The conscience stifled by Amnesty
When Gita Sahgal questioned the human rights group’s links to Islamic radicals, it suspended her. Now she fears for her safetyMargarette Driscoll
Sahgal argues that Amnesty should not be associated with Cageprisoners, which appears to give succour to militants who believe in global jihad
Amnesty International has made its name as a champion of free speech, campaigning on behalf of prisoners who have spoken out against oppressive regimes around the world. But when it comes to speaking up about the organisation itself ... well, that seems to be a different story.
Last week Gita Sahgal, a highly respected lifelong human rights activist and head of Amnesty’s gender unit, told The Sunday Times of her concerns about Amnesty’s relationship with Cageprisoners, an organisation headed by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo internee.
Since his release in 2005, Begg has spoken alongside Amnesty at a number of events and accompanied the organisation to a meeting at Downing Street last month. Sahgal felt the closeness of the relationship between Amnesty and Cageprisoners — which appears to give succour to those who believe in global jihad — was a threat to Amnesty’s integrity. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment,” she wrote to Amnesty’s leaders following the Downing Street visit.
Feeling her concerns were not being addressed, she decided to go public. Hours after our story appeared she was suspended. Sahgal’s phone started ringing off the hook with news organisations seeking interviews. The story also lit up the blogosphere, partly because of Amnesty’s importance — it has some 2.8m members and a raft of glamorous supporters — but also because what Sahgal was talking about touched that raw nerve, the naivety of white middle-class liberals in dealing with Islamic radicals.
Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links
To say the past week has been a difficult one for Sahgal would be an understatement. She fears for her own and her family’s safety. She has — temporarily at least — lost her job and found it almost impossible to find anyone to represent her in any potential employment case. She rang round the human rights lawyers she knows, all of whom have declined to help citing a conflict of interest. “Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done, it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defence from our civil right firms,” she says wryly.
So no one in the human rights world wants to cross swords with Amnesty: that’s no surprise and least of all to Sahgal. “I know the nature of what I’m up against,” she says. “I didn’t do what I did lightly.”
She is feisty, unrepentant and by no means without support: we meet, for instance, in an office lent to her by a family friend of Peter Benenson, the lawyer who founded Amnesty in 1961. She has had many private messages from former colleagues. “People are shocked,” she says. “There is a lot of disquiet in the organisation and that’s been quite heartening.”
Amnesty and Begg have taken issue with what Sahgal, 53, has to say. Claudio Cordone, Amnesty’s interim secretarygeneral, wrote to The Sunday Times to say it was “preposterous” to accuse Amnesty of being linked in any way to the Taliban. “Amnesty International works with Moazzam Begg as a former detainee of Guantanamo Bay and as a victim of the human rights violations suffered there . . .” he said. “Moazzam Begg has never been tried or convicted of any terrorism-related offences and has publicly rebutted accusations against him in this respect.”
Cordone objected to people like Begg being subjected to “trial by media”, but part of Sahgal’s point is that human rights organisations have to be super-scrupulous not only in the people they choose to support, but also about the company those people keep — and any decisions they make must stand up to public scrutiny.
The treatment of Guantanamo detainees keeps making headlines, the latest last week when the government was forced to publish evidence showing MI5 knew that Binyam Mohamed was being tortured at the United States’s behest. “Amnesty underscores the importance of Binyam Mohamed’s case and of course that’s right,” says Sahgal. “Moazzam Begg has ongoing cases and I hope he wins them. But that’s not the issue.”
Given the sensitivities involved it seems reasonable to ask where Begg’s sympathies lie. In his autobiography he describes becoming interested in Islamic politics in his twenties and he later ran a bookshop that stocked Islamist writing. He travelled to Bosnia and Afghanistan and admits giving money to Muslim combatants, but denies being involved in any fighting.
In 2001 he took his wife and young children to live in Afghanistan in order, he says, to fulfil a dream of being a teacher. He helped to establish a school with sections for boys and girls and installed water pumps. When the allied attack on Afghanistan started later that year, the family fled to Pakistan where Begg, now 42, was picked up. His family have always insisted it was a case of mistaken identity.
In his book he says the Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan had had in the past 25 years. “I was talking about something I believed at the time,” he says now. “That’s what I understood from my knowledge of the country, that there had been no law and order, there had been warlords that had taken over the country, children used as sex slaves, drug production was very high and the Taliban put a stop to all this. That was the reality on the ground. It was the best of the worst.”
He believes it is right to be talking to the Taliban now. “Because the Taliban are Afghans and we are not,” he says. “The British are not Afghans and neither are the Americans. And as much as you might not like what they stand for, they have more right in that land than anyone else.
“Ultimately, what we’re doing now as part of our foreign policy is we’re talking to the Taliban, we are engaging with the Taliban, the people we’ve been demonising for the past nine years, and that is precisely what we did in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve never said we should give the Taliban money — that is what the government is doing. But we need to be engaging with people who we find most unpalatable. So the dialogue with the Taliban is something I not only welcome but something I have been saying for a long, long time.”
As for human rights abuses committed by the Taliban, Begg says he has seen and written about them himself: “I’ve seen them because I lived there. But I’ve seen Americans commit more human rights abuses, I can promise you. But I haven’t said we shouldn’t talk to the Americans.”
He counters Sahgal’s view by saying she is, in her own way, a fundamentalist: “She advocates the government shouldn’t even be engaging with the Muslim Council of Britain. It’s not a normal position.” And he rejects her description of him as Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban: “That is a ridiculous thing to say. I have toured the country with former US soldiers several times ... that doesn’t seem to be a very Taliban Al-Qaeda thing to do, does it?”
Indeed it does not. But when Asim Qureshi, one of Begg’s senior colleagues at Cageprisoners, appeared on a radio programme with Sahgal last week and was reminded of a speech he had given at a rally organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist political party, in which Qureshi supported “jihad” against oppression of Muslims, he did not distance himself from the sentiments. Cageprisoners not only campaigns on behalf of those detained without trial, but also for Islamic radicals who have been through the due process of the British courts, such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. Sahgal believes the organisation has an agenda “way beyond being a prisoners’ rights organisation”.
The bigger picture is how human rights organisations — and society more widely — should view Islamic radicals. There has been much debate over whether, spurred by a sentimental knee-jerk anti-Americanism, white liberals have sympathised with Islamic radicals, thereby implicitly tolerating their intolerance, particularly towards women. “For me that’s a form of racism,” says Sahgal, “because what it does is wipe out the experiences of the people they oppress. And it’s not helped by a discourse about a ‘clash of civilisations’, which elides jihadi ideologies and treats them as normal Muslim thinking. That’s devastating for ordinary Muslims.”
If the men incarcerated in Guantanamo were white fascists, she says, “I hope we would defend them. We would have to defend them — but we wouldn’t necessarily put them on 50 or 100 platforms after that”. The problem, she believes, is that human rights organisations want to believe they represent “perfect victims”.
“But a victim can also be a perpetrator,” she says. “It’s a very simple thought.”
This is something that has troubled her for many years. Some years ago, before she joined Amnesty’s staff, she was asked by the organisation to speak alongside a man whose son had been arrested during an insurgency in northern India: “His son had disappeared and he’d gone from police station to police station looking for him. It was a very moving story and it was hard not to cry. He was coming to thank Amnesty for the postcards they’d written and the letters they’d sent to the government. He felt his son owed his life to that, and that, of course, is the power of our work.
“The problem was that he was surrounded by men who were clearly Sikh political activists, allied to the group which assassinated Indira Gandhi. A perfectly well-meaning person had invited me to speak on a platform beside a perfectly genuine victim but hadn’t paid any attention to who accompanied him.”
Now, for flagging up this sort of error, Sahgal finds herself out in the cold. She says she needs to keep talking about this issue because she feels it won’t solve itself. She’ll be watching with interest to see if there is a cooling of relations between Amnesty and Cageprisoners. “The signs are that there won’t be,” she says. “The signs are that the cool relationship is with me.”
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Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist linksRichard Kerbaj
A senior executive at Amnesty International has urged the charity to admit it made a “mistake” by failing publicly to oppose the views of a former terror suspect.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty’s Asia Pacific director, backed Gita Sahgal, an official who was suspended after revealing her concerns about Amnesty’s links to the former Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, a British citizen.
In an internal memo leaked to The Sunday Times, Zarifi, who oversees Amnesty’s work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, claimed the charity’s campaigns blurred the line between giving support for a detainee’s human rights and endorsing extremist views.
“We should be clear that some of Amnesty’s campaigning ... did not always sufficiently distinguish between the rights of detainees to be free from torture and arbitrary detention, and the validity of their views,” says Zarifi in the email, sent to his staff and dated February 10. Zarifi advised Amnesty to consider its working relationships with activists more carefully.
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He said: “We did not always clarify that while we champion the rights of all — including terrorism suspects, and more important, victims of terrorism — we do not champion their views.”
Amnesty’s decision to suspend Sahgal, the head of its gender unit, while continuing its support for Begg, 42, of Birmingham, has provoked criticism.
Zarifi said Amnesty should have done more to respond to public concerns about its relationship with Begg and Cageprisoners, a pressure group that highlights the plight of Muslim detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
He wrote: “The organisation had taken steps to clarify that it did not in any way support all, or even many, of Moazzam Begg’s views. Obviously we did not do enough to establish this in the public sphere. We can and should publicly admit this mistake and move on and ensure we do not make the same mistake again.”
Amnesty officials called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay at a meeting in Downing Street last month.
Begg, who was held there for three years until 2005, has embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer a safe haven to Guantanamo detainees.
Begg took his family to live in Afghanistan under Taliban rule but admits they were responsible for abuses.
Amnesty was founded in 1961 to give support to prisoners of conscience.
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