"I Did Not Feel Alone, I Knew People Believed in Me"

December 6, 2013

Azerbaijani youth activist Jabbar Savalan was released from prison in December 2011 (Photo Credit: IRFS).
Azerbaijani youth activist Jabbar Savalan was released from prison in December 2011 (Photo Credit: IRFS).

Azerbaijani youth activist Jabbar Savalan could hardly believe his eyes the first time guards at the prison brought him a bag full of letters.

They mostly came from people he had never met before, from countries he had never visited. They were all telling him to keep strong and that they were putting pressure on authorities in Azerbaijan to release him.

“I received over four thousand letters. They came from places like Germany, the USA, Japan and Australia. The letters gave me a lot of strength. Amnesty International’s support also earned me a lot of respect from other inmates and guards in prison who knew that I was arrested solely for expressing my views,” he said.

He had been arrested in February 2011, accused of drug possession. The arrest came a day after he posted a message on Facebook calling for Egypt-inspired protests against the government.

The conviction was largely based on a confession extracted under duress while he was denied access to a lawyer.

When Amnesty International heard of the story, it included it as one of ten cases featured in a global letter writing marathon where men, women and children across the world spent days writing to authorities across the world to protect their human rights.

“I especially remember a few letters from Germany and USA which contained photos of supporters holding my picture. It was very humbling to see people from all over the world go through so much effort,” he said.

Jabbar received a presidential pardon a few weeks after Amnesty International’s campaign ended and was eventually freed from prison in late 2011.

The Power of a Letter

Since the campaign was launched 12 years ago in a small town in Poland, “Write for Rights” has grown to become one of the world’s largest human rights events.

Through public events and online actions, hundreds of thousands of people get together every year around December 10, Human Rights Day, to campaign on behalf of others.
In 2012 alone, more than half a million people in 77 countries across the globe took part, gathering 1.9 million signatures on behalf of 12 individuals. More are expected to join in this year.

From the very start, Write for Rights has helped shine a light on the suffering of thousands across the world and has made a difference in the lives of many.

In China, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng received his first family visit in nine months after pressure from Amnesty International members last year.

In 2011, the Mexican authorities gave in to public calls and formally recognized their responsibility for the rape and abuse of two indigenous women by Mexican soldiers in 2002.

For others, the pressure letters placed on the authorities got them out of jail.

‘I Will Continue to Fight’

Gambian opposition leader Femi Peters knows exactly what that feels like.

Femi was released from prison on December 10, 2010, after serving most of his 12-month sentence for charges relating to a peaceful demonstration organized by his party in October 2009.

Femi, campaign manager of the United Democratic Party, had been charged with “control of procession and using loud speakers in public.” He didn’t have permission from the Office of the Inspector General of Police, as required under the Public Order Act. He was sentenced, in April 2010, to one year in prison and fined 260 USD.

While in prison, Femi received copies of hundreds of letters Amnesty International members had written to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, calling for his release.

“I was told that 24,000 letters where written on my behalf. From people in the U.S., Germany, France, Holland, parts of Latin America and even Japan. It made me realize that the whole world was behind me,” he said.

“I will continue to fight for good governance and democracy and the rule of law wherever I am. I would tell people to be determined and defiant and keep the struggle going. People should know that there is an organization like Amnesty International who is standing up for the truth on behalf of prisoners who deserve better. They should stand for what they believe in.”

Jabbar says the support he received while in prison is what helped him through the most difficult times.

“The support I received was so great that I did not feel like I was imprisoned. I did not feel alone, I knew that people believed in me,” he said.