“How would you like it if you were just expressing your feelings and someone just put you in jail?” This is how an eight-year-old American school child asked King Salman of Saudi Arabia not to flog imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi. This was one of millions of messages sent on behalf of Raif during the 2014 Write for Rights campaign, the world’s biggest human rights campaign, held every year by Amnesty International. Letters, emails, SMS messages, faxes and tweets sent by hundreds of thousands of people around the world express support for the victims of human rights abuses like Raif Badawi, and call on the authorities to put right their wrongs.
The cases Amnesty International supporters take up are rarely cases on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Often they are cases of people whose story has not been told. They are people jailed for their peaceful dissent, tortured by authorities or discriminated against. Sometimes they are people who challenged the authorities, sometimes they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The 12 stories of the Write for Rights 2015 campaign show why we need to stand up for human rights more than ever. In Myanmar, Phyoe Phyoe Aung helped organize a protest against a new education law. She now is in detention facing a lengthy jail term along with scores of other peaceful student activists arrested after police broke up the demonstration.
In Malaysia, political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, posted tweets the government did not like. He now faces a lengthy prison sentence under the Sedition Act. His tweets had condemned the jailing of an opposition leader in Malaysia, where the government is going to enormous lengths to silence dissent and debate, and lock up its critics.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala organized an event which encouraged young people to hold the government to account. They were arrested at a press conference in March 2015, labelled “terrorists” and accused of planning to violently overthrow the government. They have been detained ever since. Their movement is called Filimbi (‘whistle’ in Swahili), a youth movement that encourages people to get involved in peaceful political debate and action.
The campaign helps people like Phyoe, Zunar, Fred and Yves by mobilizing a secret weapon that governments fear: Your voice.
Change does not happen overnight. It takes constant hard work to keep up a flow of small acts of solidarity and letters to authorities that together build up the pressure. Often we start with small victories: better conditions for a prisoner, such as gaining access to medical care, or being able to see their families.
We try to keep the case alive, we ask our supporters to write to the authorities, we contact journalists to keep the story active. Anything to make sure the person’s case remains in the spotlight. We mark their birthdays and the anniversaries of their arrest or conviction. We broadcast the voices of family members calling for justice and seeking redress. When leaders who can make a difference embark on high-level foreign visits, activists are there so that they cannot forget prisoners of conscience who languish in jail.
The results are a testament to the power of a story to mobilize solidarity across borders and societies. Time and time again prisoners of conscience tell us how much support from the outside world meant to them.
Soni Sori, an Adivasi school-teacher, and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, a journalist, were critical of human rights violations committed by security forces and armed Maoists in Chhattisgarh. They were arrested in 2011 and accused of transferring funds from a corporate mining firm to armed Maoists as “protection money”. Soni Sori, in letters to the Supreme Court, said that when she was in custody, police officials had stripped and sexually assaulted her and given her electric shocks. A government hospital which examined her reported that two stones had been inserted in her vagina and one in her rectum, and that she had annular tears in her spine.
Amnesty International India declared Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi as Prisoners of Conscience, which led to supporters across the world writing letters demanding their release. Two years after their arrest, Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi were released on bail. Soni Sori told Amnesty International, “The efforts of the organisations that supported my cause have given me strength and created impact.”
Ihar Tsikhanyuk is a Belarusian LGBTI+ activist beaten by police for being gay. He still faces homophobia in his country, but he says when letters from Amnesty International supporters started arriving in 2014, people in his building started to address the issue of homophobia and ask him about it. More than 172,000 people took action raising awareness of challenges faced by LGBTI+ people: “When I feel I am left with no hope, I’ll get a letter out and it will inspire me. The confidence in myself returns.”
On good days, higher authorities are moved, or shamed, to re-investigate a case. On great days, authorities bombarded by tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of messages, relent and set a prisoner of conscience free. Those are days that remind us why we fight for human rights.
Tun Aung a doctor in Myanmar had tried to calm down crowds as violence surged between Muslims and Buddhists in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012, but was jailed for 19 years for “inciting violence” and other charges his supporters say were fabricated. Thanks in part to more than 120,000 messages sent to the authorities in Myanmar calling for his release, Dr. Tun Aung was transferred to a prison with better conditions, and provided with medical treatment. Finally, he was released from prison in January 2015.
Cynics may say that these individual victories are not enough to turn the tide of repression. But we cannot see people abandoned to despair. Every victory gives hope to other prisoners that the day will come when justice is done and they will go free. In the end, this is about ensuring that victims are not alone. It is about international solidarity: ordinary people being ready to spring into action when leaders and governments fail to respect human rights. No victim of injustice need ever be completely alone, even if their only ally is a schoolchild on the other side of the world writing a letter on their behalf.
About the author: Sanamdeep Singh is a Campaigner at Amnesty International India.
Image courtesy: Amnesty International