“When the first 200 letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes. Then the next 200 letters came, and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior. The letters kept coming and coming. The President was informed. The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go.”—Julio de Pena Valdez, Dominican Republic
For years, that letter has been used by Amnesty International to tell its story. It is a simple story and an essentially simple organization with goals that ought to be fiercely championed by every decent human being on the planet.
Amnesty International is for freedom of conscience. Founded in Great Britain in 1961, the group has a few clear goals. First of all, to work for the freedom of all nonviolent “prisoners of conscience” anywhere. Beyond that, for fair trials for all political prisoners, some of whom have no trials at all. Amnesty is against the death penalty, partly because it cheapens human life — and partly because, as DNA now shows, the courts sometimes send the wrong man to the chair or the needle.
Yet Amnesty’s final goal is to make these words, from the United Nations declaration of rights and freedoms, true everywhere: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The last year hasn’t been peachy for Amnesty, particularly in the United States. Suddenly last September, foreigners being tortured or killed didn’t seem to matter as much. There are those who, when they saw the hate-filled face of Mohammed Atta, stopped caring about anybody who wasn’t an American.
But Ken and Geraldine Grunow kept at it, as they have for more than 20 years, running Detroit’s Amnesty International chapter from their northwest Detroit home. Once a month, they hold meetings at Sacred Heart Seminary, talk about what is happening, and then go home and write letters and postcards.
Some of the letters are to those who hold prisoners in their jails. They also write to prisoners, to assure them that their fates haven’t been forgotten.
For years, one of their cases was a slender man named Dr. Taye Wolde-Semayat, an Ethiopian political science professor who earned his doctorate in the United States.
Dr. Taye had been teaching at Addis Ababa University and also heading the Ethiopian Teachers Union, the country’s largest labor union. He spent a lot of time fighting for teachers’ rights and academic freedom. Those aren’t popular ideas with the quasi-military quasi-dictatorship that runs Ethiopia.
So he was thrown in jail one day in 1995. The trial was a joke. The judges were told what verdict to reach. He was found guilty of organizing an armed conspiracy against the state. He was thrown into a prison in which the basic conditions amounted to torture.
Sometimes he was shackled in solitary confinement, or kept in a cell with a light burning 24 hours a day. Sometimes he was locked in a crowded, stinking, hot cell with 250 other prisoners. Months would go by without anything to read. “There was food, but you wouldn’t want to look at it or hear about it, let alone eat it.”
He was determined they wouldn’t break him. Eventually, one day, the letters and postcards from Amnesty International started arriving. Some of them were from Ken and Geraldine and Dan Wiest and the others who gather at Sacred Heart. Others were from other Amnesty International chapters around the country and the world.
They sent greetings to Dr. Taye. They also sent petitions to his jailers. Hundreds of petitions. Thousands of postcards. You might think dictators would laugh at the idea that they would be affected by a bunch of geeks thousands of miles away who send postcards complaining about the way they treat their people.
Sometimes, indeed, Amnesty has failed. Some of the prisoners are executed anyway, or die in prison, or disappear. Others, like the Detroit chapter’s own adopted prisoner, Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu, are still being held after many years.
But a funny thing happened with Dr. Taye Wolde-Semayat. The letters kept coming, and gradually his conditions in the prison improved. He was allowed visits. The food got better, until one day last May, when the judges who sentenced him suddenly reconvened.
They had just happened to have been reviewing the law, and, uh, well, it seemed like, actually, the time had come to let Dr. Taye go. Last week he came to Detroit as part of a trip, to thank the various chapters for what they had done.
“Yes. I am a free man because of Amnesty International, I have no doubt,” he told me in Ken and Geraldine‘s kitchen. “I am a good indication that pressure works. I encourage people to keep participating, to keep trying to help others.” Incidentally, after all this, Dr. Taye intends to go back and take up the fight for teachers’ rights again.
Some think that’s crazy. They stole all his property while he was in jail. He doesn’t have a job. There is no guarantee he won’t be arrested again — or worse. The University of Illinois offered him a teaching job in Normal, where his daughter goes to school. But as long as Ethiopia isn’t normal, that wouldn’t feel right.
Incidentally, there was one moment in jail that wasn’t all terrible. Taye remembers the sneers of the prime minister when he was sentenced to prison. He also remembers the next time he saw the man, across his cell block.
But he wasn’t visiting. He’d been convicted of bribery. Dr. Taye looked at him. “Here you are,” he purred. The PM is, by the way, still in the slam. There may be justice in this world yet.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org