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Freedom House: Global Democracy 'In Retreat' For 13th Year

A woman cries during an antigovernment protest in Bucharest on December 22 to demand greater democracy, during a march to commemorate the victims of the 1989 anticommunist revolt.
A woman cries during an antigovernment protest in Bucharest on December 22 to demand greater democracy, during a march to commemorate the victims of the 1989 anticommunist revolt.

The Washington-based rights group Freedom House has warned that "challenges to democracy" in the United States are "threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties" around the world.

Freedom In The World 2019, the organization's latest country-by-country report on global democracy, gives a dismal assessment of events during 2018 -- registering declining political rights and civil liberties in 68 countries with gains in only 50 countries.

Released on February 5, the report includes criticism of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Montenegro, Serbia, Hungary, and three former Soviet republics in Central Asia for contributing to what it calls "the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom."

The cover of the report features a political cartoon showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bearing torches and standing beside a bonfire that burns the word "freedom."

The political cartoon shows Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pouring gasoline on the fire and the flames being fanned by the leaders of Iran, China, Venezuela, and Hungary. Meanwhile, it shows U.S. President Donald Trump using the fire to roast a marshmallow.

The report says democracy in the United States "remains robust by global standards" but has "weakened significantly over the past eight years" -- adding that Trump's "ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline."

It said the United States in 2018 saw "a decline in the rule of law" that put American democracy "on a level with Greece, Croatia, and Mongolia," and well below other long-standing democracies like Germany and Britain.

In particular, Freedom House, which gets much of its funding from the U.S. government, criticized the Trump administration for "improperly" restricting the legal rights of asylum seekers -- saying "discrimination became evident in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and immigration enforcement and detention policies were excessively harsh or haphazard."

"Other nations watch what is happening in the United States and take cues from its leaders' behavior," Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said. "The ongoing deterioration of American democracy will accelerate the decline of democracy around the world."

"The weakening of democracy in the United States did not begin with Donald Trump," Abramowitz said. "But the president's rhetoric and actions have undermined key safeguards, including the rule of law and confidence that elections are free and fair."

The report says Russia and Iran are among a growing number of governments that are "reaching beyond their borders to target expatriates, exiles, and diasporas."

"Freedom House found 24 countries around the world -- including heavyweights like Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- that have recently targeted political dissidents abroad with practices such as harassment, extradition requests, kidnapping, and even assassination," it says.

It says Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both won new presidential terms in 2018 through election campaigns that benefited from "strong-arm tactics that included the repression of independent media and civil society, the abuse of state resources, and the persecution of genuine political opponents -- as well as outright fraud."

Armenia was among the countries that received praise from Freedom House due to "a breakthrough" victory for "reform-minded" opposition leader Nikol Pashinian, who became prime minister in 2018 through early elections called "after unpopular incumbent [Serzh Sarkisian] attempted to evade term limits and extend his rule."

The report said that development serves as "a reminder that people continue to strive for freedom, accountability, and dignity, even in countries where the odds of success seem insurmountable."

European Union member Hungary, previously ranked by Freedom House as politically "free," was reclassified as "partly free" because of "sustained attacks" by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party on the media, courts, religious groups, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector.

It said Orban "presided over the most dramatic decline" of political freedom and civil liberties ever charted by Freedom House within the EU.

Neighboring Serbia also dropped from "free" to "partly free" due to what Freedom House called "election irregularities, legal harassment and smear campaigns against independent journalists, and President Aleksandar Vucic's de facto accumulation of extraconstitutional powers."

Meanwhile, the report criticizes Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic as he "continued to consolidate state power around himself and his clique, subverting basic standards of good governance and exceeding his assigned constitutional role."

The Freedom House report says three former Soviet republics in Central Asia classified as "not free" -- Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- were among the countries with the world's worst situations for political rights and civil liberties.

As a result, those Central Asian states were grouped together comparably with countries like Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Libya.

Still, Freedom House had some praise for Uzbekistan -- which previously has been grouped among the rights group's "worst-of-the-worst" list.

The report cautiously welcomed "another year of tentative improvement" in Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoev, noting that his government "continued to release political prisoners and ease restrictions" on nongovernmental organizations.

Freedom House criticized China for forcing "more than a million ethnic [Uyghurs], Kazakhs, and Hui" into so-called "reeducation" centers, from which "grisly reports of torture and custodial deaths are emerging."

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