Forty years ago today, Amnesty International issued the first ever ‘urgent action’ from its offices in London and helped secure the release of a professor imprisoned in Brazil after opposing the military dictatorship there.
Today, the urgent action technique is as vital as ever.
In 1973, the concept of asking thousands of people around the world to write a letter to someone in power demanding that they release an individual was a radical one. Today, thousands of ‘urgent actions’ have been issued by the global human rights organisation and writing letters, emails, faxes and tweets on behalf of someone at risk is a tried-and-tested method of achieving results.
Urgent actions involve mobilising Amnesty’s thousands of supporters in the ‘urgent action network’ who immediately write to prevent someone from torture or ill treatment, to secure someone’s release or even to save a life.
The first ever urgent action was issued on March 19, 1973 following the arrest of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi, a professor of economics at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and a trade union leader.
There had been worrying reports of a clampdown on political opponents of the military dictatorship in power in Brazil at the time. On the evening of 15 February 1973 Professor Rossi's home was surrounded by military police armed with machine guns. Rossi was arrested without explanation.
His wife was confined to the house, and so had difficulty in notifying anyone about her husband’s arrest. Eventually she smuggled a note to a neighbour, and the information ultimately reached Amnesty’s offices in London.
Concerned about reports of people being tortured during their detention in Brazil, Tracy Ultveit-Moe, a researcher at Amnesty, felt that something radical should be done to protect Professor Rossi. She pioneered the idea of suddenly inundating the Brazilian authorities with letters demanding information about Rossi, and seeking his immediate release. It proved effective.
The letters caused his captor, the Department of Public Order and Security Headquarter’s Director, to comment to Professor Rossi’s wife: "Your husband must be more important than we thought, because we've got all these letters from all over the world."
Professor Rossi was freed on October 24, 1973. Following his release, Rossi said he credited Amnesty’s activists with securing his release. Rossi said:
"I knew that my case had become public, I knew they could no longer kill me. Then the pressure on me decreased and conditions improved."
Today, urgent actions are issued to demand information about an individual who has disappeared, to petition for the release of someone who has been wrongly jailed, or to try to stay an imminent execution.
In recent years there has been an increase in actions for people in the Middle East and North Africa following the ‘Arab Spring’ and over the past year there has been a dramatic spike in actions for individuals at risk in Syria, as a result of fighting there.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:
“The bad news is that people still need Amnesty to take action. The good news is we are here to do just that.
“Urgent actions are at the very core of Amnesty’s work. Being able to mobilise thousands of people around the world to write on behalf of someone in imminent danger, is what marks Amnesty out as a unique force for protecting people and saving lives.
“By putting an individual in the spotlight, torture and illicit detention is no longer able to take place in the shadows. Our activists shine a light on abuses - a method that’s still just as vital today as 40 years ago. Whether it’s a journalist in Libya, a lawyer in China, someone on death row in India, or a Doctor in Bahrain our role is clear – to make a noise that can’t be ignored.”
Urgent actions have been issued for:
Aung San Suu Kyi - Burmese opposition politician who was held under house arrest for almost 15 years.
Václav Havel - Czech playwright and political dissident, he was also the first President of the Czech Republic, often imprisoned for his human rights work.
Troy Davis - American man convicted of the 1989 murder of police officer in Georgia. A number of concerns over the validity of his conviction resulted in a world-wide outcry against his execution in 2011.
Pussy Riot - three female singers from the Russian punk rock band were sentenced to three years in prison in August 2012, for singing a song which was deemed insulting to President Putin and the church.