'I don't support defensive jihad’

Exclusive: Amnesty head defends sharing platforms with Taliban supporter.

April 9, 2010 07:50
Claudio Cordone

Claudio Cordone311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The secretary-general of Amnesty International, Claudio Cordone, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday that he had been misunderstood, in some cases deliberately, by those who accuse him of declaring that supporting “defensive jihad” is not antithetical to supporting human rights.

Cordone has faced harsh criticism from within Amnesty International and from domestic and international human rights organizations ever since he decided to cooperate with Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim who moved to Afghanistan with his family after the Taliban takeover and was captured by US troops at the beginning of the invasion of the country in 2001.

Begg was held in the US prison in Guantanamo for three years without being charged, and was finally released along with three other British-born detainees.

Since then, he has become spokesman for a British organization known as the Cageprisoners, which has been campaigning for the release of the remaining detainees or for at least putting them on trial in civilian courts.

Cordone said that Amnesty International has joined forces with Begg and is sharing the same platform with him in the campaign to release the Guantanamo prisoners or put them on trial, and to find a home for detainees who have been released but cannot return home because they might be killed.

In January, Amnesty International suspended Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit in AI’s international secretariat, after she accused the organization of allying itself with Begg, whom she described as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban.”

“To treat him as a human rights defender is a gross error of judgment,” she wrote.

Soon afterward, three women drafted and began to circulate a petition in support of Sahgal’s position. Hundreds of people have signed it.

Recently, Cordone replied to the petition in a three-page letter meant to defend his decision to suspend Sahgal. But his response only added fuel to the fire when he wrote the following: “Moazzam Begg advocates effectively detainees’ rights to due process and does so within the same framework of universal human rights that we are promoting. All good reasons, we think, to be on the same platform when speaking about Guantanamo. Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group, Cageprisoners, also hold views which they have clearly stated, for example, on whether one should talk to the Taliban or on the role of Jihad in self-defense. Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them.”

Earlier this week, Cordone was stung by reports that appeared in the Post and Ma’ariv regarding his statements. The Ma’ariv article was translated into English by the Government Press Office and published under the headline, “Amnesty Supports Jihad.”

Stung by the articles, and perhaps by the government’s interest in promoting Ma’ariv’s point of view, Cordone told the Post, “There is a misunderstanding around this whole thing, because I wasn’t talking about a general concept of jihad in self-defense or anything else. I was referring to the specific views of Moazzam Begg, because he was being accused of being involved in or advocating violence, discrimination and so on. So we looked at what he has said. We have been with him on a number of occasions when he spoke publicly about Guantanamo and did not find anything [to corroborate the accusations against him.]”

Cordone repeated this point several times during the telephone conversation.

“If there is any evidence that Begg or people in the organization he now heads, Cageprisoners, have in fact promoted or condoned views that are antithetical to human rights, then obviously we would revisit our relationship. But so far, we haven’t been given anything specific in that respect by those that accuse him and us of being on the wrong side of the debate, and we haven’t found anything ourselves. And that’s why I’m making the point of fairness. This is about a particular individual and [his] particular views, and if there is something in that respect that shows he is, in fact, promoting violence and all the rest, then obviously we want to know that. But that isn’t the case at the moment.”

The fact that Begg is at the very least a controversial figure who is suspected by the US of being a member of al-Qaida, of having recruited individuals to attend al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, of having trained in al-Qaida camps, and of having provided shelter and support to al-Qaida families and more, does not seem to trouble Cordone. Nor does that fact that Begg strongly supports the Taliban, whose record on human rights violations, past and present, is well-known.

“Regarding the Taliban,” he said, “we are aware of their own interpretation of jihad or, in any case, the way they behave in practice is something we utterly condemn, and we’ve had a number of reports and statements, including recently, on a whole set of practices.”

At a recent conference in London on the future of Afghanistan, said Cordone, Amnesty made it clear that “if there is any deal made with the Taliban, it cannot be made at the expense of people’s rights, particularly women’s rights and other minorities that clearly in the areas that they currently control, they continue to violate as in the past.”

Cordone said Begg has not spoken out in public in support of these practices. Nevertheless, although Cordone was not asked about this, it is hard to understand how Begg could so ardently support the Taliban without condoning its policies and actions. Cordone stressed that Amnesty had drawn a red line beyond which it would not cooperate with outside groups or individuals.

“What we look at is how anyone advocates conducting hostilities and that’s where our red line is. There is no compromise with anyone that would advocate or condone attacks on civilians or other abuses. And that’s why in my letter, I started by saying in this issue of how do we work with other people, there are clearly some that are beyond the pale, and I used the obvious example of Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, who espouses a certain form of jihad that involves all kinds of things from anti-Semitism to certainly attacking civilians, 9/11 and all the rest,” he said.

Even with regard to Begg, Cordone added, Amnesty did not share a platform on issues other than the Guantanamo detainees.

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