Calls cops to quash questions:
Amnesty in the hot seat
‘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.” Salman Rushdie wrote those lines in 2010 when he weighed in
on the controversy that erupted when Amnesty International (AI) fired
Girta Saghal, the much-respected head of its Gender Unit, for
questioning the rights group’s ties to Moazzam Begg and the
Cageprisoners, a pro-Taliban group Begg founded.
LTTE child soldiers, is this what Amnesty promoted?
Saghal in a public statement following her firing accused AI of not
being troubled by terrorism and of actually supporting jihadism as ‘the
individual obligation of every Muslim.’ The depths of AI’s moral
bankruptcy, its unapologetic support of terrorist groups, and the extent
to which the once respected rights group has strayed from its original
purpose to become, at several levels, as repressive, autocratic, and
insidious as the governments it opposes, played out in tableau at its
screening of the Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields in
Palo Alto, California, on February 18.
AI found itself in the hot seat, having to defend its own moral,
ethical and credibility lapses to an angry audience. When the questions
wouldn’t stop and the dissenters refused to shut up and sit down, AI
reached for the intimidator’s weapon of choice: it called in the cops!
Officer Marianna Villaescusa of the Palo Alto Police Department
confirmed that police went to the meeting hall in response to a 911
call. The officers ordered everyone but the organisers to leave.
Villaescusa said no police report was written because there was nothing
Yet, the rights group, which routinely berates governments for using
law enforcement to quash dissent, later issued a statement in which it
defended its action using the very excuse tendered by governments.
Police were called “As a precaution to protect those attending the
AI’s panellists at the Palo Alto event were Jim McDonald, ‘Country
Specialist on Sri Lanka’ and one Krishanti Dharmaraj. McDonald is no
stranger to the expat community - having long shared the Eelam platform
with the Tamil diaspora in the US. His credibility has been in tatters
ever since he was caught in a gigantic lie in 2006 about Sri Lankan
troops using cluster bombs.
As for Dharmaraj, AI bills her as the co-founder of an organisation
that provides ‘resources to children affected by armed conflict in South
Asia.’ But just don’t go looking for this Sri Lankan Tamil’s record on
countering the horrible atrocities committed against children in her own
backyard. Much like AI itself, Dharmaraj has failed to speak out on the
worst crime against humanity in recent decades: the abduction and
conscription of thousands of Tamil children, some as young as seven, to
fight the Tigers’ terrorism.
Lasitha Senadheera, a Postdoctoral student at Stanford University,
summing up his experience at the meeting said AI organisers kept
interrupting people who were trying to ask questions or make comments.
“It’s about the freedom of expression, a fundamental human right that
the AI organisers in Palo Alto deliberately forgot.
They interrupted the questions, making some of the audience agitated.
Then they called the police. Police asked all of us to leave except the
organisers. We saw at least eight police cars parked out of the
community centre. Clearly, this is exactly what they wanted to happen.
They just wanted to screen the LTTE propaganda movie and to stop the
audience asking questions exposing the AI,” he said.
Senadheera and others made two requests at the Palo Alto meeting:
that AI show at least a few minutes of Lies Agreed Upon, a documentary
issued by the Sri Lankan Government to disprove claims made in the
Channel 4 video. The other request called on AI to explain how it could
claim impartiality, i.e., that it was not propagandising the LTTE, when
it had recently accepted a $50,000 donation from a Canadian pro-LTTE
group, the Canadian Tamil Congress.
Even while repeatedly proclaiming that the meeting was meant to be a
‘springboard for discussion,’ AI organisers flatly refused to show Lies
Agreed upon. Senadheera said the excuse the organisers offered was that
they had booked the meeting hall for only two hours. He then countered
the excuse with an offer to pay for any additional time, but the
organisers did not show any interest. “They shamelessly ignored the
offer,” he added.
The question about AI’s ties to the CTC was handled suavely with
McDonald reading from a prepared statement the party line that claimed
there had been no conditions placed for the funds to be used for any
work on Sri Lanka and that the amount - $50,000 - was just a drop in
AI’s vast operating budget. The day after the Palo Alto screening, the
three local AI chapters that organised the event issued a joint
statement in an obvious attempt to pre-empt bad publicity. It was
forwarded to me by AI’s Samson Tu in response to my questions. The
unmistakable sleight of hand and doublespeak might have come from one of
those governments AI kibitzes.
“During the post-screening discussion, some participants asked that
portions of a counter-documentary produced by the Sri Lankan government,
Lies Agreed Upon, be immediately shown at the event. While Amnesty
believes that Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields contains important evidence to
be considered by an international investigation, we do not have the same
position with respect to the Sri Lankan Government’s
Furthermore, AIUSA Groups 19, 35 and 466 were not familiar with the
counter-documentary and reasonably declined to show any film until they
had first reviewed it.” With one pompously self-righteous line (“... we
do not have the same position with respect to the Sri Lankan
government’s counter-documentary...”) AI shrugs away its obligation to
examine evidence that is damning to its one-track, linear vision and its
cozy relationship with LTTE supporters, if not LTTE cadre themselves. We
don’t expect (and we don’t want) AI to hold the same views or position
as the Sri Lankan or any other government.
But it holds a ‘position’ eagerly advocated and promoted by
supporters of a brutal terrorist group - and that should be of great
concern to the thousands of AI volunteers who have placed implicit trust
in this once-great organisation.
Like many other human rights groups, AI started off with great goals.
In an opinion piece on the Saghal incident, well-known essayist
Christopher Hitchens reminds us of AI’s original charter: “The entire
raison d’etre of the noble foundation was to defend and protect those
who were made to suffer for their views. In theory, I suppose, this
could include the view that women should be chattel, homosexuals and
Jews and Hindus marked for slaughter, and all the rest of the lovely
“And then he points out that AI is abrogating its Charter by allying
itself with jihadist groups: “Cageprisoners defend those who have gone
slightly further than merely advocating such things,” he says.
In the case of Sri Lanka, AI has not only been allying itself with
groups that defend the Tigers, it allies itself with groups that are the
Tigers, as amply proven by its ‘position’ on Killing Fields. Killing
Fields is a cobbled up video of third party ‘evidence’ strung together
by two British ‘reporters’ who were once thrown out of Sri Lanka and
might be suspected of having an axe to grind.
Reviewing the video, British journalist A.A. Gill said in the Sunday
Times: “Not a second of this has been shot by Channel 4; none of the
eyewitness accounts come from journalists.
The channel has accumulated a large collection of samizdat amateur
footage from mobile phones and video cameras - mostly unattributed and
uncorroborated. It mixes this footage with comments from unnamed sources
with distorted voices and shadowed faces. And human rights lawyers. It
was brutal, it was shocking, but it wasn’t journalism.”
AI has no problem staking its reputation on a video which, along with
other gaps in credibility, deceptively presents LTTE terrorists as
‘civilians,’ pulls statistics from the air, and provides nothing
substantive to back its wild allegations.
Saghal alludes to the troubling culture of deception at AI in her
statement: “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?” AI has no qualms about leading its unsuspecting
audience to believe that one of the Killing Fields narrators, identified
as Vany Kumar (just one of her various aliases) was a British university
student who took an innocent trip to the war zone (right in the thick of
a conflict) simply to visit relatives and becomes the unwitting witness
to the bombing of hospitals, killing of civilians and other crimes
against humanity. Vany Kumar, in fact, is identified by former LTTE
cadre as someone who eagerly volunteered for the LTTE, received military
training under an LTTE leader named Castro, wore the LTTE’s signature
cyanide capsule around her neck, and was part of the ‘Sothiya’ regiment.
Neither does AI flinch in: Agreeing with Channel 4 that one of the
‘civilians’ killed by Sri Lankan Forces was Issipriya, when, in fact,
she had the rank of ‘Lt Colonel’ in the LTTE military, was married to a
Sea Tiger cadre, had been a ‘motivational speaker’ for suicide bombing,
and worked at the LTTE’s official radio station, “Voice of Tigers;
Making a martyr of ‘Colonel Ramesh’ - who rose within the LTTE’s ranks
by leading some very bloody massacres, including: Kattankudy mosque
attack (147 Muslims); Aranthalawa (35 Buddhist monks); Habarana (127 bus
passengers); Going along with improbable casualty figures.
Apologist for terror groups
If the above and other evidence don’t point to AI being, at best, an
apologist for a brutal terrorist group, there’s the connection with the
Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). CTC’s $50,000 donation to AI (brought up
at the Palo Alto meeting) was supposedly raised in a walkathon. Photos
posted on the internet show CTC members taking a hike, sporting yellow
AI t-shirts. How much closer could AI get to supporters of a terror
group than permitting them to make a Halloween costume of its signature
candle-wrapped-in-barbed-wire logo? CTC’s antecedents have been traced
to the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT), a DBA of
the LTTE which mysteriously disappeared after Human Rights Watch
publicised its extortion activities in the Tamil community.
CTC’s communications director, Sahilal Sabaratnam, is serving a
25-year sentence in the US after being nabbed shopping for high end
weapons such as SA-18 heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles and launchers,
500 AK-47s, and other military equipment for the LTTE.
In an open letter to the Tamil community dated August 2011,
Sabaratnam, after admitting that he was a one-time LTTE supporter, calls
on his compatriots to eschew armed conflict. He also implicates CTC as a
group that believed in a ‘violent solution.”
“Blood is not the answer to anything. We must all come to a common
understanding that violence is not an answer to anything. We must learn
to use alternative methods to violence if you choose to pursue any
I solely believe and know for a fact that the so called well-wishers
who had always stood behind the Canadian Tamil Congress are believers of
a violent solution. This is very wrong.”
CTC vehemently denies its LTTE connections, but new details published
by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence show the ties to have been quite
extensive. Among other details: CTC’s David Poopalapillai is reported to
have travelled to Malaysia in August 2009 to meet with Selvarasa
Pathamanathan (KP), one-time LTTE arms procurer who at the time had
succeeded supremo V. Prabhakaran as head of the Tiger outfit. It must be
mentioned that CTC is not the only pro-LTTE group sporting AI shirts
these days. Joining the parade are the Transnational Government of Tamil
Eelam (TGTE) led by Viswanathan Rudrakumaran, and the Canada Tamil
Alliance which even displays the LTTE logo on its banners as part of its
AI fundraising march! If they had been initially attracted to the
organisation because of its promise to defend those whose voices have
been silenced, supporters have an obligation to take a close look at
what AI has turned out to be and where it is headed. In the final
analysis, this is not about Sri Lanka but about AI.
Hitchens indicates in his column that AI’s prestige is such that
Saghal was experiencing difficulties getting a civil rights attorney to
take her case. How different is that from a rights victim being shunned
in a case against a repressive government? An organisation that builds
itself up to such omnipotence is inescapably destined for autocracy. In
objecting to AI’s alliance with Cageprisoners, Saghal and her supporters
made the point that while it was legitimate to give Begg a platform to
publicise his experience of torture while in American custody, AI
crossed the line when it took up Begg’s cause - Cageprisoners - as its
own. That exactly is what AI is doing at agitprops that whitewash LTTE
atrocities and present rights violators as innocent non-combatants.
Far from being victims, the female Tiger cadre in the video were
victimisers of countless Tamil women and girls who were abducted and
forced to join the LTTE. Many girls, some as young as 13, found escape
by getting married or getting pregnant. Girls and boys were denied the
right to an education, removed forcibly from a normal life, drugged,
raped, and brainwashed.
From the get-go, the LTTE has succeeded in getting a wink-and-nod
from AI which has maintained complicit silence on the horrors the Tigers
wreaked on their own people for nearly 30 years.
Far from calling public meetings to denounce the Tamil diaspora for
funding a terrorist war and for propping up an oppressive tyrant in the
Vanni (territory under LTTE control for many years), AI is accepting
their dollars and sharing common platforms and ‘positions’ with them.
Sahgal summed it up incisively when she said in an interview with The
Guardian “There is a fault-line running through [Amnesty] ... and this
has been exposed on a range of issues...”
She saw the Amnesty leadership exhibiting “multiple systemic
failures” that has left her disillusioned and worried for the
She described AI as having ‘a culture of quashing debate and a
deliberate policy of “silence” towards contrary views.’
Amnesty International clearly is in need of an Arab Spring of its
own. But those who seek change within AI will have to face numerous
obstacles, get shouted down, booted out, even be handcuffed by cops,
before they get to their Tahrir Square.
Courtesy: Eurasia Review