By Hassina Leelarathna
“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. 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 Killing Fields” in Palo Alto, California, on Feb. 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 Dept. confirmed that police went to the meeting hall in response to a 911 call. The officers ordered everyone but the organizers to leave. Villaescusa said no police report was written because there was nothing to report. 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 event.”
AI’s panelists 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. McDonald’s 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 organization 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 seven, to fight the Tigers’ terrorist war.
Lasitha Senadheera, a Postdoctoral student at Stanford University, summing up his experience at the meeting said AI organizers 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 organizers 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 organizers. We saw at least 8 police cars parked out of the community center. 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 propagandizing 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 organizers flatly refused to show ‘Lies Agreed.’ Senadheera said the excuse the organizers 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 organizers 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 organized 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 counter-documentary. 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 cadres themselves.
We don’t expect (and we don’t want) AI to hold the same views/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 AI volunteers who have placed implicit trust in this once-great organization.
Like several other human rights groups, AI that 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’être 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 jihadist canon. ” And then he points out AI is abrogating its charter by allying itself with jihadist groups: “Cageprisoners defends 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 comes 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 comment 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. Sahgal 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 brutal war) 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 cadres 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.
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’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 publicized 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 political agendas. 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 the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence show the ties to have been quite extensive. Among other details: CTC’s David Poopalapillai is reported to have traveled 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 organization 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 Sahgal 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 organization that builds itself up to such omnipotence is inescapably destined for autocracy.
In objecting to AI’s alliance with Cageprisoners, Sahgal and her supporters made the point that while it was legitimate to give Begg a platform to publicize 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 cadres in the video were victimizers 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 Wanni (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 organization’s future. 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.
Hassina Leelarathna is a freelance writer living in California. [email protected]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of Eurasia Review.