Featured Cause: Prisoners of Conscience: Wang Dan and Vera Chirwa*

January 3, 2005 · Print This Article

By Brenda Clemons

In its album liner notes, U2 routinely lists the names of individuals whose unjust, politically motivated imprisonments have caught the attention of Amnesty International. In a series of articles, Interference.com will tell the stories of these Prisoners of Conscience and provide updates, beginning with those listed in the liner notes for 1991’s “Achtung Baby.”

Remember Wang Dan, student leader in Tiananmen Square, imprisoned 1989 China

Wang Dan gained notoriety for being placed in the top of China’s most-wanted list due to his involvement in organizing the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989. The son of a Beijing University professor, Dan organized "democracy salons" where university students talked openly about the idea of a democratic China.

Dan was first arrested in 1989 and sentenced to four years in prison for "inspiring to overthrow the government and creating unrest in the Chinese people." He was released in 1993, only to be arrested again in 1995 and detained 17 months without charge.

He was released on what was officially termed medical parole in 1998 and exiled, although it is generally accepted that his parole came as a result of pressure put on the Chinese government by other nations as a result of an Amnesty International campaign. He accepted asylum in the United States.

Dan is currently attending Harvard University and is working toward his Ph.D. in Chinese history and international relations. He is also writing his dissertation entitled, "A Comparative Study of Political Terror in Taiwan in the 1950s."

In an online interview with PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, Dan was asked if he had any regrets about Tiananmen Square and replied that his only regret is that, as a student, he could have done a much better job at organizing the protest. He does not apologize for the loss of life; saying that guilt lies with the Chinese government.

When asked about his plans for the future, Dan is quoted as saying, "I hope to be able to study and accumulate some knowledge and then to the best of my ability to do something for China’s democracy and human rights."

Dan continues to fight for democracy in China through articles, interviews and speaking engagements.

Remember Vera Chirwa, imprisoned 1981 Malawi

Vera Chirwa and her husband Orton were leaders of Malawi’s independence movement, speaking out against the country’s dictatorship. On Dec. 24, 1981, they were arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. They were tortured and given the death penalty. Their sentence would be changed to life imprisonment as a result of a letter writing campaign organized by Amnesty International.

Though held in the same prison, Vera did not see her husband for eight years. Orton died of mysterious causes in 1992 and Vera was not permitted to attend her husband’s funeral. Vera was released from prison after the fall of President Banda’s regime in 1993, after having spent a total of 12 years in prison, including four years in solitary confinement and three years in shackles.

Just prior to her arrest in 1981, Chirwa obtained a law degree in London, becoming Malawi’s first woman lawyer. Her education has been a powerful tool in her fight for democracy and human rights.

In 1993, Chirwa formed Women’s Voice to promote and protect the welfare of women through education, training, counseling, anti-violence campaigns, and HIV/AIDS education.

In November of 2000, Chirwa was appointed Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, a special commission investigating prison conditions and the abuse of prisoners. Although her appointment only lasted two years, she continues to be an advocate for providing prisoners with education and job training.

On January 6, 2004, at the age of 73, Vera became the first woman in Malawi to run for President. She lost to Dr. Bingu Wa Mautharika, a member of the United Democratic Front party.

She continues to serve in her position as the Executive Director of the Malawi Center for Advice, Research and Educational Rights (CARER), a group that monitors human rights abuses in Malawi and provides legal services to victims of such abuse.

For more information on Prisoners of Conscience like Wang Dan and Vera Chirwa, and what you can do to help their causes, visit Amnesty International.


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