2010 'a watershed year' for toppling governments

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Repressive governments are launching a potentially disastrous fight back to stay in power following a tumultuous year in which technology was used across North Africa and the Middle East to topple dictatorships.

Launching its annual report on global human rights, Amnesty International yesterday said 2010 would go down in history "a watershed year" when journalists and young activists used new technology "to speak truth to power". But the human rights group warned that recent gains could quickly be rolled back as oppressive governments learn from the toppling of Tunisia and Egypt's dictators by clamping down on the internet like never before.

"Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power," said Sahil Shetty, Amnesty's general secretary. "The demand for political and economic rights spreading across the Middle East and North Africa is dramatic proof that all rights are equally important and a universal demand. But there is a serious fight-back from the forces of repression. The international community must seize the opportunity for change and ensure that 2011 is not a false dawn for human rights."

Worldwide the human rights picture is mixed with gains in some areas of the globe outweighed by increased repression elsewhere. The release by the military junta of longstanding opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi led to widespread celebration in Burma, but the detention of activists like Liu Xiaobo in China have created new martyrs of free speech.

Although democracy movements have spread across the North Africa and the Middle East aided by the explosion in popularity of social networking, governments like China and Iran have brought in draconian measures to ensure that organising dissent online is much harder.

Globally Amnesty documented prisoners of conscience languishing in 48 countries and unfair trials in 54 nations. Remarkably, there are more countries where torture is reported (98) than there are countries with restrictions on free speech (89).

Although gains have been made in North Africa, the sub-Saharan continent remains one of the world's bleakest spots for persistent abuses. Ongoing conflicts in Somalia, Chad the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic have plunged millions of civilians into a maelstrom of abuses whilst autocratic governments continue to use repression to stifle dissent.

Europe came in for particularly heavy criticism over growing movements to ban the full face veil and the treatment of Roma gypsies especially in France and Italy. The report noted that legislation banning the niqab and burqa was passed in France and mooted in Bosnia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

"For a region that prides itself as a beacon of free expression," the report's authors wrote, "the real picture was very different for many seeking to publicize abuses, articulate alternate views, or hold governments and others to account."