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Widespread contempt for human rights

THE PROFOUND contempt of governments throughout the world for human rights is the theme of Amnesty International's annual report, which was published yesterday.

It is, if possible, a more depressing document than its 30 predecessors. In 1992, despite universal protestations of support for the many international human rights declarations and covenants, torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killings continue and, in some places, grow. The fact that the phrase 'human rights' has become one of the catch words of the 1990s only makes the ease with which it is being ignored more poignant.

Prisoners of conscience, focus of Amnesty's concerns since the early 1960s, are still to be found in 65 countries; torture and ill treatment of detainees in prisons, police stations and secret detention centres has been documented in 104 countries; the use of 'disappearance' as a tactic for eliminating trouble makers and political opponents is in vogue in at least 26 countries; and in 1992, only a few years after a campaign to abolish it, the death penalty remains on the books of 106 countries, for ordinary crimes.

In the Middle East in the last year more than 800 people were hanged, shot by firing squad or stoned to death.

One of the disappointments chronicled by Amnesty is the inability, or unwillingness, of incoming governments to confront past abuses. Even where tribunals of inquiry are set they most often fail to investigate properly.

Ethiopia, Chad and Niger have all initiated investigations into crimes committed by former officials but no one has been brought to justice.

In Sri Lanka the government refuses to repeal the Indemnity Act, which confers immunity from prosecution for acts carried out in 'good faith' between 1977 and 1988. Those were the years in which tens of thousands of men, women and children 'disappeared'.

The rare exceptions, a colonel convicted in El Salvador of the murder of six Jesuit priests, only show up that much more clearly the thousands of violations that go unpunished.

While the election of reform- minded governments in countries such as Niger and Togo has brought improvements other countries have emerged as growing violators of the international agreements so publicly signed by their governments. India is now said to have 25,000 political prisoners and torture has become endemic with the security forces deliberately killing unarmed civilians suspected of supporting insurgents. Death in custody has become common.

Out of the pages of this report comes a bleak picture of lawlessness, with little to choose between the atrocities committed by military officers or by rebel movements.

In countries such as Sri Lanka and Peru rebel movements and governments murder, maim, torture and 'disappear' people systematically. Most of the victims are innocent civilians.

The brutalities inflicted by the Iraqis during their occupation of Kuwait were matched only by the wave of arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances, killings and deportations that followed their departure.

For all its efforts to celebrate improvements a note of optimism is not easy to find in this 1992 report. The gap between aspiration and what Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, called 'the barbaric realities of the world in which we live' would seem to be widening.

Amnesty International Annual Report; pounds 12 plus pounds 1.50 p & p; Amnesty British section, 99-119 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1.

PEKING - Foreign observers will be barred from the trial of a Chinese dissident that is set to begin next week, despite a US State Department call for open proceedings, Reuter reports.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin, said yesterday that foreigners could only attend trials involving foreign nationals, if the court gave permission. He added: 'However, when trying non-foreign cases by the People's Court of Justice, no foreigners will be allowed to be present.'

The US State Department said it was pressing China to admit foreigners to the trial of Bao Tong, the highest-ranking official arrested in connection with the 1989 pro-democracy protests.