Prisoners' plight that led to birth of Amnesty

As Amnesty International marks the 50th anniversary of its founding by English lawyer Peter Benenson, the inspiration for the…

As Amnesty International marks the 50th anniversary of its founding by English lawyer Peter Benenson, the inspiration for the organisation has come under the spotlight

IT HAS for long been taken as an article of faith that Amnesty International founder and barrister Peter Benenson was inspired to write his famous “Forgotten Prisoners” article in May 1961 – which led to the establishment of Amnesty – after reading a piece in a British newspaper about two Portuguese students who had been jailed for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

The students were variously said to be from either Lisbon or Coimbra, received sentences ranging from two to seven years, were either two males or a male and a female, and were either arrested in a bar or a restaurant.

It was and remains a powerful and appealing story. Amnesty meetings at national and international level frequently end with delegates taking part in a ceremonial “toast to freedom” in their honour. In general, no one appears to have questioned the almost universal belief in this, our “creation story”, or doubted its factual or historical truth.


An experience in 1988 along with research I conducted for a short film on Benenson’s “epiphany” moment has contributed to my pursuing details of this part of the founding. In 1988, as a young member of Amnesty’s International Executive Committee, I visited Lisbon and met members of Portugal’s newly formed national section. Inquiries had already been made with Portuguese colleagues to help trace the identity of the two students whose dreadful experience had inspired Benenson.

With Amnesty members and former political prisoners I visited the headquarters of the former PIDE (dictator Antonio Salazar’s notorious secret police) in Lisbon, where files on former political prisoners and suspected leftists had just been opened.

It was a very moving visit, as those present got to see their own files and those of friends and colleagues for the first time. Several broke down. No light was shed on the identity of the two students who Benenson recalled having been arrested for their toast to freedom, however. The search resumed in 1999 when Amnesty’s International Council meeting was held for the first time in Lisbon. Research for a documentary film by the Dutch section suggested a former political prisoner, Ivone Dias Lourenço, daughter of a famous Portuguese Communist leader, António Dias Lourenço, might have been one of the two.

She denied she could have been one of those students, however, as she was already in prison in late 1960 at the time Benenson said he read the article. She was also adamant her imprisonment was related to her activism as a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, and not because of a “toast to freedom”.

The trail again went cold. But the potency of the “toast to freedom” story remained strong and undiminished.

The first major piece of independent historical research into the founding of Amnesty was carried out by Oxford University historian Tom Buchanan in 2002. This resulted in a thorough and well-researched article entitled “The truth will set you free – the making of Amnesty International,” for the Journal of Contemporary History.

From Buchanan’s research, based on the Amnesty archives and other sources including British media archives, it seems clear the origin of the “toast to freedom” story came from a written testimonial in November 1983 by Benenson in preparation for interviews by two US Amnesty members.

Andrew Blane and Elizabeth Ellsworth, in an extensive oral history project in 1983–84, interviewed 16 of the founding members, including Benenson, Seán MacBride, chair of Amnesty from 1962 to 1974, and David Astor, former editor of the Observer, which published the “Forgotten Prisoners” article.

In his testimonial for the interviews, Benenson wrote: “Although I was no longer at the Bar, I would go down to Chambers each day to lend a hand with the work of ‘Justice’ . It was on November 19th, 1960, as I was reading in the Tube, rather uncharacteristically, the Daily Telegraph, that I came on a short paragraph that related how two Portuguese students had been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for no other offence than having drunk a toast to liberty in a Lisbon restaurant.

“Perhaps because I am particularly attached to liberty, perhaps because I am fond of wine, this news item produced a righteous indignation in me that transcended normal bounds. At Trafalgar Square station I got out of the train and went straight into the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

“There I sat and pondered on the situation. I felt like marching down to the Portuguese embassy to make an immediate protest, but what would have been the use? Walking up the Strand towards the Temple, my mind dwelt on World Refugee Year, the first of these years dedicated to international action. What a success it had been! The DP camps in Europe had been finally emptied. Could not the same thing be done for the inmates of concentration camps, I speculated? What about a World Year against political imprisonment?”

During the Blane/Ellsworth interviews, Benenson was not questioned further about the two students or the newspaper article.

When Buchanan came to conduct his research in 2002 he checked what Benenson had written and said in 1983 against what he had said in earlier years. He sourced a BBC radio interview broadcast on March 4th, 1962, in which Benenson cited the date of his Tube journey as December 19th, 1960, and commented that: “The only evidence against them was that over the dinner table they’d conspired to overthrow the government. I thought then, what a crazy world this is, when two friends can’t have dinner together without being arrested.”

In Amnesty’s first annual report, for 1961-62, chairman Lionel Elvin wrote that Benenson had “recalled how one morning, travelling on the Tube to work, he read about two Portuguese friends dining in a restaurant in Lisbon. A remark that they passed that was critical of the Portuguese government was overheard, and the next thing was that they were arrested and imprisoned for treason against the government.”

But at no point were these students’ names or eventual fate publicised by Amnesty, and they were not among the six prisoners chosen for publicity when the “Forgotten Prisoners” appeal was launched. Nor was there any reference to a “toast to freedom” in the Observer article, the March 1962 BBC Radio interview or the Amnesty 1961-1962 report.

Tom Buchanan trawled the Telegraph archives for late 1960 but could find no reference to imprisoned Portuguese students or to any “toast”.

Regarding the contradictory December and November dates offered by Benenson, the first recollection is more plausible, not least because it was recounted just 15 months after the events described. Also, November 19th that year was a Saturday – a day on which a barrister would be unlikely to be visiting his chamber. December 19th was a Monday.

Buchanan discovered that, unlike the Telegraph, the Times for the same period contained numerous news items about political imprisonment in Portugal, including a report on December 19th, 1960, about a man and woman jailed for six years and two years respectively for engaging in “subversive activities” and “crimes against the security of the state from 1953 to 1956” (see clipping at left). The woman mentioned in the article was Ivone Dias Lourenço.

The Amnesty archives do not contain any reference to the “toast to freedom” prior to 1983. In passing it is also worth noting that from some time in 1967 until the early 1980s Benenson was quite removed, if not actually estranged, from the Amnesty “establishment” following a controversy which he largely initiated over whether Amnesty had been infiltrated by British intelligence.

Sadly, since Benenson died in 2005, we can’t ask for his help in shining light on the story. But based upon the available evidence I think it is probable that he had read the short piece (left) from the Times newspaper on Monday, December 19th, 1960. I believe as a result of the Times story he experienced what Tom Buchanan describes as “some form of ‘revelation’ . . . that allowed the various ideas and insights that had been fermenting in his mind . . . to be brought more sharply into focus, making possible the remarkable unleashing of energy and imagination” that led to the founding of Amnesty.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the essence of this Times story, lacking in detail on the “subversive activities”, could have evolved in Benenson’s memory over the 23 years between its publication and his recollection of it.

I don’t believe it really matters. It does not take away from the colossal achievement of Benenson and the founding fathers and mothers of Amnesty and their world-changing triumph in harnessing the response to his “Forgotten Prisoners” article and creating a great human rights movement.

I believe we Amnesty members should continue to “toast to freedom”, not for the lost or apocryphal students, but for Benenson, for his remarkable vision and for his doing something about it. The world is a far better place as a result of his efforts.

Bill Shipsey is a long-time member of Amnesty International, the founder of Art for Amnesty and a barrister