Amnesty international

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

"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.

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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.

"fective when it is based on facts," Secretary General Ennals points out. "The large research department we have created here is responsible for getting those facts and thus provides a solid base for the whole organization."

In some countries, where communication is impossible, a researcher's lot is a tough one. Michael Dottridge, in charge of central Africa, speaks of the frustrations in obtaining reliable information about atrocities in the Central African Republic. "The mass murders of children took place between the 18th and 20th of April, and we were only able to inform the press on the 14th of May."

When Amnesty collects enough information about a prisoner to declare a case of injustice, the case is assigned to Amnesty groups around the world. Each group "adopts" three prisoners -- one from a Communist country, one from a developing country, and one from a Western country. The system aims to ensure "that each group reflects a political balance in the groups they adopt," according to Mr. Reoch.

The groups then begin their pestering campaign. They write letters ("Courteously worded, please") to governments holding their prisoners or send telegrams to officials. Many send relief supplies or cash donations to prisoners and their families.

In urgent cases when Amnesty hears of prisoners removed to a detention center under threat of torture, Amnesty flashes "urgent action" messages by telex (loaned by a sympathetic company) urging groups to spread the word and cable their concern.

"Within 24 hours we can send 1,000 telegrams from 40 countries," says Mr. Reoch.

In the past, critics of Amnesty International have accused the group of focusing on right- wing failings only, ignoring left-wing oppression.

There is now evidence that Amnesty is living up to the letter of its stated aim to keep a balance of "different world ideologies and groupings."

Says Mr. Dottridge, "We will act wherever and whenever we see injustices. But we do have limitations. We can only act when we are able to obtain substantial evidence to support those injustices. If we are unable to obtain reliable information, then that might be interpreted as ignoring a country."

Amnesty International has come a long way since its modest beginnings 18 years ago when British lawyer Peter Berenson launched an appeal to organize help for those who were unjustly imprisoned. Within a month, offers of support poured in from around the world, and the organization's first international executive committee was formed under the chairmanship of Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean McBride.

In spite of the gigantic strides it has taken since then, Martin Ennals, who steps down from the secretary general post this year, is careful not to exaggerate. He speaks only in terms of "encouragement.

"We get encouragement in the form of hundreds of letters from people who feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that we have helped them. We get encouragement when a government changes and people are released from prison.

"And we get enormous encouragement from recognition," he adds. "First, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. Then, even more surprisingly, the UN Human Rights award in 1978. I know of no other case of government's recognizing the hand that bites them, rather than the hand that feeds them!"

"And finally, we get tremendous encouragement from the growing awareness of human rights," he says. "There is a new awareness that the people who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 after the war knew what they were doing.

"There is a renewed awareness that what happened then in Europe has happened in Uganda, in Argentina, in Uruguay, and is happening in different ways all over the world. And there is an increasing awareness of the fact that politics go back to human beings."

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