SIX POLITICAL PRISONERS: left, Constatin Noica, the philosopher,now in a Rumanian gaol: center, the Rev. Ashton Jones, friend ofthe Negroes, recently in gaol in the United States; right,Agostino Neto, Angolan poet and doctor, held without trial by thePortugese. Their cases are described in the articlebelow.
Left, Archbishop Beran of Prague, held in custody bythe Czechs; centre, Toni Ambatielos, the Greek Communist andtrade unionist prisoner, whose wife is English; right, CardinalMindszenty, Primate of Hungary, formerly a prisoner and now apolitical refugee trapped in the United States Embassy, Budapest.
ON BOTH SIDES of the Iron Curtain, thousands of menand women are bing held in gaol without trial because theirpolitical or religious views differ from those of theirGovernments. Peter Benenson, a London lawyer, conceived the ideaof a world campaign, APPEAL FOR AMNESTY, 1961, to urgeGovernments to release these people or at least give them a fairtrial. The campaign opens to-day, and "The Observer" is glad tooffer it a platform.
OPEN your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned,tortured or executed because his opinions or religion areunacceptable to his government. There are several million suchpeople in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron andBamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaperreader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if thesefeelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into commonaction, something effective could be done.
In 1945 the founder members of the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Article 18.—
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience andreligion: this right includes freedom to change his religion orbelief, and freedom either alone or in company with others inpublic or private, to manifest his religion or belief inteaching, practice, worship and observance.
- Article 19.—
- Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression:this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interferenceand to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through anymedia and regardless of frontiers.
There is at present no sure way of finding out how manycountries permit their citizens to enjoy these two fundamentalfreedoms. What matters is not the rights that exist on paper inthe Constitution, but whether they can be exercised and enforcedin practice. No government, for instance, is at greater pains toemphasize its constitutional guarantees than the Spanish, but itfails to apply them.
There is a growing tendency all over the world to disguise thereal grounds upon which "non-conformists" are imprisoned. InSpain, students who circulate leaflets calling for the right tohold discussions on current affairs are charged with "militaryrebellion." In Hungary, Catholic priests who have tried to keeptheir choir schools open have been charged with "homosexuality."These cover-up charges indicate that governments are by no meansinsensitive to the pressure of outside opinion. And when worldopinion is concentrated on one weak spot, it can sometimessucceed in making a government relent. For instance, theHungarian poet Tibor Dery was recently released after theformation of "Tibor Dery committees" in many countries; andProfessor Tierno Galvan and his literary friends were acquittedin Spain this March, after the arrival of some distinguishedforeign observers.
London office to gather facts
The important thing is to mobilise public opinion quickly, andwidely, before a government is caught up in the vicious spiralcaused by its own repression, and is faced with impending civilwar. By then the situation will have become too desperate forthe government to make concessions. The force of opinion, to beeffective, should be broadly based, international, non-sectarianand all-party. Campaigns in favour of freedom brought by onecountry, or party, against another, often achieve nothing but anintensification of persecution.
That is why we have started Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. Thecampaign, which opens to-day, is the result of an initiative by agroup of lawyers, writers and publishersd in London, who sharethe underlying conviction expressed by Voltaire: "I detest yourviews, but am prepared to die for your right to express them."We have set up an office in London to collect information aboutthe names, numbers, and conditions of what we have decided tocall "Prisoners of Conscience;" and we define them thus: "Anyperson who is physically restrained (by imprisonment orotherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) anyopinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate orcondone personal violence." We also exclude those people whohave conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own.Our office will from time to time hold Press conferences to focusattention on Prisoners of Conscience selected impartially fromdifferent parts of the world. And it will provide factualinformation to any group, existing or new, in any part of theworld, which decides to join in a special effort in favor offreedom of opinion or religion.
In October a Penguin Special called "Persecution 1961" will bepublished as part of our Amnesty campaign. In it are stories ofnine men and women from different parts of the world, of varyingpolitical and religious outlook, who have been sufferingimprisonment for expressing their opinions. None of them is aprofessional politician; all of them are professional people.The opinions which have brought them to prison are the commoncoinage of argument in free society.
Poet flogged in front of family
One story is of the revolting brutality with which Angola'sleading poet, Agostino Neto, was treated before the presentdisturbances there broke out. Dr. Neto was one of the fiveAfrican doctors in Angola. His efforts to improve the healthservices for his fellow Africans were unacceptable to thePortugese. In June last year the Political Police marches intohis house, had him flogged in front of his family and thendragged away. He has since been in the Cape Verde Isles withoutcharge or trial.
From Rumania, we shall print the story of Constatin Noica, thephilosopher, who was sentenced to twenty-five years' imprisonmentbecause, while "rusticated," his friends and pupils continued tovisit him, to listen to his talk on philosophy and literature.The book will also tell of the Spanish lawer, Antonio Amat, whotried to build a coalition of democratic groups, and has been intrial since November, 1958; and of two white men persecuted bytheir own race for preaching that colored races should have equalrights—Ashton Jones, the sixty-five-year-old minister, wholast year was repeatedly beaten-up and three times imprisoned inLousiana and Texas for doing waht the Freedom Riders are nowdoing in Alabama; and Patrick Duncan, the son of a former SouthAfrican Governer-General, who, after three stays in prison, hasjust been served with an order forbidding him from attending oraddressing any meeting for five years.
'Find out who is in gaol'
The technique of publicising the personal stories of a number ofprisoners of contrasting politics is a new one. It has beenadopted to avoid the fate of previous amnesty campaigns, which sooften have become more concerned with publicising the politicalviews of the imprisoned than with humanitarian purposes.
How can we discover the state of freedom in the world to-day?The American philosopher, John Dewey, once said, "If you want toestablish some conception of a society, go find out who is ingaol." This is hard advice to follow, because there are fewgovernments which welcome inquiries about the number of Prisonersof Conscience they hold in prison. But another test of fredomone can apply is whether the Press is allowed to criticise thegovernment. Even many democratic governments are surprisinglysensitive to Press criticism. In France, General de Gaulle hasintensived newspaper seizures, a policy he inherited from theFourth Republic. In Britian and the United States occasionalattempts are made to draw the sting of Press criticism by thetechnique of taking editors into confidence about a "securitysecret," as in the Blake spy case.*
Within the British Commonwealth, the Government of Ceylon haslaunched an attack on the Press, and is threatening to take thewhole industry under public control. In Pakistan the Press is atthe mercy of the Martial Law administration. InGhana, theopposition Press operates under great disabilities. In SouthAfrica, which leaves the Commonwealth on Wednesday, thegovernment is planning further legislation to censorpublications. Outside the Commonwealth, Press freedom isespeically in peril in Indonesia, the Arab World, and LatinAmerican countries such as Cuba. In the Communish world, and inSpain and Portugal, Press criticism of the Government is rarelytolerated.
Churchill's dictum on democracy
Another test of freedom is wheher the government permits apolitical opposition. The post-war years have seen the spread of"personal regimes" across Asia and Africa. Wherever anopposition party is prevented from putting up candidates, or fromverifying election results, much more than its own future is atstake. Multi-party elections may be cumbrous in practice, andthe risk of coalitions makes for unstable government; but noother way has yet been found to guarantee freedom to minoritiesor safety to non-conformists. Whatever truth there may be in theold remark that democracy does not fit well with emergentnationalism, we should also remember Winston Churchill's dictum:"Democracy is a damned bad system of government, but nobody hasthought of a better."
A fourth test of freedom is, whether those accused of offencesagainst the State receive a speedy and public trial before animpartial court: whether they are allowed to call witnesses, andwhether their lawyer is able to present the defence in the way hethinks best. In recent years there has been a regrettable trendin some of those countries that take pride in possessing anindependent judiciary: by declaring a state of emergency andtaking their opponents into "preventative detention," governmentshave side-stepped the need to make and prove criminal charges.At the other extreme there is the enthusiasm in Soviet countriesto set up institutions which, though called courts, are reallynothing of the sort. The so-called "comradely courts" in theU.S.S.R., which have the power to deal with "parasites," are inessence little more than departments of the Ministry of Labor,shifting "square pegs" to empty holes in Siberia. In China thetransmigration of labor by an allegdly judicial process is on agigantic scale.
The most rapid way of bringing relief to Prisoners of Conscienceis publicity, especially publicity among their fellow-citizens.With the pressure of emergent nationalism and the tensions of theCold War, there are bound to be situations where governmetns areled to take emergency measures to protect their existence. It isvital that public opinions should insist that these measuresshould not be excessive, nor prolonged after the moment ofdanger. If the emergency is to last a long time, then agovernment should be induced to allow its opponents out ofprison, to seek asylum abroad.
Frontier control more efficient
Although there are no statistics, it is likely that recentyeashave seen a steady decrease in the number of people reachingasylum. This is not so much due to the unwillingness of othercountries to offer shelter, as to the greatly increasedefficiency of frontier control, which to-day makes it harder forpeople to get away. Attempts to reach agreement on a workableinternaitonal convention on asylum at the United Nations havedragged on for many years with little result.
There is also the problem of labour restrictions on immigrants inmany countries. So long as work is not available in "host"countries, the right of asylum is largely empty. Appeal forAmnesty, 1961, aims to help towards providing suitable employmentfor poltical and religious refugees. It would be good if in each"host" country a central employment office for these people couldbe set up with the co-operation of the employers' federations, thetrade unions and the Ministry of Labour.
In Britain there are many firms willing to give out translationand correspondence work to refugees, but no machinery to linksupply with demand. Those regimes that refuse to allow theirnationals to seek asylum on the ground that they go abroad onlyto conspire, might be less reluctant if they knew that, onarrival, the refugess would not be kicking their feet in idlefrustration.
The members of the Council of Europe have agreed a Convention ofHuman Rights, and set up a commission to secure its enforcement.Some countries have accorded to their citizens the right toapproach the commission individually. But some, includingBritian, have refused to accept the jurisdiction of thecommission over individual complaints, and France has refused toratify the Convention at all. Public opinion should insist onthe establishment of effective supra-national machinery not onlyin Europe but on similar lines in other continents.
This is an especially suitable year for an Amnesty Campaign. Itis the centenary of President Lincoln's inauguration, and of thebeginning of the Civil War which ended with the liberation of theAmerican slaves; it is also the centenary of the decree thateemancipated the Russian serfs. A hundred years ago Mr.Gladstone's budget swept away the oppressive duties on newsprintand so enlarged the range and freedom of the Press; 1861 markedthe end of the tyranny of King "Bomba" of Naples, and thecreation of a united Italy; it was also the year of the death ofLacordaire, the French Dominican opponent of Bourbon andOrleanist oppression.
The success of the 1961 Amnesty Campaign depends on how sharplyand powerfully it is possible to rally public opinion. Itdepends, too, upon the campaign being all-embracing in itscomposition, international in character and politically impartialin direction. Any group is welcome to take part which isprepared to condemn persecution regardless of where it occurs,who is responsible or what are the ideas suppressed. How muchcan be achieved when men and women of good will unite was shownduring World Refugee Year. Inevitably most of the action calledfor by Appeal for Amnesty, 1961, can only be taken bygovernments. By experience shows that in matters such as thesegovernments are prepared to follow only where public opinionleads. Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago brought about theemancipation of the slaves. It is now for man to insist upon thesame freedom for his mind as he has won for his body.
– Peter Benenson
Appeal for Amnesty, 1961: THE AIMS
- To work impartially for the release of those imprisioned fortheir opinions.
- To seek for them a fair and public trial.
- To enlarge the Right of Asylum and help political refugees tofind work.
- To urge effective international machinery to guaranteefreedom of opinion.
To these ends, an office has been set up in London to collectand publish information about Prisoners of Conscience all overthe world. The first Press Conference of the campaign will beheld to-morrow, where speakers will include three M.P.s, JohnFoster, Q.C. (Con.), F. Elwyn Jones, Q.C. (Lab.), and JeremyThorpe (Lib.).
All offers of help and information should be sent to: Appeal forAmnesty, 1, Mitre Court Buildings, Temple, E.C.4.
Written by Peter Benenson