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Human rights champion marks 40 years



LONDON, England -- Amnesty International, one of the most influential non-governmental organisations in the world, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

The pressure group, which was once described by former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini as a "lackey of satanic powers," has dealt with the cases of 47,000 "prisoners of conscience."

It was formed in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson who got the idea a year earlier after seeing a newspaper report about two Portuguese students in Lisbon during the Salazar dictatorship.

Author Jonathan Power, who has written a history of Amnesty International, told Reuters: "They had been arrested and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

"How, Benenson wondered, could the Portuguese authorities be persuaded to release these victims of outrageous oppression? A way must be devised to bombard the Salazar regime with written protests."

That solution was, said Martin Ennals, a former Amnesty secretary-general, "an amazing contention that prisoners of conscience could be released by writing letters to governments."

Power added: "As Benenson nurtured the idea, it grew roots and branches in his mind.

"He thought, 'why have just one campaign for one country, why not a one-year campaign to draw public attention to the plight of political and religious prisoners throughout the world?'"

Today, Amnesty International's membership is more than a million worldwide, with supporters in at least 160 countries.

Of the 47,000 cases of human-rights violation it has dealt with, more than 45,000 are now closed.

Impact of campaigns

As part of its 40th anniversary year campaigning, it is focusing on six cases, including that of Ngawang Choephel, who is being held in prison in China.

Choephel, who was born in Tibet in 1966, went to study music in the USA in 1994 and travelled to Tibet to make a film about traditional Tibetan performing arts.

When he did not return home in December 1995 his mother reported him missing. A year later, official Chinese radio reported that he had been sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment for "espionage" and "counter-revolutionary activities."

In the past, Amnesty has fought the cases of Nigerian novelist and human rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 despite an international outcry, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was a political prisoner but who is now the democratically elected president of Nigeria, and Julio de Pena Valdez, a trade union leader in the Dominican Republic.

Valdez later spoke of the impact of an Amnesty letter-writing campaign on his own case: "When the 200 letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes.

"Then the next 200 letters came and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior.

"The letters kept coming and coming: 3,000 of them. The president was informed. The letters still kept arriving and the president called the prison and told them to let me go."

Power believes Amnesty International has a valuable future role teaching multinational corporations to be more active in defending human rights.

"Amnesty is moving more and more into the business arena," he added. "We live in an era of globalisation.

"International companies are increasingly powerful and have a social impact. Amesty very much sees the whole debate about globalisation as one that gives an opening for the human rights contribution.

"They have been pioneering conversations with big companies. For example they talked to the Shell oil company in the Nigerian delta area after the terrible human rights abuses that occurred there during the dictatorship.

"Shell Oil now have a very firm set of principles that governs the conduct of Shell operations.

"Only very recently, De Beers, the big South African diamond corporation, approached Amnesty to ask it to help them formulate guidelines and principles on how their work is carried on in this very difficult area of diamonds in West Africa.

"The whole debate about 'blood diamonds' (in fuelling and financing conflicts) has of course become very important and led to a U.N. resolution that Britain sponsored."








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