Wednesday 10 February 2010

Update: Gita Saghal, Moazzam Begg and Amnesty

Since I wrote about them on Monday, the allegations made by Amnesty International's Gita Saghal against her employer's relationship with former Guantánamo Bay detainee Moazaam Begg and Cageprisoners have rumbled on inconclusively. I had been promised, by a friend who knows Ms Saghal, the evidence to back up the accusation that Begg or his organisation are "committed to systematic discrimination" that "fundamentally undermines the universality of human rights", but as yet have heard nothing more.

Meanwhile, with unfortunate timing for Begg's detractors, the court of appeal's decision today to order the government to reveal evidence of MI5 complicity in the torture of another former detainee, Binyam Mohamed, strongly suggests there are probably far greater and more immediate threats to 'human rights for all' than Amnesty International's choice of platform speakers.

With little else to go on in the way of evidence, we can only judge from Ms Saghal's own statements and those of her supporters, in which there continues to be a deliberate effort to steer clear of specifics that has become increasingly frustrating.

Interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, Gita Saghal argued that "Cageprisoners has an agenda that is way beyond being a prisoners' rights organisation", although she attacked not Begg but his colleague Asim Qureshi, who she had been interviewed with the previous day on BBC World Service's Newshour (see below - transcript here) and who, in my view, acquitted himself very well. Ms Saghal added her suspicion that Amnesty "needs perfect victims", which struck me odd, for on the face of it, the opposite seems true: that it is precisely Moazzam Begg's failure, in Saghal's view, to be a 'perfect' victim of the war on terror (because of his as-yet unspecified 'discriminatory' views) that disqualifies him as a person to work with and worse still, makes him an 'enemy combatant' of universal human rights.

Today, Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters issued a statement that is equally disappointing, providing little more on what exactly the charges are against the legitimacy of Begg or Cageprisoners as human rights campaigners and arguing, with no apparent irony, that:

We believe that Amnesty International’s stance is being rightly questioned by organisations like ours who struggle to ensure that the debate on the War on Terror and religious fundamentalism is not reduced to the logic of ‘either you are with us or you are against us’.

But isn't this exactly what is being demanded of Moazzam Begg - either individuals agree within us completely or they must be against us? That is the implication of alleging "collaboration with those who sympathise with all religious fundamentalist forces" - sympathies that WAF and SBS have decided are damning enough for condemnation of entire organisations but not, it seems, worthy of greater discussion or elaboration. The WAF/SBS statement goes on to say:

When so called victims of the War on Terror advocate ‘engagement’ with combatants – perhaps necessary to achieve peace – why are they not challenged on the authoritarian social and political agenda that they support?

"So-called"? Does illegal incarceration in Guantánamo really count for so little? Moreover, if such 'challenges' are to have a productive or meaningful outcome, rather than amount to plain and simple demonisation, why must they involve Ms Saghal going on the radio, accusing someone with important insights on human rights abuse of "advocating views that are abhorrent to any kind of universality standard", refusing to explain more and, rather shamefully I thought, adding that.she feels "profoundly unsafe, I have to say, talking to Asim Qureshi and Moazzam Begg"?

This doesn't sound like much like it offers any prospect of compromise - it sounds more like outright rejection of debate and of Moazam Begg's continued participation as a campaigner for the closure of Guantánamo, largely because of his individual refusal to define himself solely as a meek, broken victim of US human rights abuses.

What has also been illuminating about these interviews and the WAF/SBS statement has been the shift of focus onto Amnesty itself, in what looks like an attempt to smear it as engaging in what WAF/SBS calls "a denial and abrogation of internal and external accountability". And this may well be because a publicity-conscious organisation with a liberal membership is a much easier target.

Instead of answering a question this morning about the substance of her allegations, Gita Saghal simply said that she "had been concerned by what Moazzam Begg and his organisation stands for for some time, but the issue I really have is with my employer." In the course of the following exchange, she suggests that Amnesty's decision to suspend her was the direct result of raising her concerns internally with her managers:

I know you can't talk in detail about why you have been suspended, but do you know why? Have Amnesty told you exactly why?

GITA SAGHAL: I can't talk about that. But I can tell you that I asked Amnesty International two or three questions that should have been very easily answered – and by Amnesty International I mean my own bosses, I was working inside the organisation – and raised perfectly legitimate questions, and that was how did we come to have such a close relationship with Cageprisoners and how did we decide that they were a safe and proper organisation for us to work with?

JUSTIN WEBB: And you sent these e-mails, these requests, to people within Amnesty and you're saying that their reaction has been to suspend you?

GITA SAGHAL: That's correct.

So: Gita Sghal was suspended because she raised an issue that her managers didn't want to hear, right? Not necessarily. During the BBC World Service interview yesterday, Ms Saghal was asked why exactly she had been suspended and replied:

I can only say that my suspension came a few hours after the Sunday Times
article came out.

So was it because of the e-mails, or the Sunday Times article? Does Amnesty seek to deliberately silence its critics, or did the unexpected appearance of a critical newspaper article on a Sunday morning, when most of Ms Saghal's colleagues were at home and there would have been, at best, a skeleton staff available, force its hand?

I've read, I've listened and I'm still none the wiser. So if the friend who promised me the hard evidence against Begg and Cageprisoners could get back to me soon, I'd be very grateful. For as things stand, I think that Moazzam Begg rather than Gita Saghal is the real victim of this sorry affair.


Anonymous said...

Widney Brown was on the Today programme this morning to correct the "misrepresentations" spoken by Gita Sahgal as you have quoted above.

Anonymous said...

I think Moazzam Begg is the victim of all this. The Tipton Three seem to be today's victims in lunatic areas of the internet.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you Kevin. I read the statement from SBS/WAF and was extremely disappointed because you can't base things on assertions nor assumptions, and this is what is happening.

And indeed that struck me too when Gita said she was suspended due to sending emails as opposed to talking to the Sunday Times. Which is it?

The people who support Gita and who have commented on my blog seem not to understand by hard facts instead it seems to be about Moazzam Begg proving his innocence, the burden has shifted. Surely it is up to the person who is accusing to show the evidence.

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