Is Amnesty International Supporting a Jihadist?

Amnesty International defends the rights of detainees around the world — including those in Guantanamo Bay. Now the organization is defending itself from the reputations of some of those those same prisoners. Host Guy Raz speaks with Gita Sahgal, a senior official with Amnesty who was suspended after publicly criticizing the group's affiliation with one former Guantanamo detainee. He also talks with Amnesty's Widney Brown about the tension between protecting the rights of terror suspects and promoting their views.

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GUY RAZ, host:

There can be a fine line between defending the rights of terror suspects and defending their views. Amnesty International has been thrust into a very public struggle about where exactly that line is.

Gita Sahgal was, until recently, the head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty's International Secretariat. But she was suspended shortly after giving an interview critical of Amnesty's relationship with a former Guantanamo detainee named Moazzam Begg.

Gita Sahgal joins us from the BBC in London.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. GITA SAHGAL (Head of Gender Unit, Amnesty International): Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Now, Moazzam Begg is British. He was detained for three years at Bagram and Guantanamo for suspected links to al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He was then released. He was never convicted for being a terrorist. So why specifically do you take issue with him?

Ms. SAHGAL: I think that Amnesty International has given Moazzam Begg a platform that legitimizes him as a human rights defender. I think the organization that he represents, Caged Prisoners, is much more than a prisoners' rights organization.

What it does is promote people who promote a violent and discriminatory agenda.

RAZ: Okay. Now, Amnesty has sponsored forums where Begg has spoken out against the imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo. I'm wondering if there's anything he has said or advocated for specifically that would suggest he supports violent jihadism.

Ms. SAHGAL: Well, I was on radio with his colleague, Asim Qureshi. Asim Qureshi confirmed that he was present at the Hizb ut-Tahrir rally some years ago.

RAZ: This is a radical group that calls for an international caliphate.

Ms. SAHGAL: An international caliphate, yes, and they believe in systematic discrimination. Both gender discrimination, discrimination against religious minorities, they're anti-Semitic. You know, on various counts, they would not be considered good partners for human rights organization.

RAZ: But Amnesty isn't partnering with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Ms. SAHGAL: No. But he confirmed that he supported global jihad, which is what he was talking about, on this Hizb ut-Tahrir rally.

RAZ: But Begg has never said any of these things. I mean, I'm wondering if this is just guilt by association. This is somebody who has publicly said he created a girl's school in Afghanistan, he worked to bring to light the abuses of the Taliban in Afghanistan when he was living there as a volunteer. I mean, I'm

Ms. SAHGAL: I'm not sure I read his autobiography that way. He mentions that he ran a book shop and the book shop sold things like children's book and honey. But it also - and this is in his own words, according to him - sold - it was a bestseller, was a book by a man called Abdullah Azzam. Abdullah Azzam was a mentor of bin Laden. He was one of the founders of an extremely violent organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has launched massive attacks on civilians and most recently has been accused of being implicated in the attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

I don't think that selling the memoirs of a man who was actively involved in promoting that kind of jihad is a good person to give a platform to.

RAZ: I should mention that you have supports form some pretty prominent people living in this country - Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie among them.

I do want to ask you about Amnesty's general position. Amnesty speaks out for prisoners all around the world, including people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded. Obviously, they don't back the 9/11 attacks.

They supported Franjo Tudjman as a prisoner of conscience in Croatia. He subsequently went on to commit human rights violations as the leader of the Croats during the Bosnian wars. I mean, what's the difference here?

Ms. SAHGAL: I have no problem with Amnesty International supporting the rights of prisoners and opposing torture, absolutely, in whatever form it takes place. We understand all that completely. What we don't understand is people in Western countries who want to feel good about supporting a victim who then promote that person who is no longer a prisoner, who is, in fact, has a funded organization of his own with, as I said, an agenda that I believe is a promotion of violence and discrimination.

And to give that organization and that person global prominence as a human rights advocate is wrong.

RAZ: Gita Sahgal, do you ever expect to return to Amnesty?

Ms. SAHGAL: I think my future hangs in the balance.

RAZ: Do you hope to return?

Ms. SAHGAL: I had a flourishing career. I love my job. But I don't feel safe at Amnesty International when it has thrown a protective cover around Moazzam Begg.

RAZ: That's human rights activist Gita Sahgal. She was recently suspended from her post as head of the gender unit at Amnesty International. We tried to reach Moazzam Begg, but he declined to comment. But we did speak with a senior Amnesty International official, Widney Brown.

She says her organization did vet Moazzam Begg after his release from Guantanamo, and she defends Amnesty's right to work with him, despite Gita Sahgal's concerns about his past.

Ms. WIDNEY BROWN (Senior Director, International Law and Policy, Amnesty International): Let's be clear here: he ran a bookstore where they sold books that other people are opposed to. Does Amnesty International support the content of those books that undermine women's rights? Of course not. But do we do think that somebody should not be considered a legitimate voice on his firsthand experience of the abuses in Guantanamo Bay because he sold books that you don't like?

RAZ: But, I mean, Amnesty has actually been a sponsor of his tours through Europe and so on. I mean, that seems to be a step beyond just hearing his views.

Ms. BROWN: No. I think there's two elements. First, when he came out, he was one of the first detainees released. At that point, Guantanamo Bay was absolutely shrouded in secrecy and he was a voice who could say I was there and this is what happened and this is what's going on, and that was critically important.

Our work more recently with him is we have tried to lobby, particularly European governments, to accept detainees at Guantanamo Bay where the U.S. government has acknowledged that they have no grounds for keeping them. Moazzam Begg, as a British citizen, has an incredibly effective voice in talking to governments in Europe about the importance of not leaving these men who have been cleared - let's be clear here - they have been cleared and they are languishing and quite frankly suffering immensely in Guantanamo Bay, and that is the basis of the tour.

RAZ: What's a realistic possibility that Gita Sahgal will return to Amnesty International?

Ms. BROWN: We have a very clear and thorough process for dealing with any such issues. The first step is an investigation to see whether in fact she even breached any internal parts of the contract. And that is being done by somebody who is completely independent from these internal debates.

RAZ: And you acknowledge that she has done work for you in the past that you have praised.

Ms. BROWN: Ooh, absolutely. There's no question about it. Gita is incredibly intelligent, very strong analysis and such. She's done great work for us. And I think the real tragedy of this particular circumstance is by going public in this particular way knowing that we were addressing her issue means that she's maybe undermining her own work in fact.

RAZ: That's Widney Brown. She's the senior director for international law and policy at Amnesty International.

Widney Brown, thank you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

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