Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette
This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.
Find the past “On This Day in History” here.
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May 28 is the 148th day of the year (149th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 217 days remaining until the end of the year.
On this day in 1961, the British newspaper The London Observer publishes British lawyer Peter Benenson’s article “The Forgotten Prisoners” on its front page, launching the Appeal for Amnesty 1961–a campaign calling for the release of all people imprisoned in various parts of the world because of the peaceful expression of their beliefs.
Benenson was inspired to write the appeal after reading an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom in a public restaurant. At the time, Portugal was a dictatorship ruled by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Outraged, Benenson penned the Observer article making the case for the students’ release and urging readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The article also drew attention to the variety of human rights violations taking place around the world, and coined the term “prisoners of conscience” to describe “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing…any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate or condone personal violence.”
“The Forgotten Prisoners” was soon reprinted in newspapers across the globe, and Berenson’s amnesty campaign received hundreds of offers of support. In July, delegates from Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland met to begin “a permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and religion.” The following year, this movement would officially become the human rights organization Amnesty International.
Born in London as Peter James Henry Solomon to a Jewish family, the only son of Harold Solomon and Flora Benenson, Peter Benenson adopted his mother’s maiden name later in life. His army officer father died when Benenson was aged nine from a long-term injury, and he was tutored privately by W. H. Auden before going to Eton. At the age of sixteen he helped to establish a relief fund with other schoolboys for children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. He took his mother’s maiden name of Benenson as a tribute to his grandfather, the Russian gold tycoon Grigori Benenson, following his grandfather’s death.
He enrolled for study at Balliol College, Oxford but World War II interrupted his education. From 1941 to 1945, Benenson worked at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre, in the “Testery”, a section tasked with breaking German teleprinter ciphers. It was at this time when he met his first wife, Margaret Anderson. After demobilisation in 1946, Benenson began practising as a barrister before joining the Labour Party and standing unsuccessfully for election. He was one of a group of British lawyers who founded JUSTICE in 1957, the UK-based human rights and law reform organisation. In 1958 he fell ill and moved to Italy in order to convalesce. In the same year he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1961 Benenson was shocked and angered by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students from Coimbra sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom during the autocratic regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar – the Estado Novo. In 1961, Portugal was the last remaining European colonial power in Africa, ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. Anti-regime conspiracies were vigorously repressed by the Portuguese state police and deemed anti-Portuguese. He wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer. On 28 May, Benenson’s article, entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners,” was published. The letter asked readers to write letters showing support for the students. To co-ordinate such letter-writing campaigns, Amnesty International was founded in Luxembourg in July at a meeting of Benenson and six other men. The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter-writers had formed in more than a dozen countries.
Initially appointed general secretary of AI, Benenson stood down in 1964 owing to ill health. By 1966, the Amnesty International faced an internal crisis and Benenson alleged that the organization he founded was being infiltrated by British intelligence. The advisory position of president of the International Executive was then created for him. In 1966, he began to make allegations of improper conduct against other members of the executive. An inquiry was set up which reported at Elsinore in Denmark in 1967. The allegations were rejected and Benenson resigned from AI.
While never again active in the organization, Benenson was later personally reconciled with other executives, including Sean MacBride. He died of pneumonia on 25 February 2005 at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, aged 83.