Write-a-Thon shines light on persecution

December 14, 1992|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Staff Writer

Arnold resident John Christmas said he had always admired Amnesty International and its work.

But until yesterday, that admiration was offered from afar.

Mr. Christmas joined about a dozen other Anne Arundel County residents at the Unitarian Church of Annapolis yesterday to participate in the seventh annual Write-a-Thon for Human Rights.

Amnesty International's local chapter, Group 284, also was commemorating International Human Rights Day and the 44th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration sets a standard for human rights for all people.

"We have a tree of compassion at my church [St. Andrew's by the Bay], and the parishioners were asked to choose something they could give their time to this holiday season," Mr. Christmas said. "I chose to participate in this. It's always something I wanted to learn."

Participants in the write-a-thon were provided with background materials on 10 prisoners of conscience, from Brazil to the United States. Letters are distributed through Amnesty International's main office to the affected governments and to the media. Each participant yesterday wrote letters concerning all 10.

One was a young man, 19 at the time of his 1981 arrest in Syria. Then a student, he was arrested for distributing leaflets that supported the outlawed Party for Communist Action. Under Syrian state-of-emergency legislation, the young man could be held a prisoner for 30 years for distributing leaflets.

Another case, this one in Turkey, told of the death a 16-year-old Kurdish girl last March. The girl, who was in police custody, was found in a jail cell with half her head blown away and her body covered with marks. Government officials said the young girl had killed herself with a rifle she found in her cell.

"We use letter writing as a tool, as pressure, as a public relations vehicle to shine the lights on those who are abusing," said Annapolis resident Deborah Povich, one of the founding members of the local chapter. "No country wants to be known as a human rights violator."

Mrs. Povich, who estimates that she's written about 400 letters in her nearly 10 years with Amnesty International, said writing has proven effective. Sometimes the standard of treatment a prisoner is receiving will change. Those who have been denied access to lawyers sometimes will find that access is available after a number of letters are issued, she added.

Amnesty International also cites the U.S. as a violator of human rights in its use of the death penalty, especially against those under the age of 18, Mrs. Povich said. One of the cases included in the write-a-thon is that of Jimmy Garrett, a young man who committed a crime as a 17-year-old and was executed 11 years later.

According to the background information, evidence that Mr. Garrett was abused, neglected and suffered from mental illness was never admitted into evidence at his trial.

"We know we're fighting against a very popular tide by opposing the death penalty," Mrs. Povich said.

When dealing with cases like that of the Kurdish girl killed last March, or the execution of Jimmy Garrett in February, letter writers like Chris Shea of Annapolis said there is nothing that can be done to help those who are dead.

However, Mrs. Shea said shining the spotlight on those countries that violate human rights will make it more difficult "for people to be cruel to others."

"We've been working on the case of a Peruvian man for some time now," Mrs. Shea said. "We've had no contact. We've had no current information. This man has not been seen or heard from in years. He's probably dead.

"Now, we've moved more to letting that government know they're not going to get away with this. It may be too late for him, but maybe we'll be able to save someone else."

The local chapter of Amnesty International meets at 9 a.m. on the first Saturday of each month at Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis.

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