- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell left last night on a three-day, five-country trip to Europe and North Africa. He faces diplomatic challenges as diverse as the future of former Soviet Georgia and democratization and human rights in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

The visit to the three North African nations, whose populations are almost entirely Muslim, is seen as the most important part of Mr. Powell’s mission, coming less than a month after President Bush’s high-profile speech on democracy in the Arab world.

Diplomats and analysts are expected to look for an indication of the Bush administration’s seriousness about bringing democracy to the region.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday that Mr. Powell will “encourage” political and economic reforms that are already “under way” in the countries.

A senior department official later said the secretary will make it clear that the United States wants to “get involved” in bringing democracy and openness to those nations.

Mr. Boucher also said that Mr. Powell will call for “specific action on human rights” — adding notably, “where appropriate.”

Human rights groups have accused Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia of hiding behind the war against terrorism to engage in human rights abuses.

“In Morocco, a crackdown under new antiterror legislation that intensified after the May 17 attacks in Casablanca is eroding the substantial advances made on human rights over the last decade,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Mr. Powell.

“Years after the practice of ‘disappearances’ was halted and the incidence of torture dropped, there are again reports of suspicious deaths in detention and persons who remain unaccounted for months after their arrest,” the group said.

The group also said that, while recent progress make Tunisia “one of the most viable candidates for democracy in the Arab world,” President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with whom Mr. Powell meets today, “tolerates virtually no dissent, secular or Islamist, from the media, political parties, and human rights defenders.”

Before heading to North Africa, the secretary will participate in the annual meeting of the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is taking place in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

One of the most urgent matters is expected to be the turmoil in Georgia, the former Soviet republic whose president, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned under immense pressure last month.

The senior State Department official said Mr. Powell might have the opportunity to meet with Nino Burjanadze, the interim president, in Maastricht.

At the end of his trip on Thursday, the secretary will take part in a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

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