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HUMAN RIGHTS: Price of Dissent

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A sad boom in repression

The London-based organization Amnesty International has earned a reputation as the world’s public conscience on matters of political repression. Last week the conscience spoke again, with a wide-ranging, 219-page annual report on 96 countries, offering little cause for optimism. The report’s major findings: the torture of political prisoners is nearly universal, the sinister practice by some governments of “disappearing” political opponents (arresting them clandestinely) is on the rise, and there has been a global increase in political murders.

The report, which covered a twelve-month period ending on April 30, claimed that there had been some felicitous improvements, like the fall last April of Uganda’s murderous Idi Amin, but it said that they were eclipsed by serious deteriorations elsewhere. An example: the increasing execution of criminals in Pakistan (800 this year) and South Africa (132). The report suggests that there may be something of a regional pattern of abuses. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, for example, dissidents protesting abuses of human and religious rights continue to be given long prison sentences or incarceration in psychiatric institutions. In Latin America, most notably in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, there are recurrent charges of deaths in prison from torture, and crude political assassinations. In Argentina alone, Amnesty International documented the names of 2,500 among an estimated 15,000 political disappearances during a three-year period. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in prison were reported in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in the Middle East. The report also mentions the more than 100 executions known to have taken place in Iran, at the command of Ayatullah Khomeini’s revolutionary tribunals.

Surprisingly, there is little detail about what is surely the worst case of mass political murder in decades, the holocaust by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. But A.I. does lambaste the Vietnamese authorities for holding scores of thousands of prisoners in “re-education” camps. Hanoi says it holds only 50,000, but A.I. says that this figure is far too low.

Only nine countries in the world had an unblemished record: Austria, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Fiji, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and Costa Rica. The U.S. was not listed among them. Though not charged expressly with political repression, it is nonetheless criticized for the resumption in some states of the death penalty, which Amnesty International seeks to abolish everywhere.

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