A YORK charity has defended its decision to fund a controversial Muslim human rights group.

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, set up by York’s chocolate maker and philanthropist a century ago, is giving £120,000 over three years to Cageprisoners, which opposes the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Cageprisoners was formerly linked with a radical cleric now accused of inspiring the cargo bomb plot.

American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who was detained by Yemeni authorities for 18 months in 2006, was invited to speak at Cageprisoners’ annual fundraising dinners. He formerly opposed the killing of innocent civilians but reportedly told Muslims recently, in a video posted on extremist websites, they are free to kill American “devils” at will.

Western intelligence services are also said to believe al-Awlaki is now an ideological figurehead of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), blamed for the recent plot to blow up cargo planes.

Stephen Pittam, secretary of the Rowntree Trust, said al-Awaki had originally been opposed to the killing of civilians, and had been respected in Washington and even invited to lunch at the Pentagon, but he had changed his stance following his detention.

He said Cageprisoners had distanced itself from al-Awlaki’s current views and did not support anything he was saying relating to the use of violence.

“I have had a commitment that they are completely opposed to any form of the use of terrorism aimed at civilians.

“They are completely committed to the upholding of human rights standards.”

He said the Muslim community in Britain felt highly alienated and the trust believed Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who heads Cageprisoners, was the sort of person able to build bridges and make links to young Muslims.

He claimed the support for Cageprisoners was very much in line with Joseph Rowntree’s philosophy of trying to build bridges to bring peace, and followed similar work previously to try to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Cageprisoners said on its website that al-Awlaki’s position had condemned the attacks of 9/11 in the strongest terms but had radically changed his views.