Defending Moazzam Begg and Amnesty International

By – Andy Worthington – February 10, 2010

Just when it seemed that Republicans in America had a monopoly on Islamophobic hysteria, the Sunday Times
prompted a torrent of similar hysteria in the UK by running an article
in which an employee of Amnesty International — Gita Sahgal, head of
the gender unit at the International Secretariat — criticized the
organization that employed her for its association with former
Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg.

Before getting into the
substance — or lack of it — in Sahgal’s complaints, it should be noted
first of all that her immediate suspension by Amnesty was the least
that should have been expected. What other organization would put up
with an employee badmouthing them to a national newspaper on a Sunday,
and then allow them to return to work as usual on Monday morning?

That Sahgal’s many defenders
have all chosen to ignore this point suggests that they believe that
her allegations were so significant — the actions, indeed, of a
self-sacrificing whistleblower — that this blatant unprofessionalism
was acceptable, whereas, in fact, it was no such thing.

That Sahgal also chose to air her complaints in the Sunday Times, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is also significant, particularly because the Times
first attempted to smear Begg and Cageprisoners a month ago, in
connection with the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in
an article by the normally reliable Sean O’Neill, entitled, "Umar
Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group." To me, this
suggests that Sahgal may have been used as part of an ongoing attempt
to vilify Begg that was part of a specific editorial policy.

It is also significant that Sahgal confided in Richard Kernaj, a reporter who, as Rick B explained at Ten Percent,
enjoys his work "specialising in exposing shortcomings, crime and
corruption in the Muslim community" to such an extent that, when he
exposed child abuse in an Australian Islamic council in 2006, he
boasted afterwards — using a distinctly inappropriate analogy — that
being handed the documents that led to his scoop "was like a
journalist’s wet dream."

So what of the allegations?
According to Kernaj’s article, Sahgal stated her belief that
collaborating with Begg "fundamentally damages" Amnesty’s reputation.
Kernaj added that, in an email "sent to Amnesty’s top bosses," she
suggested that "the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and
his ‘jihadi’ group, Cageprisoners, out of fear of being branded racist
and Islamophobic." He also explained that she described Begg as
"Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban."

Kernaj also claimed that Sahgal
had "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," and quoted more
extensively from the email written on January 30, which stated:

I believe the
campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and,
more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. 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.

Right-wingers — and other
thinly-disguised right-wingers described, laughably, as the "decent
left" — seized on the article with glee, and responded to Sahgal’s
inevitable suspension not with recognition of her lamentable lack of
professionalism, but by providing her with a platform for further
misplaced allegations, and by writing opinion pieces drawing on their
rarely submerged hostility towards Islam.

In the Spectator, Martin Bright posted a statement by Sahgal on his blog, David Aaronovitch followed up with an article in the Times,
Nick Cohen set up a ridiculous Facebook group, "Amnesty International
You Bloody Hypocrites Reinstate Gita Sahgal," and even the Guardian
allowed a friend of Sahgal’s, Rahila Gupta, to write an opinion piece
that failed to justify the descriptions of Begg and Cageprisoners, and
that also failed to address the question of why Sahgal should keep her
job after criticizing her employers in a national newspaper. Gupta also
suggested, erroneously, that Amnesty International
had "filtered out" negative comments responding to a statement that the
organization issued on its website, whereas, in fact, a cursory glance
at the comments should convince anyone that Islamophobia is as alive
and well in Amnesty’s supporters as it is in the world of Kernaj,
Bright, Aaronovitch, Cohen et al.

On Cageprisoners,
Begg defended himself admirably, asking Kernaj why, after discussing
his planned article with him, and asking him detailed questions, he
chose to ignore all his responses. Begg also criticized Sahgal for not
talking to him first, noting, "Whilst it gives me no personal pleasure
to hear of the suspension of Ms. Sahgal for holding her view, the
newspapers were not the right place to air them without first putting
them to Cageprisoners or me."

In key passages addressed to Kernaj, he wrote:

When asked
specifically about the Taliban I told you my view: that I have
advocated for engagement and dialogue with the Taliban well before our
own government took the official position of doing the same — only last
week — although I did not say, like the government, we should be giving
them lots of money in order to do so.

I also clearly told you, though
you deliberately chose to ignore, that I had actually witnessed what I
believe were human rights abuses under the Taliban and have detailed
them in my book, from which you conveniently and selectively quote. I
added that the US administration had perpetrated severe human rights
abuses against me for years but that didn’t mean I opposed dialogue
with them.

I even told you that
Cageprisoners and I have initiated pioneering steps in that regard by
organising tours all around the UK with former US guards from
Guantánamo and men who were once imprisoned there. Cageprisoners is the
only organisation to have done so. One of these soldiers, in response
to your article, sent this message to me: "They are attacking you and
your causes … don’t forget you have real support by some of us
ex-soldiers who have seen the light." […]

Had you — and Ms Sahgal no doubt
— done your homework properly you’d have discovered also that I was
involved in the building of, setting up and running of a school for
girls in Kabul during the time of the Taliban, but of course, that
wouldn’t have sat well with the agenda and nature of your heavily
biased and poorly researched article.

Cageprisoners, for whom I write
on a regular basis, describes itself, accurately, as an organization
that "exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners
at Guantánamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on
Terror." In his letter to Kernaj, Begg also mentioned that
Cageprisoners would not "be forced into determining a person’s guilt
outside a recognised court of law." This happens to be a view that I
share, and it has motivated me for the last four years as I have
assiduously chronicled the stories of the men and boys — all Muslims,
in case anyone has overlooked this particular point — who have been
redefined as a category of human beings without rights in a post-9/11
world of hysteria in which apparently intelligent non-Muslims regard
the indefinite detention without charge or trial of Muslim "terror
suspects" as somehow appropriate.

I know from personal experience
that Moazzam Begg is no extremist. We have met on numerous occasions,
have had several long discussions, and have shared platforms together
at many events. He also features in the new documentary about
Guantánamo, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,"
directed by Polly Nash and myself, talking about Afghanistan, and his
hopes, in 2001, that civilized intervention from other Muslims would
help the country to engage with the modern world.

Along with other representatives
of Cageprisoners, Moazzam and other released prisoners have all
welcomed me — a non-Muslim — with nothing less than friendship, support
and openness at all times, as they have with numerous other non-Muslim
supporters of universal human rights. Is this really what we should
expect from extremists or supporters of the Taliban?

I also know, from my
conversations with Moazzam, that he is capable of far more open-minded
discussions than many of his critics mentioned above (of the kind that
sustained him in his conversations with guards throughout his long
ordeal in US custody), and that his calm and considered response to the
treatment he received is a far more moderating and moderate influence
than that of his divisive critics.

It also seems clear to me that
the manner in which this story has been stirred up by the media
actually has less to do with Moazzam and Cageprisoners than it does
with illiberal attempts to smear Amnesty International’s reputation,
and to advance an all too prevalent anti-Islamic agenda.

This is supposedly disguised
through the purported defense of an Amnesty employee who had no excuse
for speaking to the press as she did, but instead, I would suggest,
Gita Sahgal is largely being used by those whose only aim is to stir up
hostility towards a man who was imprisoned without charge or trial for
three years, who has never been charged with a crime, and who dares to
defend the rights of other Muslims not to be held without charge or

Note: Moazzam
Begg, Omar Deghayes and Andy Worthington will attend a screening of
"Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" at Amnesty International’s
Human Rights Action Centre in London on Tuesday February 16, at 6.30
pm, and will take part in a Q&A session following the screening,
moderated by Sara MacNeice, Amnesty’s Campaign Manager for Terrorism,
Security and Human Rights. For further details, see here. Tickets are free, but booking is required. Please visit Amnesty’s site for booking details, and see here for details of other UK tour dates for the film.Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


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