Visionary founder of Amnesty dies at 83

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The Independent Online

Peter Benenson, the founder of the human rights organisation Amnesty International which has been responsible for the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience over the past 44 years, has died at the age of 83.

Peter Benenson, the founder of the human rights organisation Amnesty International which has been responsible for the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience over the past 44 years, has died at the age of 83.

Since its inception in 1961 Amnesty has become one of the most admired and influential organisations in the world. Its reports into torture and persecution, and its mobilisation of ordinary people against the world's dictators, has won it numerous accolades and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977; as well as saving hundreds of lives.

It all started when Peter Benenson read a newspaper article about two Portuguese students who had been jailed for raising a toast to liberty in a Lisbon restaurant. Feeling enraged but powerless, Benenson realised that hundreds of other people must feel like he did. "If these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done."

It was a unique and powerful insight - that dictators could be shamed by the opinions of ordinary people.

Benenson's article, 'The Forgotten Prisoners', which highlighted the plight of the jailed students was published in The Observer newspaper. Hundreds of readers wrote to the Portuguese regime and the students were released.

Benenson was not new to championing the plight of the underdog. At 16 he launched a school campaign to support the Spanish Relief Committee which was helping Republican orphans during the Spanish Civil War. He then convinced his school friends and families to raise £4,000 to bring two young German Jews to Britain.

Since its first case, Amnesty has dealt with more than 47,000 cases of prisoners of conscience and victims of human rights violations. It currently has more than 1.8 million members and supporters worldwide and monitors human rights in more than 150 countries.

Peter Benenson, died on Friday night at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital. Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general, 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."

He is survived by his wife, Susan, their son and daughter, and two daughters from a previous marriage.

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