A little postage can go a long way, local members of Amnesty International USA have discovered.
For more than a year, the 20 members of the human-rights organization's Ventura County chapter have flooded the mails of the People's Republic of Benin with requests for the release of political prisoner Yves Adjamonsi, 24, who had been held in prison without charge or trial for almost four years.
About 1,300 letters later, they received a significant response.
"Dear friend," Adjamonsi wrote, "I have become free like you . . . Sincerely, I thank you. I wish you could know the joy that moves my heart now. I know that you know because you know the value of freedom."
Adjamonsi, whose case was assigned to the Ventura County group by London-based Amnesty International, was one of 40 political prisoners whose release after the grass-roots lobbying effort was confirmed by Amnesty International.
With 700,000 members, 28-year-old Amnesty International works for the release of political prisoners worldwide.
Although members of the local chapter did not credit themselves with Adjamonsi's newfound freedom, they acknowledged that the flood of mail to Benin, a West African socialist nation about the size of Pennsylvania, may have turned the tide for him and the other prisoners, said spokesman Robert E. Gips.
"Other Amnesty International groups throughout the world sent letters on behalf of their adopted prisoners. What we suspect is that the total pressure of 40 different groups, sending 40,000 letters, had to have an effect on Benin," he said.
Letters were sent in French to 60 different Benin officials, including President Mathieu Kerekou. Copies of the letters to the president were sent to Benin's ambassador in Washington, D.C. The ambassador could not be reached for comment.
Don Noel, who coordinated the mailing of a letter every working day, a total of 1,300 letters from the 20 Ventura County members, received the thank-you note from Adjamonsi.
Noel, a member of Amnesty International for five years, said he has worked on five prisoner cases. But "this was the first time I have received a letter from a prisoner. . . . It's very exceptional."
Noel said Amnesty International did not know the reason for Adjamonsi's arrest. "He was never formally charged. We believe he was a member of a banned political party and took part in or supported student strikes. But Amnesty International believed he had not used or advocated violence and was in prison only for his political opinions."
The local chapter was formed two years ago, said coordinator Tom Higgins, an attorney. In addition to Adjamonsi's release, the group has helped to secure the release of Dr. Ramiro Olivares, a physician who worked for a Catholic human rights organization in Chile. He had been held prisoner for one year.
Effects of Torture
Higgins said he became involved in the organization after he heard Inge Kemp Geefke, the medical director of the International Rehabilitation and Research Center for Torture Victims in Copenhagen, Denmark, speak about the psychological and physical effects of torture.
"We in the United States don't confront torture on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Torture in other countries is systematic. It was this recognition that made me want to become part of Amnesty International."
Adjamonsi, a laborer in the sugar-processing industry, has no trade, and the local chapter will continue to aid him, Gips said.
"We'll try to help him get into a trade school, to develop a skill, make a living. We don't just get these people out of prison, we try to help them afterward."