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Amnesty's Aim: Public Opinion


Amnesty International didn't have just money in mind when it put together its string of "Conspiracy of Hope" concerts.

Besides hoping to raise $3 million, the concerts also were designed to educate a relatively uninformed U.S. public about Amnesty's human-rights work and attract 25,000 new members from mainstream America.

For despite 25 years of working to free the tortured and imprisoned of the world, and despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, Amnesty International--with a membership of 500,000 in 150 countries--was largely unknown here.

Amnesty officials expect to exceed their new-membership goal, but in terms of making Amnesty a household name in America, the concerts already are an "overwhelming success," says David Hinkley, director of Amnesty's western U.S. region. "Everywhere I go, especially in the West," Hinkley says, "it's amazing how much more familiar we are to people on the street."

Generally recognized as the world's leading impartial source of research and information about human rights abuses, Amnesty International is a nonpartisan, non-ideological movement of volunteers headquartered in London. According to Hinkley, it has a paid staff of about 400 worldwide and raises about $30 million worldwide, a third of which funds the London operation.

By mobilizing public opinion, Amnesty seeks the release of all those detained for the peaceful expression of beliefs, or because of ethnic origin. It advocates fair and early trials for all political prisoners and unequivocally opposes the death penalty and torture of any kind. It never ranks governments according to human rights records and doesn't support or oppose any particular political, economic or social system.

Worldwide, Amnesty's members are divided up into about 3,500 groups, including an unofficial chapter in Moscow whose dozen members are all former prisoners.

After researchers in London determine that a prisoner in, say, Ethiopia, is a prisoner of conscience, he or she is "adopted" by a group. Each group of "freedom writers" works on behalf of at least two prisoners of conscience in countries other than their own, writing letters to prisoners and their families and also petitioning their governments for the prisoner's immediate release.

Amnesty already has about 150,000 contributing members in the United States, Hinkley says, with nearly 20,000 active, dues-paying members who meet once a month to write letters. Dues are $20 a year ($30 a couple).

Amnesty's members are concentrated in West Germany, the United States, England, Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands. West Germany is the largest with about 650 local groups (there are 350 in America, not counting 180 campus chapters that don't adopt prisoners but help on campaigns such as Amnesty's 1984 efforts to expose and end the use of state torture.

The greatest challenge for Amnesty in recent years, Hinkley says, has been helping the world's many "disappeared"--the unaccounted-for disappearances of people like Hugo de Leon Palacios, a teacher in Guatemala who was last seen in 1984 when he was dragged from his classroom by heavily armed men believed to be government agents. Successive Guatemalan administrations have denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Palacios, who is one of six prisoners whose release Amnesty is seeking during its 25th Anniversary campaign.

For information, write Amnesty International, 633 S. Shatto Place, L.A. 90005.

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