When former Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy was released from prison by Egypt’s president, it was a victory for a small group of committed Sarnians.
“We felt we shared a bit of that success,” said Peter Smith, a leader with the Amnesty International letter-writing circle.
“We had written at least three letters to our government to get in there and use its influence, as well as letters to the Egyptian government to follow the rules of international law,” said Smith.
“Fahmy was accused of spreading false news. That case got big press.”
But many unjustly held prisoners languishing in jails rarely get the kind of worldwide attention Fahmy’s case received, especially after Amal Clooney, wife of Hollywood star George Clooney, joined his legal team.
Most people who attract Amnesty International’s attention don’t get media coverage.
That makes it all the more important for its volunteers to write letters demanding freedom for those unfairly imprisoned or cruelly punished, such as the recent flogging of writer and activist Raif Badawi at a prison in Saudi Arabia.
Badawi survived the 50 lashes but has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for writing a blog authorities said insulted Islam.
“There is a lot of tragedy in the world and this is something I feel can make a difference,” said Sarnia Amnesty member Dorothy Tremblay.
She’s a retired St. Patrick’s High School teacher and has been attending meetings on the first Wednesday of the month for the past 15 years.
“At least this way, we learn more about these people and their circumstances. And sometimes we’re successful,” said Tremblay.
“Letter writing is surprisingly effective,” said Smith, who joined the local group in the 1980s when many members were upset about human rights atrocities in China.
Interest waned in the 1990s but returned again around 2000. Currently about 40 people write letters regularly, although usually a handful attend monthly meetings.
“Sometimes we hear from prisoners who say that when our letters start coming in, they get better treatment and often their cases get reviewed,” said Smith.
“Governments can be swayed when we tell them the rest of the world knows what’s going on,” said member Thea deGroot, another retired teacher.
“This is a good way to speak up about issues you care about. You pray it makes a difference in someone being freed or in a country’s policy making.”
The Sarnia Amnesty International letter-writing circle meets at DeGroots Nurseries on London Line. Email Smith at [email protected] for details.