Amnesty International: The Human Rights Crusade

There are 500,000 political prisoners in the world and Amnesty International works to free them one by one.

Carrying the world's largest candle across Brompton Road for Amnesty International on December 8th, 1978. Credit: Argles/Evening Standard/Getty

There are 10,000 political prisoners in Russia, according to Amnesty International. There are 5000 in Chile, 4000 in Argentina, 5000 in Cuba, 5000 in Uruguay. There are 100,000 political prisoners in Indonesia, some of them in jail since 1965. There are untold thousands in Cambodia, where as much as a quarter of the entire population has been murdered since the Khmer Rouge took over two years ago. There are prisoners throughout Vietnam, in black, white and Arab Africa. There are prisoners in Syria and Israel, Czechoslovakia and both Chinas, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. A good guess would be 500,000 political prisoners throughout the world - far too many to keep track of, too many to care about, too many to help.

So start with one. Zinovy Krasivski, poet and Ukrainian nationalist, probably in his mid-40s, now in his tenth year as a political prisoner. His parents are dead, perhaps killed during the war, no one is quite sure. He has no brothers or sisters, at least none are known. A member of the Ukrainian community in New York says his wife wants nothing to do with him. She is reported to have denounced him at a factory meeting.

Krasivski was convicted of violating a law which proscribes anti-Soviet agitation or propaganda. That was back in 1967. In 1971, apparently while in the Perm labor camp in the Ural Mountains, Krasivski further angered the authorities and they transferred him to a prison psychiatric hospital. He did not prosper there. A year ago a member of the Ukrainian community in New York learned that he was sufficiently weak, depressed and ill to justify alarm for his life. The Soviet authorities, who are not indifferent to their international reputation, transferred Krasivski again, this time to an ordinary psychiatric hospital in Lviv in the Ukraine. He is still there, a perfectly sane man incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for a "crime" which, stripped of all legal persiflage, boils down to the writing of inconvenient poems.

The facts about Krasivski, fragmentary as they are, come from Yadja Zeltman, a 32-year-old woman who helped form an Amnesty International adoption group in New York five years ago. Amnesty's International Secretariat in London assigned Krasivski - then little more than a name - to Zeltman's group late last summer. Since then the group has been trying to contact Krasivski and interest people in his case. Ultimately they hope to free him.

The theory behind Amnesty International's work for political prisoners is simple: you start with a name. Amnesty people are not innocents. They know that political oppression is as old as history; that there is not much to choose between left- and right-wing regimes where the taking of political prisoners is concerned; that almost every country in the world is guilty of political oppression and those which aren't at the moment probably soon will be; that the hearts of officials are never harder than where political enemies are concerned. Amnesty people have their moments of cold despondency when it seems men never learn, things never change, oppression is eternal. But in the years since Amnesty was founded in Britain in 1961 the organization has learned there is a great deal in a name.

If a small group of people, say a dozen or so, can learn the name of a prisoner, the place where he is held, the addresses of relatives, the names and addresses of officials who might be cajoled or pressured into intervening on his behalf, then they can do a great deal for that individual. Occasionally they can even get him out of prison, but it takes imagination, perseverance and the discipline to write endless "courteously worded letters," in Amnesty's phrase, to officials as responsible for the crimes in their countries as Eichmann was for the crimes in his. Some Amnesty people grow to find this uncongenial and drop out. But the rest have learned to neglect broad questions of culpability to concentrate on the plight of specific individuals, and they are the ones who write letters, sign petitions, demonstrate in front of embassies, send care packages and, from time to time, actually get someone freed.

It is the individual volunteers in adoption groups who form the bedrock which supports Amnesty's pyramidal structure. The adoption groups are organized into national sections, which in turn report to Amnesty's International Secretariat in London. The organization's roughly $1 million annual budget is provided by the national sections, each of which is assessed a fixed sum based on the number of its adoption groups. The national sections raise funds in much the same way from adoption groups and individual contributors.

Amnesty's work with prisoners begins with the meticulous documentation of individual cases by the 80-person research section in London. In most cases two separate confirmations are required before the researchers will consider a case established, and their reputation for credibility is so solid that many governments, including this country's, depend on Amnesty for most of what they know about human rights violations throughout the world. Documenting cases is relatively easy in partially open societies such as Chile and all but impossible in North Korea or Cambodia, which means that relatively few of the world's half-million political prisoners are likely to get help from Amnesty. From its files of documented cases the International Secretariat assigns three prisoners to each of Amnesty's 1600 adoption groups, generally choosing one from a Western country, one from a Soviet bloc country and one from a country in the Third World. The reason for this self-conscious balance is to emphasize the need for accepted minimum standards of political behavior whatever the system.

Amnesty is committed solely to the premise that human rights should not be subject to the whims or exigencies of the state. In this light the single Amnesty adoption group in Russia is not a failure although its members are harassed, one of its leaders is in Siberia, and it has failed to free its adopted prisoners in Mexico, Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka. Instead, its very existence proves Amnesty is not "anti-Soviet" or "procommunist" as embarrassed governments of the right or left variously try to claim. Amnesty tries to wean the world's conscience from the ancient notion that certain sorts of governments--those which must deal with "exceptional circumstances" or are confronted with particularly numerous "enemies" - deserve "understanding" and "sympathy."

That is twaddle, of course, but it is twaddle with deep roots. Leftist regimes cite their ruthless "class enemies" and the exigent demands of revolution, etc. etc. Fidel Castro, for example, imprisoned a disenchanted former lieutenant named Huber Matos in 1959, originally for slandering his government by calling it "communist." That was premature. Castro did not announce himself as a Marxist-Leninist until November 1961. To accommodate the shift in language the charge against Matos was then altered to the more general crime of "treason."

This is not simply vindictiveness on Castro's part. It's part of a theory of how to achieve and maintain power. On a well-publicized visit to the late Salvadore Allende in Chile, Castro advised him to drop the trappings of liberal democracy and seal his revolution in blood. With this approach the late Allende's Chilean opponents are in full agreement. Not only did they kill Allende, but in the years since their coup of September 1973, they have jailed, tortured, exiled and murdered thousands of "leftists."

When Amnesty and other international groups drew attention to these excesses of the counterrevolution, Chile released several hundred prisoners last fall, exchanged the Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan Lepe for the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky (both beneficiaries of years of letter writing by Amnesty adoption groups in this country and Europe), and offered to exchange its "last" political prisoner, the Chilean communist Jorge Montes, for Castro's prisoner Huber Matos.

This was mere camouflage, a clever public-relations ploy. Amnesty's research section in London was all the while collecting the names of a whole new category of prisoners, men and women picked up mostly by the Chilean secret police, DINA - sometimes on the street, sometimes at home under the eyes of family or friends - and then simply...lost.... All inquiries and petitions of habeas corpus received roughly the same reply: we know nothing of this person, he has not been arrested, he is not in our prisons.

In March, Amnesty began a worldwide campaign to draw attention to this phenomenon of "disappeared prisoners" in Chile. On the basis of fragmentary reports, Amnesty estimates that at least 1500 prisoners have disappeared in this way. Amnesty's position is that those prisoners must be presumed to be alive, that the Chilean government of General Augusto Pinochet owes their families an accounting since they were arrested by his official agents, but the victims' prospects are probably dim.

The repressive right-wing military regimes of Latin America's Southern Cone - Chile, Argentina and Uruguay - treat Amnesty's intervention as a question of international public relations alone. They deny all charges, complain they are being unfairly singled out, accuse Amnesty of being procommunist and occasionally release prisoners with ostentatious fanfare in order to defend their good name, since the practical consequences of losing it - loss of tourism, cancellation of international loans, and so on - can be severe. Privately they consider themselves to be engaged in a war of extermination against the left. This is apparent from their practice but occasionally it has found voice as well. In a statement made in New York last August, Argentina's minister of foreign affairs, Admiral Cesar Guzzetti, tried to explain what was going on:

"My idea of subversion is that of the left-wing terrorist organizations," he said. "Subversion or terrorism of the right is not the same thing. When the social body of the country has been contaminated by a disease that corrodes its entrails, it forms antibodies. These antibodies cannot be considered in the same way as the microbes. As the government controls and destroys the guerrilla, the action of the antibody will disappear, as is already happening. It is only a natural reaction to a sick body."

Have you got that straight? The Chilean, Argentine and Uruguayan secret police are antibodies and the "leftists" are invading microbes and the disinfection of the Southern Cone is simply a question of political hygiene.

But who are these microbes?

One Chilean microbe was an unprepossessing student of computer programming named Voltaire Pincheira, now 21 years old, a resident of Consepcion arrested for his activity in high school with a Catholic youth group. That, at least, was the presumed cause. He was held under Chile's State of Siege law and never formally charged with any crime. But no one could think of anything else he had ever done to which the government of Chile might object. In January 1975, Amnesty's International Secretariat in London assigned Pincheira's case to the Triboro adoption group in New York. The Triboro group wrote letters to Pinochet, to the Chilean ambassador to the United States, to senators James Buckley and Jacob Javits and Representative Edward Koch of New York. The only real response they received was from Buckley, but at the end of nine months in prison Pincheira was released anyway, perhaps as a result of the Triboro group's intervention, perhaps on a whim of the Chilean government, no one knows for sure.

The Triboro group did not stop there but, after hearing from Pincheira himself, managed to get him into a U.S. State Department program to grant visas to 400 Chilean parolees.

The case of Pincheira, one of roughly 8500 who have been released with Amnesty's help, is much more typical of their work than the highly publicized release of Bukovsky. But the sudden worldwide eruption of interest in human rights has brought some problems to the organization.

"Situations change so quickly," said David Hawk, the former draft resister and peace activist who runs the national section in New York. The U.S. section is among the fastest growing, with 88 adoption groups now and prospects of as many more within a year (though AIUSA is small compared to the national sections of West Germany, with 573 groups, Sweden, with 277, the Netherlands, 232, and Britain, 153).

"There is - thank goodness - a constant turnover in prisoners," Hawk continued. India recently let most of its political prisoners go. There used to be a lot more political prisoners, by Amnesty standards, in this country during the civil rights, anti-Vietnam era.

"At the adoption level things are fluid too. People simply move away and the loss of a couple of leaders at the same time can cripple a group. At the staff level there's a burnout effect. So it's hard to count on anything from one year to the next." There is a real danger the group could suddenly find itself two or three years hence, after a fickle shift in public interest, with a huge headquarters, a lot of paper adoption groups, and no funds.

For the time being Amnesty and other human rights groups enjoy the official support, and even the practical aid, of the United States government. Carter has backed campaign promises to fight for human rights with concrete steps such as his letter to Andrei Sakharov in Russia and the reduction of military aid to Ethiopia, Argentina and Uruguay (but not to South Korea or the Philippines). During the tenure of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger such international "meddling" (as he considered it) would have been unthinkable. Kissinger refused congressional demands for reports on human rights violations in countries receiving U.S. aid, arguing for "quiet but forceful diplomacy" instead. He blamed political oppression on a kind of international "original sin," said the U.S. had no right to interfere and insisted U.S. national interests overrode the plight of local unfortunates. Kissinger is not alone in this opinion. Averell Harriman, for example, is known to fear that Carter's remarks about human rights in the Soviet Union may wreck détente, undermine talks on arms limitation and result in a whole new round of the weapons race, with possibly catastrophic results.

In his annual report David Hawk warned that Amnesty should not count too heavily on official support. "Reasons of state" and "economic, strategic and geopolitical interests" could undermine Carter's activist policy and bring a return to the traditional reliance on "quiet but forceful diplomacy." For that reason Amnesty's main tool remains the adoption groups, which focus on the cases of individual prisoners like Zinovy Krasivski.

Yadja Zeltman's adoption group has been working in Krasivski's behalf for about six months, so far with only one notable success. Last December the group's members all sent him Christmas cards and in January, to their amazement, he responded with a letter written in Ukrainian. He was cautious and noncommittal, not knowing exactly who his correspondents were, but Zeltman says it was clear he had been deeply touched. The group quickly wrote back and followed their letter with a package of clothes - a woolen scarf, thermal underwear, socks, a sweater. But there has been no further word, and they are not sure if mail is getting through.

Two other adoption groups in West Germany and the Netherlands are also working on Krasivski's case, part of an Amnesty strategy to concentrate activity in behalf of certain prisoners. The West German group was trying to interest PEN, the writers' organization, and the New York group decided to try their luck with American PEN. The problem, they found, was that no one had ever read any of Krasivski's poems. So the adoption group decided to track down samples of his work.

In a small French magazine a member of the group noticed the name of a Russian émigré who had known Krasivski in the labor camp in Perm. The New York group traced the man to his present home in New Jersey, and he said yes, he'd known Krasivski in Perm, and yes, he even had a sample of Krasivski's work. That is, he had memorized one stanza of one poem. He recited the Ukrainian text, which the Amnesty group had translated:

It's hard to sit out life in prison,

It's hard to die in a hall,

But ever so much harder -

To die slowly - like a slave -

On your knees.

There it is: the collected works of Zinovy Krasivski.