Des Warren and Amnesty International

By Eileen Turnbull, Campaign Researcher

One of the mysteries that I was able to solve during my research concerned the decision of Amnesty International to adopt Des Warren as a Prisoner of Conscience on 25th July 1975 and then withdraw their decision in October 1975 whilst he was still in jail. He learned of their decision in a newspaper report whilst sitting in his cell in Lincoln Prison. He was at the complete mercy of the state. His wife and family were left without support.

At the time Amnesty claimed that there had been a mistake in the procedure used to adopt Des. They said that the case worker dealing with Des’ file in 1975 worked for “Amnesty International UK” and not “Amnesty International, International Secretariat”. They said that adopting a British Prisoner of Conscience could only be done by a non-British arm of the organisation. Many people at the time thought that this was an excuse, including Des himself (see Chapter 29 of his book, The key to my cell dealing with this issue).

As the researcher for the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign I decided to investigate what happened. Whilst the story about the caseworker may have been correct, it was not the real reason that Amnesty withdrew prisoner of conscience status from Des Warren. Their own documents show that they came under secret pressure from the Government to do so.

I assisted Andy Warren, Des’ youngest son, to write to Amnesty on 13th February 2014 to ask why they had abandoned his father. He also asked for a copy of his father’s file. We were met with a variety of excuses, despite the intervention of David Anderson MP on Andy’s behalf. I took up the cudgels for Andy and wrote to Amnesty on 29th January 2015. I explained that our Campaign was representing the Shrewsbury 24 pickets, which included Des Warren, and that we wanted access to the file to see what steps the Government had taken to continue to criminalise the Shrewsbury pickets.

Amnesty promised to send the papers to me and also agreed to meet us in Liverpool. I did not receive the papers and they cancelled the meeting in Liverpool. We were back to square one! I realised we were getting nowhere and that direct action was needed. I e-mailed them and said that that we would be in London on the 11th March 2015 and would visit their office to pick up the documents from the file.

On 11th March 2015 myself Andy Warren and Harry Chadwick, Campaign chairperson, together with convicted picket Ricky Tomlinson, visited Amnesty’s London office. The AI officer had a list of documents from Dessie’s file. He said we could have a copy of the list but not the actual documents as they had not been cleared for release by their legal department.

I informed him that we were not in a rush and he could put them before the relevant legal team there and then for clearance. We were happy to wait. I argued that it was incomprehensible that we had waited fifteen months, and travelled to London, only to be told we could have a list of the documents but not the material itself. This was unacceptable behaviour from an organisation whose main objective is to demand transparency from governments and to protect political prisoners from the worst excesses of the state.

He eventually agreed to our request. Half an hour later he informed us that they had agreed to release only some of the documents as the rest would have to be checked out further and sent to me at a later date.

Some of the documents he handed to me were poor photocopies and some were redacted. When I challenged him about this he said that the documents were old and some were copied from microfiche records. The redacted parts were the names of AI staff involved in the decisions forty years ago.

After sending further reminder e-mails to Amnesty I eventually received the further documents on 16th May 2015. These were of the same poor quality.
Examining the documents proved problematic. Names were redacted so I had to cross reference dates and events to decipher the information. It was worth it, as I found conclusive evidence that the Government had brought pressure to bear on Amnesty International to withdraw prisoner of conscience status from Des Warren.

I produced the following timeline:

6th June 1975 Amnesty International received an application for Prisoner of Conscience status from Des Warren’s solicitor.

14th July 1975 AI adopts Des as a prisoner of conscience. The letter to his solicitor is from Amnesty International, International Secretariat. It states, “We have decided to ‘adopt’ Dennis Warren. As you probably know, it is a rule of Amnesty International that members of the organisation do not work for cases in their own country. We are giving the case to a European Amnesty group who will appeal to the British Government for Dennis Warren’s release; help support the family and publicise the case in their country.” It was signed by Angela Wright, Western European Research Department.

24th July 1975 Alex Lyon MP, Home Office Minister, writes to Martin Ennals, General Secretary of Amnesty International (and brother of David Ennals MP, Minister of State in the Foreign Office and part of the Wilson Government. Lyons wrote, “I was a little surprised to read that Amnesty has adopted Des Warren as a prisoner of conscience. Could you give me reasons for taking a view which seems at variance with a properly conducted trial where Warren was convicted of offences based on evidence of intimidation and violence.”
There are no copies of Martin Ennals response in AI file. When pressed on this they carried out a search of the files but could not find it. They asked the Cabinet Office for a copy under the Freedom of Information Act but the Cabinet Office replied that they could not trace it.

After receiving the letter from Alex Lyon, Amnesty decided to put Des Warren’s case to its “Borderline Committee” for consideration. This committee consisted of three people, each from a different country, who considered cases where there was no outright agreement. In Des’ case it had nothing to do with the original Amnesty caseworker being from the UK. In August 1975, after due consideration the Borderline Committee decided, by 2 to 1, on 18 to retain Des as a Prisoner of Conscience.

20th August 1975 Alex Lyon wrote to Amnesty International again.

21st August 1975 AI sends a memo, with a copy of Alex Lyon’s letter, to the Borderline Committee, copying in other AI officers (names redacted). The memo states, “Enclosed is a copy of a letter we have just received from the Minister of State at the Home Office commenting on the above case ‘Dennis Warren’. Given the carful and detailed nature of this letter I felt that it should be made available to you in your consideration of the suitability of Mr Warren for adoption by Amnesty International. If you have already committed your views to paper or, indeed, sent them you may wish to reconsider them in light of the enclosed letter.”

On 3rd September 1975 one member of the Borderline Committee wrote, “The letter from the Home Office does I think throw a different light on the Warren case… In the light of the most recent evidence, I would be inclined to reverse my previous conclusion and say that while a slight doubt may remain and it is a very borderline case, on balance I think we would be wiser not to adopt this case, if only because it is very controversial and in case of doubt it would be wiser to be prudent.”

6th October 1975 A second member of the Borderline Committee writes to say that, after considering the memo and Lyons’ letter they also agree that Des Warren should not be adopted. The Borderline Committee vote is now 2 to 1 NOT to adopt Des as a Prisoner of Conscience.

None of this behind-the-scenes manoeuvring was disclosed either to Des Warren, his family or his solicitor. They were not aware that a Home Office Minister had put pressure on Amnesty International to withdraw Des Warren’s status as a prisoner of conscience. This remained secret for over 40 years.
With this evidence, from their own documents, I then decided to confront Amnesty directly and ask why they allowed this to happen given their global policy, as stated on their website:

Amnesty International campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience – people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence.

Amnesty International has championed the rights of prisoners of conscience since the organization’s founding in 1961, and thousands of prisoners of conscience have been released from jail following action on their behalf by Amnesty International.

I requested a meeting with the Secretary General of Amnesty, Mr Salil Shetty, but was informed that he was out of the country. They agreed that I could meet with the acting Director, Mr David Griffiths, together with other Heads of European Departments.

The meeting took place at their officers in London on 10th December 2015 and I was accompanied by Harry Chadwick and another Committee member, Phil Simpson, together with Ricky Tomlinson. In attendance for Amnesty were David Griffiths and the Director, Europe and Central Asia Programme, John Dalhuisen, the Deputy Europe Director, Gauri van Gulik and EU Campaigner/Researcher, Kartik Raj.

They allowed just one hour for our meeting, eventually agreed to two. It actually lasted almost three. The Amnesty delegation started the meeting by agreeing that AI had an apology to make to Des Warren’s family as they had failed to communicate to Des, his family or solicitor that they had withdrawn prisoner of conscience status from him. Instead they had simply informed the media and written to the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to notify them of their decision.

I went through their documents systematically, pointing out how they showed clearly that Amnesty had bowed to pressure from the Government and rescinded Des Warren’s adoption. After a long discussion they conceded that the evidence was overwhelming and agreed that Amnesty’s actions in 1975 were improper. They admitted that the decision to allow a Government minister to interfere with their decision making process was wrong and would not be repeated today. They accepted that their actions had condemned Des to a horrendous year in prison where he suffered the cruellest of indignities, without any protection whatsoever.

Amnesty agreed to release a public statement setting out what happened in 1975. They also agreed to support our campaign to overturn the miscarriage of justice for the Shrewsbury 24 pickets. They said they would support us in our attempts to obtain all the documents relating to the Shrewsbury trials which the Government are still withholding under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act.

Amnesty released their statement on 9th May 2016 with this notice:


By Amnesty International, 9 May 2016, Index number: EUR 45/3984/2016

This document reviews the work done by Amnesty International during 1975 on the case of Des Warren, and supports publicly the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign’s calls for the disclosure of all government documents relevant to the case and calls on the Criminal Cases Review Commission to give serious consideration to referring the conviction of Des Warren for appeal.

The full statement can be read on their website here.

Needless to say there is no mention of the reason they gave in 1975 i.e. that a mistake was made by the Amnesty caseworker. They also sent a letter of apology to Andy Warren for their actions in 1975. Amnesty also wrote to the Home Office to add their weight behind our Campaign. They called for the release of all documents relating to our case.

On Tuesday 17 May 2016 UCATT national conference recognised the enormity of this revelation when they suspended standing orders to allow me to address the conference. I was given the opportunity to unveil this whole story for the first time. It was one more recognition of the injustice suffered by their member, Des Warren.

It took over two years, from 13 February 2014 to 9 May 2016 to finally get Amnesty to admit that there was Government pressure on the organisation to withdraw their prisoner of conscience status from Des Warren. What is clear is that, without the pressure put on Amnesty by our Campaign, the truth would have remained hidden.

The Government’s veil of secrecy over the Shrewsbury pickets’ case remains, 43 years after they were prosecuted and imprisoned. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party and the trade union movement are supporting us to force the release of the documents.

Please support our campaign for justice. See how you can elsewhere on our website.