Mon, Feb 28, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Amnesty founder dies in London


This undated file photo shows Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International. Benenson died on Feb. 25 in a London hospital, the international human rights organization announced on Saturday from its London headquarters.


The founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, has died at the age of 84. Amnesty has become one of the world's most important human rights organizations, created in the wake of an article Benenson wrote in the London-based Observer newspaper in 1961.

Benenson, an Eton-educated London lawyer, penned the opinion piece after being outraged by the arrest and imprisonment of two students who had drunk a toast to liberty in a Lisbon cafe.

"Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done."

These sentiments struck a chord with the British public, and a few years later Amnesty International was created. From South Africa and Chile to China and Iraq, Amnesty has since helped highlight the abuse of prisoners. The organization coined the term "prisoners of conscience" while its logo, a candle surrounded by barbed wire, became a symbol of hope and freedom. In 1977 the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize for "its tireless fight for justice round the world," as the award committee put it.

"When I first lit the Amnesty candle, I had in mind the old Chinese proverb: Better light a candle than curse the darkness," Benenson explained.

Born in July 1921, the grandson of a Russian Jewish banker, Benenson revealed a flair for controversy at an early age. When 16 he launched his first campaign, to get school support during the Spanish Civil War for a relief committee which was helping Republican war orphans.

Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty, said Benenson's vision gave birth to human rights activism.

"His 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," Khan said.

Benenson's family said he had been ill for some time and he died on Friday evening.

John Jackson, director of Burma Campaign, said: "Peter showed us that something as simple as a letter can save lives, and that's a strategy we still use. He demonstrated the power of the pen. It shows that the world is watching."

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