How a letter sent to the Sunderland Echo helped formation of Wearside branch of Amnesty International

The Wearside arm of Amnesty International has been helping the human rights organisation to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Sunday, 6th June 2021, 4:55 am

The Nobel Peace Prize winning group was formed in London in 1961. This was in response to the seven-year prison sentences being imposed on two students in Portugal “after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom” in the country, which had a harshly authoritarian government until 1974.

A branch of Amnesty was formed in Sunderland when readers responded to a letter to the Echo by a local teacher, Doug Smith, in November 1975.

Since then they have been raising awareness of human rights abuses, writing letters of protest to governments and lobbying UK politicians across the political spectrum.

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Celebrating Amnesty International's 60th anniversary at St Peter's Campus, from left, Steve Newman chair of Wearside Amnesty International Group, Bob Miller, Dick Curran, Hana Knotek, Maria Lucila Velez and Rev Chris Howson. Picture by Kevin Brady.

To mark the 60th anniversary, the Wearside branch met at the University of Sunderland’s Interfaith Chaplaincy centre at St Peter's Campus, where they raised a glass to six decades of dedication to the cause.

The main cause remains prisoners of conscience – people imprisoned or prevented from expressing an opinion by means of violence.

The Wearside group has had its successes. Notably it was instrumental in the release in the 1980s of a prisoner of conscience in Benin, for whom they had campaigned over many years.

Steve Newman, chair of Wearside Amnesty International Group, said: “Current events show that Amnesty is as important as ever. At our anniversary event an attendee from Colombia described how the authorities are responding to a general strike in protest at a tax reform proposal.

Celebrating Amnesty International's 60th anniversary at St Peter's Campus, from left, Steve Newman chair of Wearside Amnesty International Group, Bob Miller, Dick Curran, Hana Knotek, Maria Lucila Velez and Rev Chris Howson. Picture by Kevin Brady.

“Thirty-one people have been killed, 216 injured and 814 arbitrarily detained according to Amnesty. There are also reports of sexual violence by security forces and of people ‘disappeared’.

“Some human rights abuses make headlines, such as the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich in Belarus after his flight to Lithuania was diverted. But many do not and Wearside Amnesty International Group will continue to highlight as many as possible.”

The pressure group’s profile was raised in the 1970s, when a series of benefit shows called The Secret Policeman’s Ball used famous comedians and musicians to draw attention to its aims.

Amnesty was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize “for protecting the human rights of prisoners of conscience.”

For more information on Wearside Amnesty International, click on www.amnesty.org.uk/groups/wearside.

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