NEW YORK — For nearly 50 years, Amnesty International has been a pre-eminent voice on behalf of victims of human rights abuses. Since its founding in the 1960s — inspired by the imprisonment of two Portuguese students who raised their wine glasses in a toast to liberty — it has defined its primary mission as “the defense of freedom of opinion.”
However, Amnesty appears to make exceptions when opinions are aimed against it, especially if they come from within.
Earlier this month, senior Amnesty officer Gita Sahgal resigned after the group suspended her for publicly questioning its alliance with a man named Moazzam Begg.
Begg, a British citizen, was arrested fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S. intervention in 2001. After spending four years in Guantanamo Bay prison without charge or trial, he was released. Begg went on to become an outspoken critic of Guantanamo Bay prison and to found a group of activists called Cageprisoners.
For the past two years, Amnesty has included Begg in delegations that petition governments about human rights, despite the fact that Begg does not deny his past as an Islamist activist, which took him to Afghanistan in the first place. Nor does he apologize for stating in his book "Enemy Combatant" that the “Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.”
As head of Amnesty’s Gender Unit — which denounces the Taliban’s atrocities against women — Sahgal said she could no longer keep her opinions private.
“To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender," wrote Gita Sahgal in the Feb. 7 edition of the Sunday Times of London, "is a gross error of judgment."
Amnesty suspended Sahgal within hours of publication.
Many critics feel that to suspend Sahgal for speaking out was a betrayal of the group’s ideals. Author Salman Rushdie has said that its leadership appears to be “suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy.” Writer Christopher Hitchens has called on all Amnesty members to withhold donations until Sahgal is reinstated.
“It certainly doesn’t reflect well on Amnesty,” said Ibn Warraq, author and scholar of human rights and Islamic society. “It can’t make a habit of criticizing others, then get on its high horse and be sensitive when the shoe is on the other foot.”
Amnesty itself does not shy from using strong language.
In 2005, acting secretary general, Irene Khan, called the Guantanamo Bay prison the "gulag of our times.”
Amnesty says strong statements like these are the product of a passionate staff. “This is a place where things are discussed,” said spokeswoman Susanna Flood. “It’s part of our modus operandi.”
Flood said she could not go into the specifics of Sahgal’s case.
Amnesty thrives on “vigorous internal debate” according to communications director Marcia Poole.
Yet the key word is “internal”; debate almost never reaches public ears as it has in the case of Gita Sahgal. Experts say that’s because having a unified platform is vitally important to achieving human rights initiatives.
“Their influence derives from their ability to mobilize opinion; to utilize shame,” said human rights attorney Yasmine Ergas. “So it’s particularly important for them to have one voice.”
Employees at mission-driven organizations that deal with policy can’t publicly denounce the group and expect to keep their job, said former Human Rights Watch associate director Susan Osnos. “That’s just an oxymoron. I don’t know what other choice the group would have.”
Yet Osnos doesn’t criticize those who speak up. They just can’t be surprised by the consequences.
“I think if someone feels so strongly opposed to an issue that she’ll speak publicly,” said Osnos, “she must also be prepared to leave.”
Christopher Livesay is a freelance journalist in New York City. His current work focuses on human rights, science and art.