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?
Malinowski: Some people are tempted by power ... there are other people who are attracted to money. These are people who are addicted to power and they have no moral compunction with using ruthless means for power.
You've been in the room with oppressive leaders before, is the feeling you get sitting next to these people that much different than the people you're sitting next to right now -- do they bother you?
Malinowski: Yes it does bother me -- I think most Americans would feel uncomfortable sitting in a room with Jeffrey Dahmer. When American officials meet with people on the list ... I think [they] should be uncomfortable sitting in a room with someone who has killed his own people with his bare hands. Somehow [these oppressive leaders] have an aura of greater respectability than the common criminal.
What's it like to live under a repressive regime?
Malinowski: If you're living in one of the ethnic minority areas of Burma [Myanmar], you're dealing with military people coming to your village, burning your homes and raping your women. In some of the other places where you don't have violence day to day ... the common thread is that you are treated arbitrarily by people in positions on authority -- you can be harassed, discriminated against, you can be tortured, you can be killed often for no reason and there's nothing you can do about it.
How do people in these countries get by day to day -- is there anything at all that they can enjoy?
Malinowski: I think in every place in the world, even when there are terrible things going on, they still find a way to raise families, they still fall in love, they still pursue interests, but the effects of a truly oppressive government can be very pervasive in their lives.