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2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Estonia

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 11 March 2010
Cite as United States Department of State, 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Estonia, 11 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b9e52f9c.html [accessed 25 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2010

With a population of 1.34 million, Estonia is a multiparty constitutional parliamentary democracy with a unicameral parliament, a prime minister as head of government, and a president as head of state. Parliamentary elections held in 2007 were generally free and fair. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

Problems were reported in some areas. There were allegations that police used excessive force during the arrest of suspects; authorities investigated and brought charges against alleged offenders. Conditions in detention centers generally remained poor. Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. Domestic violence, inequality of women's salaries, child abuse, and trafficking of women were also reported.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

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

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated or other disappearances.

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

The law prohibits such practices; however, there were reports that police used excessive physical force and verbal abuse during the arrest and questioning of suspects.

During the year authorities processed 30 criminal cases related to police officers' excessive use of force. They dropped charges in 19 cases and sent one to the prosecutor's office for further action. At year's end 10 cases were pending.

In July the Tartu County Court brought charges against a guard in the Tartu prison for using excessive force. The prison guard had beaten a prisoner on several occasions. On September 30, the court found the prison guard guilty and sentenced him to two years and six months in prison. He did not appeal the court's judgment.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in detention centers were poor; however, there were some improvements.

Following visits in 2008 to detention centers in Jogeva, Haapsalu, Tartu, Paide, and to the Tallinn Prison, the legal chancellor, the country's human rights ombudsman, reported poor living conditions in all detention centers, inadequate staffing in Jogeva detention center and Tallinn Prison, and insufficient access by detainees to legal information and opportunities to study and work in Tallinn Prison. In September the legal chancellor called for improved procedures for inmates seeking services and noted the need to determine the extent of medical services available in detention centers. The legal chancellor emphasized the state's obligation to monitor and provide security to detainees in detention centers.

The trial continued of the former acting director, the former security chief, and a former warden of Murru prison on charges of negligence in a case that led to the deaths of two inmates at the hands of other prisoners in 2006. The trial began in January 2008.

At year's end the country's prisons and detention centers held 3,563 persons, including 2,706 convicted prisoners and 855 pretrial detainees. Women made up 5.5 percent of the prisoners, and persons under the age of 18 accounted for 1 percent.

The government permitted prison visits by independent human rights observers, and such visits occurred. There were no visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross during the year. In 2007 the Council of Europe's Committee on the Prevention of Torture visited the country; the results of the visit were not available by year's end.

The opening of a 1,000-bed prison in Viru County eliminated overcrowding in prisons (as opposed to detention centers). The new prison also contained a detention facility with a capacity of 150 persons. The Kohtla-Jarve detention center, known for its poor conditions, closed in 2008.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the national police, security police, tax and customs board, and national border guard. The government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment While in Detention

Under the law authorities in most cases must possess warrants issued by a court in order to make arrests. They must inform detainees promptly of the grounds for their arrest. There is a functioning bail system. Authorities may hold a person for 48 hours without charge; further detention requires a court order. Police rarely violated these requirements. Detainees must be given immediate access to legal counsel, and the government pays for legal counsel for indigent persons. Authorities may hold a person in pretrial detention for six months. In a particularly complex criminal case, the judge responsible for the preliminary investigation may extend the length of detention at the request of a chief public prosecutor. Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. Approximately 24 percent of the incarcerated population was in pretrial detention; the average length of pretrial detention was seven months.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence in practice.

Trial Procedures

Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and have a right of appeal. Trials are public. Juries are not used. A single judge, a judge and public assessors, or a committee of judges hear cases. Defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. In criminal proceedings an attorney is available to all defendants at public expense, although individuals often preferred to hire their own attorneys. In civil proceedings an attorney is provided for indigents. Defendants may confront or question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases. The law extends these rights to all residents, whether or not they are citizens.

The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. There is access to a court to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. Administrative as well as judicial remedies are available for alleged wrongs. There were no problems with enforcing civil court orders.

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

The constitution prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and the press.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. During the year approximately 69 percent of the population used the Internet, and 63 percent of households had Internet access in the home.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Assembly

The constitution provides for this right, and the government generally respected it in practice.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for this right for citizens, and the government generally respected it in practice. The law specifies that only citizens may join political parties, but noncitizens are free to join other civil groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The law prohibits activity that publicly incites hatred, violence, or discrimination on the basis of a variety of characteristics, including religion if it threatens a person's life, health, or property.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Relations between the various religious communities were generally amicable; however, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchy continued to have differences over the disposition of Orthodox Church property.

Criminal proceedings continued against two individuals charged in 2008 with damaging 44 gravestones, including four crosses in the old Haapsalu cemetery that were under protection as historic memorials.

The Jewish community was estimated to have approximately 2,500 members. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

The government took a number of steps to associate itself with commemoration of the Holocaust and to encourage best practices in teaching about it in schools.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

The constitution prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it.

Protection of Refugees

The country is a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Its laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

The government has a "safe country of origin or transit" policy; it regarded countries that were parties to the 1951 refugee convention as safe countries, but authorities granted interviews to all individual asylum seekers.

In practice the government provided protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The government granted refugee status or asylum to three individuals.

The government provided temporary protection to one individual who did not qualify as a refugee.

Stateless persons

Citizenship derives from one's parents (jus sanguinis). According to government statistics, at the end of the year, 101,041 persons, or 7.4 percent of the population, were of undetermined citizenship or de facto stateless. The UNHCR recorded 110,315 stateless persons as of January, 2009.

A majority of stateless persons were long-term residents and, as such, could vote in local but not parliamentary elections. The government has statutory procedures in place that offer opportunities to gain legal residence status or citizenship. Individuals of undetermined citizenship were eligible to apply for naturalization. Authorities have adopted policies, such as funding citizenship and language courses and simplifying the process for persons with disabilities, to facilitate acquisition of citizenship by those stateless persons who wish it. Children whose parents are residents of undetermined citizenship and have lived in the country for five years are eligible to acquire citizenship at their parents' request.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

In 2007 the country held parliamentary elections, considered free and fair, that led to the formation of a three-party coalition government. In May the government dismissed one of the junior parties in the ruling coalition and continued under Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's leadership as a two-party minority government. Political parties could operate without restriction or outside interference.

On June 4, the country held elections to the European Parliament, and on October 18, there were nationwide municipal elections. Both were considered free and fair.

Only citizens may vote in parliamentary elections and be members of political parties. Noncitizens who reach the age of 18 by election day, whose address in the corresponding rural municipality or city is entered in the population register, and who reside in the country on the basis of a long-term residence permit, may vote in local elections. Resident noncitizens may not run for office.

EU citizens who have established permanent residency may also vote in local elections, and those EU citizens who are registered in the country's population register may vote in elections to the European Parliament.

There were 23 women in the 101-seat parliament. The speaker and deputy speaker of the parliament were women. There was one female minister in the 13-member cabinet.

There were nine members of ethnic minorities in the 101-seat parliament.

Section 4 Official Corruption and Government Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. There were several reports of government corruption during the year.

On November 12, the trial of a former minister charged with illegally approving the exchange of protected land in nature preserves for other state properties began in the Harju County Court. State prosecutors also charged two well-known politicians, the head of a state agency, and a group of businessmen with involvement in the illegal exchange.

On May 19, the Harju County Court found a businessman, a lawyer, and a former minister guilty of attempted bribery in connection with the sale of a building belonging to the Ministry of the Environment. The former minister received a suspended jail sentence of two years and three months for demanding a bribe, while the court fined the lawyer and businessman, one for acting as intermediary and the other for promising a bribe. On November 20, on appeal, the Tallinn District Court allowed the county court verdict to stand. All defendants appealed to the Supreme Court.

Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. The Justice Ministry is responsible for coordinating anticorruption activities.

The law provides for public access to government information and allows for monitoring of the public sector's performance. The government provided access for citizens and noncitizens in practice, including foreign media.

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

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

The government cooperated with international governmental organizations and permitted visits by UN representatives.

The legal chancellor, an independent official with his own staff of 30 persons, performs the role of human rights ombudsman. The legal chancellor reviews legislation for compliance with the constitution and oversees observance by authorities of fundamental rights and freedoms and the principles of good governance. The legal chancellor also helps resolve accusations of discrimination based on gender, race, nationality (ethnic origin), color, language, religion, social status, age, disability, and sexual orientation. The legal chancellor makes recommendations to ministries and local governments, requests responses, and has the authority to appeal to the Supreme Court. The legal chancellor compiles an annual report for parliament. Public trust in the office was high, and the government was responsive to the reports and decisions issued by this office.

Section 6 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally enforced the prohibitions. However, violence against women and child abuse were problems.

Women

Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, and authorities prosecuted rape cases. The penalty for rape is up to 15 years' imprisonment. During the year the police reported 108 rapes and 16 attempted rapes. In 2008 courts convicted 30 persons of rape.

Violence against women, including spousal abuse, was a problem. According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), one woman in four has suffered physical, sexual, or emotional domestic violence, and NGOs considered domestic violence a serious problem. The law prohibits physical abuse but does not differentiate between acts committed against men and women. Domestic violence is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years and up to five years in the case of longstanding and unremitting violence. During the year police reported more than 4,500 cases of physical abuse, including domestic violence, and 63 cases of longstanding and unremitting violence. During 2008 courts convicted 1,544 persons of physical abuse. Victims of domestic violence may obtain help, including counseling and legal assistance, from local social workers and specialized NGOs.

The law does not prohibit prostitution, and it was common, but pimping is illegal. There were reports that women were trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation.

The law prohibits sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in the workplace occurred but was not considered a serious problem. According to the law, disputes over sexual harassment are resolved in court, in an administrative hearing by the legal chancellor, or by the gender equality commissioner. An injured party may demand compensation for damages and termination of the harmful activity. During 2008 a local branch of the Labor Inspectorate handled five harassment cases involving four women and a man who filed complaints against their supervisors. The maximum compensation for damages is 50,000 kroon ($4,490).

The government recognized the basic right of couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Health clinics and local health NGOs operated freely in disseminating information on family planning. There are no restrictions on access to contraceptives. Men and women received equal access to diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Although women have the same legal rights as men under the law and are entitled to equal pay for equal work, these rights were not always observed in practice. While the average educational level of women was higher than of men, women's average pay was generally lower, and there continued to be female- and male-dominated professions. According to government statistics, the difference between the salaries of men and women was 30.3 percent in 2007.

Children

Citizenship derives from one's parents. Children born to members of the country's large population of stateless persons were automatically stateless unless a long-term resident parent applied for the citizenship of the newborn.

Child abuse was a problem. In 2008 police reported 762 cases of violence against children, including domestic and school violence.

During the year there were 42 reports of rape, and five cases of attempted rape, of minors. Police registered 159 cases of sexual abuse of persons under 18 years of age, including 69 cases involving victims under the age of 14. In 2008 courts convicted 36 persons of sexual assault against minors. There is no legal minimum age for consensual sex. The law prohibits child pornography; the punishment ranges from a fine to as much as three years in prison.

On September 16, in a report issued following an October 2008 visit to the country, the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, children in prostitution, and child pornography emphasized that the age of consent for children should not be below 18 years of age. The rapporteur recommended assigning the role of ombudsman for children's rights to the legal chancellor.

Trafficking in Persons

There is no specific law criminalizing all forms of trafficking; however, authorities prosecuted traffickers under laws prohibiting enslavement, abduction, and pimping.

Individuals were trafficked from and within the country. Women were trafficked to Norway, the United Kingdom, and Finland for the purpose of forced prostitution.

In December 2008 the Parnu County Court found two individuals guilty of enslaving a resident of the country to sell drugs.

Travel-friendly regulations in the Schengen zone, short distances, low travel costs, and the draw of legitimate employment lowered the barriers to trafficking to Nordic and other EU countries.

Traffickers included individuals, small groups, and organized criminals who ran the prostitution industry and lured victims with the promise of legitimate employment or the opportunity to live and study abroad. Traffickers tended to befriend victims or attempted to pass themselves off as legitimate job mediators. Due to generally liberal travel regulations in the region, false documentation was not always necessary.

Penalties for trafficking-related offenses (enslavement, abduction, procurement for prostitution, labor fraud, and other trafficking-related crimes) range from five to 15 years' imprisonment; fines may also be imposed.

The ministries of Interior, Social Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Education and Research, Finance, and Justice have responsibilities for combating trafficking.

Authorities cooperated actively with regional and international efforts to fight trafficking, including participation in the work of the Nordic Baltic Task Force against Trafficking in Human Beings.

The law provides protection, as well as legal and medical compensation rights, to victims of all crimes, including trafficking. During 2008, 55 women received assistance within the framework of a Nordic-Baltic pilot project for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Authorities repatriated three victims. Shelter facilities, as well as psychological, social, and legal counseling services were available to women identified through the initiative. The project, a three-year (2006-2008) initiative aimed at building shelter facilities and providing public outreach, targeted women who had previously been victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, primarily prostitution. Each county assigned an assistant to provide trafficking victims access to public assistance. These assistants received specific training on trafficking in persons issues from NGOs during the year.

The government continued to support an NGO-operated hotline that provided information on trafficking risks to persons interested in working abroad. The hotline received more than 600 calls during the year.

During the year the Ministry of Social Affairs and NGOs engaged in educational outreach programs to governmental organizations, NGOs, and individuals by sponsoring lectures and seminars and preparing training materials.

See also the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or in the provision of other state services. The government generally enforced these provisions. The law does not mandate access to buildings for persons with disabilities; older buildings were inaccessible, although new or renovated buildings were generally accessible. The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

While there is no specific law prohibiting hate crimes, the law prohibits incitement to hatred, violence, or discrimination on a variety of grounds, including nationality, race, skin color, language, and social origin.

The government provides for the protection of the cultures of minority groups. However, some observers alleged that a law related to minority cultural autonomy is discriminatory because it has not been successfully used to support the large Russian population. To receive the status of cultural autonomy, an NGO must represent a significant fraction of that minority's population; however, no one NGO represents the required fraction of the 343,000 ethnic Russians, so they do not enjoy this status. Ingrian Finns and Coastal Swedes were the only two groups to achieve recognition as culturally autonomous. The government funds language and cultural programs for a number of other minority groups, including Russians. In districts where more than one-half of the population speaks a language other than Estonian, the law entitles inhabitants to receive official information in that language, and the law was effective in practice.

Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are the largest ethnic minorities, together making up 29 percent of the population. The government encouraged social integration through a policy that promotes learning Estonian and naturalization. Knowledge of Estonian is required to obtain citizenship, and all public servants and public sector employees, service personnel, medical professionals, and sole proprietors must know the Estonian language. Proficiency is usually determined through examination; however, citizenship applicants who have previously passed the basic-level language proficiency examination or the basic school final examination for Estonian as a second language do not have to take the citizenship language examination.

Largely for historical reasons, Russian speakers are disproportionately employed in blue-collar industries and continued to experience higher unemployment than that faced by ethnic Estonians.

Some noncitizen residents, particularly ethnic Russians, alleged that the language requirement resulted in job and salary discrimination. Many Russian speakers believed they would face job discrimination even if they possessed adequate Estonian. The country's Human Development Report for 2008, prepared by a local NGO, noted that Russian speakers who possess equal human capital (fluent Estonian, higher education, and Estonian citizenship) faced greater difficulty finding positions as managers and professionals than did ethnic Estonians.

Over 100 schools, 58 of them high schools, provided instruction in the Russian language. The government continued to implement its plan to provide 60 percent of all instruction in the Russian-language high schools in the Estonian language by 2011. Many Russian-language high schools have implemented this transition more rapidly than required by the governmental plan.

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

There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.

Section 7 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements; however, some workers reportedly found it difficult to exercise this right in practice. The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL) continued to report frequent violations of trade union rights in the private sector. Less than 10 percent of the total workforce belonged to trade unions; unions were present in the energy, transportation, teaching, public service, media, and services sectors, among others. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The law provides for the right to strike, and workers exercised this right in practice. Public servants at the state and municipal levels do not have the right to strike.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

According to the EAKL, collectively bargained contracts covered approximately 11 percent of workers, including some nonunion members. The law provides for collective bargaining and collective dispute resolution, and collective bargaining was freely practiced.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, EAKL continued to report that antiunion behavior was rife in the private sector. According to the EAKL, labor inspectorates were not efficiently enforcing the law. Some enterprises advised workers against forming trade unions, threatened them with dismissal or a reduction in wages, or promised them benefits if they did not join unions. Both employees and employers have the right to request that labor dispute committees or the courts resolve individual labor disputes, and these mechanisms functioned effectively throughout the year.

There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, there were reports that men were trafficked within the country for forced labor (see section 6, Trafficking in Persons).

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The government effectively enforced laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace.

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 18, although children who are 15 to 17 years old may work with the consent of a parent or guardian. Minors who are seven to 12 years old are allowed to do light work in the areas of culture, art, sports, or advertising. In order to enter into an employment contract with a minor who is seven to 14 years old, an employer must apply to the labor inspectorate for consent.

Children under the age of 18 may not perform hazardous or dangerous work. The law limits the hours that children may work and prohibits overtime or night work. The labor inspectorate was responsible for enforcing these laws and did so in practice. There were no separate inspections regarding the age of child workers.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly minimum wage of 4,350 kroon ($391) did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family; however, approximately 84 percent of the workforce earned more than the minimum wage.

The standard workweek is 40 hours. The law requires a minimum rest period of 11 hours in sequence for every 24-hour period. Reduced working time is required for minors and for employees who perform underground work, work that poses a health hazard, or work of an otherwise special nature. The law requires overtime pay of not less than 150 percent of the hourly wage of the employee. These requirements were effectively enforced.

The government set occupational health and safety standards. The labor inspectorate, health protection inspectorate, and technical inspectorate were responsible for enforcement of these standards and made efforts to enforce them. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardizing their continued employment, and they exercised this right in practice. In 2008, 4,059 occupational accidents occurred, a ratio of 618.3 occupational accidents per 100,000 employees.

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