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Amnesty International's 70-Year-Old Angel

May 05, 1996|COLMAN McCARTHY | THE WASHINGTON POST

ATHERTON, Calif. — On a kitchen clipboard next to a copper pasta pot hangs a two-page handwritten letter. The writer tells of a relative jailed as a political prisoner in Argentina between 1976 and 1983--a time known as "the dirty war," when abductions and killings by secret police were common. The letter ends with gracias.

This is a home into which such letters come routinely. File cabinets brim with thanks on behalf of lost, tortured and silenced people. It is the home of Ginetta.

Known universally by only her first name, the Italian-born Ginetta Sagan, 70, helped establish Amnesty International as a major human rights group in the United States nearly 30 years ago and is now its honorary chairwoman.

She is of the rare breed who devote themselves to an issue and stay with it. They persist in dry times when all seems futile and exult in heady moments when, after a few decades of toil, awards and honors are given.

Among her recent honors: the Grand Ufficiale award, given by the Italian government--a government that, 50 years and many leaders ago, tortured and nearly killed her. The citation reads: "Ginetta Sagan has dedicated her entire life with incomparable dedication and intelligence to liberate political prisoners, regardless of ideology or political alignment, throughout the world. Her humanitarian work, recognized and appreciated at the highest international levels, has and will continue to give distinction to Italy, her native land to which she holds great attachment."

Ginetta's involvement with Amnesty International dates to the mid-1960s, when the London-based organization was only a few years old. Its work included educating the public about governments that torture prisoners of conscience, or that subject them to sham trials. Abuses were documented in annual country-by-country reports, a literature of depravity.

Today Amnesty is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, with more than 1 million members, donors and subscribers in more than 150 countries. Some 4,300 local groups meet regularly. In addition to standing against torture, Amnesty has consistently opposed the death penalty, whether in the United States or under such dictatorships as those in Iraq, China and Cuba.

Not long ago, Amnesty began a new initiative, the Ginetta Sagan Fund. The goal is to build a $2 million endowment--$150,000 has already come in--to help women and children jailed or tortured as political prisoners.

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Ginetta has something more than a theoretical knowledge of such things.

In 1942 in Milan, Ginetta joined the Italian resistance, delivering papers among underground groups and to the clandestine press. She was daring--one venture involved dressing as a cleaning lady to enter government offices to snatch letterhead on which documents of safe passage to Switzerland could be written. She was a schoolgirl of 17, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. Both were physicians and actively anti-fascist. They knew the risks of opposing the Mussolini regime.

They knew also that their daughter--nicknamed "Topolino" (little mouse) by her underground friends--was taking chances with her life. So why shouldn't they take risks, too? Her parents refused chances to escape through the Alps. In 1943, they were taken from their Milan home, one to be shot, the other to die in Auschwitz.

Ginetta continued her dangerous work, and in February 1945 she was captured by Mussolini's Black Brigade. Torture--including rape and beatings--followed. In her autobiography, now nearing completion, she recalls: "My greatest fear, greater even than the fear of death which seemed almost a certainty, was that I would betray [my comrades] to the Black Brigade. But to all the torturers' questions I had managed to answer, 'I don't know, I don't know,' even after the Black Brigade 'nurse' injected me with sodium Pentothal."

Two months later and near death, Ginetta was miraculously rescued by two former Nazis. They took her to a Catholic hospital and turned her over to the Mother Superior and freedom.

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One recent Sunday evening--with her husband, Leonard, a physician, beside her--Ginetta spoke of those distant days of bravery. And she spoke of more recent turns from oppression to freedom, in South Africa, parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe. She has a melodious voice, surprisingly deep for a woman not 5 feet tall. Her hands reach out to touch your arm when she comes to the point of a story.

She has many stories, including her favorites of dictators pressured to free political prisoners and of joyous meetings with men and women she has helped to save.

In 1975, Ginetta met a key ally. On a July morning, she rose before dawn to go to a friend's house in the neighborhood where a relatively obscure Georgia politician was staying. He was trying to persuade Californians that he should be the next president. At 6 a.m., Ginetta met with Jimmy Carter.

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