Amnesty International began as a small group in Britain in 1961 to give support to prisoners of conscience.
“Amnesty is around the world, on all continents now and they take several approaches,” said Sidney’s Mary Leslie, one of many Amnesty International supporters.
For many years, a Christmas card campaign was held by about 20 people. They could send a card, which then went to families of someone who went missing or was killed. This was also for those who had no sufficient information about what happened to them, particularly prisoners of conscience.
“Occasionally you send things to an Amnesty office and they’re forwarded to the people by Amnesty (or) staff nearest the place where these people are,” said Leslie, adding sometimes you can send letters directly to a prison or to the country where people are being held.
Now, having shifted away from Christmas card writing, a Write for Rights event is held on Dec. 10 each year — Human Rights Day.
Some of the things Amnesty does is seek out prisoners of conscience, along with issues of conscience as well.
“So they for example are looking at the Site C dam and … the Highway of Tears,” said Leslie.
With issues all over the world, Amnesty has writing groups almost everywhere.
Write for Rights is the world’s largest letter writing event and is held in more than 140 countries.
In 2015, 3.7 million letters were written to help save lives, stop torture and free prisoners of conscience.
There are 66,887 Write for Rights participants registered world wide. Each year on Dec. 10, Amnesty groups get together to do one major writing activity to involve as many people as possible, raising awareness.
Leslie’s experience with Amnesty began in November of 1989 on Bowen Island.
“In 1998 I actually got an answer to my first series of letters that I sent,” she said.
Her response also came in the form of a letter — from a cell mate of a 16-year-old named Shareef Cousin. Leslie had sent the letter to his prison in Louisiana. Cousin was wrongfully convicted of murder and Leslie said the person who was the primary witness couldn’t identify him. Because of this, Amnesty felt he had not been properly represented and deserved support.
“So they put him on the Christmas card list and thousands, literally thousands, sometimes up to 400 to 500 thousand letters are sent from around the world for some of these issues,” she said.
The author of that letter had many thanks to Leslie for her writing.
Two to three years later, Leslie received another letter from a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay named Jamil El-Banna. The letter was written on a post card and stated he had been in his fourth year of being imprisoned.
“I believe that he had not had a trial and he said the letters were so, so important to him and was thanking me for writing,” said Leslie.
Having written lots of letters over the years, Leslie said answers are rare, but when they do come in, Amnesty gets copies and circulates them.
“One of the reasons that I like to write in a group is some of the stories are harsh and when you’re sitting there writing with other people, you can kind of debrief with them and sit with them. And it just makes it easier to do.”
Leslie said some of the stories are of people who have gotten out of jail.
“So they’re not all dismal, but they are important and they make a difference,” she said.
Working with Leslie are Dave and Anne Ehert who will be putting on an Amnesty Write for Rights event in Sidney. They will show people how to write the letters
Write for Rights in Sidney will take place at the Sidney North Saanich Library on Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
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