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Amnesty international

By Deborah CowleySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1980


"Our job here is not to hide the pain, the suffering. Quite the contrary," says Richard Reoch, spokesman for Amnesty International, the world's guardian of human rights.

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"We give people an actual practical opportunity to do something about it, to channel their disgust or sadness or whatever motivates them into writing a letter or sending a telegram or just standing in the rain outside an embassy."

People are doing just that, in ever-increasing numbers throughout the world. And through them Amnesty International has grown into the largest pressure group of its kind. Today, the worldwide network embraces 200,000 volunteers working in 123 countries.

In 1978 alone, the organization contacted more than 5,000 prisoners, jailed for their beliefs, color, language, or religion. The badgered government leaders with letters and telegrams, sent relief supplies to families and notes of encouragement to the prisoners.

And their efforts can bring results. Amnesty Secretary General Martin Ennals says, "More and more people all over the world attribute their release from prison to Amnesty International.

"They remember the help they received from some Amnesty group, or that sense of solidarity they got by knowing that somebody outside was rooting for them."

The focal point of Amnesty's far-flung operations is the International Secretariat in London, a drab gray building behind the now-abandoned Covent Garden market. It is barely noticeable, except for a small sign with Amnesty's insignia: a burning candle wrapped in barbed wire.

The rambling office stretches over four floors, housing a staff of 150 who represent 26 nationalities and speak a dozen languages. Their job is to seek out any information about infringements of human rights in the world. They deal with several thousand violations a year.

"The prime function of the organization is to focus on individuals," Amnesty Secretary General Ennals points out.

Three typical Amnesty cases:

Two Argentine journalists whose popular local newspaper opposed the military government have been imprisoned and reportedly tortured.

A university lecturer in Nepal has lost his post as a result of his allegiance to the banned Nepali Congress Party and has been detained in jail without trial since September, 1977.

At least 10 Soviet women are serving lengthy terms of imprisonment for their activities in the True Orthodox Church, a breakaway sect of the Russian Orthodox Church. They are serving sentences of more than 10 year's imprisonment and exile. Five are over 70 years old.

The London secretariat works much like a collection agency, absorbing information that sifts into Amnesty from many sources -- sympathetic prison guards, worried relatives, and underground journals smuggled out of the country. Reports also come from released prisoners who may, as one East German did, memorize a list of fellow prisoners and their addresses and report them to Amnesty after being freed.

Two huge sacks of letters are dropped daily in the mail room. Besides correspondence from volunteers and national sections, many letters bring information about prisoners or important warning signals. One received recently from a lawyer in Asia (but postmarked and stamped in Britain) contained photos of the bodies of two prisoners who were decapitated after being taken into police custody.

Newspapers, magazines, and radio transcriptions also carry important clues, and they are combed through carefully by multilingual volunteers.

"it's really like a big jigsaw puzzle," says Richard Reoch, a Canadian who directs the press and communication division for Amnesty. "Lots of bits and pieces filter through to us and eventually, they all start to fit together."

Making those pieces fit together is an army of researchers -- half the secretariat staff, in fact. They analyze all available details while looking at the country's internal politics before declaring that a violation of human rights has taken place.