11/08/2013 11:16 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

40 Years of Relentless Choruses

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was locked up in a South African cell for joining peaceful efforts to end apartheid, I knew I could count on outside help from my family, friends and fellow human rights activists.

But unbeknownst to me, a quiet, relentless chorus was dismantling the walls around me, brick by brick. My imprisonment lasted three and a half months because Amnesty International declared me a prisoner of conscience, activated its storied 'Urgent Action Network' and unleashed a barrage of letters demanding my release.

As the Urgent Action Network turned 40, plots its future and celebrates the countless lives saved or improved by its grassroots interventions around the world, my path has brought me to California. I now chair the board of directors of Amnesty International USA. The web reminds us every minute of every day how much work there is to be done to end human rights abuses. Around the world, countless thousands of individuals are still held unjustly for trying to do the right thing, or because they are different, or just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some face terrible mistreatment, or worse.

Fortunately we are increasingly empowered to help. Here, in the heart of the Internet revolution, I see a future -- in fact it is happening already -- where people of all ages armed with Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles and email accounts deafen the abusers until they cannot but release the wrongly imprisoned, stop the torture and see justice done.

My story could have ended very differently. It almost did end for Saudi-born Abdullah Azzam Al-Qahtani, until the Urgent Action Network sprang into action and sent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more than 60,000 letters demanding justice for this young man. He was moments from being hanged when his execution was temporarily stayed. His lawyers say his "confession" to robbing and killing a local jeweler to fund terrorist activities was tortured out of him and that he was actually being detained for immigration violations at the time of the murder. Along with the letters came thousands of tweets and hundreds of instagrams from people rallied by Amnesty on campuses and in communities.

We live in a time when the fear of terrorism is often used to justify unjust acts, and I know only too well how fear can prompt people to misjudge or mistreat others. It was my involvement in nonviolent protests and the dissemination of information about the apartheid government's brutality and oppressive policies that made me dangerous in the eyes of the authorities. We were telling the truth at a time when foreign journalists had only limited knowledge of events in my homeland. I was held without trial, potentially facing treason charges.

Before my arrest, I had been sending Amnesty International facts about human rights abuses so that they could, in turn, send out Urgent Actions to a network of activists across the globe who responded with letters and faxes to pressure the apartheid government and to let them know that Amnesty was watching.

When I was finally released, and I first saw the letters that had been written on my behalf, I understood immediately. Today, that bundle of papers, and the power of their message, would be amplified by a barrage of tweets. With the power of social media, threats to human rights are more visible today than ever before. Urgent Actions work because they can be activated so rapidly. The difference between torture and safety, indefinite detention and fair trial, and life and death, can be just a few hours.

When committed activists decide together to defend an individual, governments feel pressure to respond. When a lawyer tells a young man facing the death penalty that thousands of strangers have written to his government on his behalf, he feels hope. The most powerful thing you can do today to help defend human beings in harm's way is to learn more about Amnesty's Urgent Action Network. You could save a life.