North Koreans enjoy the lowest levels of freedom in the world, according to Freedom House's rankings. Kim Jong Il, who assumed power in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung, retains all political power. The regime maintains a network of prison camps in which thousands of political prisoners are subjected to brutal conditions. All facets of a person's life -- including employment, education, place of residence, access to medical facilities, and access to stores -- are determined by a semihereditary system of social discrimination that classifies citizens into 53 subgroups based on their family's perceived loyalty to the regime. In late 2009, the government revaluated its currency and restricted the amount of old notes that individuals could exchange, effectively wiping out many citizens' cash savings. The move was part of a bid to crack down on private trading and bolster state controls on the economy. Here, North and South Korea soldiers stand guard at the border.
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Members of Burma's ruling junta attend a military parade. The junta, led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, governs Burma by decree, controlling all branches of power, impoverishing the formerly wealthy country, and committing human rights abuses against its population with impunity. The junta rejected its landslide defeat in the 1990 elections -- and has kept pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in prison or under house arrest for most of the past 19 years. The junta is expected to hold national elections this year as part of its "Roadmap to Democracy," but has continued to arrest and imprison political dissidents ahead of the vote -- which has yet to be scheduled -- to ensure its grip on power.
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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, shown here, holds broad political power in Equatorial Guinea, a country that has never held credible elections. Africa's third-largest oil producer, Equatorial Guinea is considered one of the world's most corrupt countries, with Obiang and his inner circle amassing huge personal wealth from the country's substantial oil profits. Human rights abuses -- including torture, detention of political opponents, and extrajudicial killings -- are widespread. Obiang's government was subject to two very public recriminations this year: the country's exclusion from an extractive industry coalition for its lack of transparency on oil revenue, and the suspension of a UNESCO science prize named after the president, due to objections from human rights organizations. In response, Obiang hired a U.S. lobbying firm for $1 million a year in an attempt to reshape his authoritarian image.
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Once an international pariah, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, above, began mending ties in 2003, when his country officially took responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay compensation. Political power in the oil-rich state theoretically lies with a system of people's committees, but in practice Qaddafi rules unopposed. Despite Libya's new, more positive image, gross abuse of human rights endures. Organizing or joining anything akin to a political party is punishable with long prison terms and even death.
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The Somali state has virtually ceased to exist. Technically, the country is governed by the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government, but its actual control is minimal. There are no effective political parties, and the political process is driven largely by clan loyalty. As Ethiopian forces completed their withdrawal from the country in January 2009, Somalia's transitional parliament was expanded to include opposition factions, and the new body elected moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as president. Despite high hopes, his government remains without effective control over the country and continues on the verge of collapse as it comes under attack from radical Islamist groups. A December suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony for medical students killed four cabinet ministers and several other officials. Here, residents of Mogadishu cheer as they watch a bulldozer seized from government forces by the al-Shabaab rebels.
Africa's largest country has been embroiled in nearly continuous civil wars since independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on the Khartoum billboard above, who came to power in a 1989 military coup, was the target of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his government's role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in the western region of Darfur since 2003. The country held elections in April that were widely considered to be highly flawed. Despite objections surrounding his right to rule, however, the international community is relieved that Bashir's party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement of South Sudan have agreed on a renewed unity government in Khartoum, which is part of a 2005 peace accord. South Sudan will hold an independence referendum in early 2011 that could split the country apart.
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Turkmenistan quickly emerged as the most repressive of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. President Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, took power in 1991, isolating the country, gutting formal institutions, and muzzling the media. Upon his death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took power, promising reforms and pushing through a new constitution, but the country remains a one-party state in which all aspects of political and civil life are strictly controlled. Progress away from Niyazov's repressive legacy remained slow in 2009, producing token improvements rather than systemic change. There has been no revival of civil society under the new president -- Doctors Without Borders, the last international humanitarian NGO active in Turkmenistan, withdrew from the country last year, and the vast majority of political prisoners remain behind bars. Shown here, delegates of Turkmenistan's Council of Fathers at a session in Ashgabat.
President Islam Karimov, shown above on a state visit to Moscow, has held power in Uzbekistan since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse and dominates all aspects of the Uzbek power structures, including both the legislature and judiciary. No genuine opposition party functions legally, and members of unregistered opposition groups are severely repressed. Dozens of activists are serving prison sentences in Uzbekistan under torturous conditions, including Ganihon Mamathanov, an activist who worked to eradicate forced child labor in the country; AIDS activist Maksim Popov, for the distribution of brochures on HIV prevention (homosexuality is illegal in Uzbekistan); and poet and political activist Yusuf Juma.
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China maintains tight control over Tibet, a remote Himalayan region known as "the roof of the world." Although most regard the exiled Dalai Lama as their leader, Tibetans lack the right to freely elect their officials or determine their political future. Chinese security forces routinely engage in arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture, punishing even nonviolent protests against Chinese rule. China further restricted freedom of movement and exerted more official control of Tibetan Buddhism following an explosion of anti-government protests in 2008. Hundreds of political and religious prisoners reportedly remain imprisoned, and in October 2009, three Tibetans were executed, marking the first use of the death penalty in the territory since 2003. Above, police prepare to block pro-Tibet activists from crossing into the territory from Nepal.
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Political power in Belarus is concentrated in the hands of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, often described as Europe's only remaining dictator. Lukashenka has ruled the former Soviet satellite since 1994, having successfully abolished term limits, and he maintains complete control over the government, courts, and legislative process. After releasing all its political prisoners in 2008, the regime incarcerated more activists in 2009. Additionally, authorities continued to use police violence and other forms of harassment against the political opposition and, through systematic intimidation, blocked independent media from covering demonstrations. Here, the village of Stolbtsy is shown flooded after a sever flooding in March, 2010.
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President Idriss Déby, a former coup leader, has been in power in Chad since 1990, while ethnic and political conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of Chadians. Security forces and rebel groups have been accused and documented of killing and torturing with impunity. This year, the U.N. Security Council voted to remove peacekeeping troops from Chad by December, and though the government has pledged to protect refugees after their withdrawal, its capacity to do so is highly questionable. Above, Chadian soldiers display vehicles captured from rebels.
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China is home to more than half the world's population living in "not free" countries, according to Freedom House rankings. The Chinese Communist Party keeps tight control on political power, depriving Chinese citizens of the right to elect their leaders, participate in political opposition, and hold their government accountable. In April, the government approved legislation requiring Internet and telecom network operators to monitor their networks for content relating to "state secrets." The country was also involved in a high-profile dispute this year with Internet giant Google that resulted in the company discontinuing its service to mainland China rather than continuing to filter content. Above, Chinese paramilitary police stand guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the predominantly Uighur city of Urumqi, where ethnic unrest left more than 180 people dead in July, 2009.
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Ruled by former President Fidel Castro for 49 years, Cuba remains a one-party state, now under the rule of Fidel's brother, Raúl, though Fidel's recently improved health has sparked questions regarding his continued influence. Freedom of movement and the right to choose one's residence and place of employment are severely restricted, and attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense. In February, democracy activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in prison from lack of medical attention while on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Cuban authorities also continue to detain, without formal charge, a U.S. contractor for distributing communications equipment to religious groups. Here, a man sells bread beneath revolutionary posters.
Residents of the Eritrean capital of Asmara walk by the waterfront. The Eritrean government maintains an iron grip on the country's political and social structures. National elections have been postponed indefinitely, regulations governing political parties have never been enacted, independent political parties do not exist, and the government controls all broadcast media and restricts independent print publications. Suppression of human rights intensified in 2009, with arbitrary arrests and the use of an onerous conscription system to control the population. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, most young people, have fled the country in recent years, including 10 players from the national soccer team who refused to return after playing a tournament in Kenya in December.
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Lao People's Revolutionary Party maintains a monopoly of political
power in Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states. The
government, led by President Choummaly Sayasone, regulates virtually
every facet of life, providing officials with many opportunities to
demand bribes. Poverty puts many women at risk, with an estimated
15,000 to 20,000 trafficked each year for prostitution. Thousands of
mountain people have been displaced by the government's attempts to
destroy ethnic Hmong groups that have fought a low-level rebellion
against the regime since 1975. Human rights groups have expressed deep
concern for the rights of nearly 5,000 Hmong refugees who were forcibly
returned from Thailand in December 2009 at the insistence of the Lao
government. The media and outside observers have been given little
access to the Hmong to monitor their treatment. Above, a rice farmer and his son survey their drought hit field.
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The kingdom is an authoritarian monarchy in which all political power is held by the royal family and in which the Quran and the Sunna (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) serve as the country's constitution. All Saudis are required by law to be Muslims, and the government prohibits the public practice of any religions other than Islam. Women are forbidden from driving and receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers; their testimony is equal to half that of a man's in sharia courts. King Abdullah gave some cause for optimism this year by limiting the power of the kingdom's religious police and appointing a woman to his cabinet for the first time, but critics say these measures are more about extending his own political control than loosening restrictions. Above, Saudi deputy minister for security issues Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz reviews a special forces unit.
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Bashar al-Assad, whose supporters are shown above marching in downtown Damascus, took power after his father's death in 2000, pledging to liberalize Syria's politics and economy. His early presidency featured a brief political opening that was quickly replaced by a return to repression. Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are now tightly restricted. Activists who speak out against the regime face arbitrary arrest by the state security service, as well as torture and prolonged prison sentences. The Syrian government holds an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners. Over the past year, repression of activists in Syria has increased. Democracy activist Ali al-Abdallah was scheduled to be released in June, but was instead given an extended sentence for articles he penned while in prison. Also in June, well-known lawyer and human rights activist Muhannad al-Hassani was sentenced to three years in prison on spurious charges, and elderly human rights defender, Haitham al-Maleh, continued to be held by Syrian authorities with a trial scheduled for July 4.
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A December 2008 military coup in Guinea suspended all political activity, civilian government institutions, and the constitution. The junta that seized power promised to hold open presidential and legislative elections in early 2010, but those plans were in doubt after the September 2009 massacre of 150 opposition supporters and the December assassination attempt on junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara. Since the shooting, in which Camara was injured, a new military general has helped transition the government into its first free elections, the first round of which was held June 27, shown above. The aftermath of the election is not expected to be smooth, as a July runoff between the officials with the most votes is likely.
Western Sahara (Morocco)
Western Sahara, a territory claimed and controlled by Morocco, is the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. Talks between the two countries over whether to allow a referendum on independence persisted over the past year, with no success. Sahrawi activists, human rights defenders, and others continue to face harassment and arbitrary detention and torture. Moroccan authorities regularly use force when quelling demonstrations in Sahrawi villages. In late 2009, six Sahrawi activists held in a Moroccan prison attracted international attention by launching a hunger strike. Above, a group of women confront Moroccan police officers.
Separatist South Ossetia touched off a brutal war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 that killed hundreds and displaced thousands of people. Despite widespread international criticism, Moscow recognized South Ossetia's independence from Georgia and proceeded with a political and economic takeover. After the war, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity replaced most of his cabinet with officials from Russia, and Russian forces barred ethnic Ossetians from entering Georgia. The war dealt a heavy blow to South Ossetia, whose population was already declining and is now no more than 30,000. Twenty-thousand ethnic Georgians remain displaced, and the only international organization allowed access to the region is the International Committee of the Red Cross. Meanwhile, Russian financial aid has merely exacerbated the corruption prevalent among South Ossetia's elites. Above, South Ossetians gather on the first anniversary of the war in the capital city, Tskhinvali.
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