Wearside Echoes: A beacon of hope for 50 years

A toast to the future of Amnesty International on the 50th anniversary of the organisation at Sunderland Minster.
A toast to the future of Amnesty International on the 50th anniversary of the organisation at Sunderland Minster.
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THE 50th anniversary of human rights campaign group Amnesty International has been marked on Wearside with a tree-planting ceremony.

Members of Wearside Amnesty Group, which was set up in the 1970s, also unveiled a plaque paying tribute to the half-century milestone.

“The tree symbolises the continuing work of Amnesty and could last for centuries,” said secretary Steve Newman.

“The day there are no human rights abuses in the world is the day Amnesty can close down. Unfortunately, that day is still far away.”

Amnesty International was founded by lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961, after he came across a news story on the jailing of two Portuguese students.

“The students had been overheard toasting freedom and imprisoned,” said Douglas Smith, a founder member of Wearside Amnesty.

“Benenson stopped reading his newspaper and began to visualise the plight of all those prisoners of conscience who were suffering for their beliefs.”

Douglas added: “The thought was overwhelming, but he set about trying to organise a movement for the release of those prisoners of conscience.

“An appeal to a national newspaper brought a few responses, but these grew until an international swell of opinion led to Amnesty International.”

The Wearside Amnesty Group was launched 10 years after the original organisation, with the aim of providing help and support to those in need.

Writer Catherine Cookson was one of the first local patrons, contributing a donation to its work each year without any publicity.

“The first prisoner of conscience assigned to the group soon after it was founded was an Argentinian soldier,” recalls Douglas.

“This was before the Falklands campaign, when human rights were disregarded in that country and many were imprisoned and tortured.”

Other cases the group has tackled have included prisoners in East Germany, Sri Lanka, Chile and Morocco.

“One case which is particularly remembered came during the Soviet era and involved a 20-year-old girl called Larissa Zauitseva,” said Douglas.

“She was sent to a labour camp with her sister and their pastor for teaching Sunday School and printing sermons without State security.

“The group made strenuous efforts on her behalf, enlisting the congregation of Sunderland Minster as well to send appeals to obtain her release.

“Eventually she was freed from prison, but the ordeal may have been too much for her, for she died soon afterwards.”

Today the Wearside group, described as small in number but dedicated, continues to campaign against human rights abuses including the death penalty.

“We are also working on the case of a man called Ibragim Gazdiev, from the former Soviet Union, who has ‘disappeared’,” said Steve.

The Wearside branch gathered at Sunderland Minister at the weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of Amnesty with a tree-planting ceremony.

Forget-me-nots were also planted in the church grounds as part of the ceremony, and a plaque unveiled highlighting the ongoing work of Amnesty.

“We wanted to highlight the fact that Amnesty International is just important today as it has always been,” said Steve.

* Anyone interested in joining Wearside Amnesty should contact 525 0093.