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Remembering Michael Ratner, Pioneering Lawyer Who Fought for Justice from Attica to Guantánamo

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The groundbreaking human rights attorney Michael Ratner has died at the age of 72. For over four decades, he defended, investigated and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. Ratner served as the longtime president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. In 2002, the center brought the first case against the George W. Bush administration for the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court eventually sided with the center in a landmark 2008 decision when it struck down the law that stripped Guantánamo prisoners of their habeas corpus rights. Ratner began working on Guantánamo in the 1990s, when he fought the first Bush administration’s use of the military base to house Haitian refugees. We begin today’s show with a speech he gave in 2007 when he was awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The trailblazing human rights attorney Michael Ratner has died at the age of 72. For over four decades, Michael Ratner defended, investigated and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. He served as the longtime head of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Attorney David Cole told The New York Times, quote, “Under his leadership, the center grew from a small but scrappy civil rights organization into one of the leading human rights organizations in the world. He sued some of the most powerful people in the world on behalf of some of the least powerful.” In 2002, the center brought the first case against the George W. Bush administration for the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court eventually sided with the center in a landmark 2008 decision when it struck down the law that stripped Guantánamo prisoners of their habeas corpus rights. Ratner began working on Guantánamo in the 1990s, when he fought the first Bush administration’s use of the military base to house Haitian refugees.

Michael Ratner’s activism and human rights work dated back to the 1960s. He was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1968 student strike there. Michael was a clerk for the legendary Federal Judge Constance Baker Motley. When he graduated from law school, she was the first African-American woman judge and protégé of Thurgood Marshall. In a 2004 letter, Constance Baker Motley wrote, “Michael Ratner was in retrospect, the ablest law clerk I have had in my tenure on the bench.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner joined the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1971. His first case centered on a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners killed and injured in the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York. Michael Ratner was deeply involved in Latin America and the Caribbean, challenging U.S. policy in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. In 1981, he brought the first challenge under the War Powers Resolution to the use of troops in El Salvador, as well as a suit against U.S. officials on behalf of Nicaraguans raped, murdered and tortured by U.S.-backed contras. In 1991, he led the center’s challenge to the authority of President George H.W. Bush to go to war against Iraq without congressional consent.

A decade later, he would become a leading critic of the George W. Bush administration, filing lawsuits related to Guantánamo, torture, domestic surveillance and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He also helped launch the group Palestine Legal to defend the rights of protesters in the U.S. calling for Palestinian human rights. In recent years, he was the chief attorney for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and became a leading critic of the U.S. crackdown on whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. He was also the husband of Karen Ranucci, a longtime member of the Democracy Now! family.

Today we spend the hour looking at the life and legacy of Michael Ratner. Later, we’ll be joined by three lawyers who worked closely with Michael over the years, but we begin with a speech Michael Ratner gave in 2007, when he was awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship.

MICHAEL RATNER: Over the last few years, I’ve become acquainted with a man named Henri Alleg. Henri Alleg is a French Algerian in his eighties who was water-tortured—or, as this administration says, waterboarded—by the French. Here is how Henri Alleg described his water torture, a practice that goes back to the Inquisition: “The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. … I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs … as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few [moments]. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.”

Think about Henri Alleg when you hear the CIA talk about enhanced interrogation techniques. Or think about a terrible agony, that of death itself—that of death itself—taking over you when you hear our new attorney general refuse to condemn waterboarding, or when you hear that some of our Democratic leaders were briefed and made not a peep—not a peep—of objection.

Let there be no doubt, the Bush administration tortures. It disappears people. It holds people forever in offshore penal colonies like Guantánamo. It renders them to be tortured in other countries. This is what was done to CCR’s client Maher Arar, who was rendered to Syria for torture. And sadly, a majority of our Congress, our courts and our media have given Bush a free hand—and, in fact, worse, have been the handmaidens of the torture and detention program. But it has not been given a free hand by the Center for Constitutional Rights. It has not been given a free hand by The Nation. It has not been given a free hand by Jeremy or Naomi.

Today we’re in the midst of a pitched battle, a pitched rattled to put this country back, at least ostensibly, on the page of fundamental rights and moral decency. The battle is difficult, and the road is long and hard. On occasion, I get pessimistic. Sometimes I and my colleagues feel like Sisyphus. Twice—not just once, twice—we pushed the rock up the hill and won rights for Guantánamo detainees in the Supreme Court, and twice the rock was rolled back down by Congress over those rights. So we pushed it back up again. Five days ago, we were in the Supreme Court for the third time. It was difficult, more difficult than before, because the justices have changed. Four are antediluvians, lost forever to humanity.

But before I get us all depressed, we’ve had our victories. We’ve gotten lawyers to Guantánamo, stopped the most overt torture and freed half of the Guantánamo detainees—over 300. We have gotten Maher Arar out of Syria. Canada has apologized for his torture, given him a substantial recovery—in Canadian dollars, which is no embarrassment anymore. They said he was an innocent man, but he remains on the U.S. terror list. We have slowed, but not yet stopped, a remarkable grab for authoritarian power.

I also don’t look hope—I also don’t lose hope, because I think about the early days of Guantánamo. At first, we were few. But now, we are many. At first, when CCR began, we were the lonely warriors taking on the Bush administration at Guantánamo. Now we are many. Now we, just on Guantánamo alone, are over 600 lawyers, most from major firms of every political stripe. These lawyers have an understanding of what is at stake: liberty itself. This struggle—this struggle will be seen as one of the great chapters in the legal and political history of the United States.

Today, war, torture, disappearances, murder surround us like plagues. Most in this country go on their way oblivious. Some don’t want to know and are like ostriches. Some want to justify it all. Some want to make compromises. But be warned: We are at a tipping point, a tipping point into lawlessness and medievalism. We have our work to do. For each of us, the time for talking is long, long over. This is no time for compromise, no time for political calculation. As Howard Zinn admonishes us, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. The Puffin/Nation Prize reminds us all that the job for each of us is not to be on the side of the executioners. Thank you all.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney Michael Ratner, speaking in 2007 when he was awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. Michael died Wednesday at the age of 72 as a result of complications related to cancer. When we come back, we’ll be joined by a roundtable of his colleagues and friends, beginning with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who will speak to us from inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Julian Assange: Michael Ratner was a “Campaigner for Justice” from Guatemala to Palestine

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