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Gita Sahgal & Amnesty’s Claudio Cordone on CBC’s The Current (with transcript)

February 20, 2010

The Current for February 18, 2010 – Special Edition of The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti in Vancouver, Canada – Amnesty Controversy – Gita Sahgal & Claudio Cordone

Transcript by earwicga

1. CBC Hello, I’m Anna Maria Tremonti You are listening to The Current.
2. Moazzam Begg And people ask me this question all the time: ‘Brother Moazzam, did the Americans ever let you pray?’ 
3. CBC That is Moazzam Begg.  He is the founder of a group called Cageprisoners, and a former prisoner himself at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
4. Moazzam Begg There was a time when the Americans took me onto an aeroplane, with the screams of the other prisoners and the roar of the engines, and the shouts of the American soldiers screaming and cursing at us, with our hands tied behind our backs and our legs shackled with a hood over your head.  And at this point one of the brothers who next to me, a Libyan said, [Arabic phrase]: That the time for prayer has come brother, shall we pray?  So that when brothers and sisters ask me ‘did the Americans ever let you pray?’ I say there is no circumstance in which they could have ever stopped me from praying.   
5. CBC Since his release from Guantanamo, Moazzam Begg has been a high profile defender of the rights of others who have been imprisoned or detained in Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere.  Among other things he has worked with Amnesty International, one of the most widely respected human rights organisations in the world.  But it is because of that association that Gita Sahgal decided she had to draw a line.  She was the head of Amnesty International’s Gender Unit until she was suspended from her post last week after she publically questioned Amnesty’s ongoing choice to work with Mr. Begg and Cageprisoners.  She argued that Moazzam Begg and his organisation promote extremist views and champion Islamic radicals – stands that are incompatible with the defence of universal human rights.  And that that Amnesty’s reputation is tarnished by its association with him.  Gita Sahgal is in London, England.  Good morning.
6. Gita Sahgal Good morning Anna Maria. 
7. CBC Can you tell us then, what is behind your suspension?
8.   Gita Sahgal Well, as you said I was raising questions about Moazzam Begg’s relationship with Amnesty International.  And I think what’s interesting is that it’s been 11 days since the Sunday Times went public with the concerns that I was raising, and in that time Amnesty International has really acted as the public relations firm of Moazzam Begg.  Because it’s insisted that he is a very important victim of violations at Guantanamo, an issue that I absolutely never questioned.  It has not answered any of the questions that I asked.  It said there’s no evidence against him and that they only use him to talk about his experiences as a victim and not his views, and the thing that I would like to ask is what do they think his views are.  And why does my boss, Claudio Cordone, think there’s no evidence to justify cutting the link with him.  Or even to having any form of public accountability which is now being demanded.     
9. CBC Okay, so let’s just clarify.  When Moazzam Begg, you have spoken out in favour of Moazzam Begg when he was a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.  He was tortured there.  You had no problem with the Amnesty International at that time working in Mr. Begg’s favour.  Am I correct?
10. Gita Sahgal Absolutely. 
11. CBC So what changed?
12. Gita Sahgal What changed was that when he came out and he is now, has his own organisation with its own agenda, Amnesty International associated itself very closely with him, and because he’s a director of an organisation, then with the organisation as well.  And in doing that it gave him a global presence which would lead anybody who thinks he’s respectable because they’ve seen him on an Amnesty International platform to be inclined to go to the website of Cageprisoners and derive from there a series of views which are utterly incompatible with human rights. 
13. CBC And, so can you tell us what it is about Cageprisoners that you disagree with?
14. Gita Sahgal Well, as I’ve said already I think that they have a violent and discriminatory agenda.  They are promoting people who promote extremely violent agendas.  My main concern is that I’m extremely worried about the quality of research inside Amnesty International if the interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone, who has been managing issues around research for many years in Amnesty International, cannot find any evidence that would suggest that Amnesty should not be related to Cageprisoners so closely. 
15. CBC And, can you give us some specific examples of the kinds of things that Cageprisoners stands for that you feel are incompatible with what Amnesty International stands for?
16.   Gita Sahgal I think they’re not simply a prisoner rights organisation.  They promote a number of people who’ve been tried in open court.  They’re not simply promoting people who have been subjected to arbitrary detention and torture.  They promote the agendas and ideologies of those people.  But as I’ve said, it’s not so much what I think because this is not a battle of binary vision of the world.  I’m trying to establish the process by which Amnesty International in the first place agreed to this close relationship and then when I made public my concerns, decided that they were going to make the relationship even stronger and actively promote Moazzam Begg.  I think that was a huge mistake and I think Claudio Cordone will live to regret that.        
17. CBC And so this is, but what you are concerned about is beyond the international politics of this organisation, there’s a larger issue here and I’d like you to sort of outline it for us.
18. Gita Sahgal The larger issue I think is expressed by a petition that came out in my support but also making the much broader point: that the space for really unassailable human rights work and advocacy is shrinking in places in the world which are really dealing with both government led attacks in the war on terror and the use of human rights discourses in those attacks, and on the other hand extremely dubious organisations who are also using a human rights discourse, and they feel that a global organisation like Amnesty International should be able to distinguish between these.  Because what’s happening is that lawyers and activists and others who do support universal human rights, who are desperately trying to challenge arbitrary detention in their own courts in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan and India perfectly understand the difference between putting a writ of habeas corpus, trying to get somebody produced in court, ensure that that person has access to rights and so on, and championing them as a human rights defender.  Now Amnesty International has not necessarily called Moazzam Begg a human rights defender, but the effect of what they’ve done is precisely to legitimise him as a human rights defender.     
19. CBC And you’re saying they’ve done this by appearing with him and by appearing to support him with Cageprisoners.
20. Gita Sahgal They’ve affirmed their support for him several times since I made these concerns public.  And said there’s no evidence against him.   
21. CBC And what kind of relationship then does Amnesty International have with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners?
22. Gita Sahgal Well, I was not involved with building that relationship.  I advised very strongly against it on several occasions, for several years.  On  many many occasions at the level of the board of Amnesty International USA, on the level of extremely senior people in the UK, in the British section of Amnesty and had raised these issues internally, so  I did not build that relationship and I think that’s a question that you should ask to my superiors.   
23. CBC Okay, well do have someone waiting to talk to us about that, but I’m wondering then how important is the resolution of this issue to the long term work of human rights, especially women’s rights?
24.   Gita Sahgal I think at the moment we have absolutely no credibility across the world in being serious about treating the equality of women and the emancipation of women seriously.  We have no credibility in treating the issue of religious minorities seriously, the people that Mr. Begg supports are very active in promoting attacks on, for instance ancient religions in Iraq, on Shia in Pakistan, on all sorts of people who simply do not conform to their agendas.  So I think we’re in a very serious situation since the senior leadership have so fully endorsed Mr. Begg and tried to pretend that what they’re doing is upholding the torture standard.  That is not what they’re doing.  They’re doing something dangerous and I’m afraid that human rights advocates all over the world are calling for public accountability on this matter.  
25. CBC Okay, and just to clarify again, because this is about jihadi views that actually speak against women.  These are views that actually talk about the oppression of women, and the oppression of other minorities?
26. Gita Sahgal They talk about the oppression of everybody who does not conform to their particular view of the world. 
27. CBC Okay and so how do you go forward with this?  You have been suspended, where do you go from here with your human rights work?  You’ve been doing this for a very long time.
28. Gita Sahgal Well, I’m doing very very serious human rights investigating these issues, and it’s work that I should have been  able to do behind my desk at Amnesty International, and unfortunately I’m not behind my desk at the moment, and I’m, but I am continuing to investigate the matter.  And even if Claudio Cordone doesn’t find sufficient evidence I think other people who I work with who are experts on this issue, who I was suggesting that Amnesty consult  for many years – so that we could educate ourselves, so we could build better research.  We will be continuing to work on this and we will be continuing to make these issues public.       
29. CBC Has Amnesty ever had to walk this line before where it has worked to defend someone on a human rights issue who later may not be considered a human rights defender?
30. Gita Sahgal It walks a line all the time, and it’s a difficult line to walk.  I think the problem is that what this issue, making public this issue exposes is that the leadership doesn’t really understand how to walk the line.  I think many of the staff members of Amnesty International do understand these distinctions and are probably at this moment hugely embarrassed by what is being said in their name.  I feel really sorry for the many people who have walked that line in doing impeccable research and really investigating human rights abuses by the Taliban and other non-state actors.  But I think there is also very bad practice and it appears to go right to the top.  
31. CBC Okay, Gita Sahgal Thank you for speaking with me
32.   Thank you. 
33. CBC That is Gita Sahgal; she was the head of the Gender Unit at the international secretariat of Amnesty International in London.  She is currently suspended from that position. Well for Amnesty International’s view of the situation we’re joined by Claudio Cordone.  He is the organisations interim Secretary General.  He too is in London, England.  Hello.
34. Claudio Cordone Good Morning.
35. CBC I’d like your response, but first to clarify from your perspective, why was Gita Sahgal suspended? 
36. Claudio Cordone Well, it’s for a simple reason, when Gita decided to go public with her criticism of Amnesty and in a context when there was all kinds of misrepresentations in the media, we had to make clear that she was no longer speaking on behalf of Amnesty while we were looking into the matter.  The suspension is not a sanction, it’s not a punishment, it’s just a precautionary measure to make clear that Gita cannot speak on behalf of Amnesty while we look into the matter. 
37. CBC Now, at the centre of her complaint against Amnesty’s relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners.  How would you describe that relationship?
38. Claudio Cordone Moazzam Begg is someone who’s been detained in Guantanamo.  He speaks very eloquently  about that experience, and at the moment we’re campaigning to the end of the detentions in Guantanamo, because they’re still continuing  and he’s very good in that respect.  And because of that he’s been on a speaking tour with us, so we’ve had other instances in which we’ve participated with him, and the key point is that this is something that we know about him and we work with him in that respect, and nothing, and I go back to what Gita was saying before, that has come up to make us believe that he does in fact have a violent or discriminating agenda.  This is Gita’s point but every time we’ve looked for specifics we don’t get any specifics or we get sensationalisms. 
39. CBC And yet, there are many reports that Cageprisoners actually does support jihadi views, jihadi views that would be incompatible with the defence of women and other minorities.  Are you not uncomfortable with that?
40. Claudio Cordone Of course and we look into all those but that’s the critical point in this debate.  Are we supposed to act on the basis of accurate information, or just innuendos or generalisations?  When Gita says, or others say, these guys are promoting extremist views, can someone please explain what are these views; look at their website, look at what they’ve been saying publicly, that’s the evidence on which we have to go about.  But the sort of things that we’re getting are generalisations or sensationalising such as they’re promoting the rights of people who have reprehensible views, and when you look at that we could be accused of the same thing.  We talk about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who as you know has taken credit for the 9/11 attacks.  He’s been waterboarded, and we’re saying he shouldn’t have been waterboarded and he deserves a fair trial.  Does this mean that we’re promoting his views which are as reprehensible as any views that includes killing civilians and discrimination?  Of course not. 
41. CBC But you would argue for a fair trial, let me just clarify here, you would argue for a fair trial for anyone regardless of what they were charged with.  That’s not the issue is it?  The issue is once they’re free if they promote extremist jihadi views, jihadist views that actually are against other human rights, isn’t that the question, what they do when they’re free?
42. Claudio Cordone Of course, but that’s my point – in this case nothing has come up to prove that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners are in fact promoting violence, or are promoting discrimination.  And every time, in the few times that Gita or any of the others in the last 11 days have been engaging in this have been pushed to,  when we try to pin them down on what exactly you’re referring to, we’re not getting anything.  Her concerns are not new, we were taking them on board and again because we’re not getting anything that should lead us to review that relationship we haven’t.  I’ll be the first to say that if any evidence comes up that in fact that they are promoting or advocating things that we do not stand for of course we’ll end that relationship immediately.   
43. CBC Well, for example Cageprisoners
44. Claudio Cordone It is a matter of principle at this stage that we cannot, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, just end that relationship. 
45. CBC Well, as you know Gita Sahgal has considerable support for her position.  There is a petition initiated by some high ranking South Asian women including a representative of the Human Rights Documentation Centre in Sri Lanka and Sara Hussain, an advocate of the supreme court in Bangladesh and I want to read a bit of that petition, it says and I quote:  ‘Many of us who work to defend human rights  in the context of conflict of terrorism know the importance of maintaining a clear and visible distance from potential partners and allies when there’s any doubt about their commitment to human rights’What’s your response to that?
46. Claudio Cordone I agree with that, but this is not the case that we are talking about.  As I said, it’s a matter of basic principles, and people are innocent until proven guilty in all kinds of ways, and in this case 
47. CBC But we’re not talking about a charge and what happened to him at Guantanamo, we’re talking about an ideology.
48. Claudio Cordone I’m not talking about Guantanamo, I’m talking right now that Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners are being accused of promoting violence, of promoting discrimination and I’m saying   
49. CBC Well, they’re being accused because they support Taliban views and they support jihadi views, and we know what jihadi views are.
50. Claudio Cordone Where is the evidence that they support Taliban views and what are the jihadi views?  
51. CBC Mr. Begg has written a book in support of Taliban views?
52. Claudio Cordone He hasn’t written a book in Taliban views, the last time that we were able to pin Gita and others down in this respect, what he said in his book is that the Taliban were better than what had come before and I bet you we can even find NATO generals possibly sharing that view.  The point is that if he’s actually now 
53. CBC Well the Taliban actually very seriously curtailed women’s rights so I don’t think you would actually find a lot of people supporting that view would you? Saying that was better?
54. Claudio Cordone Look, those are assessments, the key thing is
55. CBC Well they weren’t assessments that, we know that about the Taliban – we know they stoned women, we know they wouldn’t let girls go to school, we know women had to stop working, we know all that.
56. Claudio Cordone Sure, and by the way, we have a very long record of opposing the Taliban, not just with regard to their treatment of women but their attacks on civilians and all the rest, but Moazzam Begg himself has condemned some of these abuses.  He has rebutted all the accusations put to him point by point whenever those accusations were specific.  And that’s why I’m saying, if there is something else that is specific, things that they’ve said, things that they’ve written beyond what has been referred to so far which to me would not justify breaking that relationship we would, but none of that has come up and it’s just distorting on the basic objective that we’re trying to achieve which is to highlight the plight of Guantanamo and do it with former prisoners and people who also have credibility within communities that we’re trying to reach, hoping that people are not going to take up those grievances to blow up trains instead of engaging with the proper systems.[There were five occasions when the interviewer tried to interrupt Cordone answering in this section, which for the sake of clarity I have not included] 
57. CBC And let me ask you this question Mr. Cordone because we’re running out of time, Ms. Sahgal has said this is one of those rare moments in history when a great organisation must ask, if it lies to itself can it demand the truth of others?  Are you not concerned about Amnesty’s wider reputation?  By continuing to work with an organisation like Cageprisoners?
58. Claudio Condone Look, if we were to say we’re gonna stop speaking on the same platform as Moazzam Begg, on the basis of rumours, innuendos, the sort of stuff that actually governments have been throwing at us for years, then that’s where Amnesty would be betraying it’s basic principles.  This is a legitimate debate, but that’s not the way to handle it. 
59. CBC Okay, Claudio Cordone we’re running out of time, we have to end it there, thank you for your time.
60. Claudio Cordone Thank you.

Video to follow.  Video at TenPercent

Related:

Amnesty, Moazzam Begg, Gita Sahgal – Link roundup

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Lucy permalink
    February 21, 2010 01:14

    AN UNWARRANTED ATTACK ON MOAZZAM BEGG AND AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/feb/21/observer-big-issue

    * From the Observer
    * The big issue

    An unwarranted attack on Moazzam Begg and Amnesty International

    * The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010
    * Article history

    Nick Cohen seemed to stress that principle, not pragmatism, should have guided the courts in ordering the disclosure of sensitive material to Binyam Mohamed in his claims of torture against the US government (“We abhor torture – but that requires paying a price”, Comment). At the same time, he was critical of Moazzam Begg, who was detained without trial for more than three years, has not been charged with any offence and has been an advocate against torture and rendition since his release.

    In a different case last year, the high court acceded to national security concerns. It did not order disclosure of material in claims being brought against the Home Office, MI5 and MI6 by Moazzam Begg and other former Guantánamo detainees. The ruling means that, for the first time, a British civil court will require claimants to prove their case for damages by a process which will include secret hearings, from which they and their lawyers will be excluded. Presumably, if the rights of fair trial and open justice are paramount, Cohen will find common ground with Mr Begg as the case travels to the Court of Appeal. He may even be able to put political differences aside and unite on wider issues of principle.

    Matthew Ryder

    Matrix Chambers

    London

    Nick Cohen accuses Lord Neuberger of being a “spineless judge”, those who question the use of the term “war on terror” as being “third-rate political pundits” and Amnesty International of living in a “make-believe world”. The latter accusation is based on the complaint of one Gita Sahgal that AI collaborated with Moazzam Begg.

    Interestingly, this was the second media attack in three days on Moazzam Begg, the first being by Joan Smith in the Independent who expands the same arguments as Cohen with the same sources. I would suggest that Gita Sahgal, Joan Smith and Nick Cohen actually read Begg’s Enemy Combatant that shows no more signs of “messianic religion” than Smith and Saghal show of messianic feminism.

    Can we expect a further flurry of attacks on Begg and Binyam Mohamed? Although the betting is that Agent “B” will not be prosecuted, the civil suits now being pursued against the government look pretty healthy. But, of course, that’s a really ridiculous conspiracy theory.

    Richard Heron

    Wantage, Oxon

    If Nick Cohen had bothered to check, he would know that Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty’s gender unit, has not been suspended for her attack on “jihadists”. Nor has there been any evidence to substantiate the slur that Moazzam Begg is an ultra-reactionary associated with “clerical fascists”. If this was so evident, there is no way that Amnesty, as our group has done in Norwich, would share a platform with him.

    Neil MacMaster

    Amnesty International Group

    Norwich

    Nick Cohen writes of his latest bogeyman, Amnesty International, that while they were “once the most principled defenders of human rights”, they have now “collaborated” with (ie defended) Moazzam Begg. He wonders what will happen when they realise that “the Islamists they embrace aren’t nice metrosexuals who support women’s rights”, and then hopes they will remember that “promoting human rights is a hard and often thankless task that has to be done regardless of the consequences”.

    I’m baffled as to how this incoherent sneering is supposed to translate into a criticism of AI. If the organisation is to stick to its principles, as Cohen urges, then it has to oppose any transgression. Cohen manages to trumpet the fundamental value of universal and unconditional human rights, then point out the difficulties of consistently upholding these rights by using AI and Begg’s case as an example, then chastise AI for doing so (or is it not doing so?).

    Sean Cordell

    Manchester

  2. February 22, 2010 01:15

    Thanks, this is quite useful.

    At one point Gita says:

    “I think at the moment we have absolutely no credibility across the world in being serious about treating the equality of women and the emancipation of women seriously. ”

    Huh? What? Amnesty has spoken about these issues repeatedly and there’s no evidence at all that their agenda has been influenced by CP or MB. So why is she trashing her own organisation?

    • February 22, 2010 01:46

      Because they don’t agree with her about Moazzam Begg, despite all her ‘very very important human rights investigations’, and apparently Gita Sahgal doesn’t like when she is disagreed with. It’s such a shame really as you and others have said what a wonderful campaigner she is, and her expertise in campaigning is clearly evident here. But sadly it is also evident that she is basing this campaign on smears and distortions.

  3. Lucy permalink
    February 22, 2010 10:41

    Just heard a bit of this on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Women’s Hour’ (Monday 22 Feb 2010)…programme still on as I write –

    an interview with Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to December 11, 2009.
    [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irene_Khan for brief bio]

    She said she had hired Gita Sahgal and for the past six years she had never heard her raise any complaints about AI’s work with [not sure of the exact words] Moazzam Begg [and Cageprisoers, again, not sure of the exact words] – better to wait for opportunity to replay the broadcast.
    I’m also not clear when the ‘platform sharing’ was decided. Think this should be pursued, well, obviously.

    • February 22, 2010 11:08

      Thanks Lucy. Typically I turned the radio off when Andrew Marr came on!! I’ll wait for it to be available on the iPlayer.

Trackbacks

  1. Sahgal Expands Campaign To Canada « Ten Percent
  2. Pickled Politics » Irene Khan challenges Gita Sahgal’s version of events on Amnesty

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