11/09/2011 04:31 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Dewar wins endorsement by ex-staffers of troubled Rights and Democracy

OTTAWA - Paul Dewar's bid to lead the federal NDP has been endorsed by 10 former staffers at a trouble-plagued centre for international human rights.

As the NDP's foreign affairs critic, Dewar strongly condemned the Harper government's allegedly partisan appointments to the arm's-length Rights and Democracy, which triggered a crisis at the Montreal-based agency last year.

Now, 10 former employees of the centre are returning the favour.

In an open letter, they say Dewar offered "tremendous support" during the crisis, backing up the staff against what they say were unjust attacks by Harper appointees.

They say Dewar's sharp mind and knowledge of international issues "made him a shining example of what a foreign affairs critic should be."

Dewar had to give up his critic's post once he dove into the leadership race.

Rights and Democracy was set up as a non-partisan agency to promote democracy and monitor human rights around the world.

Trouble erupted at the agency last year when board members appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government challenged grants that had been made to three human rights organizations. The new appointees considered the organizations to be anti-Israel.

The president of the agency, Remy Beauregard, died of a heart attack shortly after a stormy board meeting about the grants.

The ensuing internal conflict led to two resignations from the board, an open staff revolt, suspensions of senior staffers, a mysterious break-in, a forensic audit and the hiring of a private investigator.

Two of the 10 staffers endorsing Dewar's leadership bid were among those suspended from their jobs.

In a written statement, Dewar welcomed the endorsement from former staff at Rights and Democracy, "whose mission and leadership were undermined by ideological attacks from Harper appointees."

"Stephen Harper's record at home has weakened our credibility to promote rights and democracy abroad."