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Joshua Rubenstein: New England’s heroic human rights defender

 Josh Rubenstein, shown here in 2001, has worked tirelessly on behalf of prisoners of conscience for 37 years.

The Boston Globe/file 2001

Josh Rubenstein, shown here in 2001, has worked tirelessly on behalf of prisoners of conscience for 37 years.

Too often, we wait for someone to die to celebrate their achievements. When it comes to the human rights movement, many important voices are never celebrated at all. So it was inspiring to see Joshua Rubenstein honored last week at the Armenian Heritage Foundation’s annual human rights lecture.

For 37 years, Rubenstein has worked tirelessly on behalf of prisoners of conscience. He smuggled documents out of the former Soviet Union to record the plight of Jewish dissidents — risky work that set him on the path of writing scholarly books.

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In 1975, he became Amnesty International’s New England coordinator, initially running operations out of his North End apartment. He organized letter-writing campaigns that helped free activists in Pakistan, the former Rhodesia, and Ecuador, and raised the alarm when legendary Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov was sent to a Soviet gulag. As Amnesty grew, so did Rubenstein’s role. He helped set up chapters across the South and Midwest, showing people how they could make a difference simply by writing a letter.

Thanks in part to those efforts, Amnesty International is a household name. But, unfortunately, in the wake of the economic crisis, the group’s finances have faltered. This summer, Amnesty closed most of its regional offices, including Rubenstein’s. As he retires from Amnesty, his career is marked by “no big awards, no grand prizes,” Carolann Najarian noted as she honored him at the lecture last week. But he leaves with something far more important, she said: the knowledge that he has saved so many people,“without fanfare, humbly, and even with a little humor.”

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