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10 December 1998 Edition

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``We too have our Mandelas''

By Roisín de Rossa

The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become,
The further you take my rights away, the faster I will run. . .

This week, all over the world the nations are marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights, and on Tuesday Pierre Sane, Secretary General of Amnesty International presented Mr Kofi Aman, UN General Secretary, the signatures of 11 million people who have committed themselves to promote human rights, one million of them collected here in Ireland.

Yet this very Saturday marks the start of the 24th year of imprisonment for the Balcombe Street POWs, Hugh Doherty, Eddie Butler, Harry Duggan and Joe O'Connell. First arrested on 12 December, l975, they are the longest serving political prisoners in the EU countries. As the posters called out to the world this year, ``We too have our Mandelas.''

Ireland signed up to the Declaration on Human Rights and has recently endorsed two major UN Declarations on human rights, in 1993 in Vienna, and in Beijing in 1995. This government even went so far as to sponsor a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights in April of this year calling on all member states to establish Human Rights Commissions, though it has noticeably failed, despite the commitment made in the Belfast Agreement, to do this themselves.

The Balcombe Street POWs were transfered back to this country early this year, and although everyone believed they would be released by Christmas, this Government continues to imprison them in Portlaoise Jail. Anne O'Sullivan, Head of the POW Department, who has fought tirelessly on behalf of prisoners explains how she was only a child when the Balcombe Street volunteers were arrested. ``There is no possible justification in any society for keeping prisoners in jail for that length of time. No one could stand over this - on humanitarian grounds alone.''

Not only have the Balcombe Street POWs been imprisoned for longer than any other POWs, they have been subjected to appalling prison conditions over these 23 years. Doctor Richard Stone, an English medic, who visited some of the units where Irish POWs were held, said of conditions that ``They are those of a caged animal kept permanently indoors under artificial light with insufficient room to exercise.'' He went on to assert that ``a civilised society condemns conditions like these for animals in a zoo. It should condemn them for the containment of a human being.''

At the end of last year the Secretary of State overuled the tariff first set by the trial judge that they should serve a minimum of 30 years. Instead the Secretary of State changed this to ``a whole life'' tariff. The Secretary of State stated at the time that ``a tariff of 30 years is not adequate to meet the requirements of retribution and deterence.''

Everyone knows of the respect that the Balcombe Street POWs won amongst the prisoners in England for the strength of their determination and resilience in the face of the deliberate persecution and brutality they faced. Their reputation within the jails, amongst other things for the help they were able to lend to other prisoners, was outstanding.

When Mandela walked to freedom that day people all over the world stood in his honour. It was as if a little of them had also been freed. When the Balcombe Street POWs are eventually released and this abuse of human rights is ended, then the million people who in Ireland signed the Amnesty commitment to human rights will surely join with those who earlier this year rose in tumultuous welcome for the Balcombe Street POWs when they stepped into the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. And perhaps then again a little bit of us will also be freed.
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