Sun, May 27, 2001 - Page 17 News List

Amnesty and Taiwan linked by history

Forty years after it was created to fight for the rights of prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International's prominent role in Taiwan's drive toward democracy endures


Kawakubo Kimio, center, a founder of the Kansai group, poses with Hsu Hsin-liang, left and Wei Ting-chao.


The 1970s was a time of intense social and political change around the world. Both a product of and contributor to the period's many changes was Amnesty International, whose exponential growth throughout that decade catapulted it from a small, but very activist, European network with minimal name-recognition at the beginning of the decade, to an internationally recognized organization with a US$1 million annual budget and activist members at the farthest reaches of the globe.

It all began with the publication of a letter by British lawyer Peter Benenson on May 28, 1961 in the London Observer titled "The Forgotten Prisoners." The letter was written to denounce the practice of imprisoning people solely on the basis of a person's writings or words.

Within months Amnesty was off and running. By the end of its first decade, Amnesty's secretary general, Martin Ennals, had made two visits to Taiwan, where the people in the Government Information Office (新聞局) underestimated the efficacy of basing one's work on moral suasion rather than brute power.

Amnesty was initially greeted as simply another bunch of pesky foreigners whose political agenda was but a step away from that of the Communists the government was combatting. But Ennals explained that Amnesty did not have a political agenda, and that Taiwan, far from being the only focus of Amnesty's concerns, could also be a partner in the international human rights crusade by providing information sought by the organization on political prisoners in China.

Starting with Ennals' first visits, Amnesty worked tirelessly to gather as much information in Taiwan as it could about what it called "prisoners of conscience." On his second visit to Taiwan, Ennals visited Roger Hsieh (謝聰敏) and Lee Ao (李敖), who presented him with a list of political detainees in Taiyuan Prison (泰源監獄) and information on a few prominent cases known to them.

"I met [Ennals] through the introduction of Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who had secretly left Taiwan the year before and was then exiled in Europe. Peng met with Amnesty and encouraged them to visit Taiwan," said Hsieh, now an adviser to the Presidential Office. Hsieh said he helped arrange Ennals' visit with Lee. Hsieh had spent the last half of the previous decade in prison for having co-authored a Declaration of Self-Determination for Taiwan.

The list given Ennals by Lee Ao was helpful, but Ennals asked that more details be fleshed out for each prisoner. In addition to names, home provinces and age, he also wanted the date of sentencing, length of sentence, stature under which the person had been sentenced, and something about the "actual crime," since the sedition-suppressing statutes were so vague and all-encompassing. Ennals also made clear that no crimes involving violence or the advocacy of violence would be taken up by Amnesty, so, in the case of a prisoner being charged with a capital offense like "plotting an armed uprising," for example, every effort had to be taken to determine whether the charges were bogus.

This criterion was to be put to the test within a year of Ennals' and Hsieh's first meeting. By late spring 1971, Hsieh, Lee, Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝) and Li Cheng-yi (李政一) were in prison, and reports were appearing abroad that perhaps as many as 100 people had been rounded up, and that they were possibly to be charged with masterminding a series of bomb blasts that had hit US targets at the end of the 1960s.

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