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Diplomacy in Action

2009 Human Rights Report: Introduction


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

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Introduction to the 2009 Country Reports

2009 was a year of contrasts. It was a year in which ethnic, racial, and religious tensions led to violent conflicts and serious human rights violations and fueled or exacerbated more than 30 wars or internal armed conflicts. At the same time, it was a year in which the United States and other governments devoted greater attention to finding ways to acknowledge and combat these underlying tensions through showing leadership in advancing respect for universal human rights, promoting tolerance, combating violent extremism, and pursuing peaceful solutions to long-standing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. As President Obama said in his June speech at Cairo University, we should be defined not by our differences but rather by our common humanity, and we should find ways to work in partnership with other nations so that all people achieve justice and prosperity.

2009 also was a year in which more people gained greater access than ever before to more information about human rights through the Internet, cell phones, and other forms of connective technologies. Yet at the same time it was a year in which governments spent more time, money, and attention finding regulatory and technical means to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet and the flow of critical information and to infringe on the personal privacy rights of those who used these rapidly evolving technologies.

Today, all governments grapple with the difficult questions of what are appropriate policies and practices in response to legitimate national security concerns and how to strike the balance between respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and ensuring the safety of their citizens. That said, during the past year, many governments applied overly broad interpretations of terrorism and emergency powers as a basis for limiting the rights of detainees and curtailing other basic human rights and humanitarian law protections. They did so even as the international community continued to make tangible progress in isolating and weakening the leadership in violent extremist and terrorist groups such as al-Qa’ida.

This report explores these and other trends and developments and provides a specific, detailed picture of human rights conditions in 194 countries around the world. The U.S. Government has compiled these reports for the past 34 years pursuant to a requirement placed on the U.S. executive by law in part to help the U.S. Congress inform its work in assessing requests for U.S. foreign military and economic assistance, as well as to set trade policies and U.S. participation in the multilateral development banks and other financial institutions. The reason for publishing this report is to develop a full, factual record that can help U.S. policymakers to make intelligent and well-informed policy decisions. It has also been increasingly used by policymakers abroad and has become a core reference document for governments, intergovernmental organizations, and concerned citizens throughout the world.

Many have questioned the reason the U.S. Government compiles this report, rather than the United Nations or some other intergovernmental body. One answer is that we believe it is imperative for countries, including our own, to ensure that respect for human rights is an integral component of foreign policy. These reports provide an overview of the human rights situation around the world as a means to raise awareness about human rights conditions, in particular as these conditions impact the well-being of women, children, racial minorities, trafficking victims, members of indigenous groups and ethnic communities, persons with disabilities, sexual minorities, and members of other vulnerable groups. Also, we provide these reports as a form of comprehensive review and analysis. While some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do extensive and excellent reporting on some countries, none cover the world as we do. And while we have encouraged more detailed and comprehensive reporting from the UN and other intergovernmental bodies, thus far these organizations have not met this need. Because of this unmet need, the U.S. Congress has mandated this report. Even as we continue this reporting exercise, we encourage the UN to take up this type of thorough and comprehensive reporting, and we stand ready to work with them to meet the challenge. We will continue to press for enhanced UN reporting, for example through the UN Human Rights Council as part of its review of its own operations in 2011.

Some critics, in the United States and elsewhere, also have challenged our practice of reviewing every other country’s human rights record but not our own. In fact, the U.S. Government reports on and assesses our own human rights record in many other fora pursuant to our treaty obligations (e.g., we file reports on our implementation of the two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention Against Torture). We are reviewing our reporting, consistent with President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s pledge that we will apply a single universal human rights standard to all, including ourselves. Later this year, the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, for the first time, will rank the United States as it does foreign governments by applying the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as amended. And in the fall the U.S. Government will appear before the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first Universal Periodic Review of our domestic human rights situation.

These country reports are written to provide an accurate, factual record of human rights conditions around the world, not to examine U.S. policy responses or options or to assess diplomatic alternatives. Yet in a broader sense these reports are a part of the Obama Administration’s overall approach to human rights and an essential component of that effort. As outlined above, the administration’s approach, as articulated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton, is guided by broad principles, the first of which is a commitment to universal human rights. In preparing this report, we have endeavored to hold all governments accountable to uphold universal human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to their human rights treaty obligations. As Secretary Clinton stated in December, all governments, including our own, must "adhere to obligations under international law: among them not to torture, arbitrarily detain and persecute dissenters, or engage in political killings. Our government and the international community must consider the pretentions of those who deny or abdicate their responsibilities and hold violators to account." The first step in that process is to tell the truth and to identify specific instances where such violations are occurring and where governments are failing to take responsibility for holding violators accountable.

A second element of our approach is a principled and pragmatic engagement with other countries on these issues. This means that we will pursue steps that are most likely to make human rights a human reality. This principled pragmatism starts with an honest assessment of human rights conditions and whether violations are the result of deliberate government repression, governmental unwillingness or inability to confront the problems, or a combination of all three. As Secretary Clinton has said, "With China, Russia, and others, we are engaging on issues of mutual interest while also engaging societal actors in the same countries who are working to advance human rights and democracy. The assumption that we must either pursue human rights or our ‘national interests’ is wrong. The assumption that only coercion and isolation are effective tools for advancing democratic change is also wrong." These reports provide an essential, factual predicate upon which we can shape current and future polices.

A third element is our belief that although foreign governments and global civil society cannot impose change from outside, we can and should encourage and provide support to members of local civil society and other peaceful change agents within each country. As part of such efforts, these reports can and often do amplify these voices, by making reference to their findings, publicly reinforcing their concerns, and by widely disseminating this information to opinion makers, both internationally and within affected countries.

A fourth element of our approach is to keep a wide focus where rights are at stake and to adopt a broad approach to democracy and human rights. As Secretary Clinton stated, "Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly." President Obama has also highlighted the crucial linkages between development, democracy, and human rights, noting the centrality of issues such as corruption to the realization of basic rights. Consistent with that approach, these reports cover a wide range of topics and trends, providing a detailed and comprehensive picture of human rights and democracy in each country.

The fifth and final element of our approach has been to pursue progress on these issues through multilateral processes and institutions. As President Obama has acknowledged, we live in an increasingly interdependent and multipolar world, and to achieve our international goals, we need to collaborate with other governments and international actors. That is the reason we have joined the UN Human Rights Council, have actively supported human rights initiatives in the General Assembly, and have more thoroughly engaged in regional bodies like the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in promoting democracy and human rights.

In preparing these reports, we relied on information collected by officials in U.S. embassies around the world and on information from other governments and multilateral organizations. We also solicited and relied on useful information from nongovernmental human rights groups, both those operating internationally and those that work at a national level. We also collected information from academics, lawyers, trade unions, religious leaders, and the media. While we benefited from these many inputs, the U.S. Government alone bears responsibility for the content of these reports. The preparation of these reports involves a major commitment of time and energy by hundreds of people, and includes a lengthy process of fact-checking and editing to ensure high standards of accuracy and objectivity.

The Year in Review

In 2009, governments across the globe continued to commit serious violations of human rights. As we survey the world, there still are an alarming number of reports of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of universal human rights. Often these violations relating to the integrity of the person are in countries where conflicts are occurring. These violent attacks are a central concern wherever they take place.

In a significant number of countries, governments have imposed new and often draconian restrictions on NGOs. Since 2008, no fewer than 25 governments have imposed new restrictions on the ability of these organizations to register, to operate freely, or to receive foreign funding, adversely impacting freedom of association. In many countries, human rights defenders are singled out for particularly harsh treatment, and in the most egregious cases, they are imprisoned or even attacked or killed in reaction to their advocacy.

These restrictions and repressive measures are part of a larger pattern of governmental efforts to control dissenting or critical voices. This pattern also extends to the media and to new forms of electronic communications through the Internet and other new technologies. Restrictions on freedom of expression, including on members of the media, are increasing and becoming more severe. In many cases, such restrictions are applied subtly by autocrats aiming to avoid attention from human rights groups and donor countries, such as through the threat of criminal penalties and administrative or economic obstacles, rather than through violence or imprisonment; the end result is still a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

A third trend we observed is the continuing and escalating discrimination and persecution of members of vulnerable groups – often racial, religious, or ethnic minorities, but also women, members of indigenous communities, children, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups that lack the political power in their societies to defend their own interests.

These key trends are discussed in the subsequent sections, illustrated by thumbnail sketches of selected countries (ordered alphabetically) that were chosen for notable developments – positive, negative, or mixed – chronicled during calendar year 2009. For more comprehensive, detailed information, the individual country reports themselves should be consulted.

Specific Human Rights Trends

Human Rights Abuses in Countries in Conflict

In many countries where conflicts were raging during the year, noncombatant civilians faced human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. In many of these conflict zones, insurgents, terrorist organizations, paramilitary forces, and government security forces used murder, rape, and inhumane tactics to assert control over territory, silence opponents, and coerce the cooperation of civilian communities in conflict zones. Throughout the world, thousands of men, women, and children died or were mistreated not only in conflicts, but also in campaigns to intimidate civilian populations.

The security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly because of increased insurgent attacks, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence. Armed conflict spread to almost one-third of the country, hindering the government’s ability to govern effectively, extend its influence, and provide services, especially in rural areas. As a result of the insurgency, 1,448 Afghan military personnel, 1,954 government employees, and 2,412 civilians were killed. Approximately five million of the 15 million registered voters participated in the August elections that were marked by serious allegations of widespread fraud, insufficient conditions for participation by women, and a concerted effort by the Taliban to disrupt the voting. Nevertheless, more polling stations opened than in previous elections, the media and public debated political alternatives, and the election followed the constitutional process.

The government in Burma continued its egregious human rights violations and abuses during the year, including increased military attacks in ethnic minority regions, such as in the Karen and Shan state. In August, government soldiers attacked the Kokang cease-fire group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which the government claimed was launched in order to shut down narcotics and arms factories. Tens of thousands of civilians reportedly fled across the border to China as a result of the fighting. Government soldiers destroyed several villages in Shan territory, and some media estimates suggested the army razed up to 500 homes in Kokang territory. The regime continued to rule by decree and was not bound by any constitutional provisions guaranteeing any fundamental freedoms. The regime continued to commit other serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, disappearances, rape, torture, forcible relocation of persons, the use of forced labor, and conscription of child soldiers. The government detained civic activists indefinitely and without charges.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), conflict in mineral-rich parts of the east, including counterinsurgency operations by government security forces, resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 civilians; the displacement of hundreds of thousands whose government did not adequately protect or assist them; the rapes of tens of thousands of women, children, and men; the burning of hundreds of homes; the unlawful recruitment or use of thousands of children as soldiers by the DRC military and various armed groups; and abductions of numerous persons for forced labor and sexual exploitation, both domestically and internationally.

Despite substantial improvements in the general security situation in Iraq, human rights abuses continued. There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the ongoing conflict, and insurgent and terrorist bombings, executions, and killings continued to affect all regions and sectors of society. Due to the continuing conflict, violence against the media was common, and media workers reported that they engaged in self-censorship. Although the government publicly called for tolerance and acceptance for all religious minorities and took steps to increase security at places of worship, frequent attacks by insurgent and extremist groups on places of worship and religious leaders, as well as sectarian violence, hampered the ability of individuals to practice their religion freely.

In response to a sharp increase in the number and frequency of rocket attacks from Gaza against civilians in Israel shortly prior to and following the expiration of Hamas’s agreed period of "calm" on December 19, 2008, the Israeli Defense Forces launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, which consisted initially of airstrikes targeted against Hamas security installations, personnel, and other facilities in the Gaza Strip, and later ground operations. Hostilities between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters continued through January 18, and the Israeli withdrawal of troops was completed on January 21. Human rights organizations estimated that close to 1,400 Palestinians died, including more than 1,000 civilians, and that more than 5,000 were wounded. According to Israeli government figures, Palestinian deaths totaled 1,166, including 295 noncombatant deaths. There were 13 Israelis killed, including three civilians. In the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces relaxed restrictions at several checkpoints during the year that had constituted significant barriers to the movement of Palestinians, yet remaining barriers limited Palestinian access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, hospitals, and the conduct of journalism and NGO activities. In Gaza, which remained under the control of Hamas, there were reports of corruption, abuse of prisoners, and failure to provide fair trials to those accused. Hamas also strictly restricted the freedom of expression, religion, and movement of Gaza residents, and promoted gender discrimination against women. Killings by Hamas-controlled security forces remained a problem. There were reports of torture by Gaza Hamas Executive Force and victims were not only security detainees but also included persons associated with the Fatah political party and those held on suspicion of "collaboration" with Israel. Hamas authorities in Gaza often interfered arbitrarily with personal privacy, family, and home.

National police, army, and other security forces in Nigeria committed extrajudicial killings and used lethal and excessive force to apprehend criminals and suspects. Violence in the form of killings, kidnappings, and forced disappearances; mass rape; and displacement of civilians attributed to both government and nongovernment actors continued in the Niger Delta, despite the formation of the Joint Task Force in 2003 that sought to restore stability to the region. Reports of incidents attributed to militant groups in the Niger Delta decreased upon the president’s offer of amnesty, although violence remained pervasive in the south. Between July 26 and July 29, police and militant members of Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic group, clashed violently in four northern states, resulting in the displacement of approximately 4,000 people and more than 700 deaths, although this figure is not definitive because quick burials in mass graves precluded an accurate count. Sect leader Muhammad Yusuf; Yusuf’s father-in-law, Baba Mohammed; and suspected Boko Haram founder Buji Fai reportedly were killed while in custody of the security forces.

Although Pakistan’s civilian authorities took some positive steps, significant human rights challenges remain. Major problems included extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances. Militant attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) killed 825 civilians; security operations to repel the militants from Malakand Division and parts of the FATA displaced almost three million persons at the peak of the crisis (although by year’s end, approximately 1.66 million had returned to their home areas). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the New York Times, and several local publications reported that security forces allegedly committed 300 to 400 extrajudicial killings during counterinsurgency operations in NWFP and Swat. There were widespread accusations that insurgents conducted terror- and revenge killings to intimidate local populations and law enforcement officials. Sectarian violence killed approximately 1,125 persons, and more than 76 suicide bombings killed 1,037 persons.

The situation in the North Caucasus region of Russia worsened as the government fought insurgents, Islamist militants, and criminal forces. Local government and insurgent forces in the region reportedly engaged in killings, torture, abuse, violence, politically motivated abductions, and other brutal or humiliating treatment. In Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, the number of extrajudicial killings increased markedly, as did the number of attacks on law enforcement personnel (in actions involving insurgents, 342 members of law enforcement were killed and 680 were injured.) Some authorities in the North Caucasus acted with impunity and appeared to act independently of the federal government, in some cases, allegedly targeting families of suspected insurgents for reprisal and engaging in kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial punishment.

Before the 33-year conflict in Sri Lanka came to an end in May, government security forces, progovernment paramilitary groups, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used excessive force and committed abuses against civilians. Several hundred thousand ethnic Tamil civilians were not allowed freedom of movement by the LTTE from LTTE-controlled areas Artillery shelling and mortar fire by both sides occurred close to and among civilian encampments, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths during the last months of the conflict. From January to May, the LTTE dramatically increased its forced recruitment of child soldiers. Although the number of children recruited and killed in fighting is unknown, the government reported 527 ex-LTTE child soldiers in custody several months after the end of the war. The confinement in camps of nearly 300,000 persons displaced by the end of the conflict called into question the government’s postconflict commitment to human rights, although the government began to make significant progress on the treatment of internally displaced persons and other human rights improvements toward the end of 2009, in the run up to the January 2010 presidential election.

Conflict and human rights abuses in the Darfur region of Sudan continued despite the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement between the government and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army. Government-sponsored forces bombed villages, killed civilians, and supported Chadian rebel groups. Women and children continued to experience gender-based violence. Since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003, nearly 2.7 million civilians have been internally displaced, approximately 253,000 have sought refuge in eastern Chad, and more than 300,000 have died. Tensions also persisted between the north and south over the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Interethnic conflict and violence perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army in southern Sudan resulted in the deaths of approximately 2,500 and the displacement of 359,000 persons during the year.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Association (including NGOs)

Many governments continued to exert control over information that came into and was produced within their countries. This was accomplished by hindering the ability to organize in public, online, or through use of new technologies; by restricting the dissemination of information on the Internet, radio, or television or through print media; and constructing legal barriers that made it difficult for NGOs to establish themselves. According to the National Endowment for Democracy, 26 laws in 25 countries have been introduced or adopted since January 2008 that impede civil society.

In Belarus, the government’s human rights record remained very poor. Civil liberties, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion, continued to be restricted. The government limited distribution of independent print and broadcast media outlets. Authorities used unreasonable force and intimidation to discourage participation in demonstrations and to disperse peaceful protesters. NGOs, opposition activists, and political parties were subjected to persistent harassment, fines, and prosecution, and several leading NGOs were again denied registration, forcing them to operate under threat of criminal prosecution. Following a few positive steps taken by authorities in 2008, the absence of reform during 2009 was disappointing.

The government of China increased its efforts to monitor Internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic Web sites, encourage self-censorship, and punish those who violated regulations. The government employed thousands of persons at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications. In January the government began an "anti-vulgarity" campaign that resulted that same month in the closure of 1,250 Web sites and the deletion of more than 3.2 million items of information. The government at times blocked access to selected sites operated by major foreign news outlets, health organizations, foreign governments, educational institutions, and social networking sites, as well as search engines, that allow rapid communication or organization of users. During the year, particularly around sensitive events such as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, authorities maintained tight control over Internet news and information. The government also automatically censored e-mail and Web chats based on an ever-changing list of sensitive key words. Despite official monitoring and censorship, dissidents and political activists continued to use the Internet to advocate and call attention to political causes such as prisoner advocacy, political reform, ethnic discrimination, corruption, and foreign policy concerns.

Independent media in Colombia were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, and all privately owned radio and television stations broadcast freely. However, members of illegal armed groups intimidated, threatened, kidnapped, or killed journalists, which, according to national and international NGOs, caused many to practice self-censorship and others, 171 to be specific, received protection from the government. The official Administrative Department of Security monitored journalists, trade unionists, the political opposition, and human rights organizations and activists – physically, as well as their phone and email communications and personal and financial data. According to some NGOs, the government allegedly detained arbitrarily hundreds of persons, particularly social leaders, labor activists, and human rights defenders (HRDs), although a key NGO reported that such detentions in 2009 were half the 2008 level. HRDs were also persecuted and accused of supporting terrorism in an effort to discredit their work. Prominent NGOs reported that eight human rights activists and 39 trade unionists were killed during the year. However, the government also worked to protect thousands of union members, human rights activists, and other such groups.

Authorities in Cuba interfered with privacy and engaged in pervasive monitoring of private communications. There was no ability to change the government. There were also severe limitations on freedom of expression and no authorized press apart from official media; denial of peaceful assembly and association; restrictions on freedom of religion; and refusal to recognize domestic human rights groups or independent journalists or to permit them to function legally. The law allows for punishment of any unauthorized assembly of more than three persons, including those for private religious services in private homes. The law also provides for imprisonment for vaguely defined crimes such as "dangerousness" and "peaceful sedition." The government did not grant permission to any antigovernment demonstrators or approve any public meeting by a human rights group. Authorities held numerous opposition leaders pursuant to sentences ranging up to 25 years for peaceful political activities and detained activists for short periods to prevent them from attending meetings, demonstrations, or ceremonies. Although unauthorized, the organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) generally was allowed to assemble and walk to church each Sunday demanding freedom for their imprisoned family members. However, the organization reported that its activities beyond the traditional weekly marches to church were disrupted on several occasions during the year. In addition, a prominent blogger and her colleague were detained and beaten while en route to a peaceful protest. Human rights activists also reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. Authorities have never approved the establishment of a human rights group; however, a number of professional associations operated as NGOs without legal recognition.

The government’s poor human rights record degenerated during the year, particularly after the disputed June presidential elections. Freedom of expression and association and lack of due process continued to be problems within Iran, and the government severely limited individuals’ right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections. Following the June 13 announcement of President Ahmadi-Nejad’s reelection, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest. Police and the paramilitary Basij violently suppressed demonstrations. The official death count was 37, although opposition groups report the number may have reached 70. By August, authorities had detained at least 4,000 individuals, and arrests continued throughout the year. A massive show trial involving many of the more prominent detainees was undertaken in September. On June 20, according to eyewitnesses, Basij militia killed Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran. The video of her death appeared on YouTube and became a symbol of the opposition movement. Ahead of the June presidential election, on the actual day of election, and during the December 27 Ashura protests, when authorities detained 1,000 individuals and at least eight persons were killed in street clashes, the government blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. After the June election, there was a major drop in bandwidth, which experts posited the government caused to prevent activists involved in the protests from accessing the Internet and uploading large video files. The government continued to restrict freedom of religion severely, particularly against Baha’is and, increasingly, Christians.

The government of North Korea continued to subject citizens to rigid controls over many aspects of their lives, specifically denying citizens freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Reports by defectors and NGOs of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continued to paint a grim picture of life there. The government sought to control virtually all information: there were no independent media, Internet access was limited to high-ranking officials and other elites, and academic freedom was repressed. Domestic media censorship continued to be strictly enforced and no deviation from the official government line was tolerated. Similarly, the government prohibited all but the political elite from listening to foreign media broadcasts, and violators were subject to severe punishment. There was no genuine freedom of religion. Reports continued that religious believers, their families, and even their descendents were imprisoned, tortured, or simply relegated to a lower status. Indoctrination was carried out systematically through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations and continued to involve mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.

Government actions weakened freedom of expression and media independence within Russia by directing the editorial policies of government-owned media outlets, pressuring major independent outlets to abstain from critical coverage, and harassing and intimidating some journalists into practicing self-censorship. During the year, unknown persons killed a number of human rights activists and eight journalists, including prominent journalist and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, who spent more than 10 years documenting cases of killings, torture, and disappearances that she linked to the Chechen authorities. President Medvedev stated it was "obvious" that the killings were connected to Estemirova’s work and ordered an immediate investigation to find the perpetrators, but there have been no arrests or prosecutions in this case. The government increasingly attempted to restrict media freedom to cover sensitive issues such as the conduct of federal forces in Chechnya, human rights abuses, and criticism of some government leaders. Likewise, many observers noted a selective pattern of officials encouraging government-friendly rallies while attempting to prevent politically sensitive demonstrations. The government also attempted to restrict the activities of some NGOs, making it difficult for some to continue operations. Upon hearing criticism of the 2006 NGO law at a meeting with the Presidential Council on Human Rights, President Medvedev called existing regulations a "burden" and announced that some regulations would be eased. None of the amendments to the law applied to foreign NGOs.

Government officials in Venezuela, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Senior federal and state government leaders also actively harassed privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists throughout the year, using administrative sanctions, fines, and threats of closure to prevent or respond to any perceived criticism of the government. The government’s harassment of Globovision, the largest private television network, included raiding the home of the company’s president and publicly calling for the company’s closure. At year’s end, 32 radio stations and two television stations had been closed, and 29 other radio stations remained under threat of closure. One domestic media watchdog reported that 191 journalists either were attacked or had their individual rights violated during the year. NGOs expressed concern over official political discrimination against, and the firing of, state employees whose views differed from those of the government. Private groups also alleged that the government was pursuing 45 persons as "political objectives" using various legal and administrative means. The Organization of American States’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently noted "a troubling trend of punishments, intimidation, and attacks on individuals in reprisal for expressing their dissent with official policy."

The human rights record of the government of Vietnam remained problematic. The government increased its suppression of dissent, arresting and convicting several political activists. Several editors and reporters from prominent newspapers were fired for reporting on official corruption and outside blogging on political topics. Bloggers were detained and arrested under vague national security provisions for criticizing the government and were prohibited from posting material the government saw as sensitive or critical. The government also monitored e-mail and regulated or suppressed Internet content, such as Facebook and other Web sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups. The government utilized or tolerated the use of force to resolve disputes with a Buddhist order in Lam Dong and Catholic groups with unresolved property claims. Workers were not free to organize independent unions, and independent labor activists faced arrest and harassment.

The government of Uzbekistan tightly controlled the media and did not permit the publication of views critical of the government. Government security officials regularly gave publishers articles and letters to publish under fictitious bylines, as well as explicit instructions about the types of stories permitted for publication. In July, a court convicted independent journalist Dilmurod Sayid to 12 and one-half years in prison on charges of extortion and bribery soon after he published articles regarding the corruption of local government officials. The government requires all NGOs and religious organizations to register in order to operate, and the activities of international human rights NGOs are severely restricted because the government suspects them of participating in an international "information war" against the country. Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal, and police frequently broke up the meetings of unregistered groups, generally held in private homes. Reportedly, in some regions, universities and schools closed to send students to work in cotton fields; students who refused were expelled or threatened with expulsion.

Discrimination and Harassment of Vulnerable Groups

Members of vulnerable groups – racial, ethnic and religious minorities; the disabled; women and children; migrant workers; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals – often were marginalized and targets of societal and/or government-sanctioned abuse.

China continued to exert tight control over activities and peoples that the government perceived as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. For example, public interest lawyers who took on cases deemed sensitive by the government increasingly were harassed or disbarred, and their law firms often were closed. The government also increased repression of Tibetans and Uighurs. The government tightened controls on Uighurs expressing peaceful dissent and on independent Muslim religious leaders, often citing counterterrorism as the reason for taking action. Following the July riots that broke out in Urumqi, the provincial capital of XUAR, officials cracked down on religious extremism, "splittism," and terrorism in an attempt to maintain public order. In the aftermath of the violence, Uighurs were sentenced to long prison terms and in some cases were executed, without due process, on charges of separatism. At year’s end, Urumqi remained under a heavy police presence and most Internet and international phone communication remained cut off. In the Tibetan areas of China, the government’s human rights record remained poor as authorities committed extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and extrajudicial detentions. Authorities sentenced Tibetans for alleged support of Tibetan independence, regardless of whether their activities involved violence. The preservation and development of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage also remained a concern.

The government of Egypt failed to respect the freedom of association and restricted freedom of expression, and its respect for freedom of religion remained very poor. Sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians mounted during the year. The government failed to redress laws and government practices that discriminate against Christians. The government sponsored "reconciliation sessions" following sectarian attacks, which generally prevented the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution. This practice contributed to a climate of impunity and may have encouraged further assaults. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities that the government officially recognized generally worshipped without harassment; however, Christians and members of the Baha’i faith, which the government does not recognize, faced personal and collective discrimination in many areas. In a step forward, the government promulgated procedures for members of unrecognized religions, including the Baha'i faith, to obtain national identification documents and reportedly issued 17 such documents and 70 birth certificates to Baha'i during the year.

As a growing number of people cross borders to find work, migrant workers have become particularly vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. In Malaysia, foreign workers were subject to exploitative conditions and generally did not have access to the system of labor adjudication. However, the government investigated complaints of abuses, attempted to inform workers of their rights, encouraged workers to come forward with their complaints, and warned employers to end abuses. The law did not effectively prevent employers from holding employees’ passports, and it was common practice for employers to do so. Some domestic workers alleged that their employers subjected them to inhuman living conditions, withheld their salaries, confiscated their travel documents, and physically assaulted them.

Violence against women, violations of the rights of children, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common in many countries in the Middle East region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Muslim religious practices that conflict with the government’s interpretation of Sunni Islam are discriminated against and public religious expression by non-Muslims is prohibited. Human rights activists reported more progress in women’s rights than in other areas, and the government made efforts to integrate women into mainstream society, for example, through the founding of the Kingdom’s first coeducational university in September. However, discrimination against women was a significant problem, demonstrated by the lack of women’s autonomy, freedom of movement, and economic independence; discriminatory practices surrounding divorce and child custody; the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women; and difficulties preventing women from escaping abusive environments. There are no laws specifically prohibiting domestic violence. Under the country’s interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law), rape is a punishable criminal offense with a wide range of penalties from flogging to execution. Statistics on incidents of rape were not available, but press reports and observers indicated rape against women and boys was a serious problem.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons in Uganda faced arbitrary legal restrictions. It is illegal to engage in homosexual acts, based on a 1950 legal provision from the colonial era criminalizing "carnal acts against the order of nature" and prescribing a penalty of life imprisonment. No persons have been charged under the law. The September introduction in parliament of a bill providing the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" and for homosexual "serial offenders" resulted in increased harassment and intimidation of LGBT persons during the year; the proposed legislation also provides for a fine and three years’ imprisonment for persons who fail to report acts of homosexual conduct to authorities within 24 hours. Public resentment of homosexual conduct sparked significant public debate during the year, and the government took a strong position against such conduct despite a December 2008 ruling by the High Court that constitutional rights apply to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. The local NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda protested alleged police harassment of several members for their vocal stand against sexual discrimination.

Traditional and new forms of anti-Semitism continued to arise, and a spike in such activity followed the Gaza conflict in the winter of 2008-2009. Often despite official efforts to combat the problem, societal anti-Semitism persisted across Europe, South America, and beyond and manifested itself in classic forms (including physical attacks on Jewish individuals, synagogue bombings, cemetery desecrations; the theft of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign from the Auschwitz Death Camp; and accusations of blood libel, dual loyalty, and undue influence of Jews on government policy and media.) New forms of anti-Semitism took the form of criticism of Zionism or Israeli policy that crossed the line into demonizing all Jews, and, in some cases, translated into violence against Jewish individuals in general. Instead of combating anti-Semitism, some governments fueled it, most notably Iran’s President Ahmadi-Nejad. Anti-Semitic propaganda, including Holocaust denial, was circulated widely by satellite television, radio, and the Internet. A television show in Egypt that was widely aired throughout the region did not deny the Holocaust, but instead glorified it, praising the slaughter and humiliation of Jews and calling for future Holocausts.

In several countries with generally strong records of respecting human rights, there were nevertheless some notable examples of members of vulnerable groups facing discrimination and harassment. Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern. A recent case that received international attention was the passage on November 29 in Switzerland of a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets. A provision in the Swiss constitution enables direct citizen involvement. The amendment passed with 57.5 percent of the vote despite opposition from both parliament and the Federal Council and public statements by many of the country’s leaders describing such a ban as contradicting basic values in the country’s constitution and violating its international obligations. Proponents of the initiative to ban minarets contended the construction of minarets symbolized a religious and political claim to power.

In the wake of the economic downturn, there have been a number of killings and incidents of violence against Roma, including in Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Roma are the largest and most vulnerable minority in Europe; they suffer racial profiling, violence, and discrimination. There were also reports of mistreatment of Romani suspects by police officers during arrest and while in custody. Roma faced high levels of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, as well as widespread discrimination in education, employment, and housing.



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