Amnesty International famously advocates on behalf of people persecuted just for expressing an opinion. However, last month the group suspended Gita Sahgal, the head of its gender unit, after she expressed an opinion of her own: that by working with Taliban supporter Moazzam Begg, Amnesty has betrayed its mission to advance human rights. Here is a look at the scandal that the American media — once known for championing whistleblowers — have all but ignored.
Begg, a British citizen, moved to Kabul in 2001, was captured in 2002 on suspicion of al-Qaeda links, and ended up at Guantanamo Bay after admitting that he had attended terror camps and was prepared to fight for the Taliban. Released without charge in 2005, he became the face of Cageprisoners, which implores that Gitmo be closed and displays a disturbing level of sympathy for terrorists, even convicted ones. Begg himself has called the Taliban "better than anything Afghanistan has had" in decades and cited positively jihad theorist Abdullah Azzam.
Begg's troubling past did nothing to dampen Amnesty's eagerness to team up with him; the two collaborated on a recent visit to Downing Street and a European tour urging countries to grant detainees "safe haven." But while Sahgal endorses his views of Guantanamo, she thinks that the partnership is severely misguided, writing to her organization's leaders in a January 30 email:
I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International's integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. … 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.
Hours after she made the contents of the email public on February 7, Amnesty suspended Sahgal. She fired back by slamming the organization for having "created the impression that Begg is not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights." Care must be taken, she says, in "maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights." A leaked memo from a senior Amnesty executive reveals that Sahgal is not alone in such fears.
Leftists and Islamists frequently portray individuals detained for possible terrorist offenses as martyrs. However, for the world's most prominent human rights institution to collaborate so closely with a man of Begg's track record is out of the ordinary — a result enabled by his unique station as a charismatic and articulate former Gitmo inmate released into the West.
The Amnesty-Begg convergence may be rare, but it has done quite a bit of damage — and not only to the group's reputation. In working with Begg and standing by those efforts, Amnesty has set a dangerous precedent of making violent Islamists politically respectable. Just as worrisome, the bar now is even lower for radicals not tainted by violence to enter the mainstream.
As for the U.S. media, their ongoing blackout of this story demonstrates once again how scandals involving Islamists and left-wing icons fail to qualify for "all the news that's fit to print."