Cover Story: Letters Set People Free

Amnesty International lobbies on behalf of political prisoners

Farid Tukhbatullin was imprisoned March 4 in Turkmenistan. He wasn't jailed because he'd stolen something or committed a violent crime. Tukhbatullin was jailed because he is a civil activist and co-chair of the Ecological Club.

To put it simply, his views differed from those of the people in power.

But after only two months, Tukhbatullin was released. Being freed wasn't the result of a kindhearted warden or a compassionate political leader. He was released because of the overwhelming pressure caused by thousands of letters written by members of Amnesty International.

"They'll just drag some guy out of his house and gun him down," says Laura Osborn-Coffey, the Cincinnati area coordinator for Amnesty International.

That's the sort of repression that Osborn-Coffey and several thousand other Amnesty International members in Greater Cincinnati fight on a regular basis.

Their struggle is a peaceful one.

They send letters, faxes, e-mails and petitions to combat human rights abuses all over the world. They also campaign at concerts and hold large parties to collect money.

"We put the 'f-u-n' in 'fund-raising,' " Osborn-Coffey says.

Critics often say Amnesty International imposes its political views and culture on the world, forcing Western ethics and morals on weaker countries. But the standards that Amnesty International applies reflect something much more universal than the concepts embodied in the U.S. Constitution, according to Osborn-Coffey.

"For one thing, Amnesty has members in over 60 countries worldwide, and these are not our standards, they're international standards," she says. "We ask governments to comply with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights."

As soon as Amnesty International receives credible information about a human rights abuse, the organization notifies its 1.5 million members in an "Urgent Actions" newsletter. The organization tries to get people to respond as quickly as possible, because many prisoners who have been freed say the sooner the letters start arriving, the better the chance a person has of being released.

Group coordinators receive much more information about larger projects and campaigns that their local groups can adopt and work on together.

The Cincinnati group's current project is to improve the treatment of prisoners at the Drapchi Prison in Tibet. Many nuns and monks are jailed in Drapchi for an indefinite amount of time because of their religious beliefs.

Many prisoners report that guards beat them with gun butts, bicycle pumps, iron rods and belt buckles. Other prisoners have been suspended from the ceiling with their hands tied behind their backs or hung by their ankles until they lose consciousness. Many of the nuns also report having been abused and raped with electric batons.

Why should people in Greater Cincinnati care about the fate of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns?

"If I was put in prison for some of the reasons these folks are put in prison, I would hope someone somewhere around the world would write a letter on my behalf," Osborn-Coffey says.

Amnesty International members find a way to take a few minutes each day, week or month to do something to help someone suffering repression in other countries. "One of the best things about Amnesty is that you can do as much or as little as you like," Laura Osborn-Coffey says.

While it might seem a letter won't make a difference, it really does, she says.

For more information or to join Amnesty International, visit, call Laura Osborn-Coffey at 513-614-1902 or write Amnesty International, P.O. Box 45, Bethel, OH 45106.

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