By Anna Louie Sussman
Friday, April 16, 2010
Amnesty International parted ways with Gita Sahgal, its leading gender researcher, on April 9. In February, Saghal began pushing Amnesty to explain its embrace of a former Guantanamo detainee she calls a Taliban supporter.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Gita Sahgal calls her entry into the world of journalism "sort of accidental," but her most recent news appearances have been entirely on purpose.
On Feb. 7, the Sunday Times of London published her sharp critique of Amnesty International's support for former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. She went public, the article says, because her internal warnings had been ignored.
Amnesty, the nearly 50-year-old rights group founded to speak on behalf of prisoners of conscience, has hailed Begg as a human rights defender, hosted him on speaking tours and included him in a meeting with politicians at Downing Street.
Sahgal has called him "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban." She points to passages in his 2006 autobiography, "Enemy Combatant," where he describes moving to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to "live in an Islamic state--one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world." He also ran a bookstore in Birmingham, England, that sold works by known al-Qaida mentor Abdullah Azzam.
Hours later she was suspended, with pay but without explanation, from her job.
On April 9, she and the organization parted ways. In a statement released that day, the organization cited "irreconcilable differences."
Sahgal served as Amnesty International's top gender specialist since 2002. Two days before her suspension, the organization had promoted her to the newly-created position of interim head of the Gender, Sexuality and Identity division.
"It tells you a lot about where women's rights stand at Amnesty International," Sahgal said in a phone interview in March. "When they had to make the choice between Begg and their most senior discrimination expert who also has researched fundamentalism, they chose Begg."
Amnesty promptly refuted the initial accusations in a statement on its Web site, also posted on April 9, in which it affirmed its commitment to campaigning "for all internationally recognized human rights for all people," regardless of "their views, their political opinions, their actions."
Sahgal said she had held several meetings over the years with higher-ups, during which she voiced her concerns about Begg and Cageprisoners, the detainees' rights group Begg founded after his release. It campaigns on behalf of Muslim leaders such as the preachers Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Qatada.
Sahgal said she wrote a long memo for a board member at an Amnesty section who had raised concerns about Begg being invited to speak without mention of his beliefs, such as the fact that he advocates that Britain negotiate with more moderate factions of the Taliban, something that runs counter to Amnesty's stated policy.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director, also had similar concerns. An internal e-mail, dated Feb. 10 and leaked to the Sunday Times, quoted him as saying: "We did not always clarify that while we champion the rights of all--including terrorism suspects, and more important, victims of terrorism--we do not champion their views."
However, he later wrote a letter to the paper in which he said his position had been misrepresented and that he "fully agree[s] with the measures Amnesty has taken in response" to Sahgal's going public with her disagreement.
"Amnesty has been going wrong for years on this issue and I wanted to know, how did it happen?" Sahgal asked. "They ignored my previous work. There was so much opposition [to partnering with Begg]. I'm battling for accountability. They have to explain how they came to that relationship."
Unable to convince any of her superiors to distance the organization from Begg, and with no explanation of the partnership, Sahgal said that she was forced to go public.
The organization maintains that the suspension was not intended to silence her, but was a procedural matter related to her public comments. Interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone issued a statement Feb. 11.
"Our work with Moazzam Begg has focused exclusively on highlighting the human rights violations committed in Guantanamo Bay and the need for the U.S. government to shut it down and either release or put on trial those who have been held there," he said in the statement. "Moazzam Begg was one of the first detainees released by the U.S. without charge, and has never been charged with any terrorist-related offense or put on trial."
Sahgal says Amnesty's relationship with Begg appears to illustrate an institutional blind spot about how different human rights issues link and overlap.
"We can't just take prisoner's rights and women's rights as two parallel tracks and say 'Oh we fight on this side, and that side,'" she said. "There's nothing neutral about taking up the issues separately."
In the weeks since Sahgal began to push Amnesty International for a public accounting of its decision to partner with Begg, her conflict with the rights group, and the wider issue of the universality of human rights, have been debated and discussed in newspapers, on radio shows and TV programs around the world.
Writers and public intellectuals, such as University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum; Yakin Erturk, the former U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women; Amitav Ghosh; Salman Rushdie; and Christopher Hitchens signed a petition urging Amnesty to reinstate her, to no avail.
Sahgal, in the statement announcing her departure, described the organization's continued support for Begg in damning terms.
"Their stance has laid waste every achievement on women's equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights," it reads.
Sahgal grew up in Mumbai and New Delhi and moved to England in 1972 to attend London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where she joined the vibrant anti-racism and anti-fascism movements that were spreading across England at that time.
In 1983 she joined the Southall Black Sisters, a women's rights group based in London that had been campaigning on domestic violence and issues affecting minority women in England.
In 1989, she co-founded Women Against Fundamentalism, a pro-secularism feminist group that came about, she says, partially in response to the Salman Rushdie affair, and that continues to raise awareness on the dangers of fundamentalism in all major religions.
Since her suspension, the group has issued a public statement in her support: "When governments and individuals advocate 'engagement' with the Taliban--perhaps necessary to achieve peace--why are they not challenged on the authoritarian social and political agenda of the Taliban? We know from experience around the world, including post-war Iraq, that women's rights are the first to be traded in these political settlements."
After working in various advocacy arenas, such women's rights and affordable housing in England, Sahgal took up journalism. She began as a presenter for the Bandung Files, a BBC Channel 4 program where she went on to work as a researcher and producer.
"I sort of strayed into it," she said of her journalistic career.
For now, she plans to continue campaigning on the issue of terrorism as a serious human rights violation. After eight years at Amnesty, she's going back, she says, to her "old freelance life."
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer based in Beirut and New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune and other print and online outlets.
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