Prisoners of conscience

The poster has weathered a lot of abuse. It has been carried across continents and countries, from student dwellings through a succession of family…

The poster has weathered a lot of abuse.

It has been carried across continents and countries, from student dwellings through a succession of family homes.

Its thin, unvarnished paper was not meant to last.

Twenty some years ago, I finally mounted it on a poster board to extend its life.

Originally its designers had hoped it and a thousand like it would carry a simple message from some Chilean wall to as many passersby as possible.

Pasted there, it may have lasted through the 1970 political campaign that brought Salvador Allende to power as the first socialist president of Chile.

Likely the elements during that cold, drizzly winter in Santiago would have left it in tatters.

For sure this poster would not have survived the brutal, US prodded military coup d’etat of September 11, 1973, that brought General Pinochet to power.

The simple Matisse-like line drawing of a young woman holding a flower on a black background has a simple phrase below it. “Luchemos por el triunfo del pueblo que amamos.” (“We are struggling for the triumph of the people whom we love.”) The simple message asked people to vote for Allende.

In 1975, Ottawa opened its doors to political prisoners from Chile. Hustled out of jail cells and onto waiting planes these exiles found themselves faced with beginning new lives on frigid and unfamiliar streets of places like Winnipeg.

There, as part of a refugee support group, I had the privilege of getting to know many of them.

All of them had been prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience as “someone imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs.”

A psychologist, union shop steward or a student — it didn’t make any difference to the military rulers of Chile.

If the person opposed their dictatorial rule, if they had been supporters of Allende, if they had been friends of sympathizers, they could find themselves on the wrong side of a gun.

The former deputy police chief of Santiago had been among those who came to Winnipeg.

He had refused to become an accomplice to repression that left thousands dead in the first weeks following the coup.

His stand warranted imprisonment in the eyes of the Pinochet regime.

He was a prisoner of conscience, one of tens of thousands across planet.

Most remain anonymous victims of repression, outside the rare public focus accorded to prisoners of conscience like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate.

Amnesty International tries to draw our attention to a few hundred cases a year.

An Amnesty International film series will present 11 films in the Alpine Bakery meeting room this weekend.

It begins with a film entitled World without water on Friday at 8 p.m.

Through the films it hopes to raise awareness of human rights concerns across our planet.

Don Wright, the Amnesty International co-ordinator for the Pacific Regional Office will speak there as well on Sunday, November 25th at 2 p.m.

Amnesty International has not been without controversy itself lately.

The Vatican broken off ‘an alliance’ with Amnesty International, a Catholic World News press release reported last June “after its pro-abortion about-turn.”

This position has been mirrored in Canada. Catholic Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary reportedly called Amnesty International’s policy decision “an ill-conceived and gross betrayal of their mission to campaign for human rights.”

“In response the London based the executive secretary of Amnesty International, Kate Gilmore,” stated in the release, “that the group “has never promoted abortion.”

She said that Amnesty favours “states respecting women’s reproductive rights, allowing women in certain circumstances to reach their own decisions.”

She said that Cardinal Martino has misunderstood the purpose of Amnesty’s new Stop Violence against Women campaign.”

Further “AI takes no position,” it states in a press release of its own, “on whether a woman facing a risk to her life or health or who has become pregnant as a result of sexual violence should have an abortion.”

But it seeks to “prevent the grave human rights violations that could occur if women were denied this option.”

This controversy, like so many other ethical, religious and cultural concerns threaten to divide us.

We can not become prisoners of our own consciences denying assistance to prisoners of conscience.

I am convinced that good people can find common ground to continue working on essential human rights concerns together while maintaining principled stands on the issues that separate us.

We all must continue to struggle “for the triumph of the people whom we love.”

The Baha’is of Whitehorse are celebrating the Day of the Covenant on Sunday, November 25   at 7 p.m. at the French Centre, 3rd and Strickland. Refreshments will be served.

All are welcome.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.