Thursday, January 26, 2006

The World’s 20 Worst Dictators

Let’s not lose sight of those heads of state who terrorize and abuse the rights of their own people.
By David Wallechinsky
PARADE Magazine
January 22, 2006

A “dictator” is a head of state who exercises arbitrary authority over the lives of his citizens and who cannot be removed from power through legal means. The worst commit terrible human-rights abuses. This present list draws in part on reports by global human-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International. While the three worst from 2005 have retained their places, two on last year’s list (Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan) have slipped out of the Top 10—not because their conduct has improved but because other dictators have gotten worse.

1) Omar al-Bashir, Sudan.
Age 62. In power since 1989. Last year’s rank: 1
Since February 2003, Bashir’s campaign of ethnic and religious persecution has killed at least 180,000 civilians in Darfur in western Sudan and driven 2 million people from their homes. The good news is that Bashir’s army and the Janjaweed militia that he supports have all but stopped burning down villages in Darfur. The bad news is why they’ve stopped: There are few villages left to burn. The attacks now are aimed at refugee camps. While the media have called these actions “a humanitarian tragedy,” Bashir himself has escaped major condemnation. In 2005, Bashir signed a peace agreement with the largest rebel group in non-Islamic southern Sudan and allowed its leader, John Garang, to become the nation’s vice president. But Garang died in July in a helicopter crash, and Bashir’s troops still occupy the south.

2) Kim Jong-il, North Korea.
Age 63. In power since 1994. Last year’s rank: 2
While the outside world focuses on Kim Jong-il’s nuclear weapons program, domestically he runs the world’s most tightly controlled society. North Korea continues to rank last in the index of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders, and for the 34th straight year it earned the worst possible score on political rights and civil liberties from Freedom House. An estimated 250,000 people are confined in “reeducation camps.” Malnourishment is widespread: According to the United Nations World Food Program, the average 7-year-old boy in North Korea is almost 8 inches shorter than a South Korean boy the same age and more than 20 pounds lighter.

3) Than Shwe, Burma (Myanmar).
Age 72. In power since 1992. Last year’s rank: 3
In November 2005, without warning, Than Shwe moved his entire government from Rangoon (Yangon), the capital for the last 120 years, to Pyinmana, a remote area 245 miles away. Civil servants were given two days’ notice and are forbidden from resigning. Burma leads the world in the use of children as soldiers, and the regime is notorious for using forced labor on construction projects and as porters for the army in war zones. The long-standing house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and Than Shwe’s most feared opponent, recently was extended for six months. Just to drive near her heavily guarded home is to risk arrest.

4) Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe.
Age 81. In power since 1980. Last year’s rank: 9
Life in Zimbabwe has gone from bad to worse: It has the world’s highest inflation rate, 80% unemployment and an HIV/AIDS rate of more than 20%. Life expectancy has declined since 1988 from 62 to 38 years. Farming has collapsed since 2000, when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, giving most of them to political allies with no background in agriculture. In 2005, Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina (Clean the Filth), the forcible eviction of some 700,000 people from their homes or businesses—“to restore order and sanity,” says the government. But locals say the reason was to forestall demonstrations as the economy deteriorates.

5) Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan.
Age 67. In power since 1990. Last year’s rank: 15
Until 2005, the worst excesses of Karimov’s regime had taken place in the torture rooms of his prisons. But on May 13, he ordered a mass killing that could not be concealed. In the city of Andijan, 23 businessmen, held in prison and awaiting a verdict, were freed by their supporters, who then held an open meeting in the town square. An estimated 10,000 people gathered, expecting government officials to come and listen to their grievances. Instead, Karimov sent the army, which massacred hundreds of men, women and children. A 2003 law made Karimov and all members of his family immune from prosecution forever.

6) Hu Jintao, China.
Age 63. In power since 2002. Last year’s rank: 4
Although some Chinese have taken advantage of economic liberalization to become rich, up to 150 million Chinese live on $1 a day or less in this nation with no minimum wage. Between 250,000 and 300,000 political dissidents are held in “reeducation-through-labor” camps without trial. Less than 5% of criminal trials include witnesses, and the conviction rate is 99.7%. There are no privately owned TV or radio stations. The government opens and censors mail and monitors phone calls, faxes, e-mails and text messages. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, at least 400,000 residents of Beijing have been forcibly evicted from their homes.

7) King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia.
Age 82. In power since 1995. Last year’s rank: 5
Although Abdullah did not become king until 2005, he has ruled Saudi Arabia since his half-brother, Fahd, suffered a stroke 10 years earlier. In Saudi Arabia, phone calls are recorded and mobile phones with cameras are banned. It is illegal for public employees “to engage in dialogue with local and foreign media.” By law, all Saudi citizens must be Muslims. According to Amnesty International, police in Saudi Arabia routinely use torture to extract “confessions.” Saudi women may not appear in public with a man who isn’t a relative, must cover their bodies and faces in public and may not drive. The strict suppression of women is not voluntary, and Saudi women who would like to live a freer life are not allowed to do so.

8) Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan.
Age 65. In power since 1990. Last year’s rank: 8
Niyazov has created the world’s most pervasive personality cult, and criticism of any of his policies is considered treason. The latest examples of his government-by-whim include bans on car radios, lip-synching and playing recorded music on TV or at weddings. Niyazov also has closed all national parks and shut down rural libraries. He launched an attack on his nation’s health-care system, firing 15,000 health-care workers and replacing most of them with untrained military conscripts. He announced the closing of all hospitals outside the capital and ordered Turkmenistan’s physicians to give up the Hippocratic Oath and to swear allegiance to him instead.

9) Seyed Ali Khamane’i, Iran.
Age 66. In power since 1989. Last year’s rank: 18
Over the past four years, the rulers of Iran have undone the reforms that were emerging in the nation. The hardliners completed this reversal by winning the parliamentary elections in 2004 —after disqualifying 44% of the candidates—and with the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005. Ultimately, however, the country is run by the 12-man Guardian Council, overseen by the Ayatollah Khamane’i, which has the right to veto any law that the elected government passes. Khamane’i has shut down the free press, tortured journalists and ordered the execution of homosexual males.

10) Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Equatorial Guinea.
Age 63. In power since 1979. Last year’s rank: 10
Obiang took power in this tiny West African nation by overthrowing his uncle more than 25 years ago. According to a United Nations inspector, torture “is the normal means of investigation” in Equatorial Guinea. There is no freedom of speech, and there are no bookstores or newsstands. The one private radio station is owned by Obiang’s son. Since major oil reserves were discovered in Equatorial Guinea in 1995, Obiang has deposited more than $700 million into special accounts in U.S. banks. Meanwhile, most of his people live on less than $1 a day.

11. Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya
Age 63. In power since 1969. Last year’s rank: 6
Qaddafi has made his peace with the outside world by renouncing his quest for weapons of mass destruction and opening his oil fields to foreign companies. But domestically he continues to operate a brutal regime. According to the U.S. Department of State, at least 10% of the population is engaged in surveillance of the other 90%. Libyan law provides for collective punishment in which the relatives, friends and even neighbors of someone found guilty of a crime can also be punished. Criticizing Qaddafi is considered a crime punishable by death.

12. King Mswati III, Swaziland
Age 37. In power since 1986. Last year’s rank: 11
Africa’s last remaining absolute monarch, Mswati III took power at the age of 18. Since then he has allowed his country to slide into extreme poverty, with 69% of the Swazi people living on less than $1 a day. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world: almost 40%. The country has operated without a constitution for 30 years. Mswati has agreed to implement a new one in 2006, however, it bans political parties, gives Mswati the right to reject any laws passed by the legislature and grants him immunity against all possible crimes.

13. Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea
Age 59. In power since 1993. Last year’s rank: 17
A popular leader of Eritrea’s 30-year war of liberation against Ethiopia, Afewerki became its first president in 1993. Since then he has cancelled all national elections. He also suspended the constitution, shut down all privately owned media and restricted the use of cell phones because, he says, they are a threat to national security. He recently expelled all American and European members of the United Nations peacekeeping force that is trying to stop the outbreak of a border war with neighboring Ethiopia.

14. Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus
Age 51. In power since 1994. Last year’s rank: 12
Europe’s last dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko was elected Belarus’ first president after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Since then he has rewritten the constitution to allow him to appoint all 110 members of the upper house of the legislature, and he has harassed his opponents, sometimes having them arrested on live television. He also has mandated a return to Communist-style “mutual surveillance,” encouraging workers to use “trouble telephones” to inform on one another. It is against the law to criticize him.

15. Fidel Castro, Cuba
Age 79. In power since 1959. Last year’s rank: 13
Fidel Castro moved into his 47th year as the leader of Cuba, continuing his record as the longest-reigning dictator in the world. He seems to be telling his people that two generations have passed and no one in Cuba is worthy of taking his place. Cuba had one of the worst scores on Reporters Without Borders’ international index of press freedom.

16. Bashar al-Assad, Syria
Age 40. In power since 2000. Last year’s rank: 14
A former ophthamology student, in 2000 Bashar inherited power from his father, who had ruled Syria for 29 years. Recently the Syrian government has received international condemnation for its presumed involvement in the assassination of the ex-prime minister of neighboring Lebanon. In Syria itself, “emergency rule” has been in effect since 1963. Amnesty International has documented 38 different types of torture that have been used in Syria in recent years.

17. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan
Age 62. In power since 1999. Last year’s rank: 7
General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup that overthrew an elected government. He appointed himself president of Pakistan in 2001 and then attempted to legitimize his rule by staging an election in 2002. However, the election did not come close to meeting international standards. Musharraf agreed to step down as head of the military but then changed his mind, claiming that the nation needed to unify its political and military elements and that he could provide this unity. He justified his decision by stating, “I think the country is more important than democracy.” Prior to September 11, 2001, Musharraf was an ardent supporter of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

18. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia
Age 50. In power since 1995. Last year’s rank: unranked
Following a disputed election in May 2005, Zenawi’s forces shot to death several dozen unarmed demonstrators and detained more than 10,000 political opponents. Zenawi had agreed to a mediated solution to his border dispute with Eritrea. But when the United Nations boundary commission ruled against him, he refused to comply with its decision.

19. Boungnang Vorachith, Laos
Age 68. In power since 2001. Last year’s rank: 20
Laos is run by the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Freedom of expression, assembly and religion are almost nonexistent. Three quarters of Laotians live on less than $2 a day.

20. Tran Duc Luong, Vietnam
Age 68. In power since 1997. Last year’s rank: 19
A geology technician, Luong oversees a classic communist regime that forbids public criticism of the Communist Party, strictly controls all media and heavily censors the Internet. Political trials are closed to the public and 29 different crimes are punishable by the death penalty—including fraud, corruption and drug trafficking. In November, 2005, the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report designated Vietnam as one of eight “countries of particular concern.”


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