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.