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From Attica to Assange, Attorney Michael Ratner Remembered as Social Justice Champion

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The world lost a legal giant earlier this month with the death of Michael Ratner at the age of 72. For over four decades, the trailblazing attorney defended and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. He sued presidents and dictators. In 2002, Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights 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. Today, in this Memorial Day special, we hear Michael Ratner in his words.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue today’s special broadcast by remembering the life and legacy of the trailblazing human rights attorney Michael Ratner, who died on May 11th at the age of 72. For over four decades, Michael Ratner defended 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,” unquote.

Well, in 2002, CCR, the Center for Constitutional Rights, brought the first case against George W. Bush’s 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. Michael 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 ’60s. 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.”

Michael Ratner would join 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, Michael Ratner 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, Ratner 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 Ed Snowden. Michael Ratner also was the husband of Karen Ranucci, longtime member of the Democracy Now! family.

Today we spend the rest of the hour looking at the life and legacy of Michael Ratner. We begin by going back to [ 2005 ], when Michael appeared on Democracy Now! to talk about the U.S. torture program, Guantánamo, his effort to sue Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld, and the nomination at the time of Alberto Gonzales to become the U.S. attorney general. I began by playing for Michael Ratner a clip of President George W. Bush being questioned about torture.

REPORTER: But there are some written responses that Judge Gonzales gave to his Senate testimony that have troubled some people, specifically his allusion to the fact that cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of some prisoners is not specifically forbidden, so long as it’s conducted by the CIA and conducted overseas. Is that a loophole that you approved?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Al Gonzales reflects our policy, and that is we don’t sanction torture. He will be a great attorney general. And I call upon the Senate to confirm him.

MICHAEL RATNER: I think the clip you played of President Bush being asked, “What about cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment? Isn’t there a loophole where you can still do that basically inhumane treatment to foreigners overseas?” and he answers, “We have a policy against torture,” really says a lot of it, because what Gonzales said here is that, “Yes, I’m against torture,”—and we can talk about that in a second—”but I don’t think that the prohibition of the torture convention prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment applies to foreigners held overseas.” Well, you can drive a huge truck through that. That’s basically saying if you’re a noncitizen held outside the United States, you can be treated inhumanely. What does it mean? It’s defined in the law. All this kind of stuff—stress positions, stripping, hooding—all that kind of stuff is considered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, violates international law, violates treaty commitments of United States. So this is not just about what Gonzales and this government has done in the past. This is about what they’re doing right now and currently. So that’s the first thing I want to say about Gonzales.

The second thing is we’re putting in someone who really has his hands deep in the blood of the conspiracy of torture in this country. He is the one who wrote the memo saying the Geneva Conventions shouldn’t apply. He is the one who asked for the memo redefining torture so narrowly that the worst abuses we’ve seen would not constitute torture under his definition. And here’s what they’ve done to this guy. Not only has he basically said he agreed with those conclusions, but they’ve put him in as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. That means that there’s now a conspiracy to continue the cover-up so that this does not go to the higher-ups at all, so that nobody—not Rumsfeld, not down from him, not Cambone, not Gonzales—will obviously ever be investigated. These are the people responsible. These are the people who lower-level soldiers are really angry at, because they’re the ones who got led into this by these guys at the top.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these guys who have been released from Guantánamo? Four men from Britain have just returned home, and an Australian, as well.

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I got called just as Mamdouh Habib arrived in Australia, and I have to tell you, it was incredible to me and incredibly moving. After three years in a prison where this man, Habib, was—first he was sent to Egypt and tortured for six months in Egypt, electroshocked, the whole thing, and then recent revelations by Mr. Habib about the use of women and even, whether it was real or fake, menstrual blood, rubbing it on his face as a way of making him unclean, taking away water from him so that he couldn’t wash himself and that therefore he couldn’t communicate with God in any sense at all. These are recent revelations that have come out. And, in fact, recently there’s—the last couple of days, there are some revelations about one of the people who was in Guantánamo, one of the interrogators or a soldier, trying to write a book about this and revealing how women were used in this way. That’s Mr. Habib’s story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Michael, there have also been reports in the past week that the conditions at Guantánamo got so bad for some of the detainees that there were attempts and a protest in terms of suicide hangings. Do you have any information on that or any speculation about that particular—

MICHAEL RATNER: Yeah, there’s been—there’s been attempts at suicide throughout the Guantánamo period, and serious ones. And the United States decided they don’t like the word “suicide,” so they call them self-injurious behavior or, you know, words that don’t use that. But this one happened about a year ago. It was 23 people who attempted to commit a mass suicide, got stopped. Some of them had to be hospitalized. But that is about the conditions. When we talk about Alberto Gonzales, we cannot separate him from Guantánamo. Guantánamo is where this stuff began. It’s where they—it’s an experiment in torture, in cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment. And it’s not just Habib in Australia. You know, the other people who were released, the other four British people, also subject to all of this kind of stuff, from dogs to stripping to the whole range of stuff. And the sad thing is, it’s still going on. It’s still going on, whether it’s in Guantánamo or Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But it seems that the more that the revelations come out about how systemic this kind of treatment was, the less attention it is getting in the U.S. corporate media compared to obviously when the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke. You’re getting less and less actual coverage, or even outrage, about how systemic this has been.

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I don’t get it. It’s not only systemic. I mean, you had Gonzales essentially admitting it, I mean, essentially saying, “This is the way we do it. This is what we’re willing to do.” And these guys are going to confirm this guy. I mean, I think almost anybody who votes for him could conceivably be, if this were Germany, part of a conspiracy to commit and cover up war crimes that are being committed at the highest-level officials. We’re having that vote next week. We have a Senate that’s 55 to 45 in favor of the Republicans. I don’t know what the vote will be like. That eight Republicans—that eight Democrats finally voted against him—I think had there been a screaming outcry in the beginning against Gonzales by all these—all human rights organizations, all the Democrats, it’s possible the guy could have been beaten. But I agree with you: The media has been a disaster here. I’m saying to you right now, no one is complaining in any of the major media about the fact that we are saying we can inhumanely treat people right now, as we speak, who are noncitizens all over this globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Germany, Michael Ratner, you went to Berlin. We spoke to you when you filed a suit against Donald Rumsfeld, the war secretary, the defense secretary. He is now not going to a conference in Germany in February because the German government did not quash this suit. Can you explain?

MICHAEL RATNER: There’s actually a lot going on here in Germany right now. There was an article in The Washington Post today that said that the Pentagon denies he isn’t going because of the lawsuit. What I think has really happened here is they floated a—not a rumor, it may be true he’s not going—but floated it as a way of putting pressure on the German government to say, “Get rid of this lawsuit. This is serious business. We’re considering not sending Rumsfeld there.” But on the high—on the level of calling them, “No, no, no, this isn’t what this is about.” And I think what—the conference is February 11th and 12th. It’s the major security conference for Europe. The secretary of defense has gone for 40-some years. My view is, we’re reaching a point in this lawsuit in Germany where something’s going to give.

We’re filing major new papers, actually, today and Monday. One of them, of course, names Alberto Gonzales now as an additional defendant in the case. I mean, his testimony is one that really they could have put into a war crimes trial in Germany and said, “You’re convicted.” Someone told me this incredible story about Germany and what happened with torture. One of the key people, Keitel, who got a death sentence in Germany, was the man who scrawled on a memo to the high command about Russian soldiers, that said, “Geneva Conventions? Obsolete rubbish.” Remember the words that Gonzales used to describe Geneva: “obsolete.” And when they sentenced Keitel to death, what they said was, “One of the reasons we’re giving you the death penalty is for writing—is for basically saying the Geneva Conventions are obsolete.” So, this is a very serious issue in Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Ratner speaking in 2006 on Democracy Now! I last interviewed Michael on the program on July 20th, 2015, in Washington, D.C., at the reopening of the Cuban Embassy after it was closed for more than half a century. It was boiling hot. Michael was drenched in sweat. But it was one of the happiest I had ever seen him. Michael talked about the significance of this historic day.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Amy, let’s just say, other than the birth of my children, this is perhaps one of the most exciting days of my life. I mean, I’ve been working on Cuba since the early ’70s, if not before. I worked on the Venceremos Brigade. I went on brigades. I did construction. And to see that this can actually happen in a country that decided early on that, unlike most countries in the world, it was going to level the playing field for everyone—no more rich, no more poor, everyone the same, education for everyone, schooling for everyone, housing if they could—and to see the relentless United States go against it, from the Bay of Pigs to utter subversion on and on, and to see Cuba emerge victorious—and when I say that, this is not a defeated country. This is a country—if you heard the foreign minister today, what he spoke of was the history of U.S. imperialism against Cuba, from the intervention in the Spanish-American War to the Platt Amendment, which made U.S. a permanent part of the Cuban government, to the taking of Guantánamo, to the failure to recognize it in 1959, to the cutting off of relations in 1961. This is a major, major victory for the Cuban people, and that should be understood. We are standing at a moment that I never expected to see in our history.

Let me tell you, as someone said to me here, if Obama wants to solve Guantánamo and the prisoners at Guantánamo, give it back to Cuba. There will be no prisoners left in Guantánamo. Easy way to do it, satisfy the Cubans, satisfy Guantánamo. Let it happen now.

Think about Cuba’s place in history, when we think about it for young people, not just for the fact that it leveled a society economically, gave people all the social network that we don’t have in the United States, but think about its international role. You think about apartheid in South Africa, and the key single event took place in Angola when 25,000 Cuban troops repulsed the South African military and gave it its first defeat, which was the beginning of the end of apartheid. It had an internationalism that’s just unbelievable. And I remember standing in front of—in the 100,000 people in front of a square in Havana in 1976. I was on a Venceremos Brigade. And Fidel gave a speech, and he said, “There is black blood in every Cuban vein, and we are going into Angola.” I’m telling you, I still cry over it.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, speaking on the grounds of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., at its reopening after more than half a century last July. Michael was diagnosed with cancer just weeks later. We end today’s program 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: Michael Ratner, speaking in 2007 when he was awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. Michael died May 11th, 2016, at the age of 72. You can visit our website at democracynow.org for our full coverage looking at the lives and legacies of Michael Ratner and Father Dan Berrigan.

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