The Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund

I have just retired from the Board of Trustees of the Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund [PoC].  I had served as a trustee for nine years, and as its Chairman for seven of them, and we have a very sensible rule which limits our period of service to three three-year terms.  This means that I am no longer a member of any body which has executive authority, although (like Prisoners Abroad before them) PoC has invited both me and my wife to serve as patrons of the charity, an honour we were pleased to accept.  Catriona Jarvis, a retired immigration judge who has much greater experience of heart-breaking asylum issues than I have ever had, has been good enough to agree to succeed me.

I first came across the work of this small charity when I sat next to its inspirational director, Lynn Carter, about 15 years ago at one of the tea parties which Helena Kennedy arranges each year at the House of Lords to honour the beneficiaries of her own small charity, which helps mature students to finance otherwise unaffordable costs when they move into further education.  Helena is a former trustee (now patron) of PoC, and she has often spoken at our own annual bursary awards ceremonies,  to which we greet the 10-16 brave people whom we have helped by funding their fees for postgraduate courses in this counry they couldn’t possibly have undertaken without our help.

PoC was originally created by Amnesty in 1962, the year after Amnesty itself was created, as a means of attracting charitable status for the financial help they wanted to raise for individual “prisoners of conscience” and their families.   Although we still retain a good working relationship with Amnesty, we have been a quite separate entity for the last thirty years, operating on a tiny scale compared with them and retaining our original mission to give help to the needy, if they come within our terms of refernce.

Four years ago, at the time of our 50th anniversary, I wrote an article in the Criminal Law and Justice Weekly in which I described our work in these terms:

Aung La’s father spent seven years in prison in Burma in the 1990s. He was involved in the mass democracy uprisings there.  Five years ago he was arrested again.  This time he was sentenced to 65 years in prison for leading the peaceful protests which led to the Saffron Revolution.  His wife was permitted to visit him in prison once a month for thirty minutes.  She had to make a two-day cross-country journey each time.  He needed a constant supply of medicines for his serious health problems.

We made a grant of £400 to Aung La’s family.  It does not sound very much, but in Burma it went a long way towards providing food for her family, travel expenses for her mother, and essential medicine for her father. He was released by presidential order nine months ago.  He still continues his non-violent fight for justice for the Burmese people.

Michael was a prison guard in Zimbabwe.  He took secret films of pro-Mugabe vote-rigging activities, for which he was beaten up and thrown into prison himself.  He managed to escape and fled here in fear of his life with his wife and young family.  He was granted refugee status, but as often happens there were bureaucratic delays before his jobseeker’s allowance came through. The family nearly starved when their very small stock of food nearly ran out.  We made an emergency grant of £500, which enabled them to buy food for the family and nappies for the baby.  Michael told us:

“The grant I received has set my life on a new level of hope and purpose.  I feel like I have now found the life I lost.”

Peter is a prisoner of conscience in South East Asia.  He had severe medical problems in prison which needed proper investigation at a hospital.  Because time was of the essence, we made an initial emergency grant of about £3,500 which covered the cost of a long journey under escort to his country’s capital city, accommodation there, and the initial medical investigations.  We hoped that other donors would then be able to fund any medical treatment that was found to be necessary.

Lhamo is a 38 year old mother of four from Tibet.  She was forced to live in exile in India because she feared reprisals from the Chinese government for her work supporting the Tibetan cause – distributing books and CDs by the Dalai Lama. Her husband is a documentary film maker, and he was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities in 2008 for providing information to people outside the country.  Lhamo tried her best to provide for her children but it was very difficult for her with her husband in prison in China. She sold bread by the side of the road, which was barely enough to sustain them. Two years ago we made a grant of £250 to help support her family and her husband, who is in poor health in prison.

Marianna is a university graduate.  She was a women’s rights activist in Uganda, and the mother of a little girl.  Ten years ago she and her husband were detained in Army barracks for 15 weeks.  She was beaten and stripped naked in front of her cell mates, and then raped in front of her husband.  She escaped, but was soon arrested again.  This time she was held for over a year in a dark, crowded underground cell.  There she was beaten with batons, cut with razor blades, given electric shocks, burned with lighted cigarettes and raped again and again.  Her earlier rape and subsequent torture had led to the birth of a still-born son, and she was pregnant again when at last she made her escape and came to England, where she gave birth to a baby girl.  She now suffers psychological flashbacks to all the horror she endured.  Her main wish now is to be reunited with her elder daughter.  We made a grant of £395 for DNA tests.  If the authorities are then satisfied that she is the girl’s mother, the way will be open for a further grant for the passport and travel costs..

Martin was a human rights lawyer in Ethiopia.  He was the leader of a “Make Poverty History” campaign there which pressed for greater accountability within Government.  His arrest in 2005, and his subsequent imprisonment for over two years, caused an international hullaballoo.  On his release he came to England and was admitted to Oxford University to read for a D.Phil. in human rights law.  However, after only one year he was struggling to find the funding he needed.   A bursary grant from us enabled him to finish his studies and obtain his doctorate.  He now holds a prestigious post in the human rights field in New York.

Who are “we”, and how are we able to help these brave people and their families?

In May 1961 Peter Benenson wrote an article in The Observer which lit the conscience of the world.  He drew attention to the forgotten people, men and women who were being persecuted and imprisoned all over the world for no greater crime than a determination to stand up for what they thought to be right and  to fight for it by every form of non-violent means.  They were not convicted of any crime of violence or dishonesty.  Their only crime was to fight for what they believed to be right.  They were “prisoners of conscience”.  I remember Peter’s secretary once describing the unprecedented torrent of mail and money which flooded into their basement offices in the Inner Temple, following this single newspaper article.

That was how Amnesty was born.  It is now a worldwide enterprise, and last year it celebrated its 50th anniversary.  But because it was a campaigning organisation it could not obtain the benefit of charitable status.  This is why, 16 months later, the Prisoners of Conscience Fund was created as a charitable trust.  Its trustees could make grants to individual prisoners of conscience and their families with all the tax benefits that charitable status brought with it.  The original purposes of the Fund, which have been redefined over the years but have never lost their essential character, were:

“The relief of poverty of persons throughout the world who are imprisoned as a result of their political or religious beliefs and their families, but excluding those guilty of violence, inciting violence or fomenting hatred between races, such persons within the defined objects are hereafter called respectively ‘the prisoners’ and ‘the prisoners’ families.’

The provision of funds for the assistance of those of the prisoners who are poor and who are granted asylum including travelling expenses and arrangements for resettlement and employment.”

Ritchie Calder, Elwyn Jones, Sean McBride and Jeremy Thorpe were among the original trustees. Peter Benenson himself was the joint secretary of the Trust.

Because its trustees have no campaigning role, the existence of the Fund is little known.  Thirty years ago it began a new phase of life in which it became independent of Amnesty, and ten years later a new executive director, Tom Blumenau, expanded its reach through the relationships he developed with referral agencies.  The emergencies in Bosnia and East Timor led to great demands on its funds over the next ten years, and in 2003 the Fund was called upon to support the families of many Cuban political prisoners at the time of the Black Spring there.  That year the Trustees resolved to divide their help in roughly equal shares between those who had come to this country for refuge and those who were overseas, and since then strong relationships have been developed with partner agencies in the same field who help “prisoners of conscience” and their families in Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.  “Big Gift” Christmas appeals in 2010 and 2011 raised over £20,000 each, first for Burma and then for Tibet. Last year we made relief grants to 46 prisoners of conscience and their families in Burma and 47 in Tibet.

In October 2012 “PoC” will celebrate its own 50th birthday. The event will be marked by a special event at Clifford Chance’s offices in Canary Wharf, when we will also be giving awards to the ten people who were granted bursaries to help them with higher education or graduate studies in this country this year.  In November we will be having a special service in Southwark Cathedral, close to our tiny offices, to mark the anniversary.  Ten members of staff, beneficiaries and friends of the charity have just completed a four-day bicycle ride to Paris which raised £15,000.

In addition to our national patrons (who include Helena Kennedy, Zoe Wanamaker, Jonathon Porritt, Louis Blom-Cooper and Geoffrey Nice) we now have two international patrons, Bishop Desmond Tutu and, very recently Aung San Suu Kyi whose story encapsulates everything we stand for.  I joined the Trustees soon after I retired from the Court of Appeal, and I have been their chairman since 2009.  The Board now includes the editor of this Quarterly, John Cooper QC, who has encouraged me to write this article.

A visit to our website at www.prisonersofconscience.org leads to a short video. This tells the story of what we do, through the mouths of three of our beneficiaries and our director, Lynn Carter, more vividly than any written words of mine.  It also contains facilities for making a donation, however big or small.  In a typical year we make 200 individual grants and up to 15 bursary awards.  Our English grants are normally £350 to an individual and £500 to a family.  If the need is there, we can repeat the grant.  We have reunited 35 families in recent years, after funding for this purpose from institutional sources began to dry up.  I only wish we could do more, and at the October event we will be launching a new initiative called “the Friends of Prisoners of Conscience” in the hope of attracting more of the money we need.

A thank you message from a woman who fled here from Gabon says it all:

“Choosing the precise words to express my feelings about your financial support for the travel expenses of my two children is not easy for me.  You came to our aid at the time we needed it most.” 

Very little has changed since then.  I continued to be astonished by the courage of those brave men and women we have been able to help, whether they are still in their home countries or have had to seek refuge here, and it has always been a special feature of our work that we have been able to help their families as well, as some of these stories have shown.

On 26th June the authorities at Westminster Abbey have been good enough to allow PoC to benefit from the collections taken at some of their services that day. I will be there.

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