Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link An official at the human rights charity deplores its work with a ‘jihadist’

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A SENIOR official at Amnesty International has accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims.

Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s international secretariat, believes that collaborating with Moazzam Begg, a former British inmate at Guantanamo Bay, “fundamentally damages” the organisation’s reputation.

In an email sent to Amnesty’s top bosses, she suggests the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and his “jihadi” group, Cageprisoners, out of fear of being branded racist and Islamophobic.

Sahgal describes Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. He has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.

Amnesty’s work with Cageprisoners took it to Downing Street last month to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Begg has also embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees. This is despite concerns about former inmates returning to terrorism.

Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “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.”

Amnesty is the world’s biggest human rights organisation with 2.2m members and a galaxy of celebrity supporters, including Bono, John Cleese, Yoko Ono, Al Pacino and Sinead O’Connor. Its decision to work with Begg poses liberal backers with a moral dilemma and raises questions about the direction in which Amnesty has travelled since it was set up in 1961 to support “prisoners of conscience”.

“As a former Guantanamo detainee it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner,” Sahgal told The Sunday Times.

Begg, 42, from Birmingham, was held at Guantanamo for three years until 2005 under suspicion of links to Al-Qaeda, which he denies. Prior to his arrest, Begg lived with his family in Kabul and praised the Taliban in his memoirs as “better than anything Afghanistan has had in 20 years”. After his release Begg became the figurehead for Cageprisoners, which describes itself as “a human rights organisation that exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners ... held as part of the War On Terror”.

Among the Muslim inmates it highlights are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric facing extradition from Britain to America on terror charges, and Abu Qatada, a preacher described as Osama Bin Laden’s “European ambassador”.

Sahgal, 53, is not the only critic of Begg at Amnesty. In 2008 a board member of its US arm opposed Begg’s appearance, via videolink, at its AGM, but was overruled.

When Begg appeared at Downing Street last month as part of a group delivering a letter to Gordon Brown calling for the release of the last British resident held at Guantanamo, he was accompanied by Kate Allen, head of Amnesty’s UK section since 2000. Allen is a leftwinger who was the girlfriend of Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, for almost 20 years.

This weekend Amnesty said it had launched an internal inquiry after Sahgal raised her concerns with bosses, including Allen and Claudio Cordone, the interim secretary-general.

Anne Fitzgerald, policy director of Amnesty’s international secretariat, said the charity had formed a relationship with Begg because he was a “compelling speaker” on detention. She said he had been paid expenses for his attendance at its events.

Asked if she thought Begg was a human rights advocate, Fitzgerald said: “It’s something you’d have to speak to him about. I don’t have the information to answer that.”

Yesterday Begg dismissed Sahgal’s claims as “ridiculous”. He defended his support for the Taliban and the decision by Cageprisoners to highlight the plight of detainees linked to Al-Qaeda: “We need to be engaging with those people who we find most unpalatable. I don’t consider anybody a terrorist until they have been charged and convicted of terrorism.”

Richard Kerbaj

Amnesty International and Cageprisoners: Statement by Gita Sahgal

7 February 2010

This morning the Sunday Times published an article about Amnesty International’s association with groups that support the Taliban and promote Islamic Right ideas. In that article, I was quoted as raising concerns about Amnesty’s very high profile associations with Guantanamo-detainee Moazzam Begg. I felt that Amnesty International was risking its reputation by associating itself with Begg, who heads an organization, Cageprisoners, that actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals.

Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty had suspended me from my job.

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitized the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners.

The tragedy here is that the necessary defence of the torture standard has been inexcusably allied to the political legitimization of individuals and organisations belonging to the Islamic Right.

I have always opposed the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay and during the so-called War on Terror. I have been horrified and appalled by the treatment of people like Moazzam Begg and I have personally told him so. I have vocally opposed attempts by governments to justify ‘torture lite’.

The issue is not about Moazzam Begg’s freedom of opinion, nor about his right to propound his views: he already exercises these rights fully as he should. The issue is a fundamental one about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights. I have raised this issue because of my firm belief in human rights for all.

I sent two memos to my management asking a series of questions about what considerations were given to the nature of the relationship with Moazzam Begg and his organisation, Cageprisoners. I have received no answer to my questions. There has been a history of warnings within Amnesty that it is inadvisable to partner with Begg. Amnesty has created the impression that Begg is not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights. Many of my highly respected colleagues, each well-regarded in their area of expertise has said so. Each has been set aside.

As a result of my speaking to the Sunday Times, Amnesty International has announced that it has launched an internal inquiry. This is the moment to press for public answers, and to demonstrate that there is already a public demand including from Amnesty International members, to restore the integrity of the organisation and remind it of its fundamental principles.

I have been a human rights campaigner for over three decades, defending the rights of women and ethnic minorities, defending religious freedom and the rights of victims of torture, and campaigning against illegal detention and state repression. I have raised the issue of the association of Amnesty International with groups such as Begg’s consistently within the organisation. I have now been suspended for trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially.

7 February 2010