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Analysis: Has Amnesty International gone astray?

How former Amnesty officer Gita Sahgal’s thorny opinions became too hard to defend.

Former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg stands outside the Home Office in London, March 14, 2005. After being released, Begg became an activist against Guantanamo. He petitioned governments about human rights with Amnesty International (AI), despite his past as an Islamist activist. AI officer Gita Saghal's criticism of Begg prompted her suspension and subsequent resignation from AI. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

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.”