Its leaders may not wear white hats–or wings–but most people would put Amnesty International on the side of the angels. Decades of denunciations by dictators across the political spectrum have only increased the organization’s prestige. Yet in recent weeks a new wave of criticism has portrayed Amnesty as "a threat to human rights," whose "leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy." And this time the attack, which may affect not only Amnesty’s reputation but also its funding, originates inside Amnesty itself.
Gita Sahgal is the head of Amnesty’s gender unit and has a long and distinguished track record as a fighter for women’s rights here in Britain and in South Asia. In February she gave an interview to the Sunday Times objecting to Amnesty’s collaboration with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo prisoner who has been touring Europe on behalf of Amnesty’s campaign to persuade other countries to admit inmates from the detention center in Cuba. "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," Sahgal said. Claiming she had gone public only after her bosses brushed aside repeated attempts to raise the issue internally, Sahgal, who was immediately suspended by Amnesty, soon became an international cause célèbre. Salman Rushdie issued a statement in her support; so did feminist groups and bloggers in Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the United States. Christopher Hitchens wrote a column (a reprise, with variations, of a 2005 piece branding Amnesty’s advocacy for Guantánamo detainees a "disgraceful performance") urging Amnesty supporters to "withdraw funding until Begg is cut loose."
Sahgal’s case was also taken up with relish by Britain’s self-styled "decent left" of journalists and commentators, whose superior moral compasses led them to support the invasion of Iraq–unlike Sahgal, who opposed it. The controversy offered a convenient distraction from February’s headlines revealing that officials of MI5, the British security service, were complicit in the CIA’s torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident detained in Guantánamo from 2004 to 2009. On March 8 the British government went to court to argue that a civil suit by Begg, Mohamed and other former Guantánamo detainees seeking damages for their mistreatment should be heard entirely behind closed doors. For Moazzam Begg, Sahgal’s accusations add insult to injury, branding as dangerous a man who was never charged with any crime, and undermining his efforts on behalf of his fellow prisoners.
Born in India and educated at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Gita Sahgal may have inherited her confidence from her great-uncle Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. She traces her political involvement to the Indian emergency of 1975-77, when Indira Gandhi ruled by decree. When Sahgal returned to India in 1977, she joined the civil rights movement, working to unionize the country’s agricultural workers and fighting for the rights of migrants. After moving back to Britain in 1983, she found herself caught up in the radical response to Thatcherism, joining Southall Black Sisters, an antiracist group whose battles on two fronts–against the racism of some white feminists and the sexism of some black and Asian antiracist campaigners–soon became her own. In 1989, when "the Rushdie thing blew up in our faces," sending thousands of British Asians into the streets demanding the suppression of the novel The Satanic Verses–and in some cases calling for the death of its author–she helped found Women Against Fundamentalism. Defending Rushdie’s right to publish, the group also argued that Britain’s status as a Christian country with an established church, and blasphemy laws protecting only Christianity, fostered the growth of sectarianism. Excluded by the dominant Christian culture, immigrants were liable to seek refuge in the certainties of religious fundamentalism.