NEW YORK (AP) - Libya made major strides toward establishing democracy and political rights last year, a pro-democracy watchdog group Freedom House said in a report to be released Wednesday. The findings counter a widespread impression of the country as anarchic following the deadly militia raid in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Freedom House's annual ranking of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world found worrying trends in many regions where it said the West was failing to promote and defend democracy.
"What we've learned over the years is that gains for freedom usually take place with the active participation of democracies like the United States and those in Europe. And where they have opted out of the struggle, the result is usually a defeat for freedom," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.
Libya and Egypt were two nations that Freedom House ranked as "partly free" by the end of 2012 due to successful elections, improving over "not free" the year before.
"Libya continues to suffer from a lack of clear government control over many parts of its territory, a problem that is compounded by the actions of autonomous local militias and radical Islamists. But in defiance of forecasts of chaos and failure, the country held successful elections for a General National Congress that included candidates from a range of regional and political backgrounds, while free expression and civic activity continued to grow," Freedom House's report said.
Libya's advance in the rankings came despite the militia assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The U.S. suspects al-Qaida-linked militants carried out the attack.
A State Department spokeswoman, Ariel Vaagenar, said the department had no comment on the Freedom House report prior to its release.
The killings in Benghazi became an issue in the U.S. presidential election, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney trying to portray the attack as a major bungle by President Barack Obama's administration. Conservatives argued it was an example of al-Qaida infiltration or radical Islamic influence spreading in Libya on Obama's watch.
Freedom House also boosted Egypt to "partly free" status but was alarmed about the precariousness of democracy there, noting that President Mohamed Morsi won an election generally viewed as fair only after several major candidates were disqualified. Morsi then in November "proclaimed his right to rule without judicial oversight as part of a bid to push through a new constitution, only to step back incrementally in the face of street protests."
The group also expressed alarm that "Russia took a decided turn for the worse after Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. Having already marginalized the formal political opposition, he pushed through a series of laws meant to squelch a burgeoning societal opposition," Freedom House said.
Their chief researcher, Arch Puddington, observed that "Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians. They are flexible; they distort and abuse the legal framework; they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda. But especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change."
While the number of countries ranked as Free for 2012 was 90, a gain of 3 over the previous year, 27 countries showed significant declines, compared with 16 that showed notable gains. This is the seventh consecutive year that Freedom in the World has shown more declines than gains worldwide.
Freedom House found improvement in Myanmar and a number of African countries, including Ivory Coast, Guinea, Lesotho, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.
Noteworthy declines were recorded for Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Freedom House is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. It was founded in 1941, with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and defeated Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie as its honorary chairpersons.
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