AMNESTY International turns 40

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Human rights organization Amnesty International, which began activities with a call for the release of ``prisoners of conscience,'' marks its 40th birthday Monday.

Over the past four decades, it has campaigned for the release of political prisoners around the world, including Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, South Korea's Kim Dae-Jung and Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic _ now all democratically elected presidents.

It has also campaigned against executions in China and has accused Britain of acts of torture in Northern Ireland. The group has long criticized the use of the death penalty in the United States.

Despite regarding itself as being rigorously nonpartisan, the organization has been heavily criticized for its views and errors of judgment.

Nevertheless, in 1977, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Its campaigning also spurred the United Nations to adopt an international convention against torture in 1987.

It accused NATO forces of unlawfully killing civilians during the bombing of Kosovo. NATO called the allegations ``baseless and ill-founded.''

In the 1970s Amnesty campaigned for better prison conditions for the Baader-Meinhof group, a violent German revolutionary cell _ a move it later admitted was a mistake.

In another error of judgment, Amnesty backed reports that Iraqi soldiers had ripped babies from incubators after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The reports were later discredited.

In 1979, the Czechoslovak Communist party newspaper accused Amnesty of ``anti-communist subversion'' and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called it a ``lackey of satanic powers.''

Amnesty International was born on May 28, 1961, when The Observer newspaper in London published a piece by London lawyer Peter Benenson calling for the release of ``prisoners of conscience'' incarcerated because of their beliefs or origins.

Benenson had been moved by the story of two Portuguese students jailed for seven years for drinking a toast to democracy in a Lisbon bar.

He proposed that people deluge governments with letters asking for the prisoners' release.

``It was a very cranky idea,'' said Jonathan Power, author of ``Like Water on Stone,'' a newly published history of the group. ``But this cranky idea caught light.''

Within a month, Benenson had more than 1,000 offers of help. By year's end, Amnesty International had investigated 210 cases and established chapters in six countries.

Today, Amnesty says it employs more than 350 staff at its London headquarters and has an annual budget of almost $28 million. Over the years, it says it has dealt with the cases of 47,000 prisoners of conscience.

``It seems to be at the zenith of its powers at the moment,'' said Power. ``They have extended the notion of civil rights. They are packing a bigger punch, becoming more vibrant, not less.''

In a build up to next week's birthday, Amnesty prepared 40 candles bearing images of some of the group's former prisoners of conscience _ including Havel, Kim and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi _ for supporters to light in London's Trafalgar Square Friday night.

The group claims it now has more than a million members in 150 countries.