Amnesty International was on Monday at the centre of a growing row after one of its own senior officials accused it of “collaborating” with suspected pro-jehadi elements in the name of supporting human rights.
The organisation moved swiftly to suspend Gita Sahgal, India-born head of its gender unit, after she was reported by The Sunday Times as saying that Amnesty was risking its reputation by associating itself with right-wing Islamic groups.
Ms. Sahgal, a seasoned rights campaigner and daughter of novelist Nayantara Sahgal, told The Hindu that she was forced to go public with her concerns because Amnesty ignored them when she raised them internally.
“Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty had suspended me from my job,” she said.
Even as Amnesty ordered an internal inquiry into the allegations, its Senior Director for International Law and Policy Widney Brown rejected the accusation that it was being “soft” on extremists.
“Our record is one of unreserved opposition to their abuses over the years,” she said in a statement.
The row centres on Amnesty’s association with Cageprisoners, a campaign group formed by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and a self-confessed admirer of the Taliban. The group’s high-profile campaign for the closure of Guantanamo Bay and rehabilitation of its inmates is backed by Amnesty whose U.K. head Kate Allen reportedly accompanied Mr. Begg and his activists when they visited Downing Street to give a petition to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Mr. Begg, who says he was tortured during his three-year captivity in Guantanamo Bay, has defended his support for the Taliban but denied links with the al-Qaeda or any terror group. The aim of Cageprisoners, he insists, is simply to highlight the plight of Guantanamo prisoners.
Ms. Sahgal, who has received widespread support for her stand, said she had always opposed the illegal detention and torture of Guantanamo prisoners and was “horrified and appalled by the treatment of people like Moazzam Begg.” But Mr. Begg was Britain’s “most famous supporter of the Taliban” and for Amnesty to appear on platforms with him was a “gross error of judgment.”
In a statement, she said: “The issue is not about Moazzam Begg’s freedom of opinion, nor about his right to propound his views: he already exercises these rights fully as he should. The issue is a fundamental one about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights. I have raised this issue because of my firm belief in human rights for all.”