In recent weeks, the human rights organization has been criticized by one of its own officials for its relationship with Moazzam Begg – a former Gitmo detainee who has openly espoused jihadist views – as well as Begg’s organization, Cage Prisoners.
Begg has taken part in Amnesty’s campaign to close Gitmo, including trying to convince some European nations to take in more Gitmo detainees. But earlier this month, the Sunday Times (UK) reported that Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty’s gender unit, had complained about the relationship with Begg for two years to no avail.
So, Sahgal went public with her criticisms after penning an email to other Amnesty officials on January 30. “I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote, according to the Times.
Sahgal added: “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.”
The Amnesty higher-ups did not respond well to Sahgal’s criticism. At some point, Amnesty suspended Sahgal. And on February 11, Amnesty released a statement from interim secretary general Claudio Cordone, who defended the organization’s relationship with Begg.
The controversy did not end there, however. Just a few days after Amnesty released its statement, the Times reported that another senior Amnesty official had objected to the relationship with Begg and defended Sahgal, at least in part. The Times obtained a copy of a leaked email written by Sam Zarifi, the group’s Asia Pacific director. The Times summarized Zarifi’s email as saying that the “charity’s campaigns blurred the line between giving support for a detainee’s human rights and endorsing extremist views.”
But Zarifi then published his own letter, claiming that the Times had misrepresented his views and that he backed Amnesty’s reprimand of Sahgal. Still, even in his own letter, Zarifi is clearly a bit uneasy about Begg’s worldview (emphasis added):
As I told my programme staff in the internal email leaked to your paper, my concern has been that AI’s campaigning has not been sufficiently clear that when we defend somebody’s right to be free from torture or unlawful detention, we do not necessarily embrace their views totally.
This raises the risk of creating a perception, particularly in South Asia, that AI is somehow pro-Taleban or anti-women, playing into the rhetoric often used against us by governments and groups in the region that wish to deflect our criticism. But any suggestion that our work with Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners has weakened our condemnation of abuses by the Taleban or other similarly-minded groups does not withstand scrutiny.
Obviously, the taint Zarifi is worried about -- that Amnesty is “somehow pro-Taleban, or anti-women” -- comes from its relationship with Begg, who is admittedly pro-Taliban. (Even in the Times’ first account on this matter, Begg was cited as still “defend[ing] his support for the Taliban.”)
While Zarifi claims that the group has not compromised its humanitarian mission by allying itself with Begg, the truth is that Saghal got it right.
I’ve written about Begg before (see here, here, here, here, here and here), so I won’t repeat all of the details again. In short, Begg was detained and shipped to Gitmo after compiling an extensive dossier. While in American custody, Begg signed an eight-page single-spaced confession in which he admitted to a whole host of nefarious activities including both training at and funding terrorist camps in Afghanistan. Later, Begg would claim that he was coerced by the FBI (which, of course, isn’t known for its coercive tactics) into signing the confession. But an investigation by the DOJ’s inspector general turned up no evidence to support Begg’s claims. Three other investigations by the DOD also did not find any evidence to buttress Begg’s claims of abuse.
Here is what the Inspector General concluded that Begg admitted to (in part):
Begg’s signed statement indicates, among other things, that Begg sympathized with the cause of al-Qaeda, attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and England so that he could assist in waging global jihad against enemies of Islam, including Russia and India, associated with and assisted several prominent terrorists and supporters of terrorists and discussed potential terrorist acts with them; recruited young operatives for the global jihad; and provided financial support for terrorist training camps.
Any doubts about Begg’s ideology should have been dispelled with the publication of his book, Enemy Combatant. In the book, Begg admits that he supports the Taliban (thus Saghal’s comments referenced above) and that he believes in waging offensive jihad, among other damning admissions.
Despite Begg’s transparent nature, he has been embraced by the global Left, including Amnesty International and the ACLU.
The current controversy over Amnesty’s ties to Begg was, no doubt, spurred on by all of the public attention al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki has received. Awlaki was the “spiritual advisor” for at least two of the 9/11 hijackers and, in more recent months, the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber.
Begg and his organization, Cage Prisoners, have longed backed Awlaki by publishing Awlaki’s sermons, hosting him via satellite and audio at Cage Prisoners’ events in the UK, and agitating for Awlaki’s release when he was briefly detained in Yemen. (For more on the ties between Begg’s Cage Prisoners and Awlaki, see this PDF by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of The Centre for Social Cohesion.)
The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, invited Begg to speak at a “War On Terror Week” conference, which was really an anti-American hate fest, while Abdulmutallab was the head of the Islamic Society at the University College of London. Begg attended. Abdulmutallab would later travel to Yemen, where he would meet with Awlaki – Begg’s long-time ally.
Because of all of this, and much more, it is good to see that an Amnesty official like Saghal is intellectually honest enough to stand up in protest. (According to the Times, a third official objected to the group’s dealings with Begg in 2008, but “was overruled.”) These officials deserve kudos for going against the herd.
However, even Saghal pretends that Begg has something important to say about his time at Gitmo, claiming that “[a]s a former Guantanamo detainee it was legitimate to hear his experiences…” Amnesty defends Begg’s role as a supposed witness to abuse as well.
The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence to back up Begg’s description of his “experiences” at Gitmo. The DOJ’s Inspector General, for example, “did not find sufficient evidence to support Begg’s allegations.” (A PDF of the report, which contains refutations of Begg’s claims, can be found here.)
It apparently never occurred to Amnesty that Begg was capable of inventing his story.
Still, Saghal deserves credit for speaking up about this matter. Left-wing human rights organizations would be well-served if they had more employees like Saghal who can tell the difference between an oppressed innocent and a jihadist.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.