St Bride's: Sermon Series

Prisoners of Conscience

Persecution is defined as the mistreatment of a person or group by another group because of what they believe, their ethnicity or political opinion through the deliberate and sustained infliction of suffering, harassment, isolation, imprisonment, fear, or pain.

My father was a lawyer. We used to live in Gray's Inn not far from St Brides. After the War Dad was a prosecuter in the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg that defined crimes against humanity, the murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts of persecution carried out against civilian populations.

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Dad was a friend of the British barrister Peter Benenson, whose chambers were in the Middle Temple, half a mile from St Brides. 50 years ago he founded the human rights movement Amnesty International with an article in The Observer entitled The Forgotten Prisoners. It featured a number of Prisoners of Conscience - persecuted and imprisoned solely for their peacefully held opinions.

Today I work for Amnesty International. We have been busy marking Amnesty's half century. I helped to paint 50 banners we displayed in St Martin's in the Fields, one for every year of our existence, each featuring the face of a prisoner of conscience from a different country who we had campaigned for in that year. I'd like to introduce you to some of them.

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Josef Beran, an outspoken Catholic bishop, survived incarceration by the Nazis in Theresienstadt and Dachau concentration camps. In 1949, as Archbishop of Prague, he was imprisoned in Communist Czechoslovakia for his words and beliefs. In 1961 Beran was one of the six prisoners of conscience featured in Benenson's Observer article. After an Amnesty campaign Beran was finally freed two years later.

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General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973. Young Jacqueline Drouilly, a student in Santiago, was one of more than a thousand people arrested in that period by the military police, who were "disappeared". Jacqueline's family believes her body, which was never found, may have been dropped into the ocean from a helicopter.

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In May 1980 there was a military takeover in the Republic of Korea. A hundred thousand people protested against the coup in the southern city of Kwangju. The demostrations were brutally suppressed by the military. Hundreds of citizens were killed, and thousands arrested. One of those detained was the opposition politician, Kim Dae-Jung, who had survived death for treason.

The City and Tower Hamlets Amnesty Group (that meets in my kitchen, ) and hundreds of other groups sent appeal letters to General Chun Doo-Hwan against the planned execution of Mr Kim's sentence. It was later changed to one of life imprisonment, then to a year's jail and then he was released. Twenty years later that same Kim Dae-Jung had been elected President of Korea and had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I actually met him at a rally in Kwangju in May 2000 marking the 20th anniversary of the massacre. We shook hands. He said: "Oh, you're from Amnesty. You saved my life. I'd like to give you this wrist watch." still pleased to be wearing the watch.

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I painted Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and TV producer, a peaceful campaigner against the oil industry's damage to his Ogoni homeland and an opponent of Nigeria's military ruler General Sani Abacha. In 1995 Saro Wiwa was arrested, subjected to a grossly unfair trial before a kind of military tribunal, sentenced to death for a crime in which he had no part and hanged in Port Harcourt.

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Zarganar means "tweezers" in Burmese. It's the stage name of Maung Tura, ex dentist, poet and cross-dressing stand-up comedian of Mandalay. In 1988 he was arrested and jailed for "disturbing public tranquillity." In 1990 he performed a skit to thousands of people in a Rangoon stadium in which he mimicked junta leader General Saw Maung. Zarganar was arrested, and sentenced to four years solitary confinement in Insein Jail. He was banned for life from performing in public. He was arrested again in 2008 for speaking to foreign media about the lack of government action after Cyclone Nargis had devastated the Irrawaddy Delta and left a million homeless. He was sentenced to 59 years imprisonment for "public order offences" that normally carry a maximum sentence of 2 years. Zarganar has recently been released along with another 200 of Burma's 2000 political prisoners.

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I made a banner about Helen Berhane, a gifted singer from Eritrea, a country where Pentecostal Churches, Jehovah's Witnesses and some other churches have been banned by the government. In 2004 Helen made an album CD of gospel songs. Shortly afterwards she was arrested and detained without charge or trial for nearly 3 years along with hundreds of other members of her church. Her head was shaved. She was held in a metal shipping container and in underground cells in the Mai Serwa military camp in the desert. She was reportedly beaten and tortured in an apparent attempt to get her to sign a document renouncing her faith.

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Filep Karma, a civil servant from Papua, Indonesia, was present at a peaceful public meeting where he is said to have the banned Papuan Morning Star flag was waved. He was arrested and is currently in jail serving a 15 year sentence for sedition.

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In the corner of this Journalists' Church is a photograph and small memorial to the Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya who worked on the situation in Chechnya and had written critically about Mr Putin. She had received death threats and survived attempted assassination. I met her when she came to London to receive a Global Award from Amnesty International for Human Rights Journalism. She was shot dead on the steps to her flat in 2006.

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In 2004 Chinese poet and magazine editor Shi Tao used his Yahoo account to email a pro democracy chat room on the Internet to discuss a briefing for journalists from the Ministry of Propaganda that he had attended about the 15th anniversary of the "Tiananmen Square Incident." With Yahoo's assistance Chinese authorities traced Shi Tao, who was arrested, found guilty of 'illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities' and is currently serving a 10 years prison sentence.

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Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutodeh has campaigned for women's equality, represented juveniles on death row and detained opposition leaders. She was arrested in September 2010 on charges of "spreading propaganda, conspiring to harm state security" and of not wearing hejab (Islamic dress for women) during a videotaped TV interview. She has been barred from practicing law and from leaving the country. Her 11 year prison sentence has now been reduced to 6 years.

This is a tiny fragment of the work of Amnesty International for human rights and against persecution.

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