As part of the Times’ and Sunday Times’ ongoing witch-hunt of former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners (the organization of which he is the director), Margarette Driscoll wrote an uncritical article on Sunday about Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty’s Gender Unit, who started the ball rolling by badmouthing her employer to the Sunday Times last weekend. In the article, Sahgal stated that “She fears for her own and her family’s safety,” and, as the blogger Earwicga noted after it was published, this follows on from another recent scaremongering claim made by Sahgal, when she stated in a radio interview, “I feel profoundly unsafe, I have to say, talking to Asim Qureshi [of Cageprisoners] and Moazzam Begg, but I’m more than willing to meet them.”
As Sahgal has the support of every racist, right-wing bully boy in the country right now (including those laughably disguised as the “decent left”), I find her comments deeply insulting, especially when compared to the very genuine fear that Moazzam Begg now has of being attacked as a result of Sahgal’s dangerous and deluded criticism of him last weekend. As Earwicga also noted in her post, “Playing the victim card doesn’t wash, Sahgal, when you are actively smearing an actual victim; in fact it is disgusting.”
Unlike Sahgal, Moazzam was not only imprisoned and abused by the Bush administration for over three years; he also, like every ex-prisoner, carries the taint of Guantánamo with him for the rest of his life. Despite being released without charge or trial, Moazzam is only too aware that, in the propaganda campaign mounted by senior Bush officials, and taken up enthusiastically by swathes of the population in other countries, including the UK, he is constantly at risk of being undermined by unprincipled opponents, and conscious that being tarred as an “extremist” may very well lead to threats of violence against him.
In the five years since his release, Moazzam has campaigned relentlessly to expose the crimes of the “War on Terror” through reason and reconciliation, but, sadly, he can always be attacked by those who prefer to believe that, although he was held in conditions that break with every international law and treaty, he deserved it, because, in the “War on Terror,” no mistakes were made, and everyone seized was a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer.
My work for the last four years has been a sustained attempt to expose the lies and propaganda behind these claims — as well as an attempt to resist the obvious perils of an alarming tendency towards Islamophobia — and those who have any interest in questioning whether it is legitimate to torture and arbitrarily detain people who were largely rounded up by the United States’ allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and not by US forces “on the battlefield”), and who were often paid handsomely for doing so, might want to read my book The Guantánamo Files to find out more, to watch the film I co-directed with Polly Nash, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (UK tour dates here), or, at least, to read this article I wrote last year.
Also at the weekend, the Sunday Times attempted to further undermine Amnesty International, allowing Richard Kerbaj, who wrote the original article about Gita Sahgal, to write another article, entitled, “Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links,” in which he claimed, based on an internal email that was leaked to him (by who, one has to ask?), that Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, had “urged the charity to admit it made a ‘mistake’ by failing publicly to oppose the views of a former terror suspect.”
Sam Zarifi responded immediately, sending the following letter to the Sunday Times, in which he pointed out that — to put it mildly — Kerbaj “mischaracterizes my views”:
Letter to the Sunday Times
From Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director
Your recent article (“Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links”, 14 February) mischaracterizes my views.
I have been a part of the internal AI debate surrounding the issue of AI’s collaboration with various groups as part of its campaign to close down Guantánamo. My opinions have been heard, considered, and where appropriate, implemented.
I do not oppose our current initiative working with Moazzam Begg in the recent European tour seeking to convince European states to receive more of the Guantánamo detainees who cannot be repatriated because of the risk of further human rights abuses.
As I told my programme staff in the internal email leaked to your paper, my concern has been that AI’s campaigning has not been sufficiently clear that when we defend somebody’s right to be free from torture or unlawful detention, we do not necessarily embrace their views totally.
This raises the risk of creating a perception, particularly in South Asia, that AI is somehow pro-Taleban or anti-women, playing into the rhetoric often used against us by governments and groups in the region that wish to deflect our criticism. But any suggestion that our work with Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners has weakened our condemnation of abuses by the Taleban or other similarly-minded groups does not withstand scrutiny.
I believe that it was wrong to take this debate into the public in the manner and at the time done. And I fully agree with the measures AI has taken in response to the decision to publicize this debate now and in this manner.
Director, Asia-Pacific Programme
However, as so often with smears, misinformation and propaganda peddled by the mainstream media, the damage has already been done. Sam Zarifi has had his words twisted, while Richard Kernaj suffers no reprimand, and, presumably, will pen another poisonous piece of propaganda as soon as he can find an opportunity.
What concerns me, in particular, is that someone in Amnesty leaked Zarifi’s internal email to the Sunday Times, a fact that only reinforces suspicions that a hidden agenda is at work, and that unknown parties seized on Gita Sahgal to stir up hostility towards Moazzam and Amnesty just when they were embarking on a pan-European mission to persuade other governments to accept cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, who cannot be repatriated because they are at risk of torture in their home countries.
In addition, this story was published in the run-up to the Court of Appeal’s ruling last Wednesday that the British government was obliged to release information demonstrating that senior officials knew US agents had tortured the British resident Binyam Mohamed while he was in Pakistani custody in 2002, which is particularly damaging for the government, especially in light of comments made by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, which were suppressed, at the government’s request, from the final ruling.
As I explained in an article last week, Neuberger’s deleted paragraph included assertions that MI5 did not respect human rights, had not renounced participation in “coercive interrogation” techniques, deliberately misled MPs and peers on the intelligence and security committee, which is supposed to be able to scrutinize its activities, and had a “culture of suppression” in its dealings with Miliband and the court.
Given this level of criticism from a senior judge, it doesn’t surprise me that someone in a position of power was anxious to deflect attention from what is really going on; namely, that the British government is complicit in war crimes, but is desperate not to be held accountable.
Are Amnesty and Moazzam Begg being used as a smokescreen? It certainly seems possible.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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