How did Amnesty International start?

More than four decades ago, the story of two Portuguese students sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for raising a toast to freedom horrified British lawyer Peter Benenson. He wrote to the British newspaper, The Observer, calling for an international campaign to bombard authorities around the world with protests about the “forgotten prisoners”. On 28 May 1961 the newspaper launched his year-long campaign, Appeal for Amnesty 1961, calling on people everywhere to protest against the imprisonment of men and women for their political or religious beliefs – “prisoners of conscience”.

Within a month, more than a thousand readers had sent letters of support, offers of practical help and details about many more prisoners of conscience. Within six months, a brief publicity effort was being developed into a permanent, international movement. Within a year the new organization had sent delegations to four countries to make representations on behalf of prisoners and had taken up 210 cases. Its members had organized national bodies in seven countries.

The principles of impartiality and independence were established from the start. The emphasis was on the international protection of the human rights of individuals. As Amnesty International grew, its focus expanded to take in not just prisoners of conscience, but other victims of human rights abuses – such as torture, “disappearances” and the death penalty. In 1977, the movement’s efforts were recognized through the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978, it was honored with a United Nations Human Rights Award.

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