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Amnesty’s Tireless Vigil during South America’s Dark Night

Marcela Valente*

BUENOS AIRES, May 27 2011 (IPS) - In the 1970s, with no Internet or social networking sites to get information out, Amnesty International managed to become a thorn in the side of the dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America, several people who benefited from its advocacy work recalled on the occasion of the rights watchdog’s 50th anniversary.

 Credit: Amnesty International

Credit: Amnesty International

Amnesty International played a key role in the release of prisoners of conscience in our countries,” 1980 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel told IPS. “I myself was one of those prisoners.”

Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine human rights activist, was the founder of the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ). In 1977, the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 arrested and tortured him, and held him for 14 months as a political prisoner.

In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote the article “The Forgotten Prisoners”, which was published on the front page of the London Observer newspaper on May 28, 1961.

The article called for the release or fair trial of six detainees in different countries, who were described for the first time as “prisoners of conscience.” It was reprinted in newspapers around the world and became an amnesty campaign that marked the birth of the organisation.

Delegates from Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States held their first meeting in July that year and decided to establish “a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion”.

On Dec. 10, 1961 the first candle – which became the symbol of Amnesty International – was lit in remembrance and support of all prisoners of conscience, in the church of St Martin-in-the-Field in London.

Pérez Esquivel describes the basic mechanism followed by Amnesty: “They adopted prisoners of conscience in a country and held global campaigns for their release.”

Solidarity with the prisoners was expressed through letters to governments, which were also published by the press.

Amnesty was the first human rights group to send a delegation to Argentina during the 1976 to 1983 dictatorship to assess the state of human rights and investigate reports of illegal detentions, torture and forced disappearance.

An estimated 30,000 trade unionists, left-wing activists, students, journalists and other opponents were victims of forced disappearance at the hands of the military regime.

The subsequent report, published in 1979, included the names of 2,665 missing people whose whereabouts the regime denied any knowledge of.

“Amnesty was a great support for the nascent human rights groups of mothers and grandmothers” seeking their missing children and grandchildren, said Pérez Esquivel.

By 1970, Amnesty was a network of 850 groups in 27 countries. In 1977, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, it is a global movement with more than three million members in 150 countries, and its global actions focus on an increasingly broad spectrum of social groups that are victims of abuses.

Indigenous people, violence against women, the death penalty, prison conditions, police brutality, torture, the right to development of the poor, and arms control are all issues that have been the focus of its campaigns.

But in Argentina, as in Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, Amnesty is remembered best for its actions on behalf of the victims of persecution by the dictatorships governing the Southern Cone countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

The 1973-1985 Uruguayan dictatorship, which attempted to keep a low profile, did not escape Amnesty’s accusing finger. In a 1976 report, the organisation stated that by December 1975, “one in every 500 inhabitants of Uruguay was in prison for political reasons and one in every fifty citizens had been through a period of imprisonment, which for many included interrogation and torture.”

This gave Uruguay the highest per capita rate of political prisoners in the world, the rights group said, adding that torture was a routine practice in political cases.

Ivan Morris, chairman of Amnesty International USA, wrote at the time that “The police and army have perfected a revolting variety of torture methods”.

During the 1964-1985 military regime in Brazil, Amnesty played an important role, the organisation’s Brazil researcher Patrick Wilcken told IPS.

On Mar. 19, 1973, Amnesty issued its first urgent action, on behalf of a Brazilian arrested and tortured for political reasons: University of São Paulo professor of history Luiz Basilio Rossi.

The Brazilian authorities began to receive thousands of letters from around the world in support of Rossi. “I knew that my case had become public, I knew they could no longer kill me. Then the pressure on me decreased and conditions improved,” the professor said later.

Rossi was arrested at his home in São Paulo and released seven months later. In cooperation with the Catholic Church, Amnesty managed to get the professor and his family out of the country.

Amnesty also sent the United Nations a list of 210 people who died in mysterious circumstances while in custody, and in 1975 it took 240 political prisoners under its protection.

“Amnesty International’s actions and campaigns contributed to the opening up and eventual democratisation of Brazil,” said Wilcken. The rights group continues to demand that those responsible for the human rights abuses be brought to justice.

The urgent action “turned out to be a simple but effective strategy,” and today it is used by many organisations, said Wilcken. The urgent action network created in 1973 now issues some 350 urgent actions every year.

Its participants are ready to send letters, email and faxes to authorities around the world on behalf of people at risk of torture or ill-treatment, who have been unlawfully arrested or are being held incommunicado, are on hunger strike in protest against human rights abuses, have urgent health needs, are in danger of imminent execution, are faced with imminent repatriation to countries where they may be at risk of torture, forced disappearance or death, or are threatened with extrajudicial execution.

After General Augusto Pinochet staged the military coup in Chile in 1973, Amnesty became one of the regime’s most tenacious watchdogs. That year, the de facto regime agreed to the visit of three Amnesty delegates to investigate allegations of human rights violations.

On the first anniversary of the coup, in 1974, Amnesty published a report exposing political oppression, executions and torture under the Pinochet regime.

During Chile’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, more than 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” and some 30,000 were tortured. But when he stepped down, Pinochet remained army chief and later became senator- for-life, which gave him immunity from prosecution.

In September 1998, few knew that Pinochet was travelling to London for surgery on a slipped disc. But three days after he arrived, Amnesty published a call to the international community, titled: “Chile: European States protect human rights? The visit of General Augusto Pinochet to Europe”.

In the communiqué, Amnesty urged the countries of Europe that were party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture to assume their responsibility and “take into custody or take other legal measures to ensure the presence of any person within its territory who has been alleged to have committed torture or an act which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.”

“I was at home and I went running over to the Amnesty offices,” Chilean lawyer Leonardo Aravena told IPS. “Just imagine what it was like for us. Thanks to laws that he himself had decreed, Pinochet enjoyed immunity in his country.”

Aravena, a human rights defender and professor at the Central University of Chile, says the Amnesty communiqué helped usher in a debate on the responsibility of tracking down torturers wherever they were found. “It had psychological, emotional, and even media importance.”

Pinochet was arrested in October 1998 by the British authorities in response to an international arrest warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who had been investigating the former dictator since 1997. “Suddenly, an Easter gift: Pinochet was in prison; it was like a dream come true,” said Aravena.

Pinochet was under house arrest for a year and a half in London, during which time not only Spain but three other European countries requested his extradition.

The process involved recognition of the principle of universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity because the courts determined that there were legal grounds for extradition.

But the British government released him on humanitarian and health grounds, and Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000.

Back in his own country, he faced 40 lawsuits that had moved forward since his arrest in London. But although he was prosecuted for a number of crimes, he died in 2006 without ever being convicted.

Nevertheless, the outlook for justice in Chile had undergone a definitive change.

* With reporting by Fabíola Ortiz in Rio de Janeiro and Pamela Sepúlveda in Santiago.

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