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February 8, 2000

Human Rights and Amnesty International

by Carl Ballard Swanson

On May 28, 1961 London lawyer Peter Benenson read about a group of students in Portugal who were arrested and jailed for raising a toast to "freedom" in a public restaurant. This incident prompted him to launch a one-year campaign called "Appeal for Amnesty 1961" in the London Observer, a local newspaper. The "Appeal for Amnesty" called for the release of all people imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, color, or national origin. Benenson called these people, "prisoners of conscience." His plan was to encourage people to write letters to government officials in countries which had prisoners of conscience, calling for their release.

On every third Thursday of the month that simple and effective process is echoed in Mobile, Alabama. Amnesty International (AI) regional group 513 was formed in March 1999, and has been quietly and diligently working for human rights. About 15 committed activists from different backgrounds, skills and interests are joining regularly to carry out human rights campaigning to appeal on behalf of the victims of human rights violations, to encourage others in the community also to send appeals, and to raise money and long-term support. In December 1998, the group met for the first time, establishing a coordinating structure for an AI group in Mobile. An AI-delegate from Atlanta gave training lessons and information, and provided help on how to work effectively. Only one month later the group was accredited in the movement. In the meantime the Mobile group has taken up a broad range of issues. And there is a lot more to do... The meetings multiply the efforts of individual members and also inform and educate. The members share their knowledge with one another, and the human rights struggle is given new dimension; each prisoner or "case" becomes a person, who could be a brother or a sister.

I have been committed and interested in Amnesty International since 1988. In a 1988 U. S. Navy deployment to South America (Unitas 29), I was fortunate to be in Chile during and after a referendum on General Pinochet's continued rule. I was affected by the nonviolent grassroots and successful opposition to Pinochet. The health of Chilean democracy stood in sharp contrast to the apparent shortsighted neutrality and vague support given to Pinochet by U.S. authorities. The day after the referendum, we witnessed a crackdown on students peacefully celebrating the elections. We were spared being directly tear-gassed and water-hosed only by our American appearance, and we quickly retreated from any crowd. Once we were safe, I considered the so- called "father" Pinochet, the response of my Senior Officers, and an empathy and respect for Chilean people taking responsibility in accordance with ideals I had sworn to support for my own country. I can't relate the complexity of the feelings of my peers and myself, but the fact that I was not alone in those feelings gave me great hope.

Imagine what places like Kosovo or East Timor would degrade to without the efforts of Amnesty International and concerned neighbors. You only have to look as far as our own neighborhoods to realize the value of caring and empowered citizens. The work that local Amnesty International members do is not complex or difficult or even "political"; it is just being a good neighbor and knowing what is right and simply doing it.

It is very satisfying to be part of the successful actions. Locally, one of our group's success stories was a candlelight vigil for Mirtha Ira Bueno Hidalgo. Mirtha was a law student. Twelve years ago she was arrested and accused of being a terrorist and distributing leaflets in a poor neighborhood. At one point the charges were dismissed and she was freed. Then after new and more extreme laws were enacted, Mirtha was arrested again when she tried to vote in an election. When she was arrested the second time, she was a secondary school teacher, and now years later she is still in a Peruvian prison. Helping Mirtha to become an aspiring professional again and cleared of all charges is the special focus of our group. The group held a vigil for Mirtha in Cathedral Square with excellent press coverage. We are still writing appeals and petitions to government authorities for the release of Mirtha. Congressman Sonny Callahan sent a reply, telling us that he would give us every possible assistance and that he has been in touch with officials at the Department of State to request they give our political prisoner from Peru their utmost attention and consideration. In the process of supporting people like Mirtha, Amnesty members help develop community awareness about human rights issues. Getting involved, even writing a letter helps us all by confronting cynicism and restoring hope.

In 1977 Amnesty International was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize for supporting the Universal Declaration of human rights. The Nobel Committee said "Through its activity for the defense of human worth against degrading treatment, violence and torture, Amnesty International has contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world." The basis of Amnesty's work is Universal human rights which most countries have recognized through the United Nations. You don't have to be a lawyer or know a foreign language to be part of Amnesty International. If you have thirty minutes and sixty cents postage you can do some of the most important work Amnesty does by writing a letter.

If you are available to get more involved, you can help by organizing the specifics of a "case" and presenting that to the group. The volunteer work provides excellent experience and builds an indispensable set of skills and knowledge. It also builds a tradition, a habit of service and credibility that the larger community of Mobile and Alabama can be proud of. The main focus of Amnesty is to free all nonviolent prisoners of conscience, ensure prompt and fair trials for all political prisoners, abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment and to end extrajudicial executions.

Amnesty International members have no doubt about the effectiveness of their work for human rights. The reward for members goes beyond the education and sharing with the group. The first time you hear a quote from a freed prisoner and it gives you goose bumps, you will understand why the organization is so successful. There is a need for Amnesty International demonstrated in quotations like that of an attorney general of a small Asian country. In a meeting with an AI representative, the attorney general said, "I have a message for Amnesty International: please keep sending letters. The only thing I can rely on to help me convince the cabinet to spend money on our prisons is the pressure from Amnesty International."

Get involved! Give your input. Got questions?

Our website is at http://www.zebra.net/~aiusa513/.

Amnesty International Group 513 meets every third Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome at the meetings even if you are not currently a member of AI. The location for the meetings is at 6345 W. Old Shell Road.. in Mobile near the University of South Alabama campus at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall. If you need directions/ encouragement /reminders or just want to talk, please email me at banzai9@zebra.net or call Carl at 767-4224 or Petra at 666-5588.


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