Peter Benenson was born in London in 1921. Despite a rather unhappy childhood, including the death of his father when Peter was nine, his innate idealism soon emerged. At Eton, the 15-year-old organised support for the Spanish republican government as it fought the military uprising and he himself “adopted” a Spanish baby, undertaking to pay for its upkeep. He and his school friends also raised money to bring two young German Jewish teenagers to school in Britain in 1939. While at school, Benenson became a Catholic.
He was one of a group of British lawyers who founded JUSTICE in 1957, the UK-based human rights and law reform organisation. In 1958, he fell ill and moved to Italy in order to convalesce. In the same year, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1961, Benenson was shocked and angered by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students from Coimbra sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom during the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar – the Estado Novo. In 1961, Portugal was ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, and anti-regime conspiracies were vigorously repressed by the Portuguese state police and deemed anti-Portuguese. He wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer. On 28 May, Benenson’s article, entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners”, was published. The letter asked readers to write letters showing support for the students. To co-ordinate such letter-writing campaigns, Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 at a meeting of Benenson and six other men, who included a Tory, a Liberal and a Labour MP. The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter-writers had formed in more than a dozen countries.
Initially appointed general secretary of AI, Benenson stood down in 1964 owing to ill health. By 1966, Amnesty International faced an internal crisis and Benenson alleged that the organization he founded was being infiltrated by British intelligence. The advisory position of president of the International Executive was then created for him. In 1966, he began to make allegations of improper conduct against other members of the executive. An inquiry was set up which reported at Elsinore in Denmark in 1967. The allegations were rejected and Benenson resigned from AI.