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Communications revolution is key factor in stemming human rights abuses, report says

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Participation in the human rights movement grew throughout the world over the past decade, mainly because the Internet made it easier to spread the word about violations, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

"In almost every country, including the most repressive countries, there are active indigenous human rights organizations at work," William Schulz, the organization's executive director, said as the group issued its annual report on human rights trends. "It used to be that amnesty existed in other international organizations but not every country had its own human rights movement."The Internet has been a major factor in raising awareness because it has allowed information to flow freely in and out of countries with censor-heavy governments.

"So when a prisoner of conscience in China is arrested because he tries to form a democratic party there or issues a statement about democracy, the Chinese government can't cover that up," Schulz said. "That information is immediately available to human rights groups here in the United States and around the world."

As a result, advocates have been successful in helping reduce the number of nations that carry out government executions or jail political and religious prisoners.

Amnesty International's report said the percentage of countries that conducted state executions dropped from 21 percent to 19 percent between 1988 and 1998. Nations that incarcerated "prisoners of conscience" dropped from 44 percent to 41 percent during the same period.

"The world community is beginning to take greater responsibility for human rights," Schulz said. "And where countries can't get away with doing something privately, they tend to shy away from committing the crimes, the human rights violations, altogether."

However, the same awareness has driven many cases of torture, disappearances and political assassinations underground. In the same 10-year span, reports of torture or ill treatment in nations monitored by Amnesty International jumped from 55 percent to 66 percent. Countries where torture-related deaths were reported increased from 22 percent to 27 percent, and documented disappearances more than doubled from 9 percent to 20 percent.

"Because there are no structures of accountability, such as an international criminal court, leaders of the world and military officials and police officials believe they can get away with anything as long as they can cover it up and keep it quiet," Schulz said.

As an example, the report says the atrocities committed against Kosovo Albanians over the past several months might have been prevented had global authorities taken into custody former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic. Both men were indicted by a U.N. tribunal for Bosnian war crimes, but they remain at large.

Also in this year's report, Amnesty International singled out the United States for its continued use of the death penalty, particularly against individuals who committed their crimes before they were 18.

Schulz acknowledged that recent school shootings have made it difficult to drum up support for easing penalties for juvenile offenders, but he said enforcing the death penalty has not proven to be a deterrent to criminal youths.