Death of Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson

Mr Benenson founded and inspired Amnesty International in 1961, originally as a one-year campaign for the release of six prisoners of conscience. But from there came a worldwide movement for human rights and in its midst an international organisation – Amnesty International – which has taken up the cases of many thousands of victims of human rights violations and inspired millions to human rights defence the world round.

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said:

"Peter Benenson's life was a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world.

"He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and tragedy of death camps around the world. This was a man whose conscience shone in a cruel and terrifying world, who believed in the power of ordinary people to bring about extraordinary change and, by creating Amnesty International, he gave each of us the opportunity to make a difference.

"In 1961 his vision gave birth to human rights activism. In 2005 his legacy is a world wide movement for human rights which will never die."

The one-year Appeal for Amnesty was launched on 28 May 1961, in an article called The Forgotten Prisoners in the British newspaper The Observer. That appeal attracted thousands of supporters, and started a worldwide human rights movement.

The catalyst for the original campaign was Mr Benenson's sense of outrage after reading an article about the arrest and imprisonment of two students in a café in Lisbon, Portugal, who had drunk a toast to liberty.

In the first few years of Amnesty International's existence, Mr Benenson supplied much of the funding for the movement, went on research missions and was involved in all aspects of the organisation's affairs.

Other activities that Mr Benenson was involved in during his lifetime included:

  • adopting orphans from the Spanish Civil War
  • bringing Jews who had fled Hitler's Germany to Britain
  • observing trials as a member of the Society of Labour Lawyers
  • helping to set up the organisation Justice
  • establishing a society for people with coeliac disease

At a ceremony to mark Amnesty International's 25th anniversary, Mr Benenson lit what has become the organisation's symbol - a candle entwined in barbed wire - with the words:

"The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who 'disappeared'. That is what the candle is for."

Today Amnesty International is into its 44th year. It has become the world's largest independent human rights organisation, with more than 1.8 million members and committed supporters worldwide.

Note to editors

Mr Benenson died at 10.45pm on Friday 25 February 2005 in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. There will be no funeral service. There will be a private ceremony, for family members only. Amnesty International will be holding a public memorial service - further details will be announced shortly.

Please note that the Benenson family has asked not to be contacted by the media.

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