Joan Smith: Amnesty shouldn't support men like Moazzam Begg

A prisoner of conscience can turn into an apologist for extremism

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One of the things I admire about the British section of Amnesty International is its commitment to opposing violence against women.

In the past, subjects such as domestic violence, rape and sex trafficking were not always regarded as an integral part of the human rights agenda, and Amnesty's decision to highlight them was brave as well as controversial. I am delighted to have been asked to speak at and chair meetings for the human rights organisation, and sorry that I now have to join critics who accuse it of very poor judgement.

Amnesty's mistake is simple and egregious, allowing its name to be associated with an individual who has publicly expressed admiration for an Islamist movement which denies women's rights. It has compounded that error by its treatment of a dissenting member of staff; last weekend, Amnesty's international secretariat suspended the head of its gender unit, Gita Sahgal, after she voiced concern about the British section's links with a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Moazzam Begg. Since his release from Guantanamo, Begg has campaigned forcefully against it. He has written a book about his experiences, speaks fluently on TV and radio, and is a director of an organisation called Cageprisoners Ltd. Sahgal does not deny that Begg and other prisoners were treated dreadfully and she has consistently opposed "the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay and during the so-called War on Terror".

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.

Let's return now to Begg. In 2001, he took his wife and children to live in Afghanistan, then under the control of the Taliban. Women scurried from place to place in burkas, risking a beating if a passing Talib spotted an inch of flesh, and could not even speak to a doctor except through a male relative; the horrors of the regime have been brilliantly described in the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. In Begg's own book, he describes his interrogation by the CIA who wanted to know why a young man from Birmingham was living in Afghanistan. "I wanted to live in an Islamic state – one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world," was his reply. When they expressed scepticism, he complained: "I knew you wouldn't understand. The Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years."

Begg's enthusiasm for the Taliban is shared by another British Muslim who went to see the regime for himself: "They were amazing people. People who loved Allah. They were soft, kind and humble to the Muslims, harsh against their enemies. This is how an Islamic state should be."

That is the verdict of Omar Khyam, now serving life for his part in a plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre and the Ministry of Sound nightclub (chosen, don't forget, because it was likely to be full of "slags" enjoying themselves). Khyam appears on the Cageprisoners website, which says it exists "solely to raise awareness of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror". He is in illustrious company: the site also lists Abu Qatada – once described by a Spanish judge as Osama bin Laden's spiritual ambassador to Europe – and the notorious preacher of hate, Abu Hamza.

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.

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