John Cornwall from the Buckingham branch of Amnesty International reports on the tree planting at the University of Buckingham on Saturday to mark the group’s 35th anniversary and the international group’s 50th.
Saturday, May 28 was a great day for over three million Amnesty members and supporters world-wide. We are all ordinary people and sometimes do extraordinary things.
Preston Bisset Nursery had carefully looked after a fine specimen of a double white-flowered cherry tree for us and the University groundsman, Steve Roberts and Andy Mayall, prepared an ample hole in a prime position at the Law School in London Road, where its spectacular Spring display and brilliant Autumn colours will be visible to all for years to come. Clive Martin, the University’s facilities manager, has been most helpful in making the arrangements.
Members of the Student Amnesty Society Board helped Olivia Riches, our Group Chairman, in arranging attractive refreshments in the Law School before the guests arrived to partake and share in the occasion of the ceremonial planting by John Bercow MP.
Councillor Mike Smith, Buckingham Town Mayor, was accompanied by Councillor Ruth Newell, Deputy Mayor and an Amnesty member herself, together with other councillors, their wives and many other friends and supporters who were greeted by the Dean of Law, Professor Susan Edwards. John Bercow gave a stirring speech about the importance of human rights and respect for the rule of law. He made a special point of speaking directly to Rachael and Hannah, the young daughters of our former Chairman, Andrew Brazell and his wife, Lorna, explaining how appallingly even children are treated by government forces in many countries abroad, and commended the on-going work of Amnesty International.
John Cornwall described how a small band of local people responded to a letter he sent to The Advertiser and gathered in the shade of an apple tree in his Highlands Road garden on May 28th 1976, exactly fifteen years after Amnesty was founded following an article by Aylesbury lawyer, Peter Benenson, in The Observer, bringing attention to “The forgotten prisoners.”
Among the founding members there was Bertrand Whitehead, who took on responsibility for two Prisoners of Conscience we were allocated by headquarters. One was Turkish and the other was Malawian. Not only did he demonstrate extraordinary persistence and ingenuity, but he won their release. Unfortunately, Bert was not able to be with us for the ceremony.
One of the “Egypt Three” sent an e-mail to John Cornwall after the success of the Uprising in Egypt. “Hi John,” he said, “Isn’t it ironic that some of the men who kept me in prison are now in prison themselves!” He attached his account of the terrifying and painful first four days he spent in Cairo’s dreaded State Security Headquarters in April 2002, ending at the point where he was moved on for the process of torture to force him to “confess.” A shortened version of that account is printed in the special 50th Anniversary number of the Amnesty Magazine, which is a moving and challenging document covering world events and Amnesty action over the whole period.
John quoted from an Amnesty human rights booklet: “Amnesty International is a movement of ordinary people standing up for humanity and human rights. Our purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.”
Professor Susan Edwards then spoke, commending “the two Johns” present and Amnesty International for what they do, and expressed her fervent hope that students at the Law School, many of whom belong to the Amnesty Society, will go out into Britain and the world to uphold civilized legal processes and human rights. Here is an inspiring lady who is respected (even adored) by the students she teaches, and has a deep knowledge and passion for proper standards of justice. The treatment of women and children are strong concerns for her.
It was cool and windy when everyone trooped out to the tree-planting. For John Bercow there was no question of a single, ceremonial spade-full of soil. He had come to plant a tree and that is what he did, shifting the entire heap into the space prepared.
For everybody present, this was a special event, and that includes Kerry Hathway from The Advertiser and Review, understanding that many brave journalists and photographers abroad have lost their freedom or their lives in the cause of making the truth known.
Then we all went indoors for a slice of Anniversary cake and a good deal of networking.
One of the unforeseen outcomes of the “Egypt Three” campaign is the Quilliam Foundation. Maajid Nawaz, one of the Three, is its Director. Although government cuts have severely reduced its staff it is worthwhile for readers to go to www.quilliamfoundation.org and see what is being done to counter extremism, and promote democracy and human rights. John Cornwall’s work on behalf of marginalized minorities can be followed at www.freechurchfriend.org.uk
We are not certain whether Buckingham Amnesty Action Group will be able to carry on, unless a few people come forward to attend our monthly meetings, which are now held at the former Toc H rooms, now “The Hub”, on the first Thursday of each month at 7.45pm. Please contact John Cornwall on 01280 812254 for more details. If we do have to close the Group, be sure that members will continue to campaign as individuals, responding to “Urgent Actions” to protect people from torture, unfair trials and other abuses. Salil Shetty, the new Director of Amnesty International at Benenson House in London, is expected to lead a campaign for our expansion into many countries which, for various reasons do not yet have national sections.