A leading democracy watchdog says global freedom suffered a "disturbing" decline in 2014, with Syria ranking as the world's least free country and Russia's "invasion" of Ukraine dealing a bad blow to democracy.
In an annual report, U.S.-based Freedom House found that an upsurge in terrorist attacks and increasingly aggressive tactics used by authoritarian regimes had contributed to "a growing disdain for democratic standards" in nearly all regions of the world in 2014.
"Acceptance of democracy as the world's dominant form of government -- and of an international system built on democratic ideals -- is under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years," said Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House.
The Freedom in the World 2015 report, published on January 28, assessed the level of freedom in 195 countries. Its subtitle is Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist.
Despite advances in countries such as Cuba and Tunisia, it said nearly twice as many countries suffered democratic declines as gains in 2014.
It pointed to terrorism as a leading factor, saying Islamist militants in many regions of the world "massacred security forces and civilians alike, took foreigners hostage, and killed or enslaved religious minorities, including Muslims they deemed apostates."
Freedom House said terrorism had a "devastating" impact on countries including Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
In Iraq, the report said last year was marked by "the Islamic State's attempts to destroy Christian, Shiite,Yazidi, and other communities under its control, as well as attacks on Sunnis by state-sponsored Shiite militias."
In Iran, Freedom House said hardliners were preventing the passage of any potential reforms to increase civil liberties or decrease government interference in the lives of Iranians.
Afghanistan suffered "increased violence against journalists and civilians amid the withdrawal of international combat troops." It also noted an increase in violence against women there.
The report said freedom also receded in a "troubling number" of large, economically powerful countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Mexico, or Turkey.
It cited what it called "Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including the outright seizure and formal annexation of Crimea," as one of the worst democratic rollbacks of 2014.
Russia itself was ranked as "not free" due to deepening government crackdown on dissent, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations.
The report said that in Azerbaijan. there was an increase in cases of abuse and jailings of government critics, including human rights advocates and journalists.
The report voiced concerns over dwindling freedoms in Egypt, pressure on independent media and civil society in Turkey, and further centralization of authority in China.
Syria, described as "a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism," received the lowest score of any country in more than a decade.
In Ukraine, the report found that the gains "related to the ouster of corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych" were offset by Russia's annexation of Crimea and ongoing fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country's east.
Ukraine was rated as only "partly free."
Crimea -- under Russian control since March -- was evaluated separately for the first time and received ratings "only slightly better" than those of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two of the worst-ranked countries.
The other "worst of the worst" countries and territories were the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tibet, and Western Sahara.
The report singled out Kyrgyzstan as enjoying the highest levels of freedom in Central Asia despite "increased government restrictions on freedom of assembly and civil society groups."
Kyrgyzstan, rated as "partly free," was the only Central Asian country that didn't receive a "not free" rating.
While Europe was found to have suffered limited democratic setbacks in 2014, the report highlighted the wave of protests sparked in the United States by the police killings of unarmed African Americans and denounced "the repeated failure of prosecutors to secure indictments of the officers responsible."
It also cited the CIA's reported "torture and mistreatment of terrorism suspects" in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Of the 195 countries assessed in the report, 89 were rated "free," 55 "partly free," and 51 "not free."