Steve Chapman

Once upon a time, Americans had the idea that stock markets traveled on an escalator that went only one direction: up. Once upon a time, Americans also assumed that the rise of democracy and freedom was the worlds unstoppable destiny. The best thing you could say for the state of human rights in 2008 is that they didnt sink as far as the world economy.

When Beijing was awarded this years Summer Olympics, some of us imagined that the quadrennial pageant would induce China to liberalize. You might as well hope that Michael Phelps would give up swimming to become a shot putter. Among the governments actions leading up to the games, charged Human Rights Watch, were "massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom and increased political repression."

China won the battle for gold, capturing 51 first-place medals. It earned a less cherished honor when human rights activist Hu Jia, sentenced in April to 3 1/2 years for "incitment to subvert state power," was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.

The Soviet Union, which made Andrei Sakharov famous as a political dissident, is no more, but Vladimir Putin keeps it alive in spirit. As required by the constitution, he stepped down as president at the end of his second term, but without ceding a sliver of power. Putin not only installed a protege as president, but became prime minister, an office that suddenly exhibited a power and importance that had gone unnoticed.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia had a presidential election of its own -- "the first election where no one was 100 percent sure whether they were going to win or not," as one Georgian analyst marveled. The winner, Mikheil Saakashvili, should have had no such uncertainty about the outcome of the August war with Russia that he rashly helped to provoke.

Pakistans president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, also had no cause for surprise when his party was trounced in elections held less than two months after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Facing impeachment, the longtime military ruler resigned in August.

In Afghanistan, a student convicted of blasphemy had his death sentence overturned, only to get 20 years in prison for circulating an article about the treatment of women under Islam. Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence, said Afghan President Hamid Karzais government controls less than a third of its territory.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate