AI in the 1990s
A Force for Freedom and Dignity
This chapter tells the story of Safia Hashi Madar. It describes how AI members around the world played a part in helping to rescue her from torture and unfair imprisonment.
This chapter also explains how ordinary people can create pressure that will influence powerful governments to stop their violations of human rights.
When Safia Hashi Madar was nine months pregnant, the police came to her home in the middle of the night and dragged her away to prison.
This happened in Somalia in 1985. Safia, a biochemist, was separated from her husband, her elderly mother, and her two-year-old son, Ahmed.
Just three days after being arrested, Safia gave birth to another son. She named him Abdi. The security forces took the baby from her at once, and they sent Safia back to her cell.
Safia had been torn from her entire family. Now she found herself in a dark and damp chamber, with no basin or mattress, and alone.
Safia had not committed any crime. In fact, it is still not clear why she was arrested. Apparently, she was jailed because she had criticized the authorities, and also because she belonged to the Isaaq clan, many of whose members opposed the government. The Somali military had murdered large numbers of unarmed civilians from this ethnic group.
In the early days of her imprisonment, Safia was tortured regularly. She was kicked and choked, beaten with sticks, and burned with cigarettes.
After being held for ten months, she was brought to trial at last. By any legal standard, however, her trial was unfair.
Army and security officers, not civilians, conducted the hearing. They denied Safia access to a lawyer. When she pleaded not guilty to the charge _ of belonging to a subversive organization _ the court dismissed her plea outright. The conviction was swift and the sentence severe: life imprisonment. Safia was not allowed to make an appeal.
By this time, AI had learned of Safia's plight. After confirming the facts, the organization decided that she was a prisoner of conscience, that is, that she was confined solely because of her beliefs or her identity, and not for any violent act she might have committed.
The organization asked members of three AI groups, each one based in a different country, to launch public campaigns for Safia's release. These groups adopted her and promised to put relentless pressure on the Somali authorities until she was set free.
These volunteers wrote hundreds of letters and postcards to the Somali Government. They asked their friends and neighbours to write letters too. They sent telegrams. They publicized the story in their local newspapers and on radio and television. They raised money to help pay for more appeals on Safia's behalf.
Meanwhile, the torture had stopped, but the prison conditions remained harsh. Safia's health grew very bad and she suffered a number of painful illnesses. Despite her misery, she received no medical care.
In response, AI alerted the three local groups that had been working on the case. It also increased the pressure. It asked large numbers of its members around the world to send emergency appeals.
One of these people was Shelagh Macdonald, a Canadian living in the United States, and herself a young mother. Shelagh and the other members of her AI group approached medical professionals, students, and politicians, and asked them to send urgent pleas to Somalia.
Before long, the Somali Minister of Health had received countless messages of concern from all parts of the world. The pressure worked, and within a month Safia had received medical treatment.
Another year passed, however, and Safia was still in prison. Shelagh and many AI members worldwide continued to protest Safia's detention.
On International Women's Day, 1989, AI again asked its members to demand Safia's freedom. And again, volunteers in many places sent scores of letters and telegrams to the authorities in Somalia.
It was soon after this campaign that at long last Safia was set free. She had spent four years as a prisoner of conscience.
Her release from prison was only the first step in putting her life back together. Her safety was still under threat in Somalia. After a dangerous escape from the country and a period during which she was a refugee, Safia was finally reunited with her husband, her mother, and her two sons.
The family settled near London, England, and began to look forward to the day when they would be able to return to their own country and to resume their lives there in peace and security.
Each of us knows what it is like to read an Amnesty account that fails to move us; perhaps we are too busy, perhaps we can't bear any more just then, perhaps we feel too remote.
Then there are other times when we read about a person in prison, and her or his story reaches inside our soul.
As a mother of young children, I felt a strong and instinctive connection with this woman...
_ Shelagh Macdonald
Safia's is a remarkable tale, a story of a determined and courageous spirit surviving in the face of overwhelming persecution.
One part of her story, unfortunately, is terribly familiar, especially to members of AI. The denial of Safia's freedom and the abuse of her dignity and physical integrity are as commonplace as they are horrible.
The world has heard _ too often _ reports of pain and degradation inflicted upon individuals by state authorities who disapprove of their opinions or background.
In many periods of history, in many parts of the world, powerful officials have jailed their opponents. They have held sham trials and condemned innocent people. They have tortured and executed prisoners. They have murdered their enemies. They have forced people to flee their own homes and countries in order to find a safe place.
Even today, such horrors still happen. Governments of every type _ left and right, democracy and dictatorship _ are guilty of such crimes. Even while they profess a respect for human rights, governments continue to inflict these outrages. They commit these crimes upon rich and poor, famous and unknown, political dissidents and average citizens, women, men, and even children.
The truly remarkable part of Safia's story is this: a network of quite ordinary people from many countries joined together to help her and her relatives. These people had never met her, yet they rallied _ internationally _ and gave their time and energy to demanding that her jailers let her go free.
World history is filled with official persecutions of conspirators. Considered in the broad sweep of this history, the conspiracy of concern that was mounted on Safia's behalf is unique. It is a conspiracy of hope.
People have always hurried to come to the aid of their own family, friends and neighbours _ of those near and known to them. And high-level officials have often made humanitarian appeals to their counterparts in other countries.
It is only during the last half of the 20th century, however, that the world community has seen the growth of an international demand for human rights on the part of the broad mass of the people.
In revulsion against the atrocities of World War II, the world began to create a formal machinery of human rights _ global laws to affirm the value of the individual person, and global institutions to enforce these laws.
So far, unfortunately, this machinery has not been as effective as it should be. Until it is made stronger, one essential alternative exists. This alternative is the force of aroused public opinion _ the indignation of concerned people everywhere.
The fundamental basis of AI's approach is the belief that large numbers of activists, raising their voices together in determined protest, can protect people in danger in other countries.
The movement's volunteer system makes it possible for everyone to speak up and to take part in the struggle for human dignity. Before AI was formed, there was no institution that could have generated mass, global pressure to protect victims of political oppression like Safia Hashi Madar and her family.
Governments like to hide their oppression. They commit their crimes behind thick walls, in remote cells _ in darkness.
AI's method is simple: it shines a light upon these crimes.
AI turns the light of public attention upon the individuals who are the victims and upon the authorities who torment them. It mobilizes people worldwide to protest directly to these officials and to create publicity so that others are encouraged to join in the protest.
This plain but powerful tactic lets people in power know that they are being watched, that they will be called upon to explain their actions.
This method is effective. Over the years, the movement has taken up tens of thousands of individual cases, and most of them have been resolved. These people are now free from unfair imprisonment, their torture stopped, their lives secured.
During the same period, AI has helped create safeguards that aim to prevent people ever again suffering such horrors. In the 1990s, more and more governments are agreeing to abide by international human rights standards. And thanks to the efforts of AI and other organizations, human rights issues are now being discussed in the news media every day. AI has helped to put human rights on the world's agenda.
The organization itself has grown to be large and influential. It now has more than a million members, subscribers and donors. Millions more support its goals. Thousands of local groups have been formed. AI has established a presence in most countries of the world.
AI has been honoured with awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize. It is allowed to present its concerns formally to the United Nations and other international bodies. Its reports are distributed widely. Even those officials who are the targets of its campaigns have admitted that AI is independent and impartial, and that its information is accurate.
The 20th century has shown that an international human rights movement can be effective, that many people working together can make a difference, that change can happen.
Does AI work? Listen to some of the people for whom AI has taken action:
Your efforts saved my life. - South Korea
Many children are still alive and able to enjoy freedom thanks to Amnesty International. - Chile
Your kindness and ongoing support saved me from the executioner - United States
Your efforts have borne fruit of justice. - Philippines
Without your support, I would not have survived the prison brutality. - Kenya
Amnesty has been of the utmost importance in our case. - Iran
Words cannot explain what kind of intense morale Amnesty International members have given me. - Turkey
Now that this movement has taken root, it is useful to recall that, once upon a time, people ridiculed the very idea of an organization like AI.
They dismissed the notion that unknown people, most of them with little political or economic power, could together change the behaviour of brutal governments. They were sceptical that such a goal could be achieved simply by writing polite letters. The very idea, they said, was a naive, romantic and sentimental absurdity. AI was called one of the larger lunacies of our time.
As the world enters into a new century, it is time to prepare for the next step. It is time to bring to pass other lunacies such as these ...
- a world without torture cells
- a world without electric chairs and firing squads and the noose
- a world without jails full of prisoners of conscience like Safia Hashi Madar
- a world where people are not forced to flee their own home because the state plans to kidnap and murder them
- a world where every person will have security, freedom and a decent human existence.
Change will happen. All that is needed to achieve this vision _ a vision of a world without cruelty and injustice _ is the determined voices of ordinary people.