25 years of speaking up for the world's silenced voices

AMNESTY International is an organization of voices: the voices of political prisoners held without trial, of torture victims, of people threatened with execution and disappearance. Most of all, it is an organization attesting to the countless men and women around the world who have raised their voices in defense of those who have been silenced.

The Rev. T. Simon Farisani was one of the silenced ones.

A black clergyman in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the northern part of South Africa and an outspoken opponent of apartheid -- the white government's system of racial segregation -- Mr. Farisani endured imprisonment three times and says he was tortured brutally.

He had given up hope and wanted to die.

``When I was sent to hospital, where I spent 106 days, I didn't want to be healed. I didn't want to be readied for the next torture,'' he said in a telephone interview from Denver. ``Then I began receiving letters and telegrams from Amnesty members and I began to change my mind. I knew that people on the outside cared.

``So I said to myself, OK, perhaps I'll live for another two or three days. Then the telegrams kept coming and I said, well perhaps I'm good for another 20 or 30 years. . . . I think the letters also arrested the hand of the government to stop torturing me.''

Farisani is one of 28,000 people Amnesty International has assisted over the last 25 years.

Today, the London-based independent human rights organization, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, will not celebrate its 25th anniversary.

``With one-half of the world's governments still holding `prisoners of conscience,' a celebration would not be appropriate,'' says John G. Healey, executive director of Amnesty's United States office.

Rather, the organization will hold six concerts across the United States to call attention to the forgotten prisoners and torture victims throughout the world. The concert tour, which will feature the Irish-British rock artists U2 and Sting, begins June 4 in San Francisco and culminates in a star-studded gala June 15 at Giants Stadium, outside New York City.

The aim of the concerts, called ``Conspiracy of Hope,'' is to enlist some 25,000 new members in the US, where the group's membership is 120,000. These members send one letter a month on behalf of a ``prisoner of conscience,'' Amnesty's term for people detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origins, language, or religion and who have not used or advocated violence.

The prisoners could be a child of 12 or a man of 80, a housewife or a priest. They could have been dragged from the middle of a demonstration or dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. They could have stolen a loaf of bread, aided a guerrilla, or disagreed with the totalitarian leader of their state. Or they could have simply not done anything at all.

Torture is now practiced by 98 of the world's countries, according to a meticulously documented Amnesty report called ``Torture in the Eighties.'' One-third of the world's governments use torture as a systematic instrument of state policy. The accused know no common ideology and range across the political spectrum from the Soviet Union to Chile, from Uganda to Vietnam.

Amnesty also works for the abolition of the death penalty -- the ``ultimate torture,'' Amnesty calls it -- in the 148 countries that have it, including the US.

The organization began with a newspaper appeal by British lawyer Peter Benenson on May 28, 1961, under the headline ``The Forgotten Prisoners.'' Mr. Benenson called for public support of his appeal. Within one month, he received more than 1,000 offers of help. Within 12 months, Amnesty had sent four missions to make representations to governments. They went to Czechoslovakia, Ghana, East Germany, and Portugal -- belying the criticism of some of the world's right-wing organizations and military regimes that Amnesty singles out rightists for attention and ignores the left. In its 25-year history, it has spared neither the right nor the left of the political spectrum.

The number of voices kept growing, and Amnesty now has more than 500,000 members in more than 150 countries.

Their message was simple: Torture and the death penalty had to stop. Prisoners of conscience must be released. Political prisoners, detained without charge or trial, should be given prompt and fair trials. Amnesty's mandate was to mobilize public opinion to pressure governments to bring about action.

Amnesty's members have inundated the world with paper -- letters and telegrams sent to nearly 100 governments, to tens of thousands of prisoners and their families, to churches and labor unions, to lawyers, and to hundreds of organizations concerned with human rights. The members work for 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners at any given time, never on cases in one's own country. The Rev. Farisani speaks

Farisani, a father of three, was last released from prison in 1982. A dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the South African ``homeland'' of Venda and a deputy bishop of the Northern Diocese in Pietersburg, he is an avowed pacifist. He plans to return to Venda after he finishes his tour of the US for Amnesty.

How could he remain a pacifist, considering the situation in South Africa today?

``The black people [of South Africa] have chosen different avenues to address repression,'' he says. ``Some -- the African National Congress, for example -- have been forced underground by the government and thus been radicalized. They have resorted to violence. Others, the trade unions, conduct consumer boycotts and industrial strikes. The churches practice civil disobedience. It's a question of choosing which avenue one believes he can best utilize. I believe that the ammunition which I have as a man of God is best for what I am called upon to do. . . . I find it easier, when I fight a crocodile as a pastor to drag it out of the water and fight it on land. If I would go into the water, where it is an expert, I couldn't fight, I couldn't breathe.''

``I think the government would have found it far easier to blunt my impact in the struggle if I'd used other methods,'' he continued.

``Now it's been impossible to blunt the equipment that I've used. And they won't be able to blunt it. I am convinced of that.''

Soft-spoken one moment, fiery the next, Farisani thought a while, then laughed lightly when asked how he had fought despair in prison: ``I used to talk to myself. I would say, `The police say I'm wrong, but my congregation believes that I'm right. The church, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, they all say that apartheid is wrong. So, therefore, what I am doing is absolutely right.'

``Prison is a seesaw experience. It can destroy you psychologically and physically. But it also strengthens your convictions and builds you morally.

``A tiny cell with a corrugated iron roof and corrugated iron walls, near the border with Zimbabwe, one of Africa's hot spots. Sixteen men cramped into the filthy cell. South African torturers mocking, shouting, ``Hallelujah. Praise the Lord.''

Will his generation see South Africa free for its blacks?

``Despite tremendous odds, I believe that our day of liberation is near,'' Farisani responds. ``I'll not express it in months or years. But in our lifetime, yes, we will be free women and men.''

What has happened to civilization, with one-third of the world's governments using torture as an official tool?

``It saddens me greatly,'' he says. ``Indeed, it is a tragedy for mankind. Our technological advances have not been accompanied by advances in our values. As long as governments can use these methods and get away with it, we can't guarantee the security of mankind. Some of these governments have economic and political ties with the great economic giants of the world, and these giants are doing little to bring pressure to bear.''

Did he mean the United States?

``In South Africa, yes, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and some other European countries which have connections with South Africa, one of the world's worst offenders of human rights. These countries are not matching the level of their investments, their political involvement, with commensurate pressure for the respect of basic human rights.''

``But,'' he says, ``as a pastor, I still have faith in man, and I believe that man is essentially good. There are groups like Amnesty International, and I think human rights will triumph -- even if it takes some time. . . . For me, it is far better to fail momentarily in a cause which will succeed than succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail. . . . And I am convinced that during our lifetime apartheid will collapse.''

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have urged governments to vote for a United Nations convention that would outlaw all torture and police abuses around the world.

So far, 40 countries have signed the convention, and it has only been ratified by four -- Sweden, Mexico, France, and Belize. The US government has neither signed nor ratified. `When I was sent to hospital, where I spent 106 days, I didn't want to be healed. I didn't want to be readied for the next torture. Then I began receiving letters and telegrams from Amnesty members. . . . . . and I began to change my mind. I knew that people on the outside cared. . . . I think the letters also arrested the hand of the government to stop torturing me.'

-- Simon Farisani, former prisoner in South Africa

``So I said to myself, OK, perhaps I'll live for another two or three days. Then the telegrams kept coming and I said, well perhaps I'm good for another 20 or 30 years. . . .--30--{et

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