Amnesty International celebrates 30 years of Urgent Action

Through the scheme tens of thousands of Amnesty International supporters world-wide send urgent letters, faxes or e-mails to the authorities in the most urgent cases of human rights violations brought to Amnesty's attention.

Since it began, thousands of cases have been taken up through the Urgent Action appeal system. In 1973 eleven such appeals were issued by the human rights organisation. In 2002 the number was 468. Each case generates between 3,500 and 5,000 responses: a postbag even the most aloof governments find hard to ignore.

The first Urgent Action appeal was the brainchild of Tracey Ullveit-Moe, who still works for the human rights organisation in London. It was designed in 1973 as a fast response to the case of a Brazilian prisoner, Professor Luiz Rossi, because of the threat of torture under the then military regime. It was not until the letters started to pour in that Rossi's relatives were allowed to visit. Although many people taken into police custody under the regime were never seen again, Rossi was eventually freed in October 1973.

'We are grateful to the innumerable amount of people...for their continued interest in our situation, faced with the violence that has been let loose on us,' said Rossi, still alive today.

In January this year, a Russian prisoner of conscience Grigory Pasko was released two-thirds of the way through his four-year sentence for filming nuclear waste being dumped in the Sea of Japan. Thousands of Amnesty International supporters in the UK and world-wide wrote tirelessly on Pasko's behalf.

Vaclav Havel, one of the most famous subjects of an Urgent Action appeal, was arrested in January 1989 and released four months later following a flood of letters and faxes from Amnesty supporters. But most appeals are for ordinary men, Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and even Children's rights, for whom not being forgotten is a real life-line. Amnesty International says that sending a quick appeal is one of the most effective things individual supporters can do to help those in danger of torture, ill-treatment or those whose lives may be threatened when they are in prison.

Stephen Bowen, UK Campaigns Director, Amnesty International said:

'Back in the seventies we needed to develop a rapid response mechanism in order to save lives. Since then countless prisoners have told us that the Urgent Action scheme saved them - we know that in over one third of Urgent Action cases we hear of some improvement in the situation of the people concerned,' he explained.

The use of modern means of communication, faxes and e-mails, enables quicker responses to urgent human rights concerns. These are received within 24 hours of Amnesty International raising the alarm. The UK's ten thousand participants are usually first off the mark because they are in the same time zone as the organisation's international headquarters in London. More activists, particularly with fax and e-mail facilities, are always needed. In addition, supporters can donate funds to pay Amnesty International staff to write appeals on their behalf.


Eren Keskin - Turkish Human Rights Lawyer (imprisoned 1996)
'In the evening I thought they were going to release me but instead they took me to the Anti-Terror Branch and for a couple of hours they made me stand leaning against a wall with my face to the wall. They were kicking and hitting me at the back then they made as if they were going to take me off for torture. They blindfolded me. Just then the Anti-Terror Branch Chief appeared saying 'what are you doing, she is a guest here, let her go.' We learned, later of course, that Amnesty International had issued an Urgent Action for us. In Turkey an Urgent Action is regarded as a sort of saviour.'

Prins Gunasekera - Sri Lankan Lawyer (death threats 1989)
'They killed one lawyer, they killed two, they killed three of my juniors, they killed a fourth and my own nephew, my sister's only son, and threatened to come for me. It's the speed that matters. It's like attending on an injured person in an accident, giving first aid to stop bleeding, something like that. The quicker the response, the greater chance of saving the life of the person concerned. I am living testimony to the fact that Urgent Action is an efficient way of saving human lives. This is living proof. I am here because of your Urgent Actions.'

N'sii Luanda Shandwe, Democratic Republic of Congo human rights defender (imprisoned in January 2002)
'Perhaps they can't quite imagine how much courage, moral comfort, protection and happiness their actions gave me,' he wrote. 'I will remain forever grateful...' He was released on 26 January, having spent nine months as a prisoner of conscience at Kinshasa's main prison, the Centre penitentiaire et de reeducation de Kinshasa (CRPK), Kinshasa Penitentiary and Reeducation Centre.

Kamal Khalil – Egyption Engineer (imprisonment March 2003)
On 7 March 2003, anti-war activist Kamal Khalil was released from detention at Mazra'at Tora Prison near Cairo, following Amnesty's Urgent Action activities. Two men, whom he suspected were members of the State Security Investigations Department, stopped Kamal Khalil on 19 February. Kamal was held in Mazra'at Tora prison without being charged and without access to a lawyer. Kamal Khalil's wife thanked Amnesty International for the campaign on behalf of her husband.

Further information about the Urgent Action Network and how you can get involved...

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