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Outrage as Amnesty sacks Indian rights campaigner

world Updated: Feb 09, 2010 11:43 IST

Human rights activists have sprung to the defence of Indian gender campaigner Gita Sahgal after Amnesty International sacked her Sunday for criticising it publicly over its involvement with a former Guantanamo Bay inmate.

Supporters put up a website, Human Rights For All, demanding the reinstatement of Sahgal after Amnesty suspended her within hours of the Sunday Times publishing an article that quoted her as saying Amnesty had damaged itself by involving Moazzam Begg in its campaigns for the rights of detainees.

Sahgal, who was the London-based director of Amnesty’s gender unit, claimed Begg was “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban” and said she was forced to go public because Amnesty’s bosses had ignored her complaints.

In a widely-circulated internet posting, Sahgal said later, “I felt that Amnesty International was risking its reputation by associating itself with Begg, who heads an organisation, Cageprisoners, that actively promotes Islamic Right (wing) ideas and individuals.”

“Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty had suspended me from my job.”

But, in what is turning out to be a major point of controversy among human rights campaigners, Begg denied Sahgal’s claims and threatened legal action against The Sunday Times, while Amnesty said it was ordering an internal inquiry.

Begg, one of three Britons released from Guantanamo Bay prison in 2005, said he had written about Taliban human rights abuses in his book, adding: “I have advocated for engagement and dialogue with the Taliban well before our own government took the official position of doing the same.”

Amnesty too rejected Sahgal’s charges, with its director of international law and policy Widney Brown saying: “Today, Amnesty International is being criticised for speaking alongside him (Begg) and for being ’soft’ on the Taliban, when our record is one of unreserved opposition to their abuses over the years.”

Sahgal, however, insisted that it was important for human rights groups to keep “an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights.”

Borrowing a phrase from her grand-uncle Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous independence-day speech, she said: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others?”

Amnesty said it drew no distinction over whose human rights it defended.