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HRW Sees 'Enormous Threat' In Era Of Authoritarian Populists

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U.S. President Donald Trump (right) welcomes Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to the White House in April.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says rising intolerance inspired by populist agendas in influential democracies, including the United States, is encouraging rights abuses by authoritarian leaders around the world.

In its annual global report on human rights, released on January 18, the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization said immigrant-bashing and other populist policies pose "an enormous threat" to minority rights in both democratic countries and those ruled by strongmen or repressive regimes.

HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth singled out U.S. President Donald Trump as a leader who "has broken all the taboos against racism, against misogyny, against xenophobia" with rhetoric and policies that Roth said had dangerous implications outside the United States.

Roth said Trump has an "insatiable admiration for strongmen" like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

"This makes it much more difficult to stigmatize these authoritarian leaders when Trump says these are great guys," Roth said.

Standing Up For Rights

The report urges democratic governments to focus on problems that have fueled xenophobia and Islamophobia and allowed populism to prosper -- such as income inequality, growing migration, and fears of terrorism.

"What the authoritarian populists did is take these legitimate grievances and scapegoat vulnerable minorities to say 'It's the migrants who are at fault'," Roth said.

But Roth said politicians and protesters who pushed back during 2017 by standing up for human rights have shown that authoritarian populist agendas can be weakened.

Russian riot policemen detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally in central Moscow in March.
Russian riot policemen detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally in central Moscow in March.

Turning to specific countries, the HRW report criticized efforts to silence critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government, including crackdowns nationwide against "peaceful anti-corruption protests that authorities refused to authorize."

It said that, since the spring of 2017, Russian authorities have "systematically interfered with the presidential campaign" of opposition politician and Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny.

HRW also criticized Russia for continuing to enforce "discriminatory policies and laws against Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people," despite a 2017 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Russia’s so-called "gay propaganda" law "violated freedom of expression, was discriminatory, and encouraged homophobia."

Russia's Chechnya region was singled out for the detention and torture of LGBT people as well as suspected Islamic extremists.

HRW also noted that workers on stadiums for the 2018 World Cup that Russia is hosting were "exploited" and sometimes not paid.

Belarus was criticized in the report for a continued "crackdown on civil society" during 2017 and for being the "only European country to use the death penalty."

'Total Impunity'

The report said Azerbaijan "intensified its crackdown against critics in 2017" – sentencing dozens of journalists and political activists to "long prison terms in politically motivated, unfair trials."

It said many more in Azerbaijan were harassed in campaigns aimed at silencing dissent.

Azerbaijan also was criticized for what the report said was its regular use of torture to obtain false confessions from political prisoners, and for conducting what HRW called a "violent campaign" by police against gay men and transgender women.

HRW said "all sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine ignored" the 2015 cease-fire and peace deal known as the Minsk accord, and "endangered civilians" as they continued hostilities in the war, which has killed more than 10,300 people since Aprl 2014.

"Total impunity for conflict-related torture and arbitrary, unacknowledged detention persisted" by both Russia-backed separatists and the Kyiv government, the report said.

In Iran, HRW said security officials and the judiciary continued to target journalists, online media activists, and human rights activists "in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards."

It said Iranian courts "regularly fell short of providing fair trials and used confessions obtained under torture as evidence."

"Scores of human rights defenders and political activists remain behind bars for their peaceful activism" in Iran, the report said.

With reporting by AP
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