Still campaigning after all these years - marking 60 years of Amnesty
- Credit: St Albans Amnesty
Sixty years ago, Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, little realising it would grow to have an estimated seven million supporters with about 280 local groups in the UK alone. Among these is the St Albans local group, which has been active for 47 years, campaigning in a myriad different ways.
An early milestone for the group was back in 1976 when Mukhtar Rana, a former Prisoner of Conscience in Pakistan, planted a golden 'Justice Ash' tree in the Vintry Garden.
He had been jailed and tortured for speaking up for the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), before Amnesty International secured his release.
In 2018, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the St Albans Amnesty Group held a ceremony in the Vintry Garden in which an evergreen strawberry tree donated by St Albans district council was planted to replace the original ‘Justice Ash’ and to keep alive and cherish the spirit of standing up against injustice as Mukhtar did.
Mukhtar Rana had since passed away, and although his son Hasan was unable to attend the ceremony Hasan’s wife Morna Mukhtar and their children Sasha and Dil were present.
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Another milestone for the St Albans group was in 2002, when then-MP for St Albans Kerry Pollard and Bishop of Hertford the Right Rev Christopher Foster consented to be imprisoned in a cage in St Albans market place to highlight the plight of all those incarcerated without consent for standing up for human rights.
Over the years, encouraged by Amnesty, millions of people have written millions of letters in support of the many thousands of activists who day after day put their lives on the line to protest injustice.
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Some of those letters take the form of ‘Write for Rights’ cards sent to imprisoned human rights defenders every year in December: more than 6.5 million such actions were taken in 2019. In St Albans that year a stall in the Abbey enabled them to spread the message more widely.
A central plank of Amnesty’s activity has always been writing letters to those in authority over Prisoners of Conscience. In the early, pre digital , pre-‘clickactivist’ days life was rather different: when an Urgent Action needed to be taken on behalf of those at imminent risk of being tortured or killed handwritten drafts would be circulated to members to revise and send.
Today the group's inboxes swell with appeals for action on behalf of the ever-increasing number of individuals at risk, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe a pawn in Anglo-Iranian power-plays.
One special focus for St Albans Amnesty is the Saudi women who fight for rights in the patriarchal society of Saudi Arabia, and we are actively involved in other campaigns in the middle east.
Sometimes it seems nothing changes. Back in 1988 local church leaders, in support of an Amnesty campaign, had written to the Home Secretary about unjust procedures for refugees seeking political asylum in the UK.
Today St Albans Amnesty hosts speakers from groups such as Stop The Traffik, After Exploitation and Detention Action, all sharing our concern at the monumental difficulties encountered by those with legitimate reasons to seek sanctuary and to rejoin their families in the UK.
Louise, a member of the group said: “A passion for justice, equality, inclusion and protection for those who need it have always been central to my nature, and I found in Amnesty a means of making a difference in these areas.”
The core belief of Amnesty that it is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness” is needed more than ever in our troubled and divided world.
The St Albans group has kept a digital light alive during Covid with online meetings and continuing activism. If you share their wish to defend human rights you can find out more via Facebook, the website (amnesty.org.uk/groups/st-albans) or contact firstname.lastname@example.org