Ties with Taliban supporter a damage to Amnesty reputation, says Nehru kin

Gita Sahgal, the head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International UK, has been suspended from work after an article was published in the Sunday Times on February 7 describing her warnings of damage to Amnesty's reputation due to its links with former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg and his organisation, Cageprisoners Limited. Sahgal is former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's cousin.

Sahgal had alleged that Amnesty International's "close ties" with Begg was hurting the reputation of the human rights body. "I believe the campaign damages Amnesty International's integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights," Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation's leaders on January 30. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgement."

Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, said she decided to go public because she felt Amnesty had ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity's 'Counter Terror With Justice' campaign.

Since his release from Guantanamo, Begg has written a book about his experiences. He also speaks on TV and radio, and is a director of Cageprisoners Ltd. Sahgal does not deny that Begg and other prisoners were treated dreadfully and she has opposed "the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay and during the so-called War on Terror".

Speaking to The Indian Express from London, she said, "I am sure that more information regarding the issue will be made available some time in the future, but as things stand I felt that none of the questions I have been raising over the past few years were being answered. My concern was not Begg, it's Amnesty International's reputation that I am concerned about."

What worries her is the assumption among some of her colleagues that Begg is "not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights", she said. Sahgal raised the issue in two memos before her concerns became public. "It isn't just Amnesty International's internal issue but a matter of huge public importance. If Amnesty decides to support someone then the body needs to be thoroughly investigated first," she said.

In response to mailed queries from The Indian Express regarding the issue, Amnesty International's interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone issued a statement. "Contrary to Gita Sahgal's assertions to the media, she was not suspended from Amnesty International for raising these issues internally. In fact, we actively welcome vigorous internal debate. Up to now we have maintained confidentiality in line with our policy, but wanted to correct this misrepresentation. This is not a reflection of the organisation's respect for her work as a women's rights activist.... Our work with Moazzam Begg has focused exclusively on highlighting the human rights violations committed in Guantánamo Bay and the need for the US government to shut it down and either release or put on trial those who have been held there. Moazzam Begg was one of the first detainees released by the US without charge, and has never been charged with any terrorist-related offence or put on trial," the statement said.

"Amnesty International continues to work with Moazzam Begg and other former detainees to ask European governments to accommodate those who cannot be returned to their country of citizenship without risk of torture or ill-treatment.... Amnesty International champions and continues to champion Moazzam Begg's rights as a former detainee at Guantánamo. He speaks about his own views and experiences, not Amnesty International's. And Begg has never used a platform he shared with Amnesty to speak against the rights of others," said Cordone's statement.

Back home, Sahgal's mother and Jawaharlal Nehru's niece Nayantara Sahgal told The Indian Express that she is "proud of Gita for her very correct and courageous stand".

"Gita had been taking up the matter for a couple of years now, but after not having received a response she decided to go public — which was a very brave thing to do. Without going into his credentials, Amnesty has been supporting Begg, legitimising him, making him a partner and sponsoring his tour of Europe. They should at least have checked his credentials. It simply gives them a bad reputation," said Nayantara Sahgal.

For now Sahgal has no plan to come back to India or relinquish her fight in London. She has been a fixture in London's TV studios over the past week. "This is where my life and my work is," she said.

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