As Americans celebrate Independence Day and the world looks nervously toward uncertain political developments in Egypt, it's worth remembering the countries that have little to celebrate. 2012 was the seventh consecutive year that Freedom House's "Freedom in the World" report, an annual index of political and civil liberties across the globe, showed more declines than gains worldwide. Of the 47 places rated "not free," the following countries and territories were particularly repressive last year, earning the unfortunate distinction of the "Worst of the Worst" in the report.
The government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and is often described as "Europe's last dictator," continued to use violence and other forms of harassment against political opposition and the media. The government has responded to an economic crisis and decline in public support since the dubious election of 2010 by repressing civil society groups, banning activists and journalists from traveling, and sentencing protesters to prison for even the mildest forms of free expression -- including organizing "clapping" and "teddy bear" protests. In response to the crackdown, the European Union imposed additional sanctions in February 2012 on 21 officials involved in abuses of human rights. Parliamentary elections were held in September 2012, but they were neither free nor fair, with little representation from opposition parties. Although Belarus released two political prisoners in early 2012, at least a dozen more remain incarcerated.
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President Idriss Déby has been in power since leading a military coup in 1990 and was re-elected to another five-year term in 2011. During his time in power, ethnic and political conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and corruption and mismanagement are rife. The country recently faced a severe food crisis due to rising food prices and a drought. Despite a mildly improved security situation in recent months, rebel groups continue to kill and torture with impunity. In June 2011, the government signed a peace agreement with the rebel group Popular Front for Recovery (FPR) as well as an action plan with the United Nations to end the use of child soldiers by security forces. Last week, a Senegalese court charged former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré with crimes against humanity, the first instance in which an African leader has been charged with such a crime in a domestic court rather than an international tribunal. This past May, army officers and a member of the opposition were arrested after attempting to organize a coup.
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More than half of the people in the world living in "not free" countries live in China, according to Freedom House. The Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on political power, depriving citizens of the right to elect leaders and hold the government accountable for its misdeeds. At the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi Jinping was selected to serve as the new Communist Party leader, and took over as president starting in March 2013. The make-up of the new party leadership and its actions during its first months in power have largely disappointed those hoping for meaningful political liberalization. Almost immediately, steps were taken to reinforce Internet censorship and surveillance. Despite Xi's public calls to fight corruption and abuses of power, activists urging officials to declare their assets or documenting torture have faced harassment and arrest.
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During the past three years, there have been modest signs of opening in Cuba, a one-party communist state ruled by Fidel Castro and then his brother, Raul, since 1959. However, while economic reforms are leading to noticeable changes, freedom of movement, even the right to choose one's place of residence and employment, are still restricted. In a landmark move, the country instituted term limits for the first time last year on top government officials and eliminated the exit-visa requirement that made travel for Cubans difficult, if not impossible. Eased travel restrictions have allowed citizens, including human rights activists like blogger Yoani Sánchez and The Ladies in White, to travel outside the country. Despite these openings, activists are still regularly targeted by authorities. In July 2012, political dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were killed under suspicious circumstances when the car they were in, driven by Spanish activist Ángel Carromero, struck a tree. Payá's family members claim the car was deliberately forced off the road. Moreover, despite the release of 75 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011, authorities continues to monitor activists and arrest them when they attempt to carry out their work.
Equatorial Guinea is one of the most corrupt and economically unequal countries in the world. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled with an iron fist since he seized power after deposing and executing his uncle in 1979. Since then, he and his inner circle -- including his son, who was recently appointed by Obiang as second vice president and likely successor -- have accumulated extreme wealth from the country's oil profits, while the majority of citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Political opponents are monitored, harassed, arrested, and tortured; ethnic groups that do not belong to Obiang's clan are deprived of their political rights and marginalized; journalists are censored and prosecuted; and the parliament and judiciary serve as nothing more than a rubber stamp. Constitutional amendments approved in November 2011 that will allow Obiang to hand-pick his successor and extend his influence over the judiciary even after he leaves office only served to bolster his power. Human rights groups have also decried increased abuses of activists, media, and political opposition in advance of parliamentary elections in May 2013.
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In June 2012, the grave human rights situation in isolated Eritrea drew international attention when the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate widespread abuses by Eritrean authorities against their own citizens. National elections in Eritrea have not been held since the country became independent 20 years ago. With the exception of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice, political parties cannot operate legally, and the government controls most media outlets, with independent journalists subject to censorship and arrest. Four journalists were confirmed to have died in custody in 2012. All religious institutions except for a short list of recognized faiths are banned, and members of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches face persecution. The most severe treatment is reserved for Jehovah's Witnesses, who are barred from government jobs and refused business permits or identity cards. According to the United Nations, there are as many as 5,000 to 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea. As many as 4,000 Eritreans flee the country each month, according to the United Nations. A January 2013 Human Rights Watch report details the increased use of forced labor as a result of a boom in the country's mineral industry.
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The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains a monopoly on political power in Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states. President Choummaly Sayasone's government regulates virtually every facet of life, including religious freedom. Thousands of ethnic Hmong in rural areas have been forced off their land to make way for extractive industries and some Hmong refugees who returned to the country from Thailand in late 2009 and early 2010 appear to have vanished; efforts by their families, foreign diplomats, and members of the U.S. Congress to obtain information on their whereabouts have been largely unsuccessful. The climate for NGOs grew increasingly hostile when, in December 2012, the head of the Laos branch of the Swiss development agency Helvetas was expelled from the country. The same month, anti-poverty activist Sombath Somphone was detained by authorities and has not been heard from since. The state owns all media and any journalist who criticizes the government or discusses controversial political topics faces legal punishment. Refugees who come to Laos continue to face deportation. In June 2012, 20 North Korean refugees were deported after being arrested by authorities.
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North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has made quick efforts to solidify and legitimize his rule by brazenly provoking standoffs with South Korea as well as the United States in recent months. Meanwhile, the country remains a humanitarian and human rights tragedy. Kim's regime maintains a network of prison camps where thousands of political prisoners endure brutal conditions. According to refugees, the population in these gulags has grown as a result of a crackdown by Kim against those attempting to defect. Nearly all facets of personal life -- including employment, education, residence, and access to medical care -- are determined by a semi-hereditary system that classifies citizens into subgroups based on family loyalty to the regime. Moreover, decades of severe economic mismanagement have left the country dependent on foreign food aid, which is tightly controlled by the regime, leaving much of the population starving. Information on conditions inside North Korea can be hard to come by, but this year, Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden's brutal memoir of the only person believed to have been born in one of the country's prison camps and escaped, was a sensation in South Korea and around the world.
In the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the Quran and the Sunnah (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) serve as the country's constitution. The formation of political parties is forbidden by the royal family and the government tightly controls the media -- dominating print and satellite TV coverage and blocking access to more than 400,000 websites. Moreover, the public practice of any religion other than Islam is forbidden, and a law passed in 2011 criminalizes criticism of religious scholars. Women are prohibited from driving or traveling within the country without a male companion, and although Saudi Arabia grudgingly agreed to allow female competitors in the 2012 London Summer Olympics due to a public outcry, the rights of women remain highly restricted. The kingdom has systematically arrested, tried, and imprisoned some of the country's most visible women's rights activists. Wajeha al-Huwaider, best known internationally for posting a video of herself driving to YouTube, was sentenced to 10 months in prison in June 2013 for attempting to protect a battered wife who was being held hostage by her husband. Saudi authorities have continually cracked down on Shiite activists as well as any protests calling for reform. In late June, seven activists were sentenced to prison terms over anti-government Facebook posts.
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Until recently, the Somali state had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. The internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was unpopular domestically and had little territorial control, with major portions of the country run by the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. Over the past year and a half, Somali authorities have paved the way for a more permanent government with a new constitution, parliament, president, and prime minister. At the same time, efforts by the African Union to minimize al-Shabab's influence have been moderately successful. However, the human rights situation in Somalia remains grave. It is still one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, freedom of assembly is not respected, and both the TFG and al-Shabab have been accused of war crimes by international organizations. Additionally, the country is still recovering from a severe drought in 2011 which, as of March of this year, has left more than 1 million people facing food insecurity at crisis levels. In March, delegations from around 50 countries gathered in London for talks on rebuilding the Somali state.
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Since protests erupted in March 2011, the government has been engaged in a brutal crackdown that led to a tumultuous civil war, during which thousands of Syrians have been arrested, more than 100,000 have been killed, and more than 1 million have fled to neighboring countries. International efforts to broker a ceasefire between the regime and opposition have failed, with the war taking on a sectarian tone. Most foreign journalists have been barred from entering Syria, and scores have been killed during the conflict. A number of governments, including the United States, Turkey, France, Qatar, and Britain, have confirmed that Assad is using chemical weapons against the Syrian people -- the "red line" the United States warned the regime in Damascus not to cross. The United States has formally recognized the Syrian opposition and recently pledged to provide "direct military support" to the rebels. Recent reports by human rights groups have detailed extensive use of torture by the Syrian government, including against children, but also disturbing abuses by rebel forces.
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A country that has been entangled in civil wars since it gained its independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has seen further escalation of violence in the last two years, following the independence of South Sudan. In 2012, tensions reached their peak as South Sudan halted oil production and sent troops to take over Sudan's main oil field. That same year, President Omar al-Bashir, who remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, continued his crackdown on civil society after student protests in June and July. The protests, which took place in Nyala, Darfur, ended in mass arrests and further restrictions on the media and freedom of assembly. According to the United Nations, 200,000 people in Darfur have been displaced by "both military and inter-community standoffs" since the beginning of 2013, and human rights groups have noted increasing levels of violence by Sudanese government forces in the border regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
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President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who came to power in 2006 following the death of Turkmenistan's first President Saparmurat Niyazov, has continued his predecessor's policies of repression. The government controls all broadcast and print media, wields the power to appoint and remove judges without legislative review, and restricts the religions that can be practiced in the country. In February 2012, Turkmenistan held a scheduled election (in which all of the president's "opponents" were in fact minor figures associated with the ruling party). Perhaps not surprisingly, Berdymukhammedov won the re-election with a highly dubious 97 percent of the vote. In July 2013, singer Jennifer Lopez faced international criticism after singing "Happy Birthday" to Berdymukhammedov at a private ceremony and apologized profusely after being informed of the country's human rights violations.
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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Islam Karimov has held a tight grip on all institutions in Uzbekistan, including the legislature and the judiciary. While there are five recognized political parties, all support the current government, and Karimov appoints all judges (and can remove them at any time). The president has used his executive power to suppress all opposition, leading many critics of his rule to flee the country. Journalists and activists who are critical of the regime are subject to violent attacks, fines, and arbitrary detention; at least two reporters have been convicted for anonymous articles even though there was no evidence they had written the pieces. Websites that display information the regime dislikes are systematically blocked.
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South Ossetia (Georgia)
Since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Russia has expanded its control over the breakaway region. South Ossetians continue to face the challenges of dealing with a Russian-funded, highly corrupt elite. In the run-up to the 2011 presidential election, officials loyal to outgoing President Edward Kokoity jailed and threatened opposition figures and changed legislation to prevent certain candidates from registering. In a surprise move, the Supreme Court annulled the vote -- citing electoral violations -- and called for a repeat election in March 2012, which sparked protests. Four candidates ran in the repeat election, and former South Ossetian KGB head Leonid Tibilov was elected after winning a runoff election against former human rights commissioner David Sanakoyev. While the political crisis calmed somewhat in 2012, Russia's influence and further infighting among elites continued to threaten the territory's stability. The situation in Ossetia and fellow breakaway region Abkhazia may receive more international attention during the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
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The security clampdown that began after uprisings in 2008 continues today. Over the course of 2012, 84 Tibetans set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese Communist rule in the region. The Chinese authorities, who have ruled the region since 1950, responded with communication blackouts, "patriotic" education campaigns, and travel restrictions, even rejecting a request by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to allow a visit by independent monitors. Public notices found in the region threaten violent beatings and torture for those found accessing or disseminating banned information. Authorities continue to regularly crack down on religious activities, and even peaceful demonstrations are often harshly punished. U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke recently made a rare visit to the region amid a new wave of self-immolations.
Western Sahara (Morocco)
Since the 1991 ceasefire between the Moroccan government and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front rebels, efforts to end the decades-long dispute over the region have reaped no results. As the occupying force in Western Sahara, Morocco holds authority over the region's elections and ensures that pro-independence candidates are excluded from participating. Despite a Moroccan constitution calling for a free press, these freedoms largely don't apply to Western Sahara, where local journalists are not allowed to criticize or question the government's sovereignty. Moroccan authorities restrict the freedom of assembly and Sahrawis are not permitted to form independent nongovernmental organizations. In November 2012, Sahwari human rights activist Aminatou Haidar was beaten by Moroccan police after meeting with U.N. Special Envoy Christopher Ross. Some 90,000 Sahwaris -- as well as the region's government-in-exile -- are housed across the border in the Algerian region of Tindouf.
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