United in human rights justice

Written on the 4 December 2013

United in human rights justice

Amnesty International Australia national director Claire Mallinson visited Brisbane to launch a new network in the state and to attend Beyond the Brief – which brought together like-minded legal professionals from around Australia and across the world.

For more than 50 years the name Amnesty International has been synonymous with the human rights movement.  We work to protect and defend human rights for everyone regardless of race, religion, sex, gender or creed.

The organisation has its roots firmly planted in the legal world, having been founded by lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961 in the UK.

It is with Peter’s story in mind that I was in Queensland for a first of its kind event to unite legal professionals who feel as strongly about human rights as the organisation he founded.

Peter began the movement after reading a newspaper article about two Portuguese students who were sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

He was so shocked by the case he wrote to the editor of The Observer newspaper, asking people to write letters showing their support for the students.

This story resonated with readers of the paper and the article reappeared in papers across the world. The success of this one simple action led Peter to decide to co-ordinate more letter-writing campaigns.

And so, Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 at a meeting between Peter Benenson and six other men, from across the political spectrum.

Within a year groups of letter-writers had formed in more than a dozen countries.

Amnesty International has now grown to become the world’s largest human rights organisation with well over 4.5 million people campaigning to protect human rights and more than 300,000 members in Australia alone.

With Australia currently having a place at the world’s most influential peak body, the United Nations Security Council, now is a critical time to make our voices heard and ensure human rights are respected and emphasised.

During October I met with some of Queensland’s top legal professionals, from organisations including the International Commission of Jurists, the Lawyers Information Network Inc and Australian Lawyers for Australian Human Rights.

We are currently extraordinarily lucky to have the support of several top Australian law firms providing us with pro-bono legal assistance.

DLA Piper for example generously commits a secondee in the form of a junior lawyer to work from the Sydney office for six months full-time, twice a year. 

We have legal networks comprised of law students and practitioners in some states. In the last few years we have had several interns from a German law school in Hamburg, Sydney University Law School and UNSW Law School working at Amnesty International providing legal support.

We are looking at building on this strength and starting a newly-formed Amnesty International Queensland Legal Network, and hope your readers will become part of the network.

Recent successes that our supporters, local groups and legal networks have achieved include the release of Iranian lawyer Nasrin Soutodeh, who was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and ‘acting against national security’.

Nasrin’s imprisonment was based solely on her peacefully exercising her rights, including her work as a defense lawyer and her human rights advocacy. Nasrin was imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison where torture and executions take place regularly.

During her detention Nasrin was prevented from having regular visits with her husband and two young children.

Amnesty supporters from our legal networks in Victoria, New South Wales and our wider membership responded to her six-year prison sentence by signing petitions and writing letters demanding Nasrin’s immediate and unconditional release.
Following this outpouring of support and public pressure, Nasrin was released and reunited with her husband and two children in September.

This support is not just solely focused on international cases. Australian Melinda Taylor was in Libya to visit Saif al Islam Gaddafi as his defense lawyer.  She was arrested after her meeting with Saif and accused of passing documents that undermined Libyan national security.  She was held in a jail cell in Zintan for about three weeks before sustained public pressure and diplomatic efforts saw her released.

Melinda's freedom came after meetings between then Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Abdurrahim el-Keib, the Libyan Prime Minister, and pressure from the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court and Amnesty supporters around the world.

The founder of Amnesty showed how one person can make a difference and how by us coming together to take action we can change the world and make it a better place.

If you are already a supporter thank you, but if not, please join us and continue this tradition of social justice in Australia's sunshine state: Queensland.

For more information about Amnesty International’s local groups and our new Queensland legal network, please visit our website and register your interest at: www.amnesty.org.au/get-involved/events_groups

 

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