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Young Canadians help free prisoners of conscience

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(NC)—At first glance, international human rights work seems like a difficult undertaking, full of faraway places and complex legalities; certainly no place for children. However, time and again young people show that they are very capable of making a difference.

This was brilliantly illustrated last March when 92 young Canadians – aged 10 to 15 – helped secure the release of a prisoner of conscience in Turkmenistan. The youth participate in Amnesty International's Lifesavers program, which is designed give young people an opportunity to write letters for human rights.

The Lifesavers program is part of Amnesty's Urgent Action Network. Members of the network write urgent letters to government authorities and opposition groups when individuals are at risk of grave human rights abuses such as torture, ill-treatment and death. In many cases, these individuals are being threatened or targeted for speaking out for their beliefs or simply because of who they are.

In March 2003 the Lifesavers were asked to write letters calling for the release of Farid Tukbatullin, a prisoner of conscience who was sentenced to three years in prison after an unfair trial. Tukbatullin was a civil society activist and environmentalist who was targeted after attending an international human rights conference. The authorities accused him of refusing to disclose information about plans of exiled opposition groups to carry out an armed coup, which the authorities claimed were discussed at the conference. Amnesty International, who also attended the conference, believed that the charges were fabricated to punish Tukhbatullin for his peaceful activities as an activist.

The coordinator for Amnesty's Lifesavers program, Marilyn McKim, came up with a creative way for the young Canadian letter writers to get their message across. Along with the case details, she sent each Lifesaver an old key which they attached to their letters as graphic reminders that the door to Tukbatullin's cell needed to be unlocked.

The youngsters were ecstatic when they heard that Tukbatullin had been released and reunited with his family shortly after their letters were received. The Lifesavers also learned that they too can play an important role in promoting and protecting human rights for everyone.

Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights. Amnesty's nearly two million members mobilize persistent public pressure on governments, armed political groups, companies and others to prevent and stop human rights violations.

To find out more or to send your old keys to Amnesty's Lifesavers program, please write to Amnesty International, 312 Laurier Ave East, Suite 200, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 1H9 or call us at 1-800-AMNESTY (266-3789) or visit www.amnesty.ca.

- News Canada
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