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Amnesty International Marks Golden Anniversary

International clout: A March 2011 rally organized by Amnesty International and others in Moldova to protest capital punishment in China.
International clout: A March 2011 rally organized by Amnesty International and others in Moldova to protest capital punishment in China.
Azerbaijan's authoritarian regime gave the prominent human rights group Amnesty International an unexpected gift ahead of its golden anniversary on May 28: a miracle.

That's how jailed Azerbaijani newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev described his unexpected release from prison this week.

"I'm still trying to [understand] the situation; it's a miracle for me," Fatullayev said. "I couldn't imagine it. It's a real surprise for me."

Azerbaijan's autocratic President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Fatullayev along with 89 other inmates on May 26.

Amnesty International had designated Fatullayev, who had spent four years behind bars, a prisoner of conscience. And just two days before his release, on May 24, the rights group together with a group of British journalists issued a mass tweet calling for Fatullayev's release.

Amnesty members had also planned to send Fatullayev a greeting cards as part of the group's 50th-birthday celebration.

In emotional comments made to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service just two hours after his release, Fatullayev emphatically thanked the group for its work on his behalf.

"The activities of the international community helped me, of course," he said. "[First of all] I would like to say thank you to Amnesty International, because during the past four years it continued its complicated mission [to push] for my release."

WATCH: (with natural sound) Jailed Azerbaijani newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev at home with family after his release on May 26 as part of a presidential amnesty involving 90 inmates. (Video by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)

Eynulla Fatullayev At Home After His Release
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Speaking to RFE/RL, John Dalhuisen, the deputy director of AI's Europe and Central Asia Program, reacted to news of the release by calling it "a birthday present for Amnesty."

"But that's really not the big story here," Dalhuisen added. "It's really a huge gift for Eynulla's family, and that's what we're delighted for."

Largest Of Its Kind

The brainchild of British lawyer Peter Benenson, Amnesty International was founded after the 1961 publication of his article "The Forgotten Prisoners," a defense of two Portuguese students jailed for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom -- a dangerous act under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Benenson's article ultimately sparked the creation of Amnesty International that same year.

The group began its work in London with just a few dozen volunteers and went on to become the largest human rights organization in the world, with some 3 million supporters active in more than 150 countries.

The group has 68 bureaus in countries ranging from Uruguay to Uzbekistan and an annual budget of some $200 million that is mostly from private donors.

Amnesty's famous logo of a candle surrounded by barbed wire was inspired by the proverb "better to light a candle than curse the darkness," a line that also reflects its mission to shed light on human rights abuses. Its work on behalf of socially vulnerable groups, political prisoners, and other victims of rights abuse quickly brought it international recognition. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

Touching Lives

The group continues to campaign aggressively on behalf of prisoners all over the world.

In 2008, the organization named Uzbek reporter Solijan Abdurakhmanov, also a contributor to RFE/RL, a prisoner of conscience. They have also been active in the case of Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova, who was charged with defamation over her 2007 photo collection "Men and Women -- From Dawn to Dusk." The collection depicted ordinary Uzbek life.

Amnesty also championed the case of Turkmen political activist Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, who in 2004 was forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital after requesting to hold a peaceful political protest. He was released in 2006.

The group also declared Kyrgyz activist Topchubek Turgunaliev a prisoner of conscience each of the three times he was sent to jail -- in 1995, 1996 and 2000. He was released in 2001.

Not Perfect

The group is not without its detractors and has faced ethics issues of its own. In February, British media revealed that Irene Khan, the group's former secretary-general, received a payment equaling more than $800,000 -- more than four times her annual salary -- from Amnesty International following her resignation from the organization in 2009.

British parliamentarian Philip Davies called the Khan controversy a blow to the organization, saying it is sure to "disillusion many benefactors."

Amnesty has also been accused of ideological bias against various countries and criticized for what some say has been one-sided reporting from the field. Most recently, its recognition of the jailed Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a prisoner of conscience -- a reversal of its earlier stance -- came in the wake of considerable outrage from the Russian human rights community.

Nevertheless, the organization is taking advantage of its anniversary to learn from the past and plan for the future. In honor of each decade of its existence, the group has announced five priority campaign areas that range from eradicating world poverty to ending the death penalty.

Dalhuisen says that like Amnesty International's festive birthday celebrations, Fatullayev's welcome release also serves as a reminder of work yet to be done.

"The release of Eynulla shouldn't blind us to the fact that there are still many other individuals that Amnesty International considers prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. We count eight at the moment, related to recent protests, demonstrations, and online activities, and we continue to push for their release. We certainly won't be forgetting them," Dalhuisen says. "The Azeri authorities have taken a small step. There are many more, many larger steps still to take before we can say that the freedom of expression and assembly is fully respected in Azerbaijan."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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