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April 5th, 2003, 06:18 PM
April 5, 2003
The World's Other Tyrants, Still at Work

With international attention focused on Iraq, despots are seizing the opportunity to get rid of their opposition — real or imagined. In Zimbabwe, Cuba and Belarus, independent journalists, opposition leaders and human rights advocates have been thrown in prison. Absent scrutiny, the leaders of these rogue regimes have been emboldened, aware that their actions are causing little more than a ripple of protest beyond their countries.

The outside world has ignored Zimbabwe, which is holding critical parliamentary elections whose outcome could help determine whether President Robert Mugabe will be able to amend the Constitution and handpick his successor. Since the start of the war in Iraq, Mr. Mugabe has intensified a campaign of intimidation, arresting more than 500 democracy advocates and opposition leaders, including Gibson Sibanda, vice president of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

The campaign of state-sponsored violence is not limited to the opposition leaders in Zimbabwe. A worker on the farm of an opposition parliamentary deputy died of injuries after being beaten by Mr. Mugabe's security agents for participating in a two-day general strike. Other farm workers have also been beaten by men in army uniforms who claimed that the farms were being used as staging grounds for opposition activities. Hundreds of people accused of taking part in the strike were treated for broken bones in private clinics, fearing more reprisals if they sought care at public hospitals. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket for southern Africa, falls ever further into poverty and famine.

In Cuba, the war is giving Fidel Castro cover for an unprecedented assault. Over the past two weeks his state security agents have arrested about 80 dissidents. Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for 12 of those detained and 10- to 30-year prison terms for the rest. They include the economist Marta Beatriz Roque, the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero and the opposition labor activist Pedro Pablo Álvarez.

The list of arrests reads like a Who's Who of Cuban civil society — with the obvious exception of those who were already in jail when the roundup started. They are the unsung heroes of a movement to liberate the minds of Cuba. But the names do not mean much to a world public now concentrated on becoming more and more expert on the latest in military equipment and on the geography of Iraq.

In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the authorities last week detained 50 opposition protesters who had gathered for the 85th anniversary of the declaration of the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic. On Thursday, demonstrators supporting the Iraq war — which President Aleksandr Lukashenko opposes — were arrested. It seems clear that Mr. Lukashenko, Europe's sole remaining dictator, is intent on tightening his grip on Belarus.

Sadly, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Belarus are not alone. Other countries have used the Iraq war to step up human rights abuses. Vietnam's most renowned dissident, Nguyen Dan Que, a 60-year-old writer who is a physician by training, was arrested late last month. Hardly anyone protested. In Egypt, hundreds of war protesters were detained, with dozens beaten and tortured. In Thailand, the government has justified what appear to be summary executions in the name of a war on drugs. At least 1,900 people have been killed, including innocent bystanders. These crackdowns, too, all passed with little notice or comment.

That dictators move in times of world crisis comes as no surprise. The Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956 during the Suez crisis. In 1968, when the Johnson administration was preoccupied with Vietnam, and Germany and France as well as the United States were convulsed in antiwar demonstrations, the Soviets moved into Czechoslovakia.

In January 1991, just as today, the international community was focused on a war in Iraq. As the Persian Gulf war was starting, the Soviet Army took advantage of the international community's inattention to crack down on an independence movement in Lithuania. More than 200 people were wounded and 15 killed as Moscow seized control of the television broadcast center in Vilnius.

If we let tyrants escape the international condemnation that is often the only way to protect their critics against abuses, the brutal campaigns in Zimbabwe, the clean sweep of dissidents in Cuba, and the arrests of demonstrators in Belarus may have to be added to the list of unintended consequences of the war in Iraq.

Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, is author of "Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

April 10th, 2003, 08:26 PM
April 7, 2003
A Global Catalog of Wrongs

Around this time each year, the State Department produces a remarkable document detailing the human rights practices and problems of almost every country in the world. Dispensing with the niceties of diplomatic language, the report looks at friend and foe alike with candid scrutiny.

Among the nations that come in for criticism are a number of members of President Bush's Coalition of the Willing for the invasion of Iraq — embarrassing company in a campaign whose aims include liberating the Iraqi people from dictatorship. Uzbekistan routinely tortures detainees and some have died in custody. Eritrea has ended freedom of the press and restricts religious freedom. Azerbaijan arbitrarily detains dissidents and rigs elections. Significant violations are noted in such other coalition members as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Georgia, Macedonia, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia. In all seven, the overall human rights situation was rated as poor.

Of course, the "axis of evil" also rightly comes in for plenty of scorn. The White House's main security concern has been these countries' weapons programs and alleged links to terrorism. But Iraq, North Korea and Iran also victimize their own people. Baghdad has ordered executions without trial, political murders, torture and deadly persecution of Shiite Muslims. North Korea is an absolute dictatorship with detention camps, torture and harsh prison conditions, including deliberate starvation. Iran, relatively better, is still horrific, with arbitrary arrests, disappearances and sadistic punishments like stoning and flogging.

Several other governments deserve dishonorable mention. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is responsible for punitive rape by soldiers, forced relocation of ethnic minorities, forced labor and conscription of children. Turkmenistan's self-glorifying autocrat models his repressive rule on Stalin's.

China is much freer than before. But its sheer size makes it the world's No. 1 quantitative violator of human rights. Beijing executed more than 3,000 people last year, many without due process. It uses torture, forced confessions, imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals and lengthy detentions with no right to communicate with family members or lawyers.

The report cites several countries for withholding sleep and food to extract confessions, techniques some have charged American authorities with using in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. These methods are correctly listed under the heading of "Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment." Washington should reject them and should refuse to hand over prisoners to countries that routinely use torture. The rights report must become a tool not just for documenting abuses, but also for combating them.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company