1. Kim Jong-il
Country: North Korea
In Power Since 1994
Last Year’s Rank: 2
Kim Jong-il runs the most isolated, repressive regime in the world. His citizens have no access to information other than government propaganda. His harsh system includes collective punishment (three generations of a family can be punished for one member’s alleged crime); detainment of roughly 200,000 citizens in labor camps; and the capture, torture and jailing of those who try to flee to China.
U.S. LINK: Last year, Kim’s government carried out its pledge to the U.S. and other nations to shut down its nuclear reactors. However, it missed December’s deadline to disclose its full nuclear inventory.
2. Omar Al-Bashir
In Power Since 1989
Last Year’s Rank: 1
Under Bashir’s rule, the Darfur region of Sudan continues to be the site of a violent power struggle among government forces and allied militia, rebels and bandits. In 2007, Bashir ordered aerial bombing raids that killed dozens of civilians. While Bashir did appoint an official to investigate the human-rights situation in Darfur, the appointee himself has been suspected of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
U.S. LINK: The U.S. government has harshly criticized the abuses in Sudan. The Clinton Administration issued trade sanctions in 1997, but it exempted gum arabic, which is used in products ranging from soft drinks and candy to shoe polish and stamps. The U.S. still imports more than 4000 tons of the substance from Sudan annually.
3. Than Shwe
Country: Burma (Myanmar)
In Power Since 1992
Last Year’s Rank: 6
In August and September, Buddhist monks led pro-democracy demonstrations against 45 years of military rule. Than Shwe ordered troops to fire at the crowds: They killed dozens of protestors, and his forces detained several thousand more. Burma’s symbol of democracy, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest.
U.S. LINK: President Bush ended imports from Burma in 2003, but the U.S. sells the country more than $7 million in exports each year. After the fall crackdowns, Bush accused Than Shwe of “vicious persecution.”
4. King Abdullah
Country: Saudi Arabia
In Power Since 1995
Last Year’s Rank: 5
Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia adheres to a punitive justice system in which young teens can be sentenced to death and defendants tortured. Women are more oppressed than in any other country—they can’t even seek medical care without a male guardian’s permission.
U.S. LINK: Every President since the 1940s has sought good relations with petroleum-rich Saudi Arabia. American companies have sold its government more than $15 billion in arms in the last decade. Last year, U.S. oil imports totaled more than $30 billion. King Abdullah promised to crack down on extremists after we learned that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. Yet researchers at West Point say that the largest number of al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq still come from Saudi Arabia.
5. Hu Jintao
In Power Since 2002
Last Year’s Rank: 4
Last year, Hu came down harder on human-rights activists and increased censorship. Hu’s government also forces abortions, controls all media and harshly limits the practice of religion. There’s little criminal justice to be found in China—99% of all trials result in a guilty verdict.
U.S. LINK: China is a close economic ally and our second leading trade partner (behind Canada). Our country’s trade deficit with China stands at almost $1 billion a day, and the U.S. government owes Chinese lenders $388 billion. At the same time, a 2007 report to Congress said that Chinese espionage activities in the United States “comprise the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies.”
6. Robert Mugabe
In Power Since 1980
Last Year’s Rank: 7
Zimbabwe’s economy went from bad to worse last year. Inflation exploded to more than 8000%, unemployment reached 80%, and food supplies continued to dwindle. One-quarter of the country’s population has fled. Nevertheless, Mugabe is running for a sixth term. The opposition is trying to unite, but police arrested and beat 50 opposition leaders last March.
U.S. LINK: American politicians from both parties have condemned Mugabe’s many abuses, and Bush called Zimbabwe’s policies “an assault on its people” in a September speech to the United Nations. However, U.S. trade with Zimbabwe has increased in each of the last four years, led by our imports of the metals ferrochromium and nickel (both used to make stainless steel).
7. Sayyid Ali Khamenei
In Power Since 1989
Last Year’s Rank: 3
While a recent intelligence report concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program, the Ayatollah Khamenei and his council have adopted increasingly repressive measures. Last year, officials carried out public hangings, stoned a man to death for adultery, shut down music studios and cafés, and persecuted dissidents.
U.S. LINK: The U.S. seemed on the verge of attacking Iran last year, and Bush recently called it “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” Still, trade has increased, and U.S. exports to Iran rose from $8 million a year in 2001 to over $125 million a year in 2007.
8. Pervez Musharraf
In Power Since 1999
Last Year’s Rank: 15
In recent months, Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s constitution, shut down the courts, arrested several thousand dissidents and passed a law removing challenges to his continuation as president. He allowed former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan but barred Sharif from running in elections. Bhutto was assassinated—an act that some observers tie to Musharraf’s government.
U.S. LINK: The U.S. considers Pakistan a valuable economic and political ally. Americans bought almost $3 billion worth of Pakistani cotton clothing and fabrics in 2007. Even after Musharraf suspended the constitution, Bush said Musharraf had “advanced democracy in Pakistan.” The U.S. has given him more than $7 billion in military aid in the last six years, which critics say has largely been spent on arms to fight India, not terrorists.
9. Islam Karimov
In Power Since 1989
Last Year’s Rank: 8
The Uzbek constitution imposes a two-term limit, but Karimov was elected to a third term in December. His government engages in routine torture of citizens and has subjected dissenters to forced psychiatric treatment.
U.S. LINK: The U.S. showed little interest in Uzbekistan until 9/11, when its 85-mile border with Afghanistan made it an appealing ally. Karimov allowed U.S. forces to use an Uzbek air base but kicked the Americans out after Bush criticized Karimov for ordering the massacre of hundreds of people. Nonetheless, U.S. imports have doubled since 2002 because Uzbekistan has a rich supply of uranium, which is needed for our power plants and weapons.
10. Isayas Afewerki
In Power Since 1991
Last Year’s Rank: 13
Afewerki’s ban on privately owned media makes Eritrea one of the world’s worst abusers of press freedom. During his rule, Afewerki has never allowed national elections or the implementation of a constitution.
U.S. LINK: The U.S. has provided aid and food to Eritrea, but Afewerki ordered American aid workers out in 2005. The U.S. still conducts trade with Eritrea, but it’s largely limited to our country’s export of sorghum.