NEW YORK — Human rights defenders from Russia to Sri Lanka were themselves targets of vicious abuses in 2009, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in its annual world report.

HRW's executive director, Kenneth Roth, introduced the 624-page report by saying abuses against defenders of human rights represented a backlash by governments feeling the pressure.

"Attacks on rights defenders might be seen as a perverse tribute to the human rights movement, but that doesn?t mitigate the danger," Roth said. "Under various pretexts, abusive governments are attacking the very foundations of the human rights movement."

The report highlights the daylight kidnapping and murder of Natalia Estemirova, who investigated abductions, torture and illegal executions in Chechnya -- most of them by Russian and Russian-installed Chechen forces.

Her murder came after a prominent human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was shot dead in central Moscow, and was followed by the murder of two charity workers in Chechnya and the gunning down of an opposition and civic activist in neighboring Ingushetia.

Other countries where human rights monitors were murdered included Afghanistan, Burundi, Kenya and Sri Lanka, HRW said.

Authoritarian countries such as Mynamar and China also saw repression, while Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan were so abusive that "no domestic human rights movement can function," HRW said in a statement launching the report.

In addition to violent attacks, countries including China and Iran used the disbarment of lawyers, faked criminal charges, or -- as in Russia and Azerbaijan -- libel laws to silence dissent, HRW said.

Sudan and China in particular regularly close human rights groups, while Iran and Uzbekistan "openly harass and arbitrarily detain" rights defenders.

Another government singled out is Israel where human rights defenders "have experienced a more hostile climate than ever before after documenting abuses committed by Israel, as well as Hamas."

HRW also criticized the United States, saying that despite President Barack Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and end torture, Washington is maintaining military commissions for some terrorist suspects.

That and "continuing to hold suspects indefinitely without charge or trial... (risk) perpetuating the spirit of Guantanamo," Roth said.

He called for prosecution of all "those who have ordered, facilitated, or carried out torture and other ill-treatment," he said.

Roth said the only hope for human rights defenders in dangerous countries is international support.

"Governments that support human rights need to speak out, to make respecting human rights the bedrock of their diplomacy -- and of their own practices," Roth said.

HRW also decried what it called a concerted attack on the International Criminal Court (ICC) following the issuing of a war crimes arrest warrant against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, whose forces are accused of atrocities in Darfur.

"Instead of applauding the ICC for taking action to redress the mass murder and forced displacement..., the African Union resolved in July not to cooperate in executing the arrest warrant," HRW said.

Human Rights Watch also highlighted:

-- China's "harsh crackdown" on ethnic violence in the Uighur-majority Xinjiang province.

-- Cuba, where the switch from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2006 "has had little effect on Cuba?s dismal human rights record. Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent."

-- The Democratic Republic of Congo where the government and rebel forces were responsible for a "dramatic increase in violence against civilians." The report said "at least 2,500 civilians were slaughtered, over 7,000 women and girls were raped, and more than one million people were forced to flee."

-- Iran's crackdown following the June 2009 presidential election where "ordinary protestors and prominent opposition figures faced detention without trial, harsh treatment including sexual violence and denial of due process."

-- Iraq where "conditions in Iraq remain extremely poor, especially for displaced persons, religious and ethnic minorities, and vulnerable groups such as women and girls, and men suspected of homosexual conduct."

-- Israel and Gaza where civilians were the targets of military assaults, particularly in the intense Israeli assault on Gaza a year ago.