The idea to organize a Sakharov Hearings was taken up by a group of émigrés in Copenhagen who obtained permission to use an auditorium in the Danish Parliament building. The result was the First Sakharov Hearing in Copenhagen on October 17-19, 1975, focusing on the Helsinki Accords signed that year. Sakharov welcomed the idea and other hearings followed:
The object of these hearings was to expose human rights violations in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and to draw attention to the Helsinki Accords. Witnesses testifying at the hearings had to satisfy the criteria of credibility and absence of ulterior motives to give convincing first-hand testimony on the state of human rights in these countries.
Key 20th-century human rights figures, like Sakharov and Simon Wiesenthal, were involved in all five hearings, and many prominent exile Soviet dissidents, as well as some Eastern European dissidents, played important roles. The jury consisted of well-known statesmen, scholars and public figures.
Throughout the years, the hearings were well covered by the media and recognized as an important tool in promoting human rights and the implementation of the commitments of the Helsinki Accords. In 1985, US Ambassador Max M. Kampelman paid tribute to the "extraordinarily vital role that the Sakharov hearings have played in recent years.” Simon Wiesenthal devoted part of his memoirs to his participation in the Sakharov Hearings. Journalist Hella Pick of The Guardian stated that “…the International Sakharov Hearings certainly helped to convince Gorbachev, newly installed as President, that his credibility in the West demanded freedom for Sakharov as one of the early moves of his Presidency."
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