Saturday, December 04, 2010

Human Rights Day in Amherst

A hub of activity for human rights

Published on December 03, 2010

Following is the first of two essays written in advance of a two-day event planned for next weekend in Amherst to mark the International Declaration of Human Rights Day. A vigil organized by the Amherst Human Rights Commission is set for Dec. 10 at 5:30 p.m. on the Town Common and a celebration with speeches, food and music will be held Dec. 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Town Hall.

It was a stormy winter day in December of 1994, a few months after I arrived in Amherst fleeing the systematic torture program run by the current regime in Sudan.

I was moved by those dedicated human-rights residents of Amherst who had a table in front of the 'Bread & Circus' store in Hadley in that extreme weather to encourage shoppers to stop for a moment to sign a petition to release prisoners of conscience around the world.

I stopped to sign and to practice my broken English that I'd learned in school and never practiced before. It did not take much time for Claudia Rhodes, Lois Gagnon, and the late Andrew Hassenfeld to recruit me. Since that date, I became part of the bi-weekly 'tabling' activity of the local chapter of Amnesty international (aka Group 128) that adds to the diverse panorama of the Amherst Farmers Market.

Over the 32 years since Group 128 was established in Amherst, thousands of petitions have been signed by Amherst residents. Many success stories can be shared here including the latest one of Aung San Suu Kyi who was released in November after a global campaign waged by millions of human rights activists. Ms. Aung, the leader of a political party in Burma (the military junta renamed it Myanmar!), and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spent 14 years in prison without being charged or standing trial. She's one example case of thousands of what are known as Prisoners of Conscience (POC).

Some of us may have doubt in the power of the small act of signing a petition. This concern I hear sometimes while I'm 'tabling' downtown. However, these doubts diminish quickly when I tell my story.

After 42 days in my prison in Sudan, I received my first packet of clean underwear and a toothbrush, and was moved to a better section within the detention center where torture was less frequent. This happened in the infamous torture center known as Citibank Ghost House (a small Colonial house in which 171 activists were detained at one point). The different treatment I received was not due to a change in the military regime policy. It was, as I found out later, because of the small act of signing petitions on my behalf by Amnesty International.

The perpetrators always deny running these secret torture centers, or the existence of human rights prisoners. This is why Abu Zeid, an infamous perpetrator, used to brag about his limitless power during night torture parties in that place "we can do anything to you here. No one will know or hear about you." They fear the most when human rights groups confront them with evidence of a detainee's name and photo. At that moment, they know the world is watching them and they can't kill you.

And this is why the United Nations' theme for the 2010 Human Rights Day is "Human Rights Defenders who Act to End Discrimination." The UN is highlighting the role of ordinary citizen who devote time and risk themselves and their families to call for human rights for all.

We invite you to come and celebrate the Human Rights Day on December 11 at the Amherst Town Hall to highlight the achievements of many human rights defenders. We will hear about our successes and challenge stories from Bosnia, Burma, Morocco, Darfur, Puerto Rico, Chile and many other places.

Mohamed Elgadi is a member of the Human Rights Commission, and the Amnesty International coordinator in Amherst.

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