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The World's Worst Dictators

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Since 2003 I have been writing an annual article for Parade magazine, ranking the 10 worst dictators currently in power. Now I have expanded the list and written a book on the subject, Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators. In honor of the publication of Tyrants, I present my choices of the worst dictators, in order.

1. Omar al-Bashir--Sudan

Bashir is the only dictator currently in power who is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. While the media occasionally cover the massacres in Darfur in western Sudan, they usually do so in the context of it being a "humanitarian tragedy," while Bashir himself has remained little known and has generally escaped condemnation.

2. Kim Jong-il--North Korea
Kim Jong-il is often portrayed as crazy or as a clown. In reality, although he is certainly eccentric, he is a clever politician who carefully follows world affairs and chooses his tactics accordingly. Most of the coverage given Kim Jong-il in the mainstream media deals with his nuclear ambitions and his threats to build weapons of mass destruction. But domestically he runs the most tightly controlled society in the world.

3. Than Shwe--Burma
Than Shwe heads a military dictatorship that has been in power since 1962. His regime stands out from those of other dictatorships for its use of forced labor in support of both infrastructure projects and for military actions that the Burmese government is taking against a variety of ethnic minorities.

4. Robert Mugabe--Zimbabwe
After leading a successful anticolonial war of liberation, Mugabe was elected the first president of independent Zimbabwe. It was hoped that, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe would guide Africa to a new era of democracy. But with each year that has passed, he has turned increasingly dictatorial, and he has run his country into the ground. Since 1988, life expectancy in Zimbabwe has plunged from sixty-two years to thirty-eight.

5. Islam Karimov--Uzbekistan
Karimov's name is synonymous with torture, and there is strong evidence that the United States outsourced the interrogation of terror suspects to Uzbekistan to take advantage of his relaxed moral standards. In 2005, Karimov's excesses came out of the closet when he ordered the massacre of hundreds of his citizens.

6. Hu Jintao--China

The United States and other democratic nations do so much business with China that there is a tendency to turn a blind eye toward the Communist Party's abysmal human rights record. The Chinese Communist Party's strategy of liberalizing its national economy while harshly rejecting democracy has become the model for modern dictatorships.

7. King Abdullah--Saudi Arabia
By law, all Saudi citizens must be Muslims. It is illegal for Saudis to follow a different religion. If Saudi Arabia did not control so much oil, King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family would be treated just as much as pariahs as are Than Shwe and the Burmese generals.

8. Saparmurat Niyazov--Turkmenistan
Niyazov has created the world's most pervasive personality cult, and criticism of any of his policies is considered treason. Among the most bizarre recent examples of his government by whim are his banning of car radios, lip-synching, and the playing of recorded music on TV and at weddings. In 2005, Niyazov also closed all national parks and shut down rural libraries. He has also renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother.

9. Seyed Ali Khamenei--Iran

For all the media attention given to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he really wields little power. For example, even with the support of the Iranian legislature, he cannot make law, and he is not the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces or in control of Iran's nuclear program. Above the elected government in Iran is an unelected 12-man Guardian Council of mullahs, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

10. Teodoro Obiang Nguema--Equatorial Guinea
The tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea was catapulted onto the international scene when major reserves of oil were discovered in 1995. Since then, U.S. oil companies have poured $5 billion into the country. The majority of Equatoguineans live on less than $1 a day because the bulk of the oil income goes directly to Obiang, who managed to transfer $700 million into personal accounts in U.S. banks. In the words of former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea John Bennett, Obiang's regime "is not really a government," but rather "an ongoing family criminal conspiracy."

11. Muammar al-Gaddafi--Libya
In recent years, Qaddafi has made his peace with the West in exchange for access to his large oil reserves. However, it should not be forgotten that domestically Qaddafi still runs a brutal dictatorship in which he maintains complete control over all aspects of Libyan life. Libyans can even be arrested for "opposition."

12. King Mswati III--Swaziland
Africa's last remaining absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland, took power at the age of eighteen. Since then he has allowed his country to slide into extreme poverty, with 69% of the Swazi people living on less than $1 a day. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world: almost 40%.

13. Pervez Musharraf--Pakistan
Musharraf, supposedly an ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism, seized power in Pakistan in a military coup that overthrew an elected government. Musharraf agreed to step down as head of the military at the end of 2004, but then changed his mind, claiming that the nation needed to unify its political and military elements and that he could provide this unity. He justified his decision by stating, "I think the country is more important than democracy."

14. Aleksandr Lukashenko--Belarus
Lukashenko has the dubious distinction of being Europe's last remaining dictator. He was popularly elected in 1994 and immediately began consolidating his power and eliminating any shred of democracy or free speech. As he himself once said, "I look at our old people and the middle-aged generation who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and they can see that Lukashenko is a good chap."

15. Fidel Castro--Cuba
Castro's decades-long refusal to pass on the mantle of leadership has been his way of saying that two generations of Cubans have come and gone without a single person being worthy of leading the country...except his own brother

16. and 18. Isaias Afwerki--Eritrea and Meles Zenawi--Ethiopia
In 1991, Isaias and Meles teamed together to liberate their respective countries from the brutal Ethiopian dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Seven years later, Isaias and Meles subjected their own people to a bloody and useless border war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and served no purpose other than to distract their two citizenries from the terrible job the two dictators were doing in running Eritrea and Ethiopia.

17. Bashar al-Assad--Syria
Bashar al-Assad inherited the leadership of Syria from his father, Hafiz al-Assad, in 2000. Bashar is the balancing point among the various Syrian power forces, including the military, the intelligence service, the nation's ruling party, and the government bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the people of Syria are not free to express their political opinions, much less choose their leaders.

19. Paul Biya--Cameroon
Every few years, Biya stages an election to justify his continuing reign, but these elections have no credibility. In fact, Biya is credited with a creative innovation in the world of phony elections. In 2004, annoyed by the criticisms of international vote-monitoring groups, he paid for his own set of international observers, six ex-U.S. congressmen, who certified his election as free and fair.

20. Choummaly Sayasone--Laos
The remote Southeast Asian nation of Laos has been ruled since 1975 by the Communist Lao People's Democratic Party, a stultifyingly dull collective dictatorship. The latest number-one elder in Laos is General Choummaly Sayasone, who ascended to the top of the party hierarchy in March 2006.

In the book, I have also included a chapter about George W. Bush. Bush is not a dictator. If he was, Harriet Miers would be a Supreme Court justice and six of our major ports would be run by the royal family of Dubai. However, Bush does use many of the same tactics that real dictators use, committing the same human rights abuses that the U.S. State Department condemns when they occur in other countries, declaring himself not bound by laws passed by Congress, and using the old, classic dictator line, "Our nation is threatened by an evil outside force; only I can save the country and if you oppose me you are unpatriotic and support the enemy."