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Amnesty Promotes Human Rights, Not Personal Views

March 5, 2010

From the Wall Street Journal – Michael Weiss’ article and Widney Brown’s letter to the WSJ.

March 01, 2010

Regarding Michael Weiss’s “Amnesty International and the Taliban” (op-ed, Feb. 26): Gita Sahgal was not suspended for expressing her views. We are an organization of activists with strong and diverse views on how best to achieve our common goals. Getting those judgments right is both necessary and challenging. As Gita Sahgal’s senior manager, I did encourage her to apply for a newly created position in Amnesty International and encouraged her to document her concerns regarding Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners. When I received her memo I read it immediately, and she was promptly informed that we would look into the issues she raised.

A cursory review of our work will demonstrate that we have consistently and strongly condemned abuses by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will also demonstrate that we have consistently and strongly condemned abuses in the name of counterterrorism— abuses which Moazzam Begg has experienced.

It is important to distinguish between promoting people’s rights and promoting their views. But on this occasion nothing has come to light to date that would indicate we got it wrong. Moazzam Begg speaks powerfully of his experience as a detainee at Guantánamo Bay. We work with him to highlight the human-rights violations suffered by those held at Guantánamo and to campaign for its closure. Guantánamo Bay is the “situation” that needs to be “cleaned up.”

We have heard directly from Moazzam Begg, and he has spoken for human rights every single time he has shared a platform with us. To disown our work with him for the closure of Guantánamo on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations would be a betrayal of the basic principles at the core of what we stand for.

Widney Brown

Senior Director

International Law and Policy

Amnesty International


February 26, 2010

Amnesty International and the Taliban
A staffer dissents from celebrating a terror spokesman, and is suspended.

Until two weeks ago, Gita Sahgal led Amnesty International’s gender-affairs unit and was considered an exemplar of human-rights activism. Now she’s suspended from her job and in need of an attorney willing to confront a venerable nongovernmental organization that is celebrated by the likes of Bono and Al Pacino.

What happened? Ms. Sahgal tried to get her Amnesty colleagues to cease their partnership with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who is, as Ms. Sahgal rightly describes him, “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban.”

Mr. Begg is a British citizen who was captured in Pakistan in 2001 as an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo. He was released without charge in 2005. Mr. Begg claims he was tortured and threatened with execution. He has since become a minor celebrity in the Western human-rights community.

He is currently the director of Cageprisoners, a group that bills itself as an organization that exists “solely to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners . . . held as part of the War On Terror.” Amnesty describes Cageprisoners as a “leading human rights organization.” Yet one of its senior members, Asim Qureshi, spoke at a 2006 London rally sponsored by extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes the idea of a renascent Islamic caliphate. Mr. Qureshi took the occasion to glorify terrorism in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Mr. Begg does not hide his own Islamist convictions. In his memoir, “Enemy Combatant,” he recalls his interrogation at Guantanamo, in which he credits his emigration to Afghanistan to his desire “to live in an Islamic state—one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world.” The Taliban, Mr. Begg insists in his book, were “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years.” Elsewhere he has cited and sold the works of the “charismatic scholar” Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, erstwhile mentor to Osama bin Laden.

Despite all of this, Amnesty has provided Mr. Begg with numerous speaking platforms. He has toured Europe with Amnesty officials as part of a campaign to urge Western governments to offer safe haven to Gitmo detainees. A recent stop was 10 Downing Street, where they petitioned Prime Minister Gordon Brown to push for the release of Britons still held at the prison. Amnesty says it associates with Mr. Begg because he experienced first-hand the human-rights violations at Guantanamo.

Enter Ms. Sahgal, a longtime Amnesty employee who believed that her organization’s support for Mr. Begg betrayed its core principles. She went public with her concerns in a Feb. 7 interview with London’s Sunday Times in which she called the collaboration “a gross error of judgment” that posed a serious threat to human rights and to Amnesty’s reputation. Amnesty suspended Ms. Sahgal from her job, claiming it didn’t want her opinion of Mr. Begg to be confused with its own.

Amnesty continues to defend its affiliation with Mr. Begg and Cageprisoners. Last week, on a Canadian radio program, Amnesty’s interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone described Mr. Begg’s politics as benign, saying there was so far no evidence to suggest that the organization should severe ties with him.

This is nonsense, says Ms. Sahgal via telephone in her home in London. “Amnesty has messaged him as a human-rights advocate . . . He was in Taliban Afghanistan. He was not a charity worker.”

Especially galling for Ms. Sahgal is the fact that she only accepted her job after insisting to Widney Brown, senior director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty, that she be allowed to address the Begg alliance.

“I told her, ‘If you don’t give me the power to clean up this Begg situation, I won’t take on the gender affairs assignment. Widney encouraged me to write a memo on it and even came past my office late one night while I was writing to discuss it. There was no internal resistance against this. So I was promoted with full support. Then, when the Sunday Times story broke, everything I uncovered was deemed ‘innuendo.’”

For Ms. Sahgal, her case is not simply a minor lapse in judgment. She thinks the problem is systemic. “This is a very peculiarly ideological approach to human rights, which misses the point.”

Novelist Salman Rushdie had harsher words. In a public statement, he said that Amnesty had “done its reputation incalculable damage” by allying with Mr. Begg. “It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”

Mr. Weiss is a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine and a blogger for The New Criterion.


Amnesty, Moazzam Begg, Gita Sahgal – Link roundup

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lucy permalink
    March 5, 2010 19:08

    Well done for spotting Widney Brown’s letter to the WSJ. Even the memory of that phrase from the earlier interview with Gita Sahgal:…

    “I told her, ‘If you don’t give me the power to clean up this Begg situation’…

    lodged somewhere in the back of my mind since I first read it along with a slight sense of nausea. What kind of language is that? It has real camp guard resonance to it.

    So, it was satisfying to read Widney Brown’s retort: ‘Guantánamo Bay is the “situation” that needs to be “cleaned up.”

    • March 5, 2010 19:10

      I think the word you are looking for in relation to Gita Sahgal is arrogance.

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