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Syria tops list of human rights violations in 2013, US report says

WASHINGTON — A chemical weapons attack in Syria last summer that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people was the world’s worst human rights violation of 2013, the Obama administration concluded Thursday.

The report by the State Department also foreshadowed the unrest in Ukraine that just toppled its government.

The survey singled out some countries that appear regularly in this annual roundup of abuses: Iran, for manipulation of elections and civil liberties restrictions; North Korea, for rampant reports of extrajudicial killings, detentions, and torture; and Belarus, for beatings of protesters and lack of checks and balances by the authoritarian government.

But the department it said the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs in Syria was “one of many horrors in a civil war filled with countless crimes against humanity,” including the torture and murder of prisoners, and the targeting of civilians with barrel bombs and Scud missiles.

“The tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people stands apart in its scope and human cost,” according to the report.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. The chemical weapons attack, which Washington blames on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, according to the U.S.

The U.S. cites intelligence reports for those totals, but has not provided specifics on how they were obtained.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, has reported a far lower death toll of below 1,000.

The report also highlighted government crackdowns on peaceful protests in Ukraine and Russia’s refusal to punish human rights abusers during 2013.

The unrest in Ukraine over the past year erupted this month, forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capital, Kiev. On Thursday, Russian news agencies reported Yanukovych was staying at a Kremlin sanatorium, outside Moscow, for protection.

In Ukraine, according to the U.S. report, parliamentary elections did not meet international standards for fairness or transparency, and security forces beat protesters with batons and other forms of force at a peaceful Nov. 30 demonstration against the government at Kiev’s main square.

But the report said the most egregious abuse in Ukraine last year was the government’s crackdown on media, including violence against journalists. It criticized Yanukovych’s government for increasing pressure on civil society activists and nongovernment organizations.

The report said Ukrainian security forces beat detainees, maintained unhealthy prisons, fostered corruption in the courts and across the government, and harassed or otherwise discriminated against ethnic minorities and gay people.

Secretary of State John Kerry described Ukraine as just one example of a nation where overbearing governments and corruption have met a sharp public backlash and demands for democracy. He said Venezuela, where anti-government protests this month have left 16 dead, is another.

“The struggle for rights and dignity couldn’t be more relevant to what we are seeing transpire across the globe,” Kerry told reporters. “The places where we face some of the greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence.”

He added: “We have seen how national dialogue and democratic progress can make countries more stable and make them stronger partners for peace and prosperity.”

In Egypt, where the government was overthrown for the second time in three years, the State Department criticized security forces for failing to respect assembly and religious rights, and for using excessive force.

The report concluded that neither former President Mohammed Morsi nor the interim government of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had done a good job in upholding human rights.

Assistant Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who oversaw the survey, cited “persistent concerns and deficits” about both. “These concerns certainly continue,” Zeya said.

Zeya also said the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement” in Iran since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely seen as a more moderate leader in the Islamic republic’s cleric-run government.

Kerry also criticized Iran, along with Russia, Nigeria, Uganda and as many as 80 nations worldwide where gay people face discriminatory laws and violence because of their sexual orientation.