles.

There were reports the government used formal pretexts to silence outlets for being “pro-Russian” and for being critical of its national security policy. On October 15, Derzhkomteleradio announced an unscheduled inspection of pro-Russian television channels Newsone, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK, claiming their favorable coverage of an October 6 meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk might have violated national security laws.

Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that radical groups committed attacks on journalists. For example, on June 15, members of radical groups attacked ZIK television journalist Alla Zhyznevska at the Shevchenkivskyy district courthouse in Kyiv where Serhiy Sternenko was being held and protests were organized by activists of the Youth Wing and members of the Opposition Platform for Life. Clashes broke out, and police detained five individuals. A few days prior, on June 12, Zhyznevska reported another incident in which she was conducting a story on a local market in Odesa when six unknown men emerged, demanded the journalist’s crew not take pictures, and forcibly removed them from the market. Police were called, but the six men dispersed before they arrived.

The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to Digital Security Lab Ukraine, an independent digital analysis organization, authorities in the “LPR” blocked approximately 158 Ukrainian news outlets as of late January.

The HRMMU reported that journalists entering Russia-controlled territory of the “DPR” had to inform the “press center” of the “ministry of defense” about their activities on a daily basis, were arbitrarily required to show video footage at checkpoints, and were accompanied by members of armed groups when travelling close to the contact line.

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Nationwide local elections took place on October 25, with runoff mayoral elections taking place through November and December. The local elections were the first to take place after decentralization reforms devolved power concentrated at the national level to local leaders. Due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) only sent a limited election observation mission to monitor the conduct of these elections, while other observers cancelled their missions. As of early December, the ODIHR had not released its preliminary findings on the elections.

The country held early parliamentary elections in July 2019. A joint international election observation mission by the ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament assessed that “Fundamental rights and freedoms were overall respected and the campaign was competitive, despite numerous malpractices, particularly in the majoritarian races.” The administration of the election was generally competent and effective, despite the short time available to prepare the elections. In sharp contrast, the campaign was marked by widespread vote buying, misuse of incumbency, and the practice of exploiting all possible legislative loopholes, skewing equality of opportunity for contestants. Intertwined business and political interests dictate media coverage of elections and allow for the misuse of political finance, including at the local level.

The country held a presidential election in two rounds in March and April 2019. The joint international election observation mission assessed the election, “was competitive, voters had a broad choice and turned out in high numbers. In the pre-electoral period, the law was often not implemented in good faith by many stakeholders, which negatively impacted trust in the election administration, enforcement of campaign finance rules, and the effectiveness of election dispute resolution. Fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Candidates could campaign freely; yet, numerous and credible indications of misuse of state resources and vote buying undermined the credibility of the process. The media landscape is diverse, but campaign coverage in the monitored media lacked in-depth analysis and was often biased. Election day was assessed positively overall and paves the way to the second round. Still, some procedural problems were noted during the count, and conditions for tabulation were at times inadequate.”

Russian occupation authorities and Russia-led forces did not allow voting in either the parliamentary or the presidential elections to take place in Crimea or in the parts of the Donbas region under the control of Russia-led forces.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Communist Party remains banned. Voters in 18 communities in government-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were denied the right to participate in local elections in October due to a decision by the Central Election Commission that elections could not be held there, based on security concerns identified by local civil-military authorities. Rights groups criticized the lack of transparency and justification, as well as the inability to appeal the decision.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. To increase women’s representation in elected office, parliament amended the electoral code in July to require at least two of every five candidates on political party lists to be of a different gender than the other three. In the July 2019 parliamentary elections, women accounted for 23 percent of the candidates and won 21 percent of the seats. In the October local elections, women accounted for 43 percent of candidates on party lists and won approximately 30 percent of seats on local councils. No woman was elected mayor of a major city.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption. Authorities did not effectively implement the law, and many officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the number of reports of government corruption was low, corruption remained pervasive at all levels in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

The High Anticorruption Court started its work in September 2019. The court’s creation completed the country’s system of bodies to fight high-level corruption, complementing two previously created anticorruption agencies, the National Anticorruption Bureau and the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office. During the first year of its operations, the High Anticorruption Court issued 20 sentences, including 19 convictions (nine of which resulted in imprisonment) and one acquittal. Prior to the court’s establishment, general jurisdiction courts considering cases brought by the National Anticorruption Bureau and the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office issued 34 sentences, only two of which resulted in imprisonment. Although the hearing continued, on April 3, the High Anticorruption Court issued its first decision on the measure of “restraint for officials charged with top corruption,” setting bail at 80 million hryvnias ($2.8 million) for former member of parliament Maksym Mikitas. As new cases were opened, the court also set bails in the amount of 100 million hryvnias ($3.5 million) for Member of Parliament Yaroslav Dubnevych, and 120 million hryvnias ($4.3 million) for former member of parliament Olena Mazurova. It enforced penalties for violating bail terms, charging Mikitas 30 million hryvnias ($1.1 million) and former member of parliament Vadim Alperin 35 million hryvnias ($1.3 million). As of September the court’s account had 756 million hryvnias ($27 million) in bail money, more than twice its annual budget.

Despite their successes, the new independent anticorruption bodies faced political pressure from antireform elites and oligarchs that undermined public trust, raised concern about the government’s commitment to fighting corruption, and threatened the viability of the institutions. Since the inception of the anticorruption infrastructure, various political actors attempted to embed loyal agents in the institutions through legislative changes and political leverage over selection procedures or to dissolve them altogether. In this regard, human rights groups called for more transparency and impartiality respecting procedures for appointing the heads of the bodies. Current selection procedures of the new head of the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office continued at year’s end.

Human rights groups claimed another threat to the anticorruption infrastructure came from the Constitutional Court, where antireform interests exercised undue influence on judges. From August to October, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional certain provisions of the National Anticorruption Bureau law, a presidential decree to appoint the bureau’s director, and certain provisions of the anticorruption legislation that established the country’s asset declaration system for public officials. The court was also reviewing the constitutionality of the High Anticorruption Court law and several other reform laws.

Corruption: While the government publicized several attempts to combat corruption, it remained a serious problem for citizens and businesses alike.

In July the former acting head of Ukravtodor, the state agency for road maintenance, Slawomir Novak, was detained in his native Poland on suspicion of corruption based on a joint investigation by the National Anticorruption Bureau and Polish authorities. According to the bureau, Novak’s activities while heading Ukravtodor during 2016-19 “were aimed at embezzling funds from international organizations that allocated money for road repairs.”

As of November the National Anticorruption Bureau had investigated 986 criminal cases with 261 billion hryvnias ($9.6 billion) of losses and 390 suspects since its inception in 2015.

Financial Disclosure: The law mandates filing of income and expenditure declarations by public officials and allows for public access to declarations and sets penalties for either not filing or filing a false declaration. By law the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is responsible for reviewing financial declarations, monitoring the income and expenditures of high-level officials, and checking party finances. Observers increasingly questioned, however, whether the agency had the capacity and independence to fulfill this function. On October 27, the Constitutional Court ruled certain provisions of the financial disclosure law unconstitutional and deprived the agency of most of its powers. The controversial ruling reversed a key anticorruption reform and led the president and parliament to call for the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, describing it as a threat to the country’s sovereignty and national security. In response to the ruling, the National Anticorruption Bureau closed 110 proceedings on false declarations and the High Anticorruption Court stopped 17 court cases in process. In December parliament passed legislation reinstating the asset declaration system, and President Zelenskyy later endorsed it.

On July 7, President Zelenskyy informed the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption that he had not submitted notifications of significant changes in property status, prompting the agency to initiate administrative proceedings against him. In July 2019 President Zelenskyy bought and sold government bonds with a total value that exceeded the reporting threshold. According to the law, public officials must submit notifications of significant changes in property status to the Register of Declarations within 10 days from the time of the transaction. No such notification was received by the Register. On July 24, a court in Kyiv closed the administrative case against President Zelenskyy, noting that under the constitution, the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of men or women. The penalty for rape is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems.

On September 21, the president signed a decree that introduced new measures for preventing and counteracting domestic and gender-based violence. The measures included increased funding and staffing of support service programs for domestic violence victims.

Domestic violence against women remained a serious problem. In the first six months of the year, police received 101,000 domestic violence complaints, which is a 40 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019. Spousal abuse was common. The HRMMU reported the spread of COVID-19 and the implementation of quarantine measures exacerbated the situation. According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, approximately 2,900 cases of domestic violence were investigated during the first nine months of the year. Police issued approximately 81,000 domestic violence warnings and protection orders during the first nine months of the year. Punishment included fines, emergency restraining orders of up to 10 days, ordinary restraining orders from one to six months, administrative arrest, and community service. Human rights groups noted the ability of agencies to detect and report cases of domestic violence was limited.

According to the NGO La Strada, quarantine restrictions made it difficult for victims of domestic violence to receive help. From mid-March to early May–the period during which the most severe quarantine restrictions were in place–human rights groups noted a decrease in the responsiveness of police officers to cases of domestic violence. Victims faced increased difficulty in accessing domestic violence shelters due to the requirement to obtain a hospital certificate declaring they were not infected with COVID-19 before the shelters would provide social services.

According to press reports, on June 29, a 50-year-old man beat his 46-year-old wife in their home in Drohobych, Lviv Oblast. The woman sustained grave bodily injuries and later died in the local hospital. The man was arrested on murder charges and faces seven to 10 years in prison. As of mid-September, police were conducting a pretrial investigation.

According to La Strada, the conflict in the Donbas region has led to a surge in violence against women across the country in recent years. Human rights groups attributed the increase in violence to post-traumatic stress experienced by IDPs fleeing the conflict and by soldiers returning from combat. IDPs reported instances of rape and sexual abuse; many said they fled areas controlled by Russia-led forces because they feared sexual abuse.

As of late September, the government operated 28 shelters for survivors of domestic violence and 21 centers for social and psychological aid across the country for survivors of domestic violence and child abuse.

Sexual Harassment: While the law prohibits coercing a person to have sexual intercourse, legal experts stated that safeguards against harassment were inadequate. The law puts sexual harassment in the same category as discrimination and sets penalties ranging from a fine to three years in prison. Women’s rights groups reported continuing and widespread sexual harassment, including coerced sex, in the workplace. Women rarely sought legal recourse because courts declined to hear their cases and rarely convicted perpetrators.

Reproductive Rights: The government recognizes the right of couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Romani women sometimes faced barriers in managing their reproductive health, including segregation in maternity wards and other forms of discrimination. Some groups opposed contraception on religious grounds.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence–including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence–but human rights groups said these services were sometimes unreliable and often did not reach Romani communities.

Women in Crimea accessed reproductive health care through services funded by the Russian occupation authorities, private insurance, and NGO programs; however, no Ukrainian or international monitors had access to Crimea, making it difficult to assess the state of reproductive health care there. A 2020 UN Population Fund report found that 81 percent of surveyed married or in-union women ages 15 to 49 reported they made their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights, including deciding on their own health care, deciding on the use of contraception, and consenting to sex. According to a 2020 WHO World Health Statistics report, 100 percent of births were attended by skilled health personnel (based on primary data from 2010-2019); the adolescent birth rate was 19.1 percent (ages 15-19 years; based on primary data from 2010-2018); and 68 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods (based on primary data from 2010-2019).

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

Discrimination: While the law provides that women enjoy the same rights as men, women experienced discrimination in employment. According to the government commissioner on gender policy, women on average received 30 percent lower salaries than men. The Ministry of Health maintained a list of 50 occupations that remain prohibited for women. Women experienced discrimination in pay and in access to retirement and pension benefits (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Either birth in the country or to Ukrainian parents conveys citizenship. A child born to stateless parents residing permanently in the country is a citizen. The law requires that parents register a child within a month of birth, and failure to register sometimes resulted in denial of public services.

Registration of children born in Crimea or Russia-controlled areas in the Donbas region remained difficult. Authorities required hospital paperwork to register births. Russian occupation authorities or Russia-led forces routinely kept such paperwork if parents registered children in territories under their control, making it difficult for the child to obtain a Ukrainian birth certificate. In addition, authorities did not recognize documents issued by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea or in territories controlled by Russia-led forces. Persons living in Crimea and parts of the Donbas had to present documents obtained in Russian-controlled territory to Ukrainian courts in order to receive Ukrainian government-issued documents. The courts were obliged to make rulings in 24 hours; these decisions were then carried out by the registry office. Due to the lack of judges in local courts, Ukrainians living in regions under Russian control faced serious difficulty in obtaining Ukrainian documents.

Child Abuse: Penalties for child abuse range from three years to life, depending on severity. The law criminalizes sexual relations between adults and persons younger than 16; violations are punishable by imprisonment of up to five years. The criminal code qualifies sexual relations with a person younger than 14 as rape.

Human rights groups noted authorities lacked the capability to detect violence against children and refer victims for assistance. Preventive services remained underdeveloped. There were also instances of forced labor involving children (see section 7.c.).

Authorities did not take effective measures to protect children from abuse and violence and to prevent such problems. The ombudsperson for human rights noted the imperfection of mechanisms to protect children who survived or witnessed violence, particularly violence committed by their parents. According to the law, parents were the legal representatives of their children, even if they perpetrated violence against them. There is no procedure for appointing a temporary legal representative for a child during the investigation of alleged parental violence.

According to press reports, on June 25, Kyiv police officers responded to a report that a six-year-old boy had fallen out the window of an apartment. When police arrived at the boy’s home, they observed the boy’s mother and godfather were intoxicated. A search of the home and interview with witnesses led police to conclude the boy had been beaten unconscious by his godfather. The boy was taken to a hospital, where he died from his injuries one week later. Police detained the boy’s godfather and investigated the case as suspected premeditated murder.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. A court may grant a child as young as 16 permission to marry if it finds marriage to be in the child’s interest. Romani rights groups reported early marriages involving girls younger than 18 were common in the Romani community.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. The minimum prison sentence for rape of a minor is eight years. Molesting a child younger than 16 is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years. The same offense committed against a child younger than 14 is punishable by imprisonment for five to eight years. The age of consent is 16.

Sexual exploitation of children remained significantly underreported. Commercial sexual exploitation of children remained a serious problem. In late May a 44-year-old man was arrested in Vinnytsya Oblast for allegedly having filmed himself molesting his minor child and distributing the pornographic content on the internet. An investigation was still open as of mid-September.

Domestic and foreign law enforcement officials reported a significant amount of child pornography on the internet continued to originate in the country. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported children from socially disadvantaged families and those in state custody continued to be at high risk of trafficking, including for commercial sexual exploitation and the production of pornography. For example, in February cyber police in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast arrested a 59-year-old man who was suspected of the rape of a minor and the production and distribution of pornographic items. An investigation was underway as of October.

Displaced Children: The majority of IDP children were from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. According to the Ministry of Social Policy, authorities registered more than 240,000 children as IDPs. Human rights groups believed this number was low.

Institutionalized Children: The child welfare system continued to rely on long-term residential care for children at social risk or without parental care, although the number of residential-care institutions continued to drop. Government policies to address the abandonment of children reduced the number of children deprived of parental care. A government strategy for 2017-26 calls for the transformation of the institutionalized child-care system into one that provides a family-based or family-like environment for children. As of early 2020, the government’s progress towards this strategy was slow, with the number of children in orphanages dropping from 106,000 to 100,000 over three years. During the year, as a COVID-19 preventative measure, the government transferred 42,000 children back to families without conducting prior checks to verify family conditions. UNICEF raised concerns this action could put the children at risk of abuse.

Human rights groups and media outlets reported unsafe, inhuman, and sometimes life-threatening conditions in some institutions. Officials of several state-run institutions and orphanages were allegedly complicit or willfully negligent in the sex and labor trafficking of girls and boys under their care.

In early September the head physician of the Izmayil boarding school in Odesa Oblast was charged with molesting children under his care. Local police opened an investigation.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Mistreatment of members of minority groups and harassment of foreigners of non-Slavic appearance remained problematic. According to the most recent data from the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, 61 xenophobic incidents (attacks, vandalism, and “public expressions of xenophobia”) occurred in 2019. Human rights organizations stated the requirement to prove actual intent, including proof of premeditation, to secure a conviction made it difficult to apply the laws against offenses motivated by racial, national, or religious hatred. Police and prosecutors continued to prosecute racially motivated crimes under laws against hooliganism or related offenses.

On July 19, three students from the Democratic Republic of Congo were attacked by five men as they hailed a taxi on a street in Kyiv. One of the attackers fired a gun into the air during the attack. The students alleged the men taunted them for their skin color. Police launched a criminal investigation on the charge of “violation of equality of citizens based on their race, nationality, religious beliefs, disability, and on other grounds combined with violence.”

The most frequent reports of societal violence against national/racial/ethnic minorities were against Roma. In one example, human rights groups reported that on August 29, approximately 500 residents of the village of Andriyivka in Kharkiv Oblast gathered to demand the eviction of Romani families living in the district. Following the rally, participants gathered outside a house belonging to Romani families and threw eggs and stones at its windows. Police evacuated the families and helped them relocate with anonymity. Police opened an investigation of the incident. Similarly, on April 29, two young men attacked a Romani family of four at their settlement camp in Kyiv. The attackers forced the family from their tent in the early morning hours, verbally harassed the mother, and kicked the father. They then set the tent and its contents on fire, forcing the family to flee the camp. Police said they did not investigate the incident because the family had not insisted on an investigation.

Human rights activists remained concerned about the lack of accountability in cases of attacks on Roma and the government’s failure to address societal violence and harassment against Roma.

Roma continued to face governmental and societal discrimination and significant barriers accessing education, health care, social services, and employment. According to Council of Europe experts, 60 percent of Roma were unemployed, 40 percent had no documents, and only 1 percent had a university degree. According to the Romani women’s foundation, Chirikli, local authorities erected a number of barriers to prevent issuing national identification documents to Roma. Authorities hampered access to education for persons who lacked documents and segregated Romani children into special schools or lower-quality classrooms. Officials also expressed anti-Romani sentiments and encouraged discrimination.

On May 22, at a weekly city council meeting, the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk called for the expulsion of all Roma from the city, alleging that Roma were violating COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Police subsequently forcibly relocated 10 Romani individuals from the city. At the direction of the minister of internal affairs, police initiated criminal proceedings against the mayor on charges of discrimination.

The enforcement of pandemic-related measures exacerbated governmental and societal discrimination against Roma. According to the HRMMU, many Romani individuals with informal and seasonal employment lost their livelihoods during the quarantine period. Many of these individuals lacked personal identification documents, and therefore had difficulty accessing medical care, social services, pensions, and formal employment.

Many Roma fled settlements in areas controlled by Russia-led forces and moved elsewhere in the country. According to Chirikli, approximately 10,000 Roma were among the most vulnerable members of the country’s IDP population. Because many Roma lacked documents, obtaining IDP assistance, medical care, and education was especially difficult.

Uzbekistan

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The government did not conduct free and fair elections, restricted freedom of expression, and suppressed political opposition.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Former president Karimov died in September 2016, and a special presidential election took place in 2016. The interim president and prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, won the election with 88 percent of the vote. Four candidates, including Mirziyoyev, campaigned for president in the election. For the 2016 special presidential elections, the government for the first time invited OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to conduct a full-scope observation mission with both short- and long-term observers. According to OSCE/ODIHR, the 2016 presidential election demonstrated that systemic shortcomings in the election system persisted and that the dominant position of state actors and limits on fundamental freedoms continued to undermine political pluralism. Voters lacked a genuine choice of political alternatives. Only registered political parties could nominate candidates. The government declined to register new political parties, preventing candidates not affiliated with an existing registered political party from running. The candidates did not participate in debates among themselves.

These conditions resulted in a campaign that lacked genuine competition. Due to a highly restrictive and controlled media environment, voters did not have access to alternate viewpoints beyond a state-defined narrative. The OSCE/ODIHR report noted significant irregularities on election day, including indications of ballot box stuffing and widespread proxy voting.

The most recent parliamentary elections took place in December 2019. According to the OSCE’s observer mission’s preliminary conclusions, the elections took place under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not demonstrate genuine competition and full respect of election-day procedures.

The government updated the election code in 2019 and combined all election-related legislation into a single document to regulate pre-election work and administration of the elections, including to local councils. In addition to combining election-related laws, the law enacts a single electronic list of voters to facilitate the principle of “one voter-one vote.” It also lifted voting rights restrictions on inmates incarcerated for misdemeanors or less serious crimes.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law allows independent political parties. The Ministry of Justice has broad powers to oversee parties and may withhold financial and legal support to those it judges to be opposed to government policy. There were five registered political parties. The government allowed the Ecological Party, which had previously been an environmental movement that was founded in 2008, to register as a new political party in 2019. The law makes it difficult for genuinely independent political parties to organize, nominate candidates, and campaign. The law allows the Ministry of Justice to suspend parties for as long as six months without a court order. The government also exercised control over established parties by controlling their financing and media exposure.

The law prohibits judges, public prosecutors, State Security Service officials, members of the armed forces, foreign citizens, and stateless persons from joining political parties. The law prohibits parties that are based on religion or ethnicity; oppose the sovereignty, integrity, or security of the country, or the constitutional rights and freedoms of its citizens; promote war or social, national, or religious hostility; or seek to overthrow the government. The law also prohibits the Islamist political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, stating it promotes hatred and condones acts of terrorism.

The government banned or denied registration to several political parties following the 2005 violence in Andijon. Former party leaders remained in exile, and their parties struggled to remain relevant without a strong domestic base.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority communities in the political process, and they did participate. The parliamentary elections in December 2019 doubled the number of seats held by women, from 24 to 48. Women made up 32 percent of members of parliament. National minorities have full political rights under the constitution, and political parties made campaign materials available in minority languages. Central Election Commission regulations ensure that persons with disabilities can independently participate in the election. In addition, the Central Elections Commission can print some ballots in braille.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: In 2019 President Mirziyoyev signed a domestic violence law that provides a legal definition of sexual, physical, economic, and psychological violence against women as well as defines the rights of victims of harassment and violence. It also set up an interagency framework of responsibilities, including governmental entities such as the Cabinet of Ministries, Ministries of Internal Affairs and Employment and Labor Relations, local government bodies, the mahalla committee network, and NGOs working in the area of protecting women from domestic violence. Nonetheless, the criminal and administrative codes did not yet include adequate provisions regarding punishment. Protection orders can be issued, but activists said they were of little use to the victim. One activist stated, “When issuing protection orders, ‘preventive talks’ are held and the victim is reconciled with the offender. It turns out that the protection orders help criminals to avoid the liability they should incur in the event of domestic violence.”

On May 31 in Fergana, a 22-year-old man severely beat and hospitalized a 17-year-old girl named Evelina after she ignored his advances. The story was highlighted in social media when the victim published her story on Facebook. The day after Evelina went public, the Investigative Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs publicly commented that it had just opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations, even though the assault had taken place two weeks earlier. Two days after the ministry’s comments, Evelina reported that she had signed a “peace agreement” with the assailant, which activists believed she was forced to do.

Cultural norms discouraged women and their families from speaking openly regarding rape. On March 27, journalist and founder of an independent project seeking to combat domestic violence in the country nemolchi.uz (Do Not Be Silent) Irina Matvienko received a notification from the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) stating that “the content of her website does not meet the national mentality of Uzbekistan and can negatively affect the spiritual and educational mindset of the nation, especially young people.” The AIMC informed Matvienko that as the project’s administrator, she had violated a number of laws, such as the Law on State Youth Policy, the Law on the Protection of Children from the Information Harmful to their Health, and the Law on the Spread of Information. The AIMC specifically highlighted an anonymously published story about domestic violence that mentions rape. The case received attention from journalists and human rights groups. The AIMC then revoked the violation notification on April 14 following the intervention of the Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media, an organization founded by the eldest daughter of President Mirziyoyev.

There were government-run and some NGO-run shelters for victims of domestic abuse and telephone hotlines for victims seeking assistance. Victims of domestic violence may be sheltered in Centers for Rehabilitation and Adaptation. According to the Ministry of Mahalla and Family Affairs, the hotline received 50 to 60 calls per day on average. Women in the shelters were provided with food, medicines, and hygiene products at the expense of the ministry as well as at the expense of the Public Fund under parliament.

In April the Commission on Gender Equality of Uzbekistan, together with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Center for Support of Civil Initiatives, launched a telephone hotline service during the COVID-19 quarantine period. The aim of the hotline is to protect women’s rights and prevent harassment and violence against them.

In May the government launched a “No to Violence” Telegram channel, reaching 4,000 subscribers. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that between May 11 and May 18, there was an increase of new cases, received calls, and protection orders issued.

The COVID-19 lockdown increased the number of complaints of domestic violence. According to Jizzakh-based NGO Center of Rehabilitation and Adaptation of the Victims of Domestic Violence, from January to November it received three times more complaints than in 2019, which it attributed to the lockdown.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Polygamy is unofficially practiced in some parts of the country. The law punishes conviction of polygamy with up to three years of imprisonment and fines but does not penalize the women in such cases. The law does not confer the same rights, including property, inheritance, or child custody rights, to women in unregistered polygamous marriages as it does to those in registered marriages, making women in unregistered polygamous marriages particularly vulnerable to abuse and deprivation of rights when the spouse dies or ends the relationship.

Sexual Harassment: The law does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, but it is illegal for a male supervisor to coerce a woman who has a business or financial dependency into a sexual relationship. Social norms, lack of reporting, and lack of legal recourse made it difficult to assess the scope of the problem. Government efforts to enforce the law and prevent sexual harassment were unknown.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Unlike in years past, there were no reports that government doctors pressured women to accept birth control or employ medical measures, such as sterilization, to end the possibility of pregnancy.

The law regulates reproductive health procedures permitting voluntary and informed consent for sterilization of an adult. Citizens had access to voluntary family planning, including the ability to choose methods of contraception. Women have the legal right to receive medical assistance for individual selection of contraceptive methods, based on their medical condition, age, and individual characteristics.

In February the Ministry of Health approved procedures for in-vitro fertilization.

Contraception was generally available to men and women. In most districts, maternity clinics were available and staffed by fully trained doctors who provided a wide range of prenatal and postpartum care. Activists working on women’s issues reported that in most cases births were attended by skilled medical personnel.

The government provided medical attention to women who reported sexual violence, although activists reported the topic remained taboo and there were no official statistics on the number of cases.

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

Discrimination: In 2019 the president signed a law on gender equality, a first for the country. The law provides for equal opportunities in the area of health care, education, science, culture, labor, and social protection.

In 2019 the government lifted the ban on female workers in heavy industries and professions, such as mining, oil and gas enterprises, and construction, as part of a presidential decree on strengthening the guarantees of women’s labor rights. The government provided little data that could be used to determine whether women experienced discrimination in access to employment or were paid less for similar work.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory or from one’s parents. The government generally registered all births immediately.

Medical Care: While the government provided equal subsidized health care for boys and girls, those without an officially registered address, such as street children and children of migrant workers, did not have regular access to government health facilities.

Child Abuse: Legal protections against child abuse exist. Society generally considered child abuse to be an internal family matter. Little official information was available on the subject, including on the government’s efforts to combat it.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: In 2019 the government raised the minimum legal age for marriage of women from 17 to 18, making the age of marriage equal for both sexes. District authorities may lower the age by one year in exceptional cases. In some rural areas, girls 15 years of age or younger married men in religious ceremonies not officially recognized by the state.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law seeks to protect children from “all forms of exploitation.” Conviction of involving a child in prostitution is punishable by a monetary fine and imprisonment for up to five years.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The punishment for conviction for statutory rape is 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. Conviction for the production, exhibition, and distribution of child pornography is punishable by a fine or by imprisonment for three to five years.

Institutionalized Children: According to UNICEF, more than 20,000 children with disabilities resided in institutions. Children placed in residential care for educational purposes were overrepresented in these institutions. The most recent reports from the State Statistics Agency, published in 2017, indicated that 84 percent of all children placed in residential care were children with disabilities, with children between the ages of seven and 17 representing the largest group.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law does not require Uzbek language ability to obtain citizenship, but language often was a sensitive issue. Uzbek is the state language, and the constitution requires that the president speak it. The law also provides that Russian is “the language of interethnic communication.”

Officials reportedly reserved senior positions in the government bureaucracy and business for ethnic Uzbeks, although there were numerous exceptions.

Complaints of societal violence or discrimination against members of ethnic minority groups were rare.