Retaining historical facts can be a challenge. It’s especially a challenge these days when search engines work to exclude historical facts and promote a simplistic narrative based around basic talking points and familiar brands.
One of those brands is Amnesty International which has now come out with an antisemitic report attacking Israel.
Everyone knows the brand, “Amnesty International”. The facts behind it are another issue.
Let’s start with the fact that Amnesty International was created in response to a hoax.
Amnesty International was founded by the British lawyer and activist Peter Benenson. In March 1961 Benenson, moved by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students incarcerated for criticizing the regime of their nation’s dictator Antonio Salazar
The report was false. The event in question never happened. The story is repeated endlessly, including by Amnesty International, even though it’s false.
The Irish Times had an account in which it desperately tried to revive the story, but then concluded that it was the idea that mattered.
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.
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…
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”.
In short, it never happened.
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.
Revelation is a very nice way of putting it.
Back to Benenson, he left Amnesty International and claimed that the organization had become an intelligence asset. The issue here is particularly explosive because it turned out that the British government was backing the Marxist opposition in Rhodesia as part of the larger plan to destroy the country. Which it succeeded in doing, refusing to relent until Rhodesia’s Marxist terrorists had put Mugabe on the throne and created the horrifying hellhole known as Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe, with its political repression and starvation, is Amnesty’s one true accomplishment.