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State Department: Last year was among worst for human rights

WASHINGTON — With a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, violent crackdowns against protesters in Turkey and Ukraine and a string of anti-gay laws from Russia to Uganda, human rights abuses last year ranked among the worst in years, the State Department concluded Thursday in its annual review of more than 200 countries and territories.

“The year 2013 may well be known for some of the most egregious atrocities in recent memory,” Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, said during a briefing Thursday.

In addition to highlighting violence in Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who also attended the briefing, pointed to democratic back-sliding in several nations that threw off dictatorships during the “Arab Spring,” including Egypt.

In Egypt, where the military ousted democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in July, the report cites “the removal of an elected civilian government” and “excessive use of force by security forces” among the most pressing human rights transgressions. The report also faulted the military for cracking down on journalists through arrests and legal intimidation.

Adotei Akwei, managing director for government relations at Amnesty International USA, warned in an interview that similar problems were playing out in other nations that witnessed democratic revolts in the spring of 2011.

“Civil society has been weakened, the media is under attack, and even the progressive elements of the spring uprisings are being kind of pushed to the sides by this return to law and order,” Akwei said.

Ukraine, he warned, might fall into the same pattern if the recent democratic uprising there leaves a vacuum of uncertainty and instability.

At Thursday’s briefing, Kerry praised the “power of the people” in Ukraine for seeking reform and securing the establishment of a new government, despite facing a police crackdown.

Among the most significant trends in the report, Kerry pointed to the “rising violence and discrimination” against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. About 80 countries have discriminatory laws targeting these groups, the secretary said.

“They are an affront to every reasonable conscience,” he said.

The report cited human rights abuses in Russia and China, two world powers with often-tense relations with the U.S. The report mentioned Chinese crackdowns on anti-corruption protesters and censorship of the Internet. It called out Russia for squashing criticism of the government from watchdogs and the media, in addition to targeting religious minorities and other marginalized groups.

Akwei said the United States should speak out more aggressively when its own allies commit human rights violations.

“What we would like to see is the same kinds of rigor being applied to more traditional U.S. allies where they are reluctant to ruffle the feathers,” Akwei said, citing Mexico, Bahrain and Rwanda as examples.

The report gives Iran a tough evaluation. Zeya said the State Department had “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights” under the new president, Hassan Rouhani. The report cited allegations of torture, political suppression and an increase in executions without due process.

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