Freedom's Report Card Mixed

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

If "freedom is on the march," as President Bush often says, it reversed course or at least took a break last year, according to the administration's favored arbiter of political rights and civil liberties.

The nonpartisan Freedom House released its annual list of "free," "partly free" and "not free" countries yesterday and described a "freedom stagnation" in which only three positive category changes occurred in 2006. Guyana ascended into the free category, and Haiti and Nepal became partly free.

Overall, it said, "the percentage of countries designated as Free has failed to increase for nearly a decade."

Iraq, which remained in the not-free group, garnered the worst possible rating of 6 (on a scale of 1 to 6) for both political rights and civil liberties.

In a speech on Iraqi democracy last spring, Bush called Freedom House "a tireless champion for liberty" and "a clear voice for the oppressed across the world." Expressing gratitude for its work, he said Freedom House was "making a significant contribution to the security of our country."

The White House has frequently used Freedom House assessments to buttress political points. Its September 2006 report, "9/11 Five Years Later: Successes and Challenges," noted that Freedom House's 2005 index had rated developments in the Middle East as "the region's best performance in the history of the survey."

The new report, however, said that "the Middle East/North Africa region saw little change over the past year." Syria, it noted, had received a boost in its civil liberty score "due to a small improvement in greater personal autonomy."

Modest declines were registered in U.S. allies Egypt and Bahrain, along with Iran, "for the curtailment of freedom of assembly."

Russia, China and some countries in Latin America and Central Asia remained sources of concern. Two countries -- Thailand and Republic of Congo -- moved from partly free to not free.

Of the 90 countries judged to be free in the 2006 index, the United States and almost all European countries retained their No. 1 ratings.

But Freedom House expressed concern about "several problems in a number of these established democracies."

The United States, it noted, "suffered from a series of political corruption cases and weakness in the enforcement of laws meant to ensure the rights of workers to form unions and collective bargaining."

The report also described "continued controversy over the counter-terrorism policies of the Bush administration," including detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and "various facilities in Europe, Asia and elsewhere." It worried over "the enactment of legislation that allows the government to employ what some believe are methods bordering on torture in the interrogation of terrorism suspects" and eavesdropping without warrants.

Positives noted in the report included that "gains made by the opposition Democratic Party in mid-term congressional elections somewhat allayed apprehensions over the level of competitiveness of the country's political process."

Democratic control over both houses of Congress, it said, "will likely bring enhanced legislative scrutiny to the administration's actions."

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