Life

Would You Send an Email to Release an Innocent Person from Prison?

That's the idea behind Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign – which you can support with just a few clicks.
November 20, 2020, 10:00am
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Photo: RYAD KRAMDI / AFP via Getty Images

Since 2001, Amnesty International has run the Write for Rights campaign, encouraging their supporters to write letters, emails and tweets to those in power who have the chance to stop abuses of human rights. This year, VICE has partnered with Amnesty to highlight some of the stories of those featured in this year's campaign, and to encourage you to get involved. You can find out more and get writing here, or here if you’re in Canada.

To many, the world is becoming an increasingly hostile place to be.

Even before a deadly pandemic tore through almost every country on Earth, our planet was feeling historically chaotic. With a rise in hate, in coups, crises and crackdowns, and natural disasters blackening the skies from Seattle to Sydney, against the backdrop of impending climate catastrophe, the world has been on a precipice.

In other words, it has perhaps never been so important that people are willing to stand up and act against injustice. In the face of such apparent horror, we need those who are prepared to fight for justice. To risk it all, for the benefit of all.

Across the planet, there are many of these people: ordinary folk who find themselves in the most extraordinary of circumstances, forced to fight for their lives, or the lives of others. But who are they? What do they look like? Where do they live and what do they do?

They’re people like Jani Silva, who has spent her life defending the natural resources and biodiversity of the Amazon in her native Colombia from ill-intentioned economic and political interests, only to find herself met with repeated threats to her life, surveillance and intimidation.

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Jani Silva. Photo © Nubia Acosta

They’re people like students Melike Balkan and Özgür Gür, who each face up to three years in prison in Turkey for organising a peaceful LGBTI Pride march at the Middle East Technical University campus last year.

People like Khaled Drareni, a journalist from Algeria who has been sentenced to two years in prison for the “crime” of journalism. He was arrested while covering an anti-government protest and charged with “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “harming the integrity of the national territory”.

They are the families of Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula, who are fighting for justice after the two young Black women were shot dead in May of 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. After hailing a minicab, their bodies were found on the side of the road in separate locations – and despite available evidence, their relatives say police have never properly investigated the murders.

They are people like Paing Phyo Min in Myanmar, Germain Rukuki in Burundi and Idris Khattak in Pakistan, all of whom are currently in custody for, respectively, the apparent crimes of performing a poem critical of the regime, defending human rights and investigating enforced disappearances.

People like Gustavo Gatica, who was blinded by police while taking part in a protest, or Nassima al-Sada, a women’s rights activist who is incarcerated in Saudi Arabia for protesting laws that restricted women’s freedoms and rights. People like the three youths known as El Hiblu 3, who risk life imprisonment in Malta for opposing an illegal return to potential torture and abuse at the hands of militia in Libya.

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Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula. Photo © Private

The list of injustices, and those willing to fight them, is endless. But it’s these ten stories that this year form the focus of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign.

The campaign has inspired people in more than 170 countries and territories to write letters, emails, tweets and petitions every November and December for the last 19 years, in support of those who have been harassed, threatened and unjustly imprisoned. In 2019 alone, over 6.5 million actions were taken.

Each year, these millions of messages land in the inboxes and on the doorsteps not only of those who have experienced or stood up to human rights abuses, but those responsible for them. They flood the halls of power in countries across the world, pressuring governments, leaders and decision makers to stand up for human rights.

A single action can change the world – but that action needs the backing of tens, hundreds, thousands or millions, to apply the kind of pressure that can only come about when we all shout together.

That pressure has effected real change and changed or saved people’s lives. For example, 15-year-old Moses Akatugba – who was arrested by the Nigerian army and, he says, shot in the hand, beaten on the head and back, and then charged with stealing mobile phones – was released from prison after Amnesty supporters wrote more than 800,000 letters to Nigerian authorities in 2014.

The pressure exerted by letter writers also has the potential to effect meaningful change in some of the greatest fights facing humanity today. For more than 50 years, the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows First Nation have been suffering the effects of mercury poisoning in one of Canada’s worst health crises. After decades of advocacy by the community, and more than 400,000 actions taken by people in solidarity with Grassy Narrows during Write for Rights last year, a $19.5 million (CDN) agreement to build a mercury treatment centre was finally signed on the 2nd of April, 2020.

The campaign, which also encourages people to send letters and messages of support to those fighting or being persecuted, has the potential to bring much needed hope to those at some of the darkest points of their lives.

In 2018, I was one of 15 people who were convicted of terror-related offences following an action to prevent a deportation flight leaving Stansted Airport. In the aftermath of the conviction, the future looked bleak, as we stared down a potential life sentence. Amnesty supporters in the UK wrote in the thousands to the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General - and those letters were integral in ensuring we didn’t go to jail. The messages of support and solidarity we received, some 11,000 in total, meant everything to us, and reminded us that we were not alone at a time that we really needed it.

So who are these people fighting injustice? They’re those I’ve mentioned here, and the many thousands of others I haven’t. But as I saw firsthand, they’re also people like you and your loved ones. You all have the power to add your voices to any number of global struggles against injustice: by writing what might seem like a simple letter, you are potentially changing or saving someone’s life.

When the world is at its darkest, it’s people like you who have the power to light it back up. This December, add your voice. Get involved with the Write for Rights campaign, and help to make the planet a little brighter for us all.

Click here to take part in Write for Rights, or here if you live in Canada. Your simple action could change somebody's life.