Britain leads praise for Amnesty on 50th anniversary

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British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Saturday praised Amnesty International on its 50th anniversary, insisting its work remained relevant despite concerns the group has lost its focus.

Supporters of the London-based rights group were holding events in more than 60 countries, from Argentina to New Zealand, half a century after the organisation was born out of a simple letter-writing campaign.

"I congratulate Amnesty and its members on their achievements over years of tireless campaigning," Hague said in a statement.

"Their work to protect and promote human rights, often at risk to themselves, has resulted in many lives saved and prisoners of conscience released.

"As we have seen with recent events in the Middle East and north Africa, the role of Amnesty International and other civil society organisations remains relevant in today's world."

British lawyer Peter Benenson founded Amnesty on May 28, 1961.

Angered by the imprisonment of two Portuguese students by the country's autocratic regime for having raised their glasses in a toast to freedom, he wrote an article in The Observer newspaper entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners".

He urged people to speak up for prisoners of conscience, launching Amnesty's first ever campaign and laying the foundations for what would become one of the world's leading rights organisations.

Amnesty has built up a support base of some three million members in 150 countries, and its efforts to help tens of thousands of prisoners won the group the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

The group originally focused its campaigning on the issues of torture and prisoners of conscience but has broadened its approach and now speaks out on a wide range of issues from poverty to women's rights.

But some supporters fear that campaigning on many fronts may have led to the group losing its sharp focus.

"I am worried that they will not be able to prove their effectiveness in the way they have done in the previous 40 years," Roger Graef, executive producer of a new documentary entitled: "Amnesty! When They Are All Free", told AFP.

"These large-scale issues, like tackling poverty, will be very difficult to achieve," added Stephen Hopgood, author of the book "Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty".

© 2011 AFP

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