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Abuse targeted at rights activists

A new report by a Paris-based human rights group says 200 activists

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On Oct. 28, a group of armed masked men burst into Digna Ochoa y Placido's Mexico City home and tied her up. They interrogated her for several hours, accusing her of ties to leftist guerrillas, and then turned the gas on before leaving her to die.

Mrs. Ochoa y Placido is a human rights lawyer. This time she was rescued. But her ordeal illustrates a disturbing worldwide trend, say human rights observers: Human rights activists are increasingly finding themselves the victims of abuse.

"Repression practiced against [rights] defenders ... seems to have increased in intensity," says a report published this week by the Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. "From summary execution to threats made to their children, the range of oppressive techniques seems endless."

More than 200 activists have been murdered, "disappeared," tortured, or detained this year, the report finds.

In one sense, this violence is a sign of success. "As human rights activists have gotten more effective at challenging government policies around the world, governments have retaliated," says Reed Brody, advocacy director for the New York based Human Rights Watch.

Today thousands of grass-roots associations all over the world are thorns in the side of authority, fighting slavery, forced disappearances, child labor, violations of minority and womens' rights, and a host of other injustices. Their members are priority targets for security forces working on the theory that removing the witness removes the crime.

Repressive governments, from the Soviet Union to South Africa always found such people troublesome and locked them up, if not worse. Now, says Patrick Baudouin of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, dramatic murders and abductions are only the tip of the iceberg.

"There is an increase in repression that is more and more organized and sophisticated, using a panoply of methods" to stifle human rights workers, he says. These range from death threats to their families, to being followed constantly, to being fired. At the same time, governments from Southeast Asia to Latin America use catch-all national security laws to silence criticism.

Activists say that the reasons why governments are picking on them - despite a United Nations declaration last year designed to protect them - differ from region to region.

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