A True Prisoner of Conscience


The spectacle of a former prominent member of Amnesty International publicly lambasting that institution for its support of foreign despots and serial human rights abusers, should make everyone sit up and take notice.

Gita Sahgal was once a senior official of Amnesty International, heading the International Secretariat’s Gender Unit.   That was until she sent an email to Amnesty’s top bosses, suggesting that the organization had mistakenly allied itself with Cage Prisoners , a group led by Moazzem Begg, a former Guantanomo Bay inmate.

“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in the email  of 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 judgment.”

Within days she was summarily suspended from her position.

For those who might be unfamiliar with his name, Moazzem Begg is an Islamist who insists that the Taliban was the best government available to Afghanistan and who unabashedly promotes its jihadist insurgency.   His organization defends Islamists  such as Abu Hamza, leader of the mosque that sheltered Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid , among many other violent and criminal characters who have have nothing at all to do with freedom of expression.    Its  senior members can also be seen speaking in defense of jihad at rallies sponsored by the extremist groups such as  Hizb-ut Tahrir (banned in many Muslim countries) and Tablighi Jamaat.

Going public, Sahgal stated inthe Sunday Times:  

” As a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner,”

So what exactly is a nice organization like Amnesty International doing with creeps like this?  That is a question I’ve been asking for nearly 20 years.

Many of us in Southern California who listen to Santa Monica-based radio station KCRW, remember how Amnesty International was once held in rather high esteem there.   For years Ruth Seymour, the station’s general manager, offered listeners the opportunity each month to provide financial and moral support to one of Amnesty’s  Prisoners of Conscience – dissidents who might be rotting away in a foreign jail for no other crime than expressing their right to free speech.  Listeners would be urged to write letters to appropriate government officials urging humane, legal treatment of the prisoner or advocating the prisoner’s release.  

Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, the moral rectitude of AI’s mission was always unassailable: ” to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.”

But over time, the organization’s very concept of  “human rights,” began to expand.  Not content to be a mere reporter of crimes committed against individuals, it sought a role in molding events.    To reap influence, the leaders of the London based institution decided that “human rights” needed to embrace not simply  individual cases of repression but the concept of social justice as well.

So from the early 1990s onwards, Amnesty International, unbeknownst to its global membership, began a surrpetitious slide into shadowy political advocacy, a position that would ultimately align it with the most vile human rights abusers on the planet.

 Today it is not only authoritarian despots who conceive of AI as a far left organization with a political agenda, but large numbers of  former supporters whose politics have not kept up with AI’s rapid radicalization.  The organization’s extraordinary level of animus leveled at the United States; its incessant promotion of  Noam Chomsky (infamous for his denials of the Cambodian killing fields,  Serbian concentration camps and latter day support for the Taliban); its preference for extolling the virtues of repressive regimes such as Cuba, Myanmar and Zimbabwe and its enthusiastic participation in the 2001 Durban United Nations World Conference Against Racism, an antisemitic hatefest, has underlined the complete erosion of its founding principles in the interests of radical politics.

Thats not to mention its problems with the very existence of the State of Israel.   In fact, more energy is given over by Amnesty to its attacks on Israel than any other areas of  its activities.  In May 2007, NGO Monitor released the results of its quantitative analysis of Amnesty International’s 2006 publications and alerts vis a vis human rights violations. According to the study, Israel had been the subject of 63 such Amnesty documents that year, more than any country in the Middle East except Iran. The corresponding numbers for other nations and notable entities in the region were as follows: Sudan (61 documents), Syria (51), Iraq (29), Hezbollah (20), Algeria (19), Tunisia (15), Egypt (13), Jordan (12), the Palestinian Authority (10), Libya (6), Saudi Arabia (6), and Morocco (5). 

Now you wouldn’t know any of this if you lived in London today.   Amnesty International’s  reputation for dispassionate reporting on human rights abuses is so pristine that it is supported by a host of celebrities from Bono to John Cleese to Yoko Ono.  It has innumerable political supporters in Parliament and is regularly lauded and quoted by members of the Labor Party.

Sahgal has already encountered the risks of going mano a mano with such a high profile institution.    Doors of famous Amnesty donors have closed on her and friends won’t return calls.  She has also experienced considerable difficulty in finding an attorney in London’s extensive  civil rights legal community to take on her case.  As she says:

 “Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done, it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defense from our civil rights firms.”

But for all of that she can be at least proud that she has begun the process of exposing Amnesty’s agenda that has been warranted for so many years.  In the process she is fast transforming herself into a true prisoner of conscience, the victim of  an intolerant, hypocritical culture that has no patience for dissent within its own ranks.

Maybe even KCRW, having long ago severed its Amnesty connection, will take up her cause.

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