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Amnesty has lent spurious legitimacy to extremists who spurn its values

Wednesday 17 February 2010, by siawi2

February 12, 2010


The victims of the worst oppressors of the past generation did not have lobbyists to alert Western public opinion to their fate. The reliable defence of the right of protest, speech and conscience — in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda and places of lesser horror — has fallen instead to an organisation with cramped offices, tight budgets and a network of volunteers. Amnesty International, founded in 1961, has become a near-synonym for the defence of universal human rights.

That reputation is irreplaceable. Yet through inexplicable insouciance, Amnesty is squandering it. It has collaborated with a group called Cageprisoners, which was established by Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim who is a former inmate at Guantánamo. Cageprisoners is not a defender of political liberty and the welfare of prisoners. It is a defender of radical Islam.

Gita Sahgal, the head of the gender unit of Amnesty’s international secretariat, has drawn attention to the cynicism of this association. Amnesty stands for a disinterested defence of human rights. Islamism is an ideology of theocratic and sexual repression. Having stated her concerns to Amnesty, Ms Sahgal went public with them this week. Within hours, she found herself suspended from her post. In an extraordinary inversion of its traditional role, Amnesty has stifled its own still small voice of conscience.

Amnesty has a message and a mission. It is entitled to expect its officers to promote that collective view rather than undermine it. But in this case, it is Ms Sahgal who is defending Amnesty’s reputation, interests and axioms. She has spoken out, at a professional cost to herself, to draw public attention to a shabby business. Amnesty has in turn treated Ms Sahgal with casual contempt. It has then sought to justify its attitude to Mr Begg and its actions towards Ms Sahgal with a series of sententious irrelevancies.

Mr Begg was interrogated at Guantánamo and released in 2005 without charge. He claims to have been tortured and threatened with death. The treatment of terrorist suspects has violated the moral limits that a democracy must set — in its own interests — on the defence of liberty. That does not mean that anyone who has suffered the deprivation of liberty becomes a friend of liberty. Mr Begg is demonstrably not. He left Britain with his family in 2001 to live in Afghanistan under the Taleban. This was a place where 4,000 residents of Mazar-i-Sharif were massacred for belonging to the wrong branch of Islam, females were allowed no education beyond the age of 8, and homosexuals were crushed to death. Under CIA interrogation, Mr Begg declared the Taleban better than anything Afghanistan had had in the previous 25 years.

Mr Begg has been at pains in the past few days to stress his criticisms of the Taleban. Yet the notion that he upholds impartial and universal standards of justice is absurd. He is an extremist. Ms Sahgal is right and brave to point out the damage to Amnesty’s reputation and integrity.

In a statement of spectacular feebleness, Amnesty ventured yesterday that Mr Begg had “never used a platform he shared with Amnesty to speak against the rights of others†. The issue is not whether Mr Begg has embarrassed his hosts, but what he stands for. Amnesty is now faced with that discomforting truth. So it has fearlessly shot the messenger.