* Internet seen as new rights battleground
* New restrictions on civil liberties groups increasing
* Vulnerable groups, including women, remain targets (Adds details, quotes, background)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) - China and Iran have stepped up their abuses of human rights, targeting both anti-government activists and the free flow of information over the Internet, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday.
In its annual survey of human rights in 194 countries, the State Department also criticized Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea and Russia, which it faulted for killings of activists and journalists.
While it noted the end of Sri Lanka’s 33-year civil war in May, the report found that both the government and the defeated rebel Tamil Tigers had used excessive force and committed abuses against civilians last year.
The report identified several general trends: government efforts to silence dissent, including by constraining Internet communications; new and often “draconian” restrictions on civil society groups; and the persecution of vulnerable groups, such as minorities, women, children and the disabled. [ID:nN11229929])
China, long the target of U.S. criticism for violating human rights, was accused of broadening its efforts to suppress information on the Internet.
“China increased its efforts to monitor Internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic Web sites, encourage self-censorship, and punish those who violated regulations,” it said, adding the government employed thousands to monitor electronic communications.
It said the government tightly controlled Internet news, particularly around sensitive events such as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, and automatically censored email based on a changing list of sensitive words.
China’s Internet policies have thrust Beijing into a dispute with search engine giant Google (GOOG.O), which has said it may shut down its Chinese Google.cn portal and withdraw from the Chinese market out of concerns over censorship and a hacking attack from within the country.
The report also highlighted Internet censorship in Iran, which accompanied the violent suppression of mass protests after the announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected.
“The government’s poor human rights record degenerated during the year, particularly after the disputed June presidential elections,” it said, adding the authorities had undercut Iranians’ right to change their government through a free and fair election.
The report said Iran disrupted electronic communications, blocking access to social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and it noted that bandwidth had at times dropped, which may have been designed to restrict Internet access.
The United States, which severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, suspects Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.
President Barack Obama’s administration has sought new engagement with Tehran, thus far with little to show for it.
The report noted that Iranian police and Basij religious volunteer militia violently suppressed demonstrations after the election, with clashes leading to the deaths of 37, according to official figures, and as many as 70, according to opposition groups.
By August, the government had detained at least 4,000 people, it said, and during the Dec. 27 protests on Ashura, the ritual Shi‘ite day of morning, the authorities detained 1,000 people and at least eight people were killed in street clashes.
The report found that Russia, another perennial target of U.S. criticism in the survey, had weakened freedom of expression and media independence “by directing the editorial policies of government-owned media outlets, pressuring major independent outlets to abstain from critical coverage, and harassing and intimidating some journalists.”
It said unknown people killed human rights activists and eight journalists, including Natalia Estemirova, who spent more than 10 years documenting killings, torture, and disappearances that she linked to Chechen authorities. Estemirova was kidnapped and shot in July. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)