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HRW Says Rights Defenders Being Increasingly Targeted By Abusive Governments

Journalist and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on July 15 and found dead in Ingushetia a short time later.
Governments responsible for serious human rights violations have intensified attacks against rights defenders and organizations that document abuse over the past year, according to the 20th-annual review of human rights practices around the globe by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Iain Levine, program director at HRW, tells RFE/RL that the growth in the human rights movement in recent years has spawned a reaction from abusive governments that grew particularly intense in 2009.

"Partly as a result of the growing influence and profile of the international human rights movement, we're seeing an intensification of attacks against both human rights defenders and human rights organizations which document abuse and seek to promote and protect human rights," Levine says. "And this is a trend that we're seeing in many parts of the world, including in the former Soviet Union and Iran."

The 612-page report summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide over the past year.

The document notes that some governments are so abusive against individuals and organizations that no domestic human rights movement can function, citing Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.

But attacks on human rights monitors are not limited to authoritarian governments like Myanmar and China.

'Devastating Series'

HRW says there has been a sharp rise in armed attacks on human rights monitors in countries with elected governments that are facing armed insurgencies.

Although the armed conflict in Chechnya has wound down, the report cites "a devastating series of killings and threats against lawyers and activists fighting impunity in the North Caucasus.”

Other countries where human rights monitors were murdered in order to silence them included Kenya, Burundi, and Afghanistan.

Levine says governments around the globe use a whole variety of tactics to repress and suppress human rights activists and organizations.

"We've talked about the killings of human rights activists which we have documented in many countries in the world," Levine says. "We've seen the ways in which governments create a very hostile environment where human rights defenders are detained, harassed, or threatened. We see very restricted regulations being imposed NGOs. Russia perhaps is the worse country in the world for this."

HRW cites Iran and Uzbekistan as countries that openly harass and arbitrarily detain human rights workers and other critics.

Rhetoric To Real Action

To silence critics, the report says countries use the disbarment of lawyers (China and Iran), criminal charges -- often faked from staged attacks (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) --, and criminal libel laws (Russia and Azerbaijan).

In order to press these countries to stop their assault on rights defenders, Levine says governments that support human rights, the United States in particular, need to make respecting human rights the center of their practices and of their diplomacy.

"We need the administration of President [Barack] Obama to move from the very effective rhetoric and the very powerful speeches that he's made to real action in placing human rights and the well-being of human rights defenders at the center of bilateral relations, whether it's with Russia, whether it's with China," Levine says.

HRW says the United States has taken some steps forward to restore America's "credibility” in human rights, including the ending of "the CIA's coercive interrogation program.”

But it says there's still much that can be done -- for example, "investigating and prosecuting those who have ordered, facilitated, or carried out torture and other ill-treatment.”