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How Amnesty International leaders fell out over a man from Birmingham

Tuesday 6 April 2010, by siawi2

Birmingham Post (UK), April 6 2010

by Adam Aspinall

A leading human rights campaigner who was suspended from Amnesty
International for questioning its support for former Guantanamo Bay
prisoner Moazzam Begg claims his views could inspire violence in the

Gita Sahgal, the former head of the organisation’s gender unit,
claimed in February that Amnesty’s links to Begg were a “gross error
of judgment†.

She was removed from her post within a few hours of her criticism
emerging, but her suspension caused outrage and has led to a fierce
debate about how charities such as Amnesty International can maintain
an objective distance from hard-line groups.

Now, in an exclusive interview with the Birmingham Post, Miss Sahgal
explained why she spoke out against Begg.

“My purpose in speaking out on this issue was to draw attention to
what Amnesty International was doing by legitimising Begg. Those who
ask why I was pointing a finger at Begg, are missing the point,†she

“I was asking very specific questions within my own organisation and
only a media spotlight was going to reveal some of the answers. I was
suspended from work the day my concerns were made public in the Sunday
Times and I remain suspended.

“Of course, no-one ever claimed that Begg should not be defended from
torture. I believe that every human being has the right to be free
from torture.

“But Amnesty International has kept trying to avoid answering the
specific question I raised.â€

Ms Sahgal said she feared Begg promoted violent and discriminatory
views through his Birmingham bookshop, Maktabah al Ansar, and through
the organisation Cageprisoners.

She claimed these views had led to violence in countries like Pakistan
and Afghanistan and also inspired violence in Britain too.

Originally from Birmingham, Mr Begg attended a training camp in
Afghanistan in 1993 and then moved there with his family in 2001.

He was captured by the Americans in 2002 and was freed after three
years in Guantanamo but has always denied links to al-Qaeda.

Since his release, he has been a vocal campaigner for the rights of
detainees and has been involved with Amnesty for several years.

Miss Sahgal is currently fighting her suspension but believes the
issues she is battling are especially pertinent to Birmingham which
has seen race riots on the streets last summer between the English
Defence League (EDL) and anti-fascist protesters Unite Against Fascism

Last summer more than 40 people were arrested and numerous others were
injured at protests in Birmingham.

Miss Sahgal believes groups like the UAF are far too close to radical
Islamist groups and ignore the fascist views they promote.

She said: “Here in Britain, political Islam and the left are allied.
The Government, too, promotes fundamentalists.

“Everyone is indifferent to the slaughter going on in the name of
religion that is being opposed by human rights advocates, feminists,
communists and trade unionists.

“This issue highlights the urgent need to create a political voice to
oppose violence and discrimination, wherever it comes from, so that
the forces of the far right are not able to feed off each other to
cause violence on our streets.

“We must not demonise Muslims by presenting them all as extremists,
but neither must we apologise for those who are indeed extreme.â€

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: “Much has been said
recently about Moazzam Begg and the appropriateness of Amnesty
International working alongside him.

“On the basis of what we’ve heard so far, we believe it would be wrong
to disown this collaboration, but we take Gita Sahgal’s concerns
seriously and are reviewing our work.

“Ms Sahgal, who has contributed significantly to Amnesty’s gender
work, wrote her internal memo about Moazzam Begg after senior
management asked her to document concerns she’d expressed verbally. We
were in the process of investigating her concerns when, regrettably,
Ms Sahgal took these to a Sunday newspaper.

“Gita Sahgal remains employed on full pay pending an investigation
according to our negotiated employment policies. These provide her
with every opportunity to make her case.â€

Mr Begg was unavailable for comment but has previously responded to
Gita Sahgal’s views in an open letter to the Sunday Times in which he
rejects her position completely.

He wrote: “Cageprisoners never has and never will support the ideology
of killing innocent civilians, whether by suicide bombers or B52s,
whether that’s authorised by (Muslim hate preacher) Awlaki or by
(President) Obama.

“Neither will we be forced into determining a person’s guilt outside a
recognised court of law.

“If she (Gita Sahgal) had any concerns about my work she has never put
them to me and that I found it most odd that she found it more
appropriate to discuss this in the media first.â€