The world’s 10 worst dictators

(February 22, 2005) The annual top 10 “world’s worst dictators” list compiled by the U.S. weekly lifestyle magazine, Parade in consultation with human-rights organizations.

Last year, Parade contributing editor David Wallechinsky selected “The 10 Worst Living Dictators.” We asked him to make a new assessment for 2004. To compile this year‚Äôs list, Wallechinsky consulted (as in 2003) independent human-rights organizations willing to expose both left- and right-wing regimes, including Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders.

Most dictators marshal various arguments to justify their repressive actions to their people and the world, Wallechinsky notes. The most common are: 1) “The human-rights situation in my country is better than it used to be.” 2) “Western versions of democracy and human rights are not compatible with my nation’s traditions.” 3) “Strict measures are necessary because an outside force is threatening our society.” We offer this list to provide some perspective on world events and to stimulate reflection on our freedoms [in the U.S.].

1. Kim Jong Il, North Korea
Age 63. In power since 1994
Last year’s rank: 1

All the discussion about Kim’s development of nuclear weapons has deflected attention from the fact that his government represses its own people more completely than any other in the world. Each year, the human-rights group Freedom House ranks every country according to its level of political rights and civil liberties. North Korea is the only nation to earn the worst possible score for 31 straight years. It also ranks in last place in the international index of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders. An estimated 150,000 Koreans perform forced labor in prison camps created to punish alleged political dissidents, their family members and North Koreans who fled to China but were forced back by the Chinese government.

2. Than Shwe, Burma
Age 71. In power since 1992
Last year’s rank: 5

General Than Shwe has survived a power struggle to emerge as the sole leader of Burma’s military dictatorship. Because Than Shwe represents the hard-line faction, his rise has turned an already dreadful human-rights situation even worse. Burma has more child soldiers than any other nation, and the Burmese regime continues to kidnap ordinary citizens and force them to serve as porters for the military in various conflicts against non-Burmese ethnic groups.

In 1990, the party of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi won 80% of the vote in an open election. The military regime canceled the results. The popular Suu Kyi spent much of the ensuing years, off and on, under house arrest. On May 30, 2003, hired thugs attacked Suu Kyi’s motorcade, killing several of her supporters and arresting others. Suu Kyi has been returned to house arrest. Unlike most dictators, General Than Shwe prefers to work behind the scenes. Even the Burmese people know little about him. He has promised new elections – in four or five years.

3. Hu Jintao, China
Age 61. In power since 2002
Last year’s rank: Dishonorable mention

Hu spent 38 years moving up the Communist Party hierarchy, proving himself efficient and willing to do whatever was necessary to advance himself. Now, as president and general secretary of the party, Hu is the leader of an unusually repressive regime. Apologists point to China’s economic liberalization and say its human-rights situation “is better than it used to be.” However, the party still controls all media and uses 30,000 “Internet security agents” to monitor online use. More than 300,000 Chinese are serving “re-education” sentences in labor camps. China carries out in excess of 4000 executions a year, more than all other nations combined.

4. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
Age 80. In power since 1980
Last year’s rank: Dishonorable mention

After leading an anti-colonial war of liberation, Mugabe was elected independent Zimbabwe’s first prime minister, with widespread domestic and international support. In recent years, he has become increasingly dictatorial. According to Human Rights Forum, Mugabe’s government has killed or tortured and displaced more than 70,000. While allowing elections, he has restricted opponents’ ability to campaign and shut down media that don’t support him. When opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won 42% of the vote anyway, Mugabe had him arrested and charged with treason. As his support has slipped, Mugabe has played the race card, confiscating farms owned by whites and giving them to his supporters.

5. Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia
Age 80. In power since 1995
Last year’s rank: 2

Abdullah has been the acting leader of Saudi Arabia since his half-brother, King Fahd, suffered a stroke in 1995. Saudi Arabia holds no elections whatsoever. The royal family has promised municipal elections next year but has not announced if women will be allowed to vote. It is forbidden for unrelated Saudis of the opposite sex to appear in public together. Generally, a woman cannot testify in divorce proceedings; a man testifies for her. In court cases, the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. According to the U.S. State Department, Saudi Arabia continues to engage in arbitrary arrests and torture. During a human-rights conference in October, Saudi authorities arrested nonviolent protesters calling for freedom of expression; some were sentenced to be flogged.

6. Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Equatorial Guinea
Age 61. In power since 1979
Last year’s rank: 6

This tiny West African nation was a forgotten dictatorship until major reserves of oil were discovered in 1995. Since then, U.S. oil companies have poured billions of dollars into the country. Although the per capita income is $4,500 a year, 60% of the people live on less than $1 a day. The bulk of the oil income goes directly into the U.S. bank account of President Obiang, who has declared: “There is no poverty in Guinea.” Rather, “The people are used to living in a different way.” In July, state radio announced that Obiang “is in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to Hell.” There is little public transportation, no daily newspapers, and only 1% of government spending goes to health care.

7. Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan
Age 59. In power since 1989
Last year’s rank: Dishonorable mention

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has been involved in a complex 20-year civil war that has claimed the lives of 2 million people and uprooted 4 million. Al-Bashir seized power in a military coup and immediately suspended the constitution, abolished the legislature and banned political parties and unions. He is negotiating a peace agreement with the main rebel group. Meanwhile, his army has routinely bombed civilians and tortured and massacred non-Muslims, particularly in the oil-producing areas of the south. Sudanese troops also have kidnapped southerners and enslaved them. Al-Bashir has been accused of “engineering famine” in regions that oppose him.

Al-Bashir has a long history of providing sanctuary for terrorists only to turn against them. He turned over to France the notorious Carlos the Jackal in exchange for financial and military aid. In 1996, he tried, unsuccessfully, to offer Osama bin Laden to the U.S. government.

8. Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan
Age 64. In power since 1990
Last year’s rank: 7

Since taking charge of this former Soviet republic, Niyazov has developed an extreme personality cult. His picture appears on all Turkmen money, and there are statues of him everywhere. His book Rukhnama (Book of the Soul) is required reading in all schools, and all government employees must memorize passages to keep their jobs. He rules without opposition. (“There are no opposition parties,” he has said, “so how can we grant them freedom?”) In the past year, Niyazov has cracked down on religious and ethnic minorities, including Russians. He has imprisoned political dissidents and subjected them to Stalin-style show trials and public confessions. The Turkmen constitution requires retirement at 70, but in August Niyazov created a 2,500-member People’s Council that elected him Lifetime Chairman – unanimously.

9. Fidel Castro, Cuba
Age 77. In power since 1959
Last year’s rank: 9

The world’s longest-reigning dictator, Castro took advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the war in Iraq last spring to carry out his biggest roundup of nonviolent dissidents in more than a decade. He arrested 75 human-rights activists, journalists and academics, sentencing them to prison for an average of 19 years. Cuba remains a one-party state. The courts are controlled by the “executive branch” – that is, Castro, who traditionally has blamed his country’s problems, both economic and social, on the U.S.

10. King Mswati III, Swaziland
Age 35. In power since 1986
Last year’s rank: Not listed

Swaziland is the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa. Mswati became king when he turned 18, four years after his father’s death. Though educated in England, Mswati has shown a liking for certain Swazi traditions. In Sept. 2002, he watched thousands of girls and young women dance bare-breasted in the annual Reed Dance, then chose one to be his 10th wife. (His father had 100 wives.) The girl’s mother filed a lawsuit charging the king with abducting her daughter. Mswati announced that Swazi courts were forbidden to issue rulings that limited the king’s power. To appease world opinion, he approved a new constitution to replace the one his father suspended 30 years earlier. However, the new constitution bans political parties, allows the death penalty for any criminal offense and provides for debtors’ prisons.

Parade magazine, February 22, 2005

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