The Least Free Places on Earth, 2011

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North Korea: 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 endure brutal conditions. All facets of personal life -- including employment, education, residence, and access to medical care -- are determined by a semihereditary system that classifies citizens into subgroups based on family "loyalty" to the regime. Decades of severe economic mismanagement have left the country dependent on food aid -- which is tightly controlled by the regime -- and the population is starving. This year, North Korea made several leadership changes, promoting key members of Kim Jong Il's family to positions in anticipation of succession. In particular, Kim's son Kim Jong Un now appears to be confirmed as the heir apparent.


Libya: Libyan leader and international pariah Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power after overthrowing pro-Western King Idris in 1969. Political power in the oil-rich state theoretically lies within committees, but in practice Qaddafi rules unopposed. This February, protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation began in Benghazi after a human rights activist was arrested. Qaddafi refused to step down and ordered forces to violently retaliate against protesters. The U.N. Security Council implemented a no-fly zone and demanded a cease-fire in March -- and over the following months the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union have conducted air raids and voiced increasingly urgent public calls for Qaddafi to step down. In June, as rebel forces consolidated their gains and moved ever closer to Tripoli, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Qaddafi and his son on charges of crimes against humanity against the Libyan people.


Burma: A military junta, led from 1992 until this year by 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. The junta rejected a landslide defeat in the 1990 elections and kept pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in captivity until November 2010, just one week after the country's first parliamentary elections since 1990. The election was rigged, political dissidents were arrested in the weeks prior, and voting was canceled in many border regions in an effort to ensure victory for the pro-military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Burma's opposition party, the National League for Democracy, called the elections undemocratic, refused to contest, and was ultimately disbanded by the Burmese government in September 2010. This March, Than Shwe's handpicked successor Thein Sein was sworn in as the new president.



Eritrea: 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 most media outlets. Journalists arrested in a 2001 crackdown remain in prison, and at least 17 were behind bars in 2010.


Somalia: The Somali state has essentially ceased to exist, replaced by proxy forces in an unsteady and chaotic situation. Just over two years ago, the Western-backed Ethiopian troops who had invaded in 2006 to support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) against Islamist insurgents completed their withdrawal. Seeking support against radical groups, the TFG pulled in some of its old rivals, and the newly expanded parliament elected moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as president. But Sheick Sharif's government has virtually no control and is on the verge of collapsing as it faces attacks from al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam -- Shabaab in recent months tightening its grip over much of southern and central Somalia. Journalists have faced mounting threats, with two radio stations seized by militants, and reporters detained and killed. All parties in the conflict have been accused of war crimes by international organizations.


Sudan: Africa's largest country, Sudan, has been embroiled in continuous conflict since independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who first came to power during a 1989 military coup, has been issued multiple arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the government's role in the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Darfur since 2003. Although Southern Sudan has now voted in favor of independence from the north to begin in July, fighting has intensified and the parties have yet to agree to a referendum on which country will retain several disputed areas, including the oil-rich hot spot of Abyei. Bashir sent north Sudanese forces into Abyei in this May, causing nearly 100,000 to flee. In the Southern Kordofan region of north Sudan, fighting is increasing as the northern army and former members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army clash.


Turkmenistan: 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 new country, gutting formal institutions, and silencing the media. Upon his death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took power, promising reforms. But though the country implemented a constitution, it remains a one-party state in which all aspects of political and civil life are controlled. 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 in 2009, and the vast majority of political prisoners remain behind bars. The ruling Democratic Party remains the only registered political party, the most recent local elections -- in 2010 -- were controlled by the authorities, and the chairman of the Central Election Commission has called for Berdimuhamedovto keep his post for life.


Uzbekistan: President Islam Karimov has held power in Uzbekistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Karimov dominates all aspects of the Uzbek power structures, including the legislature and judiciary. No genuine opposition party functions legally, and members of unregistered opposition groups are severely repressed. In December 2010, for example, police detained and questioned 15 people who attempted to establish a new political party. Dozens of activists currently serve prison sentences under inhumane conditions, including Ganihon Mamathanov, who worked to eradicate forced child labor in the country; AIDS activist Maksim Popov; and poet and political activist Yusuf Juma.


Tibet: China maintains tight control over Tibet, a remote Himalayan region known as "the roof of the world." Tibetans lack the right to freely elect their officials or determine their political future. Chinese security forces routinely engage in arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and execution without due process, punishing even nonviolent protests against Han rule. Although he remains the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama this year relinquished his formal position in the political affairs of Tibetan exiles, nearly 100,000 of whom live in India. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) approved a new charter this year that should strengthen the secular, democratic system envisioned by the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan exile community elected 43-year-old scholar Lobsang Sangay as their new prime minister.


Syria: Protests erupted in Syria this March, on the heels of similar uprisings throughout the Middle East. As many as 10,000 individuals are believed to have been arrested and over 1,100 killed during the government's violent crackdown on demonstrators. Foreign journalists have been barred from entering Syria since the beginning of the riots, though a limited number were allowed to enter in late June under the close supervision of the Syrian government. Current President Bashar al-Assad took power after his father's death in 2000, pledging to liberalize Syria's politics and economy. His early presidency boasted a brief political opening, quickly replaced by a return to repression marked by strict restrictions on most basic freedoms. Many of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners in Syria have never been tried.


Belarus: Since 1994, political power in Belarus has been concentrated in the hands of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, often described as Europe's last remaining dictator. Elections, including the December 2010 presidential poll in which Lukashenko "won" a fourth term, have been marred by serious and widespread irregularities. No opposition parties hold any seats in the rubber-stamp legislative assembly, and authorities use police violence and other forms of harassment against the political opposition and independent media. An internal passport is required to travel within the country, and a new presidential decree requires Internet cafe owners to track users' online activities, both measures further restricting citizens' freedom of movement and expression. In the wake of 2010's fraudulent election, Lukashenko's government cracked down harshly on anti-government protests, arresting some 700 people, including seven of his nine presidential challengers.


Chad: President Idriss Déby, a former coup leader, has been in power in Chad since 1990, during which time ethnic and political conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of his subjects. The country is rich in gold and uranium and stands to profit from its new status as an oil-exporting state, which it acquired in 2003. However, corruption and mismanagement are rife in the country, and the population remains extremely vulnerable. Security forces and rebel groups have been documented killing and torturing with impunity. A new media bill prescribes harsh prison terms for "inciting racial and ethnic hatred and condoning violence." Authorities have also banned Muslim groups that are seen as promoting violence. Long-delayed legislative and municipal elections due in late 2010 were postponed again until early 2011, and this Apri's presidential election was marred by questions over low voter turnout, leading the opposition to claim that Déby's victory was illegitimate.


China: In the wake of political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa over the last six months, Chinese authorities have intensified measures to repress dissent. Internet censorship and the detention of human rights and democracy activists have increased, and leading human rights lawyers have been harassed, disbarred, and "disappeared." New regulations have also made it more difficult for civil society groups to obtain funding from overseas donors. But the recent repression is only an intensified version of what has been true for decades. More than half of the people living in countries that are "not free," according to Freedom House rankings, live in China. The Chinese Communist Party keeps tight control on political power, depriving Chinese citizens of the right to elect their leaders, participate in political opposition, or hold their government accountable for its misdeeds. China imprisons more journalists and more individuals for their online activities than any other country. To date, tens of thousands of individuals are thought to be imprisoned or "disappeared" for their political or religious views.


Cuba: Ruled by former President Fidel Castro for 49 years, Cuba remains a one-party state, now under the rule of Fidel's brother, Raúl. Opposition to the ruling Communist Party is not tolerated. This March, the government finally released the last of the political prisoners who had been incarcerated since the 2003 "Black Spring" crackdown on independent journalists and dissidents, but journalists continue to be subject to heavy repression. 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 2010, the Roman Catholic Church inaugurated its first seminary since the 1959 revolution. However, church-based activities including education and publications are highly restricted by the government. Human rights defenders and political prisoners endure torture and deplorable prison conditions.


Laos: The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains a monopoly on 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. All land is owned by the state, and the government regularly awards land to citizens with special governmental connections or money. In 2009, 300 Lao farmers were arrested for plans to protest government land seizures; nine still remained in custody at the end of 2010, and their current whereabouts are unknown. Religious freedom is tightly constrained, with the LPRP controlling Buddhist clergy and temples and officials jailing Christians or expelling them from their villages for proselytizing. Thousands of mountain people have been displaced by the government's attempts to destroy the ethnic Hmong groups thathave fought a low-level rebellion against the regime since 1975.


Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian monarchy in which all political power is held by the royal family. The Quran and the Sunnah (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) serve as the country's constitution. The royal family forbids the formation of political parties, and organized political opposition exists only outside the country. Domestic media is tightly controlled, with the government dominating regional print and satellite TV coverage and blocking access to over 400,000 websites. In 2010, the editor of al-Watan newspaper resigned under pressure over an opinion piece criticizing conservative Islamic beliefs. All Saudis are required by law to be Muslims, and the government prohibits the public practice of any other religion. Women are forbidden from driving or traveling within the country without a male companion. While the kingdom has seen little of the social unrest rocking other Middle Eastern states, Saudi women have lately taken to the roads to protest the ban on female drivers.


South Ossetia: When the would-be state of South Ossetia broke off from Georgia in August 2008, it touched off a brutal war between Georgia and Russia that killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Despite 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 conflict caused the displacement of about 26,000 people, most of them ethnic Georgians. South Ossetians face the challenges of a Russia-funded, highly corrupt elite. All NGOs in the country operate under close government scrutiny. Accusations of corruption were leveled against Kokoity and Moscow-backed Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev in 2010.

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