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Human Rights Watch: Global pushback against autocrats grows

BERLIN (AP) — The world is seeing growing resistance against the abuses of autocrats as states, civic groups and popular movements all push back against populists who are seeking to curtail freedoms, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

In its annual assessment of rights around the world, the advocacy group said rising opposition to authoritarian governments has been the most important development in the past year. "The same populists who spread hatred and intolerance are fueling a resistance that keeps winning battles," agency director Kenneth Roth said. "Important battles are being won, re-energizing the global defense of human rights."

The report, released in Berlin, said the pushback can be seen in efforts to resist attacks on democracy in Europe, to prevent a bloodbath in Syria or to stop the Saudi-led bombing and blockade of Yemeni civilians.

In Europe, support for rights took many forms, on the streets and in institutions, the report said. Large crowds protested Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's increasingly authoritarian rule and his limits on academic freedom. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Poland to protest the government's attempts to erode the independence of the judiciary. On the government level, Germany, Denmark and Finland stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.

In the United States, the opposition Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm election, with voters rejecting what it called "fear-mongering" by President Donald Trump, "who sought to mobilize his support base by trying to portray asylum-seekers fleeing Central American violence as a crisis."

Voters in Malaysia and the Maldives ousted their corrupt prime ministers, Armenia's prime minister stepped down amid massive protests over corruption, and Ethiopia, under popular pressure, replaced a long-abusive government with a prime minister who embarked on an impressive reform agenda.

"If you're an autocrat, it's very convenient to violate human rights — it's the way you stay in power, it's the way you fill up your bank account, it's the way you pay off your cronies," Roth told The Associated Press.

But, he added, "the role of the human rights movement is to raise the cost of these human rights violations — that's not something that's done overnight ... but we know that if you do raise the cost of abuse, ultimately, governments realize it is not paying and they start to curb these abuses."

Still, there have been setbacks on the human rights front. China increased its repression over the last year to the worst level in decades. Roth expressed concern that President Xi Jinping ended term limits on his presidency and Chinese officials vastly expanded the country's surveillance of ordinary people.

"This year it became clear that he is detaining 1 million Uighur Muslims for so-called re-education, which basically means forcing them to renounce Islam and to renounce their ethnicity," Roth said. Roth said if any other country was doing this "it would be an outrage, but China, because of its economic clout, has been getting away with it."

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