On a wintry Saturday, Kathleen Kaufman sits down to write a letter. Through the large windows of the Salt Lake City public library she can see the sun sinking toward the Oquirrhs.

Thousands of miles away in Eritrea, Helen Berhane sits in prison. A Christian evangelical, Berhane has been held incommunicado since May 2004, detained without charge or trial for singing publicly about her faith in a country where the government has banned religions such as hers.

"Dear Helen," writes Kaufman. "You are in my thoughts. May you once again breathe freely the sweet air." Berhane is being held at a military camp in a metal shipping container with little ventilation, according to Amnesty International.

Kaufman hopes that Berhane will be buoyed by a holiday greeting from a stranger in Utah, one of dozens of letters penned Saturday from Salt Lake City as part of the Global Write-a-thon sponsored by Amnesty International. The letter campaign is geared to eventually freeing thousands of prisoners of conscience around the world.

In the meantime, the hope is that the prisoners themselves will at least know that they haven't been forgotten.

"People need a sign of hope," says Kaufman, who wonders if she would be brave enough to speak up for her own beliefs if the result might be imprisonment.

Across the room, Jimmy Gialelis and his sister, Joanne, have already written a stack of cards to prisoners of conscience in Mexico, Morocco, Indonesia and Belarus. Jimmy Gialelis also has written a letter to government officials in Turkmenistan, where dissident Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev has been confined to a psychiatric hospital since the winter of 2004 for requesting permission to hold a peaceful demonstration "to express our disagreement with the policies of the president and other senior government officials."

Writing letters, says Gialelis, is one way an ordinary American can "consciously live the ideals of freedom and democracy."

"Warm wishes," he writes on a card to a dozen prisoners. "Thank you for your beliefs."

Members of the local chapter of Amnesty International also meet on the second Tuesday of each month, at the Salt Lake Roasting Co., to write letters to prisoners, governments and corporations accused of failing to clean up chemical spills around the world.

Last year, activists from more than 30 countries wrote letters during the Global Write-a-thon, which began in Poland in 2002 to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Amnesty International's 2004 "holiday card action update" includes five success stories of prisoners of conscience who have since been freed.

The letters to government and corporation officials are specific, detailing abuses. The letters and postcards to prisoners, says Utah letter writing campaign coordinator Nessy Tania, are best left vague.

"We don't want to make it political," she says. "And we don't mention Amnesty International. Otherwise the cards will be thrown out."

"Thinking of you this holiday season," writes Christy Bills on a postcard of the Wasatch Mountains to a prisoner in Mexico. "Wishing you good health and many blessings."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com