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Vale Michael Ratner

A belated tribute to Michael Ratner who died earlier this month.   There are few men, so principled, prepared to take on the powerful when injustice, prejudice and breaches of the law are apparent and who seek redress.

The Nation magazine's tribute to Ratner encapsulates the man...

"Several years ago, I asked the civil-rights lawyer Michael Ratner, who died on May 11 at age 72, whether he thought he had any chance of prevailing when, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, he sued George W. Bush in early 2002 on behalf of some of the first Guantánamo detainees. “None whatsoever,” he replied. “We filed 100 percent on principle.” The law was against him; the Supreme Court had ruled in World War II that prisoners of war could not challenge their detention in US courts. And the politics were even worse; the World Trade Center cleanup was still ongoing, the detainees had been declared “the worst of the worst,” and, as alleged foreign terrorists, the detainees elicited little sympathy from Americans. But to Ratner, challenging the president was the right thing to do, and that was enough.

Ratner made a career of suing the powerful. He sued Ronald Reagan for funding the contras in Nicaragua and invading Grenada, George H.W. Bush for invading Iraq without congressional authorization, Bill Clinton for warehousing Haitian refugees with HIV at Guantánamo Bay, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for torture. He sued an Indonesian general, a Guatemalan defense minister, and a Haitian president, among others, for human-rights abuses. He sued the FBI for spying on Central American activists and the Pentagon for restricting press coverage of the Gulf War. The pattern was set early: His very first federal lawsuit was styled Inmates of Attica Correctional Facility v. Rockefeller, and sought to compel New York to prosecute state police responsible for killing prisoners at Attica State Prison in response to an uprising there in 1971.

Ratner knew that when you sue the powerful, you will often lose. But he also understood that such suits could prompt political action, and that advocacy inspired by a lawsuit was often more important in achieving justice than the litigation itself. He understood the inextricable links between advocacy in court and out. Consider, for example, his greatest victory—the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision, in Rasul v. Bush, declaring that Guantánamo detainees had a right to seek judicial review of the legality of their detention as “enemy combatants.” As soon as Ratner filed the first habeas corpus petition on behalf of Guantánamo detainees, in 2002, he began working with Gareth Peirce, Clive Stafford Smith, and other British lawyers to build public support in the UK for his clients, several of whom were British. He understood that the British public would be more sympathetic to the plight of British detainees than would Americans, and that British public opinion could be a useful prod to American action. The public outcry in the UK forced Prime Minister Tony Blair, initially a full-throated supporter of Bush’s Guantánamo policy, to reverse himself and demand that the camp be closed."


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