The Forgotten Prisoners, The Observer, 28 May 1961
Article 18 – Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in company with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The important thing is to mobilise public opinion quickly, and widely, before a government is caught up in the vicious spiral caused by its own repression, and is faced with impending civil war. By then the situation will have become too desperate for the government to make concessions. The force of opinion, to be effective, should be broadly based, international, non-sectarian and all-party. Campaigns in favour of freedom brought by one country, or party, against another, often achieve nothing but an intensification of persecution.
That is why we have started Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The campaign, which opens today, is the result of an initiative by a group of lawyers, writers and publishers in London, who share the underlying conviction expressed by Voltaire: "I detest your views, but am prepared to die for your right to express them." We have set up an office in London to collect information about the names, numbers, and conditions of what we have decided to call "Prisoners of Conscience;" and we define them thus:
"Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence."
One story is of the revolting brutality with which Angola's leading poet, Agostino Neto, was treated before the present disturbances there broke out. Dr. Neto was one of the five African doctors in Angola. His efforts to improve the health services for his fellow Africans were unacceptable to the Portuguese. In June last year the Political Police marches into his house, had him flogged in front of his family and then dragged away. He has since been in the Cape Verde Isles without charge or trial.
From Romania, we shall print the story of Constatin Noica, the philosopher, who was sentenced to twenty-five years' imprisonment because, while "rusticated," his friends and pupils continued to visit him, to listen to his talk on philosophy and literature. The book will also tell of the Spanish lawyer, Antonio Amat, who tried to build a coalition of democratic groups, and has been on trial since November, 1958; and of two white men persecuted by their own race for preaching that colored races should have equal rights—Ashton Jones, the sixty-five-year-old minister, who last year was repeatedly beaten-up and three times imprisoned in Lousiana and Texas for doing what the Freedom Riders are now doing in Alabama; and Patrick Duncan, the son of a former South African Governor-General, who, after three stays in prison, has just been served with an order forbidding him from attending or addressing any meeting for five years.
The technique of publicising the personal stories of a number of prisoners of contrasting politics is a new one. It has been adopted to avoid the fate of previous amnesty campaigns, which so often have become more concerned with publicising the political views of the imprisoned than with humanitarian purposes.
Churchill's dictum on democracy
Another test of freedom is whether the government permits a political opposition. The post-war years have seen the spread of "personal regimes" across Asia and Africa. Wherever an opposition party is prevented from putting up candidates, or from verifying election results, much more than its own future is at stake. Multi-party elections may be cumbrous in practice, and the risk of coalitions makes for unstable government; but no other way has yet been found to guarantee freedom to minorities or safety to non-conformists. Whatever truth there may be in the old remark that democracy does not fit well with emergent nationalism, we should also remember Winston Churchill's dictum: "Democracy is a damned bad system of government, but nobody has thought of a better."
The most rapid way of bringing relief to Prisoners of Conscience is publicity, especially publicity among their fellow-citizens. With the pressure of emergent nationalism and the tensions of the Cold War, there are bound to be situations where governments are led to take emergency measures to protect their existence. It is vital that public opinions should insist that these measures should not be excessive, nor prolonged after the moment of danger. If the emergency is to last a long time, then a government should be induced to allow its opponents out of prison, to seek asylum abroad.
Frontier control more efficient
- To seek for them a fair and public trial.
- To enlarge the Right of Asylum and help political refugees to find work.
- To urge effective international machinery to guarantee freedom of opinion.
To these ends, an office has been set up in London to collect and publish information about Prisoners of Conscience all over the world. The first Press Conference of the campaign will be held tomorrow, where speakers will include three M.P.s, John Foster, Q.C. (Con.), F. Elwyn Jones, Q.C. (Lab.), and Jeremy Thorpe (Lib.).
Written by Peter Benenson