Human Rights Advocate Who Wants Criminal Probe of Bush Has Defended ‘Defensive Jihad’

Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2010 | 5:49am EST
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Former U.S. President George W. Bush appears on the "Today" show on Nov. 10, 2010 to talk about his new book "Decision Points." (AP Photo/NBC Universal, Inc., Peter Kramer)

( – A leading human rights advocate who called this week for the U.S. to investigate whether former President Bush should be prosecuted for endorsing “waterboarding” of detained terrorists came under fire earlier this year for arguing that so-called “defensive jihad” is not antithetical to human rights.

The criticism of Amnesty International senior director Claudio Cordone came from South Asian women’s rights campaigners amid a controversy over collaboration between AI and a former GuantanamoBay detainee sympathetic to the Taliban.

Cordone on Tuesday issued a statement responding to Bush’s acknowledgement in his memoir that he approved of the waterboarding of senior al-Qaeda terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

If U.S. authorities did not investigate the former president and indict him if the assertions prove true, then other governments must do so, he said.

“Under international law, anyone involved in torture must be brought to justice, and that does not exclude former President George W. Bush,” Cordone said.

“If his admission is substantiated, the U.S.A. has the obligation to prosecute him. In the absence of a U.S. investigation, other states must step in and carry out such an investigation themselves.”

Amnesty International senior director Claudio Cordone (Photo: Amnesty International Website)

Cordone added that Bush’s statements “highlight once again the absence of accountability for the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance committed by the USA.”

President Obama banned waterboarding – an interrogation procedure described as simulated drowning – soon after taking office. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has called the practice torture.

Others calling for a probe and possible prosecution this week include the American Civil Liberties Union, which urged Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday to instruct Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, who is already probing claims of detainee abuse, to look into the Bush claims.

Describing Bush’s acknowledgement as “absolutely without parallel in American history,” ACLU executive director Anthony Romero wrote in a letter to Holder, “The admission cannot be ignored. In our system, no one is above the law or beyond its reach, not even a former president.”

In interviews this week around the release of his memoir Bush has defended his stance. He told NBC television that he received legal advice that waterboarding was not covered by the “anti-torture act” – presumably a reference to the Convention Against Torture. (There is no Anti-Torture Act on the U.S. statute books; a bill by that name was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2007 and again in 2009.)

The Convention Against Torture, an international agreement which the U.S. ratified in 1994, calls on states to criminalize torture and prosecute “complicity or participation in torture.”

It defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Human rights lawyer and activist Geoffrey Robertson told British media this week that Bush could be arrested when traveling abroad following his published statements.

Defensive jihad row

Cordone was at the center of a controversy earlier this year sparked by the suspension of a senior Amnesty staff member, Gita Sahgal, after she publicly questioned the human rights organization’s association with a radical British Islamist, Moazzam Begg.

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzem Begg. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Begg was arrested in Pakistan in early 2002 and held by the U.S. military until President Bush ordered his release in 2005. Pentagon officials said he had undergone terrorist training in Afghanistan before his capture.

After his release, Begg formed an organization, Cageprisoners, to campaign on behalf of war-on-terror detainees, and he worked with AI on its advocacy campaign against Guantanamo.

(At its 2008 annual general meeting in Washington, D.C., Amnesty International U.S.A. featured Begg as its plenary speaker – by videolink.)

Saghal, who headed AI’s gender unit, objected to the association with a man she called “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban.”

After she took her criticism to the British media in February she was suspended. She and AI parted ways two months later.

Three South Asian rights advocates, Amrita Chhachhi, Sara Hossain and Sunila Abeysekera, initiated a petition supporting Saghal and challenging AI’s decision to work with Begg. It drew support from rights activists from a number of countries.

Cordone sent the trio a letter defending Amnesty’s decision to work with Begg, whom he said “speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses” at Guantanamo.

“Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other 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, Cordone wrote. “Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them …”

In response, Chhachhi, Hossain and Abeysekera called that assertion “shocking.”

“If this is the official position of the world’s leading human rights organization, this would gravely undermine the future of the human rights movement,” they said in their reply to Cordone.

“The call for ‘defensive jihad’ is a thread running through many fundamentalist and specifically ‘salafi-jihadi’ texts,” they wrote.

“It has been shown that ‘defensive jihad’ results in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks which are disproportionate and attacks which are targeted for the purpose of discrimination such as those on schools, shrines and religious processions.”

Chhachhi is a Netherlands-based senior lecturer in women and gender studies, Hossain is an advocate in the Bangladesh Supreme Court, and Abeysekera is a leading Sri Lankan human rights campaigner.

AI later commissioned an external review of the episode and in July Cordone said AI found no reason in principle why it should not have worked with Begg and Cageprisoners “or to rule out further cooperation with them, on the issue of GuantanamoBay and other unlawful detentions.”

Cageprisoners on Tuesday urged the British government to prosecute Bush “for torture.”

“Under international law there is a positive duty on all countries around the world to prosecute those who have been involved in the use of torture – it is a crime that has universal jurisdiction and so any country can prosecute regardless of where the offence took place,” it said in a statement.

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