There are some leaders whose names have become nearly synonymous with tyranny: Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosovic, just to name three. Yet there are other leaders not as well known who are just as oppressive, if not more, than these notorious leaders.
ABCNEWS.com, in partnership with Human Rights Watch, has composed a list of five of the world's least known, most oppressive heads of state, highlighting their most horrific actions:
Myanmar — Than Shwe
Shwe is overseeing a large-scale ethnic cleansing of minority groups living in his country's border areas. Several hundred thousand people have been sent from their homes -- quite a few have been murdered and raped. More than 1,500 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sui Kyi, have been taken and are often subject to torture.
Equatorial Guinea — Obiang Nguema
Nguema came to power 25 years ago by killing his own father. This happened after he became known as the country's "torturer-in-chief." Equatorial Guinea is a very small African country, but has a lot of oil. Its per capita income puts it near Greece and Portugal in terms of wealth, yet most people live on a dollar a day. Nguema's government, Human Rights Watch says, is stealing most of the money.
Turkmenistan — Saparmurat Niyazov
Niyazov, perhaps the most eccentric leader on the list, engages in what is known as a "cult of personality" -- making his likeness larger than life in every aspect of his country's life. The education system of Turkmenistan is dedicated first and foremost to advocating Niyazov's writing and ideology in the minds of the school children. They are forced to read his "Book of Soul" as if it were a religious text.
Niyazov renamed the months of the year after his relatives and banned opera and ballet because he considered them foreign. But beyond the eccentricity of those kinds of decrees, he has also committed what human rights say are atrocities against his people, such as his order to close down hospitals in every part of the country apart from the capital.
Uzbekistan — Islam Karimov
Uzbekistan used to be an ally of the United States until the country ordered all U.S. military off its soil last year after the White House criticized Karimov's human rights record. Just last spring, the Uzbek milatry mowed down several hundred unarmed protestors with machine guns in the city of Andajan -- a Tianamen Square-style massacre that has received little international attention. Since then Karimov's government has launched a massive crackdown against dissenters, staging show trials showcasing confessions that appear to have been forced, just to remind people who's in charge.
Zimbabwe — Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe stole an election and during his reign, he has brought Zimbabwe -- a once prosperous country -- to its knees. His food reform program has been accused of using food as a weapon -- sending food aid to people who are loyal to him and denying it to people who are not. Zimbabwe under Mugabe is reported to be the closest thing in the world to a country being destroyed by one man.
In compiling this list, ABC News interviewed Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. His organization monitors human rights violations throughout the world in an effort to gain more attention for actions of these and many other oppressive regimes to try induce change. Here is a transcript of part of our discussion:
Why are these leaders so oppressive?