Sergei Nikitin reflects on Amnesty International reaching its sixth decade: The candle that has been burning for 60 years

28 October 2021

by Sergei Nikitin

Sergei Nikitin is a former director of Amnesty’s Russia office and a member of the Amnesty International local group in Glossop, Derbyshire

The publication on 28 May 1961 of the article, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, in the Observer newspaper is generally held to mark the beginning of Amnesty International – although Amnesty was officially registered as a UK organisation only in July 1961 and did not acquire its current name until September 1962 when it was transformed into an international movement. Peter Benenson, the author of the article, is rightly considered the founder of the movement, although he created it jointly with his friend Eric Baker, a British Quaker. Eric was Amnesty’s second Secretary General, after Peter Benenson stepped down from that post. From the first days of Amnesty’s existence, the term ‘prisoner of conscience’ was used to define a person detained or imprisoned solely for peacefully expressing their religious, political, or other conscientiously held beliefs. It was the Quaker contribution to the creation of Amnesty International that led to the organisation considering as prisoners of conscience only those who reject violence.

From the outset, the movement based its work on concern about prisoners of conscience. Individual cases, the names of those imprisoned by the authorities and their protection, have been at the heart of Amnesty International’s work since its first day.

Over the past 60 years the movement has undergone many changes. In its time it has been accused of links with the CIA and other intelligence agencies: even Amnesty’s founder Peter Benenson resigned as Secretary General in the 1960s, claiming that intelligence agencies had infiltrated its ranks. On the other hand, one of Amnesty International’s later leaders, Sean McBride, was both a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a recipient of a Lenin Peace Prize. Criticism of the movement from both the left and the right, in my view, strongly suggests the organisation has largely succeeded in maintaining its impartiality and proving it is non-political and deals only with human rights abuses.

In the following decades, Amnesty broadened its scope, moving from working exclusively on individual cases to running campaigns in which all the national sections of the movement that exist today take part. However, work with individuals has been  far from abandoned and remains the very core of Amnesty International’s work.

I have been lucky to have had the unique experience of being both director of Amnesty’s Russia office from 2003 to 2017 and a rank-and-file activist in the movement. After I retired, I became a member of one of Amnesty’s groups in Britain. Once a month, in a fashion traditional for small Amnesty groups everywhere, a dozen or so people would meet in a local church in the town of Glossop for a discussion. The hour would fly by unnoticed (understandably we have been communicating by Zoom for the last year and a half) and these meetings are very well organised and structured. The organisation’s current affairs are discussed, petitions are signed in defence of prisoners of conscience whose names have been suggested by the British section, and proposals are put forward regarding work on particular cases, known to us from materials received from London.

Fundraising is an important part of the work of the groups. Every group in the country is expected to send its own modest financial contribution to the national section, and the fundraising options are very interesting. In Glossop, there might be a concert of local musicians playing ukuleles, or there might be a so-called ‘Quiz’ –  a question and answer evening held in a pub. Even during lockdown our group’s activists came up with a photo competition in which anyone who paid at least £5 could enter. Incidentally, we were among a very small number of groups that was able to send money raised from our activities to the British Section in London.

My joining the group in some way helped increase the work on the countries of the former Soviet Union. Having chosen to focus on two prisoners of conscience from Azerbaijan, Bairam Mamedov and Giyas Ibragimov, jailed by the authorities in Baku for 10 years in 2016. I was of assistance to the group with my Russian: I tried to establish contact with the men’s lawyers and with the mother of one of them. Pressure from human rights activists around the world no doubt contributed to both prisoners of conscience being pardoned in 2019: they went free.

The International Secretariat’s decision to revoke Aleksei Navalny’s status as a prisoner of conscience left many of the movement’s activists perplexed. My group, as well as many other groups around the country, decided to write letters of support to Aleksei himself, who at that moment had already been sent to serve his sentence in a penal colony. In addition, as a group we wrote to the British Section expressing our disappointment with London’s bizarre decision and calling for it to be reconsidered. We sent letters to Navalny and petitions in his defence in two languages, since the lack of a Russian text would give the Russian authorities a pretext to discard such a message without even reading it.

The Amnesty International group in Glossop is arguably one of the movement’s older ones and has existed for over 30 years. While its activities may seem unimportant to some, I remain convinced my group is doing important work. It abides by the wise dictum that Peter Benenson quoted 60 years ago when he founded – although he did not know it at the time – an international movement: ‘It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’

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