Legendary human rights lawyer Michael Ratner died on May 11. His

pathbreaking legal and political work on behalf of the poor and oppressed
around the world is unmatched. His death is an incalculable loss for the
cause of freedom, peace and justice.

The last time I saw Michael was shortly before he was diagnosed with
cancer. We were in New York for the annual dinner of the National Lawyers
Guild (NLG). Both of us had served as NLG presidents, he during the Reagan
years, I during the George W. Bush administration. When we met in New York,
Michael had just returned from Cuba, where he had a wonderful visit with
Gerardo Hernández, one of the Cuban Five. I was about to leave for
Cuba, where I would meet with René González and Antonio Guerrero, two other
members of the Cuban Five.

The Five had traveled to Miami to gather intelligence about terrorist plots
against Cuba. When they turned over their data to the FBI, they were
rewarded with arrests, convictions and incarceration. In Cuba, the Five
(“Los Cinco”) are considered national heroes. One of the conditions
for the historic détente  between Barack Obama and Raul Castro in
December 2014 was the United States’
release of the members of the Cuban Five who still remained in custody.

Michael raved about his Cuba trip. A longtime friend and ally of the Cuban
Revolution , Michael had
first traveled to Cuba in the 1970s. He later co-authored the book, “Who
Killed Che?”, in which he and Michael Smith concluded, based on U.S.
government documents, that the CIA was behind the assassination. When Cuba
opened its embassy in Washington, D.C., last July, Michael was there. He
told “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman that “other than the birth of my
children, this is perhaps one of the most exciting days of my life. … 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

Indeed, Michael will probably be best remembered for his victory in gaining
the right to habeas corpus for U.S. detainees held in Cuba at Guantanamo.
Michael was lead counsel in the 2004 case of Rasul v. Bush
, in which the
Supreme Court upheld the right of those detained as “enemy combatants” at
Guantanamo to have their petitions for habeas corpus heard by U.S. courts.
The Bush administration had argued that since the detainees were being held
on Cuban soil, they had no right of access to U.S. federal courts to
challenge their confinement. But the court held that the United States
exercises complete jurisdiction and control over the Guantanamo Bay base.
As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, “Aliens held at the
base, no less than American citizens, are entitled to invoke the federal
courts’ authority” under the federal habeas corpus statute.

“We went into court with a very straightforward proposition—that *habeas
corpus* meant every single person detained has a right to go into court and
say to the government: ‘Tell me why you are detaining me and give me the
legal justification,’ ” Michael wrote in his chapter published in my book,
“The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse.”

Michael also wrote that “[p]reventive detention is a line that should never
be crossed. A central aspect of human liberty that has taken centuries to
win is that no person shall be imprisoned unless he or she is charged and
tried.” Michael added, “If you can take away those rights and simply grab
someone by the scruff of the neck and throw them into some offshore penal
colony because they are non-citizen Muslims, those deprivations of rights
will be employed against all. … This is the power of a police state and not
a democracy.”

In his chapter, Michael advocated “accountability by means of criminal
prosecutions” of Bush, Dick Cheney, George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld for
their torture program. “Until this occurs,” Michael wrote, “a future
president can, with the stroke of a pen, put the United States back in the
torture business.”

Michael sued Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Rumsfeld, the
FBI and the Pentagon for their violations of law. He challenged U.S. policy
in Cuba, Iraq, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and
Israel/Palestine. He was lead counsel for whistleblower Julian Assange. As
David Cole wrote in The Nation, Michael “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.”

Jules Lobel, who followed Michael as president of the Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR), said on “Democracy
Now!” that Michael “never backed down from a fight against oppression,
against injustice, no matter how difficult the odds, no matter how hopeless
the case seemed to be.” Lobel added, “Michael was brilliant in combining
legal advocacy and political advocacy. … He loved people all around the
globe. He represented them, met with them, shared their misery, shared
their suffering.”

As NLG president in the early 1980s, Michael initiated the guild’s
challenges to Reaganism, including U.S. interventions in Central America
and the Caribbean. When he was president of CCR, he choreographed
litigation that essentially ended New York City’s draconian stop-and-frisk
policing policy.

Fellow past NLG president Barbara Dudley noted, “Michael leavened his
brilliant mind and his creative legal skills with love and humor and an
abundant energy. His work, his laugh, his irony and his enduring belief in
the revolutionary spirit will live on.”

Vince Warren, CCR’s executive director, called Michael “one of the great
justice warriors of our time,” noting that family members said Michael was
born with the “empathy gene.”

In 2002, Michael presciently told The New York Times, “A permanent war
abroad means permanent anger against the United States by those countries
and people that will be devastated by U.S. military actions. Hate will
increase, not lessen; and the terrible consequences of that hate will be
used, in turn, as justification for more restrictions on civil liberties in
the United States.”

We will not see the likes of him again.

*Marjorie Cohn [**http://marjoriecohn.com/ ] is a
professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the
National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International
Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is “Drones and
Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Follow her on
Twitter at @marjoriecohn.*

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