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Fri 13 May 2011 04:37 PM

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Amnesty Int'l says Arab situation 'on a knife edge'

Rights group says regional demands for freedom offers opportunity to improve human rights

Amnesty Int'l says Arab situation 'on a knife edge'
Protester generic

Demands for freedom and justice sweeping the Arab world, fuelled by the power of social media, have brought an unprecedented opportunity for an improvement in human rights, Amnesty International said on Friday.

But the situation is on a knife edge, with repressive governments fighting to regain control, the rights group said in an annual report on the state of the world's human rights.

"People are rejecting fear. Courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face of bullets, beatings, tear gas and tanks," said Salil Shetty, the group's secretary general.

"Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power," he said in a statement. "But there is a serious fightback from the forces of repression."

Which side wins depended on how governments behave but also on how the wider world supported the movement, Shetty told Reuters in an interview. "It could go either way in some of the countries. Libya is hanging in the balance, Syria is."

Uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East this year have driven Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.

NATO has intervened in Libya after a revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries have been swept by protests.

Shetty criticised rich countries that did not respect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. "We have thousands of refugees coming out of North Africa and the Middle East who are not being given their rights in Europe," he told Reuters.

Amnesty's report highlighted the role of the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in helping activists to get around government suppression of free speech.

A battle for control of access to information and communications channels was under way as governments struggled to control social media networks, it said.

Repressive governments such as those of Azerbaijan, China and Iran were trying to pre-empt any similar revolutions in their countries, the report said.

Amnesty International said companies that provide Internet access, mobile phone communications and social networking sites must respect human rights and not become the pawns of repressive governments that wanted to spy on their people.

British mobile phone operator Vodafone shut down its networks in Egypt on the orders of Mubarak's officials during the protests there in February, but Google worked to find ways around Egypt's Internet shutdown.

Amnesty drew a link between the protests in the Arab world and the release by internet site WikiLeaks of thousands of secret US diplomatic documents.

Support for Tunisia's revolution from outside the country may have been strengthened by WikiLeaks documents showing other countries were aware of political repression in Tunisia but were doing little to urge change, it said.

Amnesty's report highlighted spiralling violence in Nigeria, and an escalating crisis involving Maoist armed insurgencies in central and northeast India.

It said there was a worsening legal situation for women who chose to wear a full face veil in Europe.