It started in Poland with a young man trying to impress a young woman. He met her at a festival and she told him about 24-hour events she’d been to in Africa, where people wrote letters of protest to governments. Inspired by her story – and wanting to see her again – he invited her to his local Amnesty group where they decided to do the same thing.
The idea caught on and within a year, Write for Rights grew into a global letter-writing phenomenon. That was 2002. Today, Write for Rights is the world’s biggest human rights event, and with good cause. Over the years, the campaign has helped free at least 48 people from wrongful imprisonment. That’s 48 lives renewed and transformed – thanks to millions of actions by people like you in almost every part of the world.
Here are just 15 highlights from the last 15 years – reason, if any, to get writing for rights this year.
1. Albert Woodfox, USA
The last imprisoned member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox was finally released in February 2016. He had spent 43 years and 10 months in solitary confinement in a Louisiana state prison – believed to be the longest anyone has survived in solitary in the USA. “I can’t emphasise enough how important getting letters from people around the world is,” said Albert. “It gave me a sense of worth. It gave me strength – convinced me that what I was doing was right.” Supporters took more than 650,000 actions for his release as part of Write for Rights. © Pierre-Yves Brunaud / Picturetank
2. Ales Bialiatski, Belarus
Prominent human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski was freed from a labour camp in Belarus in 2014. Featured in Write for Rights 2012, he received 40,000 letters from Amnesty supporters. “I want to thank you especially for the moral support,” he said on his release. “The thing that made a real difference were the letters I got from ordinary people, and I want you to say a special thank you to your activists for that.” © Amnesty International Czech Republic
3. Birtukan Mideksa, Ethiopia
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa was released from jail in October 2010 after featuring in Write for Rights the year before. Speaking to us in 2013, she said: “The pressure you guys were exerting on the Ethiopian government was very instrumental in securing my release.” © Amnesty International
4. Chelsea Manning, USA
US whistle-blower Chelsea Manning walked free in May 2017, after her 35-year prison sentence was cut short by outgoing President Barack Obama. In 2015 more than a quarter of a million people wrote for her release. She said: “I wish I had the time and ability to thank each one of you for giving me a little bit of joy with each letter and card.”
5. Yorm Bopha, Cambodia
Housing rights activist Yorm Bopha was released in November 2013. She led vocal protests against efforts to throw her community off their land, and was eventually imprisoned on bogus charges. Although the charges against her were never dropped, she was able to return home. “Thank you to Amnesty International’s supporters!” she said. “Your campaign has been successful, as my release shows!” © LICADHO
6. Fred Bauma & Yves Makwamba, DRC
Youth activists Fred and Yves were released at the end of August 2016 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An amazing 170,000 people took action for the pair as part of Write for Rights. “Every letter, every visit, every word has strengthened us and reinforced our determination in this long but just struggle for freedom and democracy,” said Yves. Ten of their fellow activists, all members of the LUCHA youth movement, were also released in 2016. © Private
7. Jabbar Savalan, Azerbaijan
A youth activist jailed in Azerbaijan, Jabbar Savalan was pardoned and released in 2011 within days of supporters’ letters arriving in the country. He had been jailed on false drug charges after he dared to call for peaceful protests against the government. “The support I received was so great that I did not feel like I was imprisoned,” he said. © IRFS
8. Jabeur Mejri, Tunisia
Jabeur Mejri was pardoned in 2014 and provisionally released, following global pressure from Amnesty supporters who joined Write for Rights 2013. Jabeur had spent two years in prison for Facebook posts deemed offensive to Islam. “Things got better when there was more attention on my case and some activists and lawyers came to visit me in prison,” said Jabeur. “Amnesty International’s support had a great impact, I’m very happy you raised awareness about my case, not just with your activists but amongst the Tunisian public as well.” © Private
9. Jeanette Solstad Remø, Norway
June 2016 marked the end of Jeanette Solstad Remø’s fight to have her right to be recognised as a woman, without compromising her dignity and human rights. Norway passed a new law giving transgender people access to legal gender recognition through a quick, accessible and transparent procedure. Through Write for Rights 2014, thousands of people supported Jeanette’s campaign, leading to a historic legal change that has done away with Norway’s shameful legacy of invasive procedures that violate human rights. © KRB/AI
10. Jerryme Corre, Philippines
Jerryme Corre spent four years in prison after being seized by police in 2012 and tortured into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. Featured in Write for Rights 2014, his case prompted the support of 70,000 people worldwide, leading the Philippines authorities to open an investigation into Jerryme’s allegations of torture against one of the police officers. In March 2016, police officer Jerick Dee Jimenez was convicted of torture and sentenced to a prison term. He was also made to pay Jerryme damages. It was a historic ruling on police torture in the Philippines, which saw the first conviction under the country’s 2009 Anti-Torture Act following years of steadfast campaigning by Amnesty activists. © Amnesty International
11. Moses Akatugba, Nigeria
After 10 years in jail and more than 800,000 messages from activists around the world, Moses Akatugba’s life was spared in June 2015. Falsely accused of stealing three mobile phones, he had been tortured and wrongfully sentenced to death when he was 16. He was granted a full pardon after pressure from Amnesty supporters during Write for Rights 2014 and our Stop Torture campaign. “Amnesty International members and activists are my heroes,” Moses said. “I promise to be a human rights activist – to fight for others.” © Miikka Pirinen / Amnesty Finland
12. Muhammad Bekzhanov, Uzbekistan
Journalist Muhammad Bekzhanov was released in February 2017 after spending 17 years in prison. One of the world’s longest held journalists, he was supported by thousands around the world as part of Write for Rights 2015 and our Stop Torture campaign.
13. Dr Tun Aung, Myanmar
Prisoner of conscience Dr Tun Aung was released in January 2015. The Muslim community leader had been sentenced to 17 years in jail in 2012 for trying to calm a riot between Buddhist and Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Thousands worldwide wrote for his freedom as part of Write for Rights 2013. Today, Dr Tun Aung is now an Amnesty member. He says: “I will never forget I myself was one of those for whom so many kind people participated in Write for Rights. It contributed significantly to my eventual release. Now I write for those still in prison for speaking out against human right violations.” © Private
14. Valentina Rosendo Cantú & Inés Fernández Ortega
Mexico’s government finally accepted responsibility for the rape by soldiers of Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández Ortega. The two women had been raped by soldiers in the Mexican Army in 2002. Since then, they embarked on a tireless campaign for justice. Amnesty amplified their calls through Write for Rights 2011. “Without your letters, your action and your solidarity, we would have not achieved this moment,” Valentina said. © Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña de Tlachinollan
15. Yecenia Armenta, Mexico
Yecenia Armenta was freed from prison in June 2016. Detained on 10 July 2012, she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped during 15 hours of torture until she was forced to “confess” to being involved in her husband’s murder. Amnesty supporters took some 300,000 actions for her as part of our Stop Torture and Write for Rights campaigns. “When I receive all these letters saying that I’m not alone,” she said, “it makes me feel great. And I think: ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m not alone.”