Amnesty International is at a crossroads. One path leads to a continued relationship with an admitted jihadist. The other is guided by an Amnesty official who has been outspoken in her criticism of Amnesty’s relationship with the jihadist.
Thus far, Amnesty has chosen to stand by the jihadist – and chastise the whistleblower.
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.