Annual Report 2013
The state of the world's human rights

Stories to inspire

The people, the faces, the stories – 50 years of defending rights

Wolfgang Welsch, East Germany

Wolfgang Welsch, East German poet and dissident

© Private

I spit blood, faint and am at the end of my physical strength… Save my life!

Wolfgang Welsch, in a message to Amnesty International


Wolfgang Welsch was jailed in 1964 for trying to escape East Germany illegally. He used cigarette papers to write secret messages to Amnesty International that eventually won him his freedom.

  • Secret messages smuggled out on cigarette papers
  • Case taken up by local UK Amnesty International group
  • West German lawyer’s intervention secures release

Wolfgang Welsch was just 20 years old when he was arrested in 1964 while trying to escape from East to West Germany illegally. The actor and poet was given three consecutive prison sentences amounting to over 10 years, which he served at Bautzen and later Brandenburg prisons.

“Stinking death cell”

A secret message, written on a cigarette paper and smuggled out of prison, alerted Amnesty International to Wolfgang’s case. In the message, Wolfgang described his 1.2m by 3.5m “stinking death cell”, where he lived in solitary confinement “in semi-darkness without sun and hardly any air”.

He also described his failing health: “I spit blood, faint and am at the end of my physical strength… the present inhumane conditions seriously threaten my life.” His message closed with the plea, “Save my life!”

Wolfgang’s case was taken up by the Leeds Amnesty International group in the UK, who began writing to the East German authorities. Their letters went unanswered, until they contacted a lawyer in West Germany who agreed to help pressure the authorities.

Mother visits for first time

Shortly afterwards, Wolfgang’s mother was allowed to visit her son for the first time, and on 24 March 1971, he was released from prison. In a letter to Amnesty International’s London office, the secretary of the Leeds Amnesty International group wrote: “We are very  pleased to let you know that our adopted prisoner in East Germany, Wolfgang Welsch, has been released… our group now wishes to adopt another prisoner.”

According to online sources, Wolfgang Welsch went on to help dozens of people escape from East to West Germany and survived several assassination attempts. Ich War Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (I Was State Enemy Number 1), his account of his prison experience, became a best seller in Germany.

For over 50 years we have been fighting for freedom of expression. The world has changed, but violence and imprisonment are still used to silence people who defend human rights and criticize the powerful. By calling on millions of activists and supporters worldwide, we can jam the fax machines of governments and send them a message they can’t ignore. Speak out against repression – deliver a message directly into the hands of those in power.
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