Repressive regimes crack down on opposition when the world is not watching
EVIDENCE is growing that repressive regimes outside Iraq have taken the opportunity of war to crack down on opposition while the world’s back is turned.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro has launched one of the biggest moves to crush dissent for years, and Amnesty International said almost 80 people may now be prisoners of conscience in the country after mass arrests which began on March 18, two days before the war started.
Those detained include journalists, owners of private libraries and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties.
All of the detainees were imprisoned without charge, and the whereabouts of some of them are unknown.
Among those held are several former prisoners of conscience, including economist Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, who was jailed in 1997, independent journalist Raul Rivero Castaneda and leading opposition figure Hector Palacios Ruiz. Detainees could face up to 20 years in prison.
In an unprecedented move, the Cuban government announced their detention on national television and accused them of being linked to "acts of conspiracy" through their contact with James Cason, who represents United States interests in Havana.
The arrests began just over a week after the European Commission officially opened its first diplomatic office in the capital, Havana, on March 10.
They also came the day after the latest session of the UN Commission on Human Rights began in Geneva.
Since 1992 a resolution critical of Cuba’s record has been passed by the commission almost every year. Damian Fernandez, professor of international relations at Florida International University and a Cuba expert, said: "The timing has undoubtedly helped regimes like this exploit their tendency towards repression.
"Repression in Cuba is cyclical, but the intensity and extent of this is unheard of since the 1960s."
Similar mass arrests have taken place in Zimbabwe, although they may also have been fuelled by an increase in opposition protests, including a general strike, and the dissent which surrounded the cricket world cup.
More than 500 people have been arrested in the wake of a two-day general strike called by leader Robert Mugabe’s opponents, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It has been claimed that as many as 1,000 opposition supporters were driven out of their homes and more than 250 injured in violent clashes.
Mugabe has compared himself to Adolf Hitler and warned that he will not hesitate to act like a "black Hitler" in stamping out dissent.
Dr Heather Deegan, an associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs’ Africa section, said: "Things have got much worse in Zimbabwe over the last few weeks and there is a very strong case [for the existence of government opportunism] there. There has been less public criticism because the focus of attention is on Iraq."
Rosemary Burnett, of Amnesty International in Scotland, added: "Robert Mugabe is not stupid. He knows the eyes of the world are not on him at the moment."
As a closed state, repression in North Korea is rarely visible to the outside world even when media attention is not focused elsewhere. But the Kim Jong Il’s Communist regime does appear to have taken the opportunity of war in the Gulf to move towards restarting production of weapons-grade plutonium.
The US has not been able to spare the diplomatic attention needed to exert more pressure on the North because of Iraq.
Meanwhile, more Burmese dissidents are reported to have been arrested in Thailand and deported to Burma following a period when suppression of democracy campaigners appeared to have lessened.
Burnett, Amnesty’s programme director for Scotland, said Israel, although a democracy rather than a dictatorship, had also "cynically exploited" the Iraq war to reduce criticism of an attack in the Gaza strip which killed eight people.
Israel has stepped up military action against Palestinian refugee camps in general and announced an extension of the security fence separating Israelis from Palestinians in the Jordan valley. That will allow the number of illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territory to be increased.
Elsewhere, other governments are accused of using anti-war protests as an excuse to round up opponents.
In Egypt, hundreds of anti-war protesters, many of them Islamist students who oppose the government, are reported to have been detained.
Many others were beaten after demonstrating, according to the US watchdog Human Rights Watch. There were reports of defendants being tortured with electric shocks while in custody, and HRW said "fundamental freedoms" in the country were under serious threat.
In Yemen, an 11-year-old child and two protesters were shot dead during violent clashes between police and demonstrators in the capital, Sana’a, on March 21 as thousands rallied against the war.
However, Burnett said it was dangerous to assume that the current waves of repression, such as those in Zimbabwe, were purely the result of governments attempting to "bury bad news" beneath the war.
"These are ongoing situations," Burnett said.
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