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Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link

Sunday 7 February 2010

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From The Sunday Times, February 7, 2010

An official at the human rights charity deplores its work with a ‘jihadist’ Amnesty International demonstrators wearing boiler suits

by Richard Kerbaj

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.”

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