Amnesty suspends Nehru kin - Row over prisoner released from Guantanamo Bay

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  • Published 10.02.10
Gita Sahgal

London, Feb. 9: Gita Sahgal, daughter of novelist Nayantara Sahgal and granddaughter of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, has been suspended from her job with Amnesty International in London for blowing the whistle on the human rights organisation.

Sahgal, 53, who has long battled suppression of women by fundamentalists, seems to have paid the price for suggesting that Amnesty has got too close to extremist Islamic groups.

She has expressed deep reservations about Amnesty’s collaboration with Moazzam Begg, 42, a Briton “released without charge” from Guantanamo Bay in 2005.

Now an active campaigner for Muslim rights and a group called Cageprisoners, Begg has claimed he was never involved in terrorism. But not all his critics are convinced that he moved to Afghanistan in 2001 merely to be a humble “teacher”.

Sahgal has clearly been a thorn in the side of Amnesty but, by suspending her, it is now the human rights organisation that is having to defend its controversial support for Begg.

While some see Begg as a hero — he has been the subject of a stage play — others feel that the fact that he was “released without charge” does not necessarily mean he was totally innocent.

Sahgal was suspended from her job after The Sunday Times, London, ran a story in which the paper exposed the internal warring within Amnesty.

In an email sent to Amnesty’s top bosses, the paper said Sahgal had suggested the charity had 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’,” the paper reported. “He has championed the rights of jailed Al Qaida members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.”

According to The Sunday Times, Sahgal had “accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al Qaida 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.”

“I felt that Amnesty International was risking its reputation by associating itself with Begg, who heads an organisation, Cageprisoners, that actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals,” said Sahgal in a widely circulated statement. “Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty had suspended me from my job.”

She played with Nehru’s historic words: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitised the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognise the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners.”

She stressed the irony of her situation: “I have been a human rights campaigner for over three decades, defending the rights of women and ethnic minorities, defending religious freedom and the rights of victims of torture, and campaigning against illegal detention and state repression. I have raised the issue of the association of Amnesty International with groups such as Begg’s consistently within the organisation. I have now been suspended for trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially.”

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”, said The Sunday Times.

Moazzam Begg

The paper makes it clear that the prisoners Beg supports include some decidedly dodgy characters: “Among the Muslim inmates it highlights are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 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’.”

Amnesty in its response said that it utterly refuted accusations that it has a “link” to the Taliban through its work with Begg.

“Moazzam Begg was released without charge from Guantánamo and has never been tried or convicted for any terrorism-related offences,” it said. “Amnesty International works with him as a victim of the human rights violations he suffered in the US detention centre. Moazzam Begg has spoken powerfully about his experiences there and the need for justice for the victims. Campaigning for victims of the abuses carried out at Guantánamo Bay does not in any way mean that Amnesty International is linked to the Taliban or to terrorism.”

There is little doubt that Begg suffered in Guantanamo and was almost certainly tortured but in the eyes of many people, he has blurred the distinction between campaigning for Muslim human rights and supporting extremist politics.