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Mideast political freedom on the decline: report

Iraq only country to move up the freedom scale

Political freedoms declined around the world for a third straight year in 2008, with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) reversing years of modest gain according to an annual survey of political rights and civil liberties by a U.S. rights organization.

The survey by Freedom House found Iraq was the only country in the region to register even a small gain in political freedom.

Only Israel was defined as “free” although the report noted that since the Jewish state is an occupying force in the Palestinian territories it is therefore responsible for its “not free” status.

The survey assigned each country a freedom status — Free, Partly Free or Not Free -- based on a scoring of performance in key freedom indicators such as political rights, civil liberties and free press.

The New-York based non-profit examined the state of freedom in 193 countries and 16 strategic territories starting from the assumption that “freedom for all peoples is best achieved in liberal democratic societies.”

Freedom House pegged the global downturn to the period following the "color revolutions" that swept through Europe and appeared to cause a backlash.

"Powerful regimes worldwide have reacted to the 'color revolutions' with calculated and forceful measures designed to suppress democratic reformers, international assistance to those reformers and ultimately the very idea of democracy itself," said Arch Puddington, director of research for Freedom House.

Powerful regimes worldwide have reacted to the 'color revolutions' with calculated and forceful measures designed to suppress democratic reformers, international assistance to those reformers and ultimately the very idea of democracy itself

Arch Puddington, Freedom House

Setback in the Mideast

The annual survey found that Middle Eastern countries have battled a rise in terrorism and religious extremism, the consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the continuing strife between Israel and the Palestinians that flared up in December with the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

The advance of freedom in Iraq during the past year was a bright spot in a region generally marred by stagnation and setback.

Despite years of turmoil following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq moved up the freedom scale due to a decrease in violence and greater political participation by minorities.

Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and the Palestinian territories faced setbacks, according to the report, with Libya and Sudan ranking among the “Worst of the Worst.”

It noted several factors responsible for the decline in freedom including restrictions on freedom of expression, the closing of media outlets, persecution of political opponents and nullification of candidacies for political office.

During the past eight years the Gulf Arab countries had experienced some improvements on the freedom scale according to previous surveys, but progress fell off in 2008 as gains in freedoms stagnated, the report said.

Western democracies rank highest

The countries of Western Europe and North America scored the highest on the Freedom in the World scale.

The report mentioned the American election of Barack Obama as the first black president marked a historic change in a country with a legacy with racial inequality, but did not indicate how this impacted the freedom score.

And the report failed to take into account the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison where several hundred people have been held for years without being formally charged with any crime, and which has been condemned by several human rights organizations.