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Gita Sahgal & Widney Brown on NPR’s All Things Considered

February 28, 2010

Gita Sahgal appeared on NPR Radio’s All Things Considered yesterday (27/02/10) where Guy Raz gave her a good run for her money.  Widney Brown gave a good interview too explaining how essential it is that Amnesty continues to work with Moazzam Begg and how an independent person is reviewing Sahgal’s suspension.  I will publish the transcript on Earwicga when it is available on NPR.  NPR transcript below.

Sahgal was asked for specific evidence of anything Moazzam Begg has ‘said or advocated for specifically that would suggest he supports violent jihadism’.  The answer given was the usual actions and words of other Cageprisoner members, specifically Asim Qureshi whose words on BBC Newshour are misinterpreted by Sahgal.

Raz went on to say:

But Begg has never said any of these things, I’m wondering if this is just guilt by association.  This is someone who has publically said he created a girls school in Afghanistan, he worked to bring to light the abuses of the Taliban in Afghanistan when he was living there as a volunteer.

Sahgal then answers by talking about Begg’s autobiography and her condemnation of Begg because of the titles of the books he sold in his bookshop.   This obviously makes him a violent jihadi.  I just checked on Amazon and they sell Mein Kampf in several different versions including the ‘official nazi translation’.  Guess that’s them fucked then – the evil fascists should obviously be sent straight to the black prisons of Afghanistan!

I was impressed though with the way Sahgal managed to falsely link Begg directly to Abdullah Azzam (who died in 1989) and the horrible Mumbai attacks of 2008.  These attacks were believed to have been carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group which formed as a splinter group from another organisation to fight against India in the Kashmir conflict, and are widely believed to be supported by Pakistan’s ISI, whilst being officially banned by the country.  Sahgal made a politically astute choice to highlight this ‘evidence’ of Begg’s terrible terrorist activity as Lashkar e Taiba are current news following recent testimony from American ‘Intelligence’ about how they ‘could pose a serious threat to U.S. interests.

Other recent impressive media appearances by Sahgal include her interview with DNA in which she repeats the hack Kerbaj’s rubbish in the Times in which it was reported that ‘Sam Zarifi … thought the relationship with Moazzem Begg was a mistake, which Amnesty International should admit.’   Sahgal’s fansite, Human Rights For All, hasn’t bothered to publish Sam Zarifi’s subsequent letter to the Sunday Times or publish comments on its post which re-published Kerbaj’s hack piece, but the rest of us have read it and haven’t failed to note that Zarifi clearly said:

Your recent article (‘Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links’, 14 February) mischaracterizes my views.

I have been a part of the internal AI debate surrounding the issue of AI’s collaboration with various groups as part of its campaign to close down Guantánamo. My opinions have been heard, considered, and where appropriate, implemented.
I do not oppose our current initiative working with Moazzam Begg in the recent European tour seeking to convince European states to receive more of the Guantánamo detainees who cannot be repatriated because of the risk of further human rights abuses.

And then of course there is Sahgal’s interview in The Wall Street Journal with the line that made me laugh out loud: ‘Then, when the Sunday Times story broke, everything I uncovered was deemed ‘innuendo’.  Almost as funny as Sahgal’s story about all the human rights lawyers refusing to represent her in an employment case – I wonder if they pointed out to her that a call to an employment lawyer would be a more appropriate choice?  Perhaps it’s time for Sahgal to concede that she IS pedalling innuendo, and that using and abusing the high-profile name of Moazzam Begg to promote whatever agenda she really has is a step too far.

Oh and I almost forgot the best bit from yesterday’s interview.  Gita Sahgal said:

I don’t feel safe at Amnesty International

Bit like she doesn’t feel safe talking at the BBC then.  I wonder if Sahgal has received the death threats that Moazzam Begg and members of Cageprisoners have.

As I have written before and I repeat again here:  Playing the victim card doesn’t wash Sahgal when you are actively smearing an actual victim, in fact it is disgusting.

Transcript by NPR:

GUY RAZ, host:

There can be a fine line between defending the rights of terror suspects and defending their views. Amnesty International has been thrust into a very public struggle about where exactly that line is.

Gita Sahgal was, until recently, the head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty’s International Secretariat. But she was suspended shortly after giving an interview critical of Amnesty’s relationship with a former Guantanamo detainee named Moazzam Begg.

Gita Sahgal joins us from the BBC in London.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. GITA SAHGAL (Head of Gender Unit, Amnesty International): Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Now, Moazzam Begg is British. He was detained for three years at Bagram and Guantanamo for suspected links to al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He was then released. He was never convicted for being a terrorist. So why specifically do you take issue with him?

Ms. SAHGAL: I think that Amnesty International has given Moazzam Begg a platform that legitimizes him as a human rights defender. I think the organization that he represents, Caged Prisoners, is much more than a prisoners’ rights organization.

What it does is promote people who promote a violent and discriminatory agenda.

RAZ: Okay. Now, Amnesty has sponsored forums where Begg has spoken out against the imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo. I’m wondering if there’s anything he has said or advocated for specifically that would suggest he supports violent jihadism.

Ms. SAHGAL: Well, I was on radio with his colleague, Asim Qureshi. Asim Qureshi confirmed that he was present at the Hizb ut-Tahrir rally some years ago.

RAZ: This is a radical group that calls for an international caliphate.

Ms. SAHGAL: An international caliphate, yes, and they believe in systematic discrimination. Both gender discrimination, discrimination against religious minorities, they’re anti-Semitic. You know, on various counts, they would not be considered good partners for human rights organization.

RAZ: But Amnesty isn’t partnering with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Ms. SAHGAL: No. But he confirmed that he supported global jihad, which is what he was talking about, on this Hizb ut-Tahrir rally.

RAZ: But Begg has never said any of these things. I mean, I’m wondering if this is just guilt by association. This is somebody who has publicly said he created a girl’s school in Afghanistan, he worked to bring to light the abuses of the Taliban in Afghanistan when he was living there as a volunteer. I mean, I’m

Ms. SAHGAL: I’m not sure I read his autobiography that way. He mentions that he ran a book shop and the book shop sold things like children’s book and honey. But it also – and this is in his own words, according to him – sold – it was a bestseller, was a book by a man called Abdullah Azzam. Abdullah Azzam was a mentor of bin Laden. He was one of the founders of an extremely violent organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has launched massive attacks on civilians and most recently has been accused of being implicated in the attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

I don’t think that selling the memoirs of a man who was actively involved in promoting that kind of jihad is a good person to give a platform to.

RAZ: I should mention that you have supports form some pretty prominent people living in this country – Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie among them.

I do want to ask you about Amnesty’s general position. Amnesty speaks out for prisoners all around the world, including people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded. Obviously, they don’t back the 9/11 attacks.

They supported Franjo Tudjman as a prisoner of conscience in Croatia. He subsequently went on to commit human rights violations as the leader of the Croats during the Bosnian wars. I mean, what’s the difference here?

Ms. SAHGAL: I have no problem with Amnesty International supporting the rights of prisoners and opposing torture, absolutely, in whatever form it takes place. We understand all that completely. What we don’t understand is people in Western countries who want to feel good about supporting a victim who then promote that person who is no longer a prisoner, who is, in fact, has a funded organization of his own with, as I said, an agenda that I believe is a promotion of violence and discrimination.

And to give that organization and that person global prominence as a human rights advocate is wrong.

RAZ: Gita Sahgal, do you ever expect to return to Amnesty?

Ms. SAHGAL: I think my future hangs in the balance.

RAZ: Do you hope to return?

Ms. SAHGAL: I had a flourishing career. I love my job. But I don’t feel safe at Amnesty International when it has thrown a protective cover around Moazzam Begg.

RAZ: That’s human rights activist Gita Sahgal. She was recently suspended from her post as head of the gender unit at Amnesty International. We tried to reach Moazzam Begg, but he declined to comment. But we did speak with a senior Amnesty International official, Widney Brown.

She says her organization did vet Moazzam Begg after his release from Guantanamo, and she defends Amnesty’s right to work with him, despite Gita Sahgal’s concerns about his past.

Ms. WIDNEY BROWN (Senior Director, International Law and Policy, Amnesty International): Let’s be clear here: he ran a bookstore where they sold books that other people are opposed to. Does Amnesty International support the content of those books that undermine women’s rights? Of course not. But do we do think that somebody should not be considered a legitimate voice on his firsthand experience of the abuses in Guantanamo Bay because he sold books that you don’t like?

RAZ: But, I mean, Amnesty has actually been a sponsor of his tours through Europe and so on. I mean, that seems to be a step beyond just hearing his views.

Ms. BROWN: No. I think there’s two elements. First, when he came out, he was one of the first detainees released. At that point, Guantanamo Bay was absolutely shrouded in secrecy and he was a voice who could say I was there and this is what happened and this is what’s going on, and that was critically important.

Our work more recently with him is we have tried to lobby, particularly European governments, to accept detainees at Guantanamo Bay where the U.S. government has acknowledged that they have no grounds for keeping them. Moazzam Begg, as a British citizen, has an incredibly effective voice in talking to governments in Europe about the importance of not leaving these men who have been cleared – let’s be clear here – they have been cleared and they are languishing and quite frankly suffering immensely in Guantanamo Bay, and that is the basis of the tour.

RAZ: What’s a realistic possibility that Gita Sahgal will return to Amnesty International?

Ms. BROWN: We have a very clear and thorough process for dealing with any such issues. The first step is an investigation to see whether in fact she even breached any internal parts of the contract. And that is being done by somebody who is completely independent from these internal debates.

RAZ: And you acknowledge that she has done work for you in the past that you have praised.

Ms. BROWN: Ooh, absolutely. There’s no question about it. Gita is incredibly intelligent, very strong analysis and such. She’s done great work for us. And I think the real tragedy of this particular circumstance is by going public in this particular way knowing that we were addressing her issue means that she’s maybe undermining her own work in fact.

RAZ: That’s Widney Brown. She’s the senior director for international law and policy at Amnesty International.

Widney Brown, thank you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.


Going Radical:  NPR News Investigation

Amnesty, Moazzam Begg, Gita Sahgal – Link roundup

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2010 09:37

    The NPR website now has the transcript.

    In fairness, it is worth pointing out that Sahgal challenged Raz’s reading of Begg (and Victoria Brittan’s) book.

    Sahgal has no problem with Begg selling any book in his bookshop. She questions Amnesty’s judgment in being on the same platform as someone who sells certain books in a bookshop he owns. Would Amnesty be on the same platform as David Irving?

    Your Amazon-to-Gitmo comparison is flawed: Sahgal doesn’t say that someone who sells Mein Kampf should be sent to Gitmo. Her point is: if someone sells certain types of books (among other things), is that individual the right partner for Amnesty. That’s the question not being answered adequately.

    The link with Azzam and the Mumbai attacks should be quite clear to those who like to join dots. Azzam inspired Lashkar-e-Taiba; he dies (as has Sayyid Qutb, but one wouldn’t rule out his impact on Al Qaeda’s thinking, right?). L-e-T was named as the perpetrator for what happened in Bombay in 2008. So if someone markets Azzam’s books, and is in broad sympathy with violent insurgencies (even though those insurgencies are characterized in Geneva Convention terminology), then it is a legitimate question to ask the world’s leading human rights group if it has done adequate due diligence of the company it keeps.

    Finally, the correct spelling is “peddle”, not “pedal”.


  2. February 28, 2010 23:34

    Salil, the correct spelling is McCarthyism.

  3. Lucy permalink
    March 1, 2010 00:08

    There is nothing to indicate that Moazzam Begg supports the abuse of human rights. Gita Sahgal does not have a new point to make here or evidence against Moazzam Begg. She has placed herself in a corner and seems to want to justify that. What she is saying and repeatedly saying has no substance that brings her any closer to the platform-sharing principle allegedly at risk. Is she saying that he deserved to be tortured, then? That is the kind of logical conclusion that she is leading us towards. It is a shame, really, that she cannot make some concession indicating that she had made a mistake and misunderstood Moazzam Begg’s position. It would be better for her and everyone else. She cannot make him guilty of something he is not. Is she saying that he deserved to be tortured?

    • March 1, 2010 01:52

      I don’t think Gita Sahgal is saying Moazzam Begg deserved to be tortured. She has picked Begg to hang her crusade on because he is high-profile and without him she would not have got into the Sunday Times and the other right wing media she is choosing to speak to.

      • Lucy permalink
        March 1, 2010 02:50

        So… that was her way of outflanking Amnesty? But were that the case, nonetheless, where she is going with that can only, I think, lead her further and further to the Right, into the warm embrace of those who do think that anyone who is or was detained at Guantánamo must have deserved to be there.

  4. March 1, 2010 03:12

    Yes, I agree with that Lucy. But perhaps she was on the right anyway – I have no idea of her personal politics. In fact before the first ST article Gita Sahgal didn’t have a wiki page and wasn’t mentioned on her mother’s wiki page either. There seems to be very little previoius media coverage of her.

  5. Rachel permalink
    March 2, 2010 19:55

    Hey, guess what, people and politics exist without media coverage.

    A good place to start is the book she co-edited with Nira Yuval-Davis, Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain. The introduction to that book, alongside Begg’s book, should be essential reading for anyone wading into this controversy.

    Or there is decades of her work with Southall Black Sisters and Women against Fundamentalism, you can read plenty on those websites, or her work on protecting religious minorities, for example around the slaughter of Muslims by Hindu clerical fascists

    You may not want to accept this comment (as I’m either stupid or a ‘HP tosser’) but it would be good if you could pass on the reading suggestions to your buddy Lucy.

  6. Lucy permalink
    March 3, 2010 09:25

    Thank you for the reading recommendation, Rachel, and your suggestion that I compare the two books, as well as the point you make about anyone wading into this controversy. There seems to me to be a certain inference here, though, that this is all about who gets ahead, to put it crudely. And that is not to discount Sahgal’s record of struggle for human rights. But Begg had been ‘promoted’ – had his profile raised – and Amnesty had sought his attendance at its events. It was plainly galling to Sahgal.

    Begg had appeared at Downing Street as part of a group delivering a letter to Gordon Brown, calling for the release of the last British resident held at Guantanamo, as Richard Kerbaj reported in the Sunday Times. Along with Kate Allen from Amnesty. But there is one pressing point. That man is still held at Guantánamo. His name is Shaker Aamer and according to Clive Stafford Smith of ‘Reprieve’ he is at risk at this stage of grave deterioration if he is not released soon. That is what the mission to Downing Street that Begg joined was about. I recommend your getting a hold of the DVD or going to see the film ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo’. There is an excellent review, by the way, at ‘Review – Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo + discussion.

  7. Rachel permalink
    March 4, 2010 22:02

    Thanks, Lucy. I did think it was an excellent review of the film on Harpy’s blog.

    I didn’t suggest you compare the books by the way, and I certainly don’t share the view that this whole thing was motivated by professional jealousy or career building reasons!

    This is even more ridiculous, if less offensive, than the suggestion that Gita is motivated by ‘ Islamophobia’, pro-war or rightwing ideas.

    I recommended some reading because I am dismayed at the lack of intelligent debate displayed on this blog among others.

    There are many other people I respect, women and socialists, who disagree with me about Gita’s actions, and if they do so from an educated position, fine. It’s the lack of knowledge of or interest in left-wing, feminist critiques developed in the anti-racist movement of the past which depresses me. I guess I’m showing my age.

    By the way, I do not oppose torture or detention in Guantanomo any less than you.

  8. Rachel permalink
    March 4, 2010 22:10

    By the way earwicga there is a lot i like on this blog, good to see passionate, pissed-off feminism.

  9. March 5, 2010 05:54

    @earwicga There was precious little coverage of Gita’s work prior to this controversy because she does not seek publicity. Honestly. But those who are engaged in issues related to free speech, fundamentalism, women’s rights, know – and knew – about her work. I do hope we don’t live in a world where appearance on Wikipedia is somehow the benchmark to decide a person’s worth. And thank you, for clarifying that you don’t believe that Sahgal wanted Begg tortured.

    @Lucy, I don’t think Rachel was suggesting what you infer – as though this is some sort of a publicity sweepstakes/competition between Sahgal and Begg. If anything galls Sahgal, it is Amnesty’s apparently not well-thought partnership with Begg. It appears that Begg is committed to fighting for the release of those who have suffered in the prison where he was, and he fights for causes that are in alignment with his perspective of his religious beliefs. That does not make him a universalist by any stretch.

    There is no reason to make any comparison between Sahgal and Begg, and I don’t intend making one. But you’ve implied that that’s what may be driving Sahgal, so can I just say that Sahgal has fought for the human rights of all, (there is logic to that website’s name, which @earwicga unfairly characterizes as Sahgal’s fansite – unless the presumption is that academics like Romila Thapar and Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak, Ramachadnra Guha, authors like Amitav Ghosh, and scores of prominent human rights lawyers and activists in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh – and beyond – are unthinking fans). Indeed, even those she disagrees with, even those who believe in religions (since she does not in any), and all those who are victims. She has worked on causes for Muslims, women, Hindus, Bangladeshi victims of the massacres of 1971, and so on.

    @Rachel, thanks for those links.

    @RickB, the correct spelling is non-sequitor.

  10. Rachel permalink
    March 8, 2010 17:03

    I wonder if you will now remove your blog links to Malalai Joya and RAWA since they have now shown their right wing, pro-war, pro-torture colours by supporting Gita Sahgal’s petition.

    Earwicga, you have been the most appalling commentator on this whole episode. You might not be ashamed now but I expect you will be one day.

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