When a letter is all that is needed

Christmas is usually a difficult time for Rosa Franco. Every time that season approaches, she cannot help but relive what happened to her family in 2001, when her daughter Maria Isabel was found dead, her body dumped in a street in Guatemala City. More than 10 years later, no one knows what happened to the 15-year-old. Despite efforts by Rosa to ensure a proper investigation – and in the face of the countless threats – the inquiry into the crime never advanced. Shortcomings in the way evidence was gathered meant those who brutally murdered Maria Isabel are still at large. Amnesty International was amongst the many organizations that worked with Rosa and her family to try to secure justice for Maria Isabel. Her case featured amongst 12 individuals thousands of activists campaigned for as part of the organization’s 10th global “Write for Rights” letter writing marathon in December 2012. The campaign asked people to send solidarity letters to relatives of victims of human rights abuses and urge governments to take action. “I was at home, preparing the Christmas tree and food and I heard someone ringing the bell, it was the postman with a box full of letters. I received so much solidarity that has filled me with strength,” said Rosa. And the letters kept coming. “My family and I are surprised that so many people around the world care about Maria Isabel, when here no one cares about killings of women,” said Rosa, who is now preparing to testify in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights about her daughter’s murder. 500 letters a day Ales Bialiatski is used to receiving some letters in his cell in a Belarus jail, but in December 2012, something extraordinary happened. “I have been covered with an avalanche of letters and postcards, congratulations as well as the solidarity actions…I am very grateful to all the people who write to me!… … in each of [the letters] you can see the national character of those who sent them. But what they all have in common – is sympathy,” he said in a statement published on his organization’s website. Ales is a prominent human rights defender and the chairman of the organization Human Rights Centre Viasna. He was arrested on 4 August 2011 and imprisoned on 24 November 2011 for four and a half years as punishment for his human rights work in Belarus. Some of the evidence presented during Ales’ trial was unauthenticated or anonymous. The questioning of some witnesses did not relate to the charges, but instead to the human rights activities of Ales Bialiatski and the witnesses themselves. During Amnesty International’s letter writing marathon, Ales has been receiving up to 500 solidarity letters a day from individuals from across the world. “These people do not just support me personally, but are expressing their protest against the systematic violations of human rights. It is a clear and simple message to all Belarusians,” he said. A Global Marathon Amnesty International’s global letter writing marathon brings together individuals from every corner of the world to show solidarity and raise their voices for governments to take action to ensure justice for 12 individuals who had suffered human rights violations. The event, which began in 2001 with a small group of activists in Poland who wrote letters for a period of 10 days (in some cases in 24-hour events) for the release of 12 individuals, grew into a world-wide campaign. In 2012, over 1.5 million letters, SMS messages, and signatures were collected in over 80 countries during the “Write for Rights” week. In Japan people came together in the centre of Tokyo to make over 1000 lanterns to shine ‘lights of hope’. In Paraguay, activists organised a bicycle race, and collected signatures for a petition as they went. And in Canada, the world’s 5th tallest free-standing structure, the CN Tower, was lit up on 10 December, Human Rights Day. In countries like Pakistan and Nigeria, where human rights and the political environment are particularly unstable, activists gathered the support of family, friends, colleagues and members of the public, writing for the rights of individuals at risk all around the world. Waseem from Pakistan, for example, was unable to advertise his event in public but was touched by the support of the 20 people who had heard about the campaign through Facebook and turned up to his letter writing event. “The letter writing marathon shows the power of individuals working on behalf of other individuals. The solidarity shown and the calls made on governments to take action are not only about giving strength to people who have survived terrible abuse and are struggling to find justice but to show governments that the world is watching,” said Bryna Subherwal, from Amnesty International. Rosa Franco said that all messages from Amnesty International’s activists gave her hope and energy to continue fighting for Maria Isabel. “What I thought about doing was to make a mural so that now everyone who comes to my house sees them. I already had a poster with two photos of María Isabel and I put the cards all around it, on the walls beside my front door, everything is up there now. I’m thinking of taking some photos with me beside it so you can all see it, and so that I can thank all those beautiful people in some way for standing in solidarity with me,” she said.