A partnership with a prisoners’ advocacy organization, and the dismissal of a senior employee who believed that this partnership compromised and contradicted Amnesty’s promoting of women’s rights in the Middle East, revealed deep moral failings within Amnesty International.

In February 2010, Gita Sahgal, leader of Amnesty’s Gender Unit, publicly criticized Amnesty for its high profile partnership with CAGE, which claims to “raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror,”1 and its spokesperson Moazzam Begg. Amnesty was widely condemned when it refused to admit wrong-doing and instead fired the whistleblower for bringing the troubling partnership to the public’s attention.

Amnesty began to work with CAGE (then called Cageprisoners) and Begg as part of its “Counter Terror with Justice Campaign,” jointly producing a report with CAGE and other NGOs in 2007. This partnership was controversial, as some of the prisoners for whom CAGE advocates are convicted terrorists.2 In one instance, CAGE campaigned for the release of Anwar al-Awlaki from a Yemeni prison and published a telephone interview with him after his release3; Al-Awlaki was later killed in a drone strike after U.S. intelligence connected him to several known terrorists. CAGE also worked on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of multiple terror attacks, including the 9/11 attacks and journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder.4 Although CAGE claims that it does not support terrorist views, but only works to ensure fair trial and treatment of prisoners5, its spokesman Moazzam Begg’s alleged involvement and support of terrorism calls this into question.

Amnesty’s relationship with Begg, a British national, actually began when Begg was captured as an “enemy combatant” in Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2002, and his father contacted the NGO. Begg was held without charge in Guantanamo for three years, and he alleges he was tortured. The U.S. Department of Defense investigated his claims three times and found no evidence to support them.6 The Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) believed that Begg posed a “high threat to the US, its interests and its allies.” He was

identified as being affiliated with three extremist organizations, including al Qaeda. Detainee has admitted to attending training at Al-Badr training camp near Khowst, in December 1993, as well as the Harakat Al-Ansar terrorist training camp. Detainee was also an instructor at Derunta training camp, another al Qaeda supported terrorist camp. The detainee has been associated with a senior al Qaeda financier, as well as other key suspects currently under investigation by US authorities. Detainee is a confirmed member of al Qaeda.7

According to the U.S., Begg became involved in al-Qaeda training camps starting in 1993. Begg and his family moved to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area in 1995, then back to the UK in 1998, where he opened an Islamic bookstore that sold Jihadist literature. Begg was arrested, but not charged, for violating UK anti-terrorism laws.  He then moved with his family to Afghanistan in July 2001. Begg did not disguise his radicalism or his politics, declaring that “[t]he Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.”8 He praised the Taliban for “some modest progress — in social justice and upholding pure, old Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries.”9 Begg also believed that Western countries should negotiate with the Taliban and al-Qaida10. While Begg denied any engagement in violence himself, reportedly he admitted to financially supporting combatants.11 

Begg’s alleged involvement in terrorism continued. In February 2014, Begg was once again arrested “as part of raid conducted by counterterrorism officials in the UK.”  He was “detained on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas.”12 In March, Begg was charged with providing and funding terrorist training in Syria. In October, charges were dropped, and he was released from prison.13 And, after the death of Osama bin Laden, Begg wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post, arguing that bin Laden’s “admirable” qualities had been purposely whitewashed by the American government.14

After his release from Guantanamo, Begg was key speaker at a 2005 Amnesty press conference, and continued to work alongside Amnesty for several years. Begg has been quoted in Amnesty reports, was featured as a case study, and has addressed various forums within Amnesty International and Amnesty country sections.15

Sahgal, who was hired in 2002 to head Amnesty’s Gender Unit and in 2004 led Amnesty’s first long-term global thematic campaign focused on women’s rights, “Stop Violence Against Women” (SVAW), began to voice objections to the partnership in 2008, deeply disturbed by Amnesty’s promotion of Begg as a human rights defender simply because he had been a victim of counterterror policies16. She believed Amnesty was whitewashing Begg’s record as a Taliban supporter17, noting that women in Taliban-era Afghanistan and other Taliban-controlled areas face incredible suffering and abuse.

In January 2010, Sahgal wrote a memo to Amnesty leadership, stating “the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights.”18 On February 7, 2010, Sahgal gave an interview to the Sunday Times regarding her concerns; within a few hours of the article’s publication, Amnesty suspended her.19

In a February 2010 statement, then Interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone defended Begg,20 remarking that “jihad in self-defence” is not “antithetical to human rights.” He also confirmed that Amnesty “continues to work with Moazzam Begg and other former detainees.”21 In a hard-hitting reply to Cordone, Sahgal admonished that “Unfortunately, [Amnesty’s] stance has laid waste to every achievement on women’s equality by Amnesty International in recent years and made a mockery of the universality of rights.”22 She added that

Adherence to violent jihad…is an integral part of a political philosophy that promotes the destruction of human rights generally and contravenes Amnesty International’s specific policies relating to systematic violence and discrimination, particularly against women and minorities.

Amnesty’s response, including its treatment of Sahgal, was widely condemned. Author Salman Rushdie stated that Amnesty “has done its reputation incalculable damage” and that “it looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”23 He further commented that “Amnesty and Begg have revealed, by their statements and actions, that they deserve our contempt.”24 Columnist Christopher Hitchens also criticized the NGO and called the “degeneration and politicization” of Amnesty “a moral crisis that has global implications.”25 He urged Amnesty members to withhold their dues.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted, “it’s a pity that a group that was born to give voice to the victims of oppression should now devote itself to sanitizing the oppressors.”26

Sahgal later said “the affair was symptomatic of an organization that has lost its moral bearings and risks alienating whole swathes of liberal sympathizers” and stressed that the relationship with Begg “undermines every aspect of the work we have done on discrimination against minorities. I cannot underestimate the level of horror expressed throughout the global women’s movement.”27 She rejected Amnesty’s justification of working with Begg on moral grounds:

Anyone receiving such extensive coverage is legitimized as a human rights advocate. This is undoubtedly true of Begg. …It also helped to legitimize Cageprisoners as an organization.28

Following her suspension, Sahgal’s supporters launched a “Global Petition to Amnesty International: Restoring the Integrity of Human Rights,” which garnered more than 750,000 signatures. The petition reiterated that Sahgal “raised a fundamental point of principle which is ‘about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination.’”29

Amnesty announced Sahgal’s departure from the organization in April 2010.

In the wake of the scandal, Amnesty commissioned a review of the incident and Amnesty’s relationship with Begg. The evaluators issued a report in July 2010, “Amnesty International, Working with Others: an Independent Review, Findings and Recommendations.”30 The report noted that the “due diligence undertaken on MB [Moazzam Begg] and/or Cageprisoners was inadequate for the purpose of collaboration that developed; limited fact checking was frequently repeated by staff on an event-by-event basis, and there appears to have been little building upon or transfer of institutional knowledge.”31

Moreover, the reviewers found that Amnesty’s prevailing ideologies resulted in “the crowding out of dialogue on the ‘lenses’ through which [Amnesty] constructs problems and evaluates success” and that “choices may be being shaped by unexamined assumptions and values.”32 In particular, it concluded that Amnesty had “critical work” to do in “mainstreaming gender so that it becomes an embedded and organic part of the ‘lens’ through which the organisation views the world around it and the potential scope for its actions.”33 Although Sahgal’s “Gender Unit was given additional resources to look at the impact of Taleban rule on the rights of women in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border regions,”34 it is unclear if this work was ever carried out or had any meaningful impact.

Cordone’s reaction to the external review mirrored his previous remarks about “jihad in self-defense,” saying “we find no reasons in principle why we should not have worked with Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners.”35 His response raises questions as to whether Amnesty was prepared to take the evaluation seriously and make the institutional changes suggested by the evaluators, including greater integration of gender issues into Amnesty’s worldview.

In March 2015, Amnesty’s association with CAGE led to further condemnations of the human rights superpower and possible severing of the partnership, after CAGE’s links to Mohammed Emwazi, the Briton identified as Islamic State killer ‘Jihadi John’, were revealed.  CAGE’s research director, Asim Qureshi, described Mr Emwazi as “kind,” “gentle,” and “a beautiful young man,” and blamed the UK intelligence services for his radicalization and brutality. CAGE was widely criticized, and several charities cut ties with it.36

Sahgal once again criticized Amnesty for giving legitimacy to CAGE: “Immense damage has been done to Amnesty, not least because they won’t come clean about their association with Cage.” Amnesty has “taken their research from them, they have shared logos with them, they have produced briefing papers together, signed letters to the government together.” Indeed, as recently as December 2014, Amnesty and CAGE ahd co-signed a letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron.37

Amnesty UK director Kate Allen responded by downplaying to the partnership with CAGE and the prospect of any in future cooperation, saying: “We are reviewing whether any future association with the group would now be appropriate.”38