Brownell Library visitors sat with their heads down and hands fervently moving across the pages before them on November 17. They were writing letters for Amnesty International’s 16th annual Write for Rights event, which aims to free wrongfully imprisoned activists through handwritten appeals to government officials and embassies.
Around 25 people wrote 148 letters to officials and 50 cards to the imprisoned activists, according to Carolyn Smiles, Amnesty International’s Champlain Valley chapter leader.
This year, Amnesty International groups around the U.S. and the world will write at local events from mid-November through January to support 10 imprisoned or persecuted women, including a Brazilian woman who was killed for her activism and Sengwer Indigenous people evicted from their land in Kenya, according to Amnesty spokeswoman Marina Parodi.
“We’re the voice for the voiceless,” Smiles said.
According to Parodi, this was the first year Amnesty International chose women for all its Write for Rights cases: “We’ve noticed that there’s unprecedented levels of abuse that women are facing, and intimidation and violence for their work,” she said.
The women come from 10 countries and face persecution for activism, imprisonment and harassment among other abuses. One subject is a Sudanese woman and refugee who has sought asylum since fleeing her country in 2012, Parodi said.
Smiles’ group is one of 109 local chapters in the U.S., though there are many more student groups in high schools and colleges. She’s been part of Amnesty International for 32 years.
Smiles came to the library armed with pens, paper and scripts for volunteers to make their appeals. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. the Write for Rights participants came and went, writing personal messages or copying scripts which advocated this year’s cases. There were longtime members and newcomers alike ranging in age from a sixth grade student to “the gray-haired crowd,” as one participant said.
In addition to policy-maker appeals, folks grabbed stationary and wrote cards showing their solidarity for the imprisoned women. These supportive messages help keep the imprisoned person’s morale up, according to Smiles.
Amnesty International represents nonviolent activists and carefully vets each case, Smiles said.
“We educate ourselves, we educate others and then we take action,” she said. “It’s always well researched.”
The organization’s thoroughness and accountability are chief reasons Sandy Wynne joined and elected to write letters on at Brownell.
“Amnesty has just proven itself to be such an effective professional organization,” she said. “They’re well respected all around the world.”
She intended to write messages until her “fingers stopped working,” adding the event was an easy way to defend human rights.
For Susan Raimy, writing helped her feel powerful during a time she feels powerless.
“I could write for any of them,” Raimy said of the women. “They’re peaceful, and they’re saying something that people don’t want to hear and for that they’re being punished.”
Indeed, handwritten messages are key for the event’s success, Smiles said.
“We stick to the old fashioned way of writing letters so that a government official in a particular country will have thousands and thousands and thousands of letters arrive,” she said.
The sheer volume of mail and personal handwritten notes shows officials people are keeping abreast of the situation, but interested people can email or fax their appeals if snail mail isn’t an option.
“We’re calling on people in power to protect women human rights defenders,” Parodi said. “We’re hoping that this will lead to real advocacy.”
The Champlain Valley Amnesty International chapter meets from 10 a.m. to noon at the Brownell Library the third Saturday of each month.