UK rights group under attack after 'Jihadi John' comment

UK rights group under attack after 'Jihadi John' comment
Cage, a UK based advocacy group has come under immense criticism after comments regarding so-called 'Jihadi John', while rights groups who work with the organisation are under pressure to distance themselves from it.
5 min read
02 March, 2015
Asim Qureshi of campaign group Cage addresses a press conference in London, February 2015 (AFP)

An advocacy group, fighting to empower those affected by the war on terror, faced extensive backlash after it claimed MI5 is at fault for radicalising Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed "Jihadi John".

Cage deems itself an "independent organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror," and aims "to see the world rid of oppression and injustice."

When Emwazi, a Kuwait-born London IT worker, was identified by the Washington Post as "Jihadi John" last week, Cage held a press conference at which its research director Asim Qureshi described him as a "beautiful young man" and blamed British intelligence for radicalising him.

The rights organisation revealed it had been in contact with Emwazi since 2010, when he needed to air his grievances against alleged harassment by the British intelligence services.

     Emails between Emwazi and Cage gave insight into the man linked to the beheading of several western aid workers and journalists.

A series of email exchange between Emwazi and a Cage representative gave insight into the man linked to the beheading of several western aid workers and journalists. In the emails Emwazi complains of harassment between 2009 and 2012, that said he had been stopped from pursuing a job and marriage in Kuwait, and was prevented from going on a safari trip in Africa.

At the internationally broadcasted press conference Asim Qureshi, Cage's executive director, attributed Emwazi's radicalisation to persecution and harassment by the British security agencies who "act within impunity". He said that by being allowed to operate in this way these agencies "destroy the lives of young people without any recourse to being able to challenge them in an effective way."

Qureshi, also pointed out to the sense of alienation many young people feel as they are "forced to operate within the system while constantly being told 'we are not allowed to be part of it'," and for constantly being perceived as a "threat".

"When are we going to finally learn that if we treat people as if they are outsiders, they will inevitably feel like outsiders and look for belonging elsewhere?" Qureshi asked.

The group's comments prompted a furious response across the board in British media and political circles, with many arguing the organisation is made up of "terror apologists" and that Emwazi is the only person accountable for his own actions.

Cage's views were dismissed as "reprehensible" by the office of Prime Minister David Cameron, "very false" by a former head of MI6 and an "apology for terror" by London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Amnesty International, which has previously supported one of  Cage's key figures, Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who suffered from torture and ill treatment at the hands of US security services - but was never charged, has come under pressure to distance itself from the organisation.

Gita Sahgal, a former Amnesty International employee and founder of the Center for Secular Space, argued that by being associated with groups like Cage "Amnesty has damaged the cause of the human rights culture".

This year Begg walked free from court after a case accusing him of aiding terrorists in Syria fell through. His freedom came after security survices revealed evidence withheld from the prosecution which proved Begg's innocence.

Amnesty, the world renowned human rights organisation also joined Cage and other bodies in calling for an investigation of British involvement in the CIA's controversial rendition programme.

Steve Crawshaw, director of the office of the secretary general at Amnesty, asserted that his organisation does not have close ties with Cage. He also told BBC radio "I can't condemn strongly enough anyone in any context who seeks to find justification for why you can kill a civilian."

'Legitimate questions'

At a press conference in London on Thursday following the reporting of Emwazi's name, Qureshi while attempting to contextualise Emwazi's trajectory seemed at times choked with emotion.

     Despite the heat of the backlash against such comments, many came out in defence of Cage and its work.

"There are several young Britons whose lives were not only ruined by security agencies, but who became disenfranchised and turned to violence because of British counter-terrorism policies coupled with long-standing grievances over Western foreign policy," he said in a separate statement.

The same plight that befell Emwazi was also suffered by Michael Adebolajo, one of two men who attacked Lee Rigby in a London street in May 2013. Cage had previously revealed Rigby had been targeted by security services before his violent act.

Despite the heat of the backlash against such comments, many came out in defence of Cage and its work.

The organisation has posted on its web site numerous messages of solidarity and support from the wider public.

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a grants body which gave the group £305,000 ($471,000) between 2007 and 2011, was among them. The trust argued that Cage is asking legitimate questions about security service contact with those who have gone on to commit high-profile and horrific acts of violence.

"We believe Cage has played an important role in highlighting the ongoing abuses at Guantanamo Bay and at many other sites around the world, including many instances of torture," the trust said.

Cage's work was described as "vital" by the director of human rights group Reprieve, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

"I myself represent those said to be 'terrorists' and since the Magna Carta in 1215, we have presumed people innocent rather than guilty," he told the BBC.

Stafford Smith argued that any criticism should be aimed at those betraying the fundamentals of our legal system by locking people up without trial, or assassinating them with drones.

Cage responded to the criticism arguing that it is calling for the security services to be held "accountability", and affirmed that they "cannot continue to operate without impunity" because it is this "narrative of impunity and injustice" that fuels the creation of individuals such as "Jihadi John", as Qureshi had suggested at the press conference.