Gita Sahgal on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme

Amnesty International suspended Gita Sahgal, head of their Gender Unit, for publicly objecting to its partnering with Moazzam Begg and his organisation CagePrisoners, after a long internal campaign to persuade Amnesty to take into account the judgement of its own employees that CagePrisoners was and remains a bad choice of partner for a human rights organisation. Background in my previous post.

Gita Sahgal was interviewed today by Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, 10th February 2010, from 08:40 for about 4 minutes 30.

Here is a transcript (during the preamble it was made clear that she couldn’t talk about the suspension).

GS: I asked Amnesty International two or three questions which should have been very easily answered. And when I say ‘Amnesty International’, I mean my own bosses – I was working inside the organisation, and raised perfectly legitimate question, and that was: How did we come to have such a close relationship with CagePrisoners – how did we decide that they were a safe and proper organisation for us to work with?

JW: So you sent these emails – these requests – to people within Amnesty – you’re saying that their reaction has been to suspend you.

GS: That’s correct.

JW: What is the substance of your concern about Moazzam Begg?

GS: [pause] You know, I’ve been concerned about what Moazzam Begg and his organisation stand for for a long time but I think the issue that I have is with my employer because we are a human rights organisation, we make very careful decisions about how and where we partner with people, we have long discussions around these things, and when I spoke to people in my office, who are experts on these matters, who investigate on group violations, who are regional experts, who work on counter terror policy and so on – all of them, they had recommended against this relationship. I then asked where the decision had been made to have such a close relationship, or whether we just drifted into it and, you know, whether we had any form of paper work which would explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. And none of that has ever been answered

JW: But this is a man who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, he wasn’t subjected to any trial, he was released in the end without charge, he does not personally advocate violence. Why on earth shouldn’t Amnesty be closely associated with him?

GS: Because I believe that the organisation CagePrisoner has an agenda that is way beyond being a human rights organisation –

JW: – and this is the organisation for which he speaks?

GS: Exactly.

JW: And what do you think they do want?

GS: Well, yesterday I was on radio with Assim Qureshi, who is another prominent figure in the organisation, and he said – well, he didn’t deny when read out to him – statements that he made supporting global jihad, which he said was protected under international law.

JW: What Amnesty has said in a statement is that they consistently document and condemn abuses by the Taliban, Islamist armed groups, whenever they occur and especially Afghanistan and Pakistan.

GS: Amnesty International has never done any research on the networks developing in Britain or Europe or the US, as far as I’m aware. In a personal capacity I do that kind of research, and it’s slightly alarming if we don’t connect what’s happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan or any other countries to developments over here.

JW: Why do you think they don’t do that research – what do you think is at the heart of it?

GS: Well, I think you should pose that question to them, because they refuse to answer any of the questions that I’ve posed.

JW: But what’s your suspicion?

GS: [pause] My suspicion is that they need perfect victims. In other words, we need to defend somebody who might not have done a wrong – and I’m not saying that Moazzam Begg has – I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not saying that he has committed a crime or a human rights violation. And that’s why I find the statement after statement that Amnesty International has put out in his support somewhat surprising, because the issues that I am concerned with are addressed to Amnesty International.

JW: But you’re making a wider point aren’t you – that Islamic radicalism is treated, what, softly by liberals.

GS: Something like that – but we are not liberals, we are a human rights organisation and we should not be falling into the traps that many people do fall into.


On Socialist Unity, Andy Newman has sought to tarnish Gita Sahgal as a pusher of something he calls ‘western liberal values’, which he (to use his own favourite word) disingenuously sets in opposition to genuine human rights, as if CagePrisoners were being denied a human right to go on tour with my donations to Amnesty. He pipes up for Amnesty, saying that they suspended Gita for giving them a bad name. Probably true – and this is what compromised organisations up and down the country do when they are confronted by a whistle-blowing insider. They tend to wish them oblivion c.f. Nevres Kemal*.

So it seems to be with Amnesty and Gita Sahgal. Gita Sahgal pursued the matter with her employer, as is proper. Why should she have to confront jihadi sympathisers on her own?

Recording from BBC Newshour, 9th Feb 2010 is below, an interview with Gita Sahgal and Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoner in which Qureshi does not deny, when asked, supporting violent jihad. Sahgal points out that the weight of expert evidence within the organisation was against associating with CagePrisoners. She also takes a correct view on the significance of the authority and approval conferred by a web link and a mention on an authoritative web site.

Andy Newman also accuses her of prejudice because she said she felt unsafe talking to Begg and Qureshi. I think it would be inconsistent if she didn’t feel unsafe. Besides which the correct response to somebody who tells you they feel unsafe in your presence is to ask them what they can do to make you feel better about things. The correct response when asked whether you, as representative of a human rights organisation, support jihad (holy war waged by Muslims to establish a Muslim land or to reassert Islam where it is threatened; frequently implicating an entity termed ‘the West’ as a target) is a straightforward “No”.

A little more:

  • On Gita Sahgal’s site, a selection of comments from Amnesty’s LiveWire site.
  • Rahila Gupta in The Guardian – via Mod’s ‘keeping up’ post – criticises Amnesty’s handling of this.
  • She should be reinstated (somebody on the Facebook support group who says they are in touch with her says she does want this) and the endorsement of CagePrisoners should end.
  • In Standpoint Mag Shiraz Maher’s analysis (Nov 09) – Al-Awlaki’s British Supporters Parts 1 and 2.
  • David T has it exactly right (quoted by a supporter on the Wall of the Facebook Group):

“The parallel is this.I am strongly in favour of freedom of expression. I think that it is a fundamental right. I think, in particular, that laws that criminalise Holocaust Denial are an absolute disgrace, and should be repealed. As a consequence of that view, I think that it was wrong that Davi…d Irving was imprisoned. I have said so.

Now, would I send David Irving out on a speaking tour, to talk about his experiences in prison? About how not being allowed to speak him mind affected him? Would I put up a video of Irving reading his own poetry?

No, I don’t think I would. You can better promote the principle of freedom of expression without Irving’s direct involvement.”

“What worries her is the assumption among some of her Amnesty colleagues that Begg is “not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights” (my italics). Sahgal raised the issue in two memos before her concerns became public at the weekend. But what she has identified is too important to be dismissed as an internal matter, namely an intellectual incoherence which isn’t confined to the higher echelons of a single human rights organisation.

The thinking goes like this: someone who has suffered terrible human rights abuses must necessarily be opposed to similar abuses against others. It’s a nice idea but history tells us it’s wrong; today’s prisoners of conscience may turn out on release to be doughty campaigners for human rights, but they might just as easily become tomorrow’s apologists for extremism.

Amnesty protests that “any suggestion that cooperation with any group or individuals has influenced our work on behalf of victims of religiously inspired abuses and violations is simply false”. But that isn’t the charge against the organisation. What worries its critics is that Amnesty’s name is being used to provide a platform, and legitimacy, for a cause inimical to its core values. Qatada, Hamza and Khyam are not prisoners of conscience. The Taliban isn’t a little bit misguided about women’s rights. Amnesty should consider its reputation – and keep its distance. “

*Nevres Kemal was a Haringey social worker sacked and subjected to character and professional assassination by her employers – sadly Michael Buerk’s BBC Radio 4 ‘The Choice’ interview of 1st Dec 2009, 09:00 is no longer available but her ordeal is an excellent illustration of what whistleblowers can expect to experience from their organisation. Not forgetting Paul Moore, former head of Group Regulatory Risk at HBOS who was sacked, agreed to the terms of a gag, and was later hailed as a herald of the financial crisis.

“The parallel is this.I am strongly in favour of freedom of expression. I think that it is a fundamental right. I think, in particular, that laws that criminalise Holocaust Denial are an absolute disgrace, and should be repealed. As a consequence of that view, I think that it was wrong that David Irving was imprisoned. I have said so.

Now, would I send David Irving out on a speaking tour, to talk about his experiences in prison? About how not being allowed to speak him mind affected him? Would I put up a video of Irving reading his own poetry?

No, I don’t think I would. You can better promote the principle of freedom of expression without Irving’s direct involvement.”

8 thoughts on “Gita Sahgal on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme

  1. Pingback: Keeping Up With Gita Sahgal And Amnesty International. « ModernityBlog

    • I didn’t read that a transcript was available on your site. You don’t feature in Andy Newman’s post. So I searched for the word ‘transcript’. There you are buried away at comment 66. First I knew of it.

      I always cite my sources – in quite a bit of detail as you can see. It’s a shame we duplicated the work, but that’s it, basically.

  2. Pingback: Snowed In « The New Centrist

  3. “perfect victim” interesting.
    amnesty, human rights, government, activism.

    imo it is all one HUGE mess.

    i’m suprised people keep bangin their collective heads against
    the blood-drenched walls.

    seems the one chance for change we have is removal of monetary incentive. no money, no reason to kill.

  4. In response to “Who Speaks for Human Rights?”, an article by D.D. Guttenplan & Maria Margaronis published in The Nation on March 18, 2010 ( with regards to the recent Amnesty International controversy opposing the ONG and their employee, Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty’s gender unit, over the organization’s high profile public association with Moazzam Begg (Cage Prisoners), two things can be said:

    First of all, Amnesty International seems to continue having difficulties in positioning itself in relation to the global problematic of political manipulation and terror in the name of religion.
    Secondly, Amnesty International’s endemic hesitation to deal with criticism is questionable for an organization of its stature and reputation. Amnesty International’s attitude on both scores is comparable to that of other international Human Rights Organizations, such as the Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), in France.

    In somewhat different ways related to cultural expression, and for reasons related to different historical situations and political choices, a fraction of the “Left Wing” or Liberal Cultures in several Western countries, such as France, the UK, the USA, have chosen, on occasion, and at times repeatedly, to whitewash crime executed in the name of religion. That all humans have the right to Human Rights is undisputable and human rights organizations have a mammoth task to bring any form of discrimination to the public’s attention. But that such organizations should align themselves or be associated in public with individuals, events and affiliated organizations that underwrite violence of any kind in the name of religion is unacceptable on all accounts, and also merits to be brought to public attention and especially to the attention of those that provide their funding.

    In the case of Gita Sahgal, Amnesty International should immediately reinstate her in her position and suspend any association with Moazzam Begg, until such time as extensive dialogue and research over the matter has taken place, and then be made public to Amnesty International’s funders and the public at large.

    A similar point in case, illustrates Amnesty International’s general approach and culture in matters regarding crime in the name of religion. In February 2004, Didier Contant, grand reporter, fell from a building in Paris whilst he was doing his third investigation into the kidnapping and the assassination of the Monks of Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. He had just returned from a month long investigation in Medea and Blida. Upon his return to Paris, a fellow journalist, Jean-Baptiste Rivoire from Canal+ launched a slander campaign against him, accusing him, among others with the editor in chief of Figaro Magazine who was supposed to publish his article, of working for the French and Algerian secret services. Needless to say, based on Rivoire’s information, which they did not deem necessary to check, the Figaro Magazine and several other publications refused Didier Contant’s article.

    In Rivoire’s slander campaign he repeatedly referred to an email from Amnesty International in London confirming his information. When contacted AI London first admitted to having had email exchanges with Rivoire regarding Contant, but then it was denied and turned into verbal conversations of which nobody could remember the content. It soon turned out that the main concern of Rivoire’s slander campaign was to prevent Contant from publishing information about the dubious activities in Algeria of a renegade officer from the Algerian Army, Abdelkader Tigha, in whose interests Amnesty International (and FIDH) acted after he was imprisoned in Taiwan when he was arrested for stealing from tourists. Tigha, in several versions of several statements blamed the Algerian Army for the death of the Monks of Tibhirine. He was an important witness for Canal+ reportages on the question. Contant returned with several hours of recordings of Blida and Medea residents describing his dubious identity. But for a few exceptions, the French press blacked out on the fate of Didier Contant. When contacted, journalists would say, “we need fresh news”, but even when the High Court of Paris condemned Rivoire for voluntary violence against Didier Contant in November 2009, not a single word appeared in the French press. As it turned out, as the storm died, neither Amnesty International nor FIDH continued to be associated with Abdelkader Tigha. For complete information about the death of grand reporter, Didier Contant, please visit:

    Will Amnesty International follow a similar strategy in the case of their association with Moazzam Begg? Time will tell. But it would indeed be a sad loss for the organization to lose someone like Gita Sahgal, who from all accounts, seems to be dedicated human rights defender.

    Rina Sherman
    Paris, 20 March 2010

    Rina Sherman is a writer, ethnographer and filmmaker.

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