George Bush, meet King John.
Donald Rumsfeld, here’s a map of Runnymede. It’s not far from Guantanamo.
John Ashcroft, shake hands with habeas corpus.
“I always cite the Magna Carta,” said Michael Ratner last weekend — July 4 weekend, as it happens, as good a time as any to think about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Six days earlier, in a monumental decision, the Supreme Court of the United States had put the blocks to Bush & Co.’s unlimited Orwellian incommunicado jailing of some 600 “detainees” at Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray and elsewhere, sans charges, sans hearing, sans trial, sans access to counsel — or in fact sans access to anybody in this world except their captors.
“Well,” said undemonstrative, careful-spoken constitutional tiger Ratner, “Justice O’Connor herself went back to 1215” — when King John at Runnymede had been forced to put his name to that Carta of every human being’s basic rights and freedoms.
Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion for the majority declared that “a state of war is not a blank check for the president.” What my mother would have called “the cut direct.”
There had been a time when Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights, of which he is president, had been conducting a very lonely fight on the Guantanamo front from a most modest — O.K., ratty — sprawl of offices six flights up at the corner of Bond St. and Broadway.
“In my view, these people [Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft] are a bunch of thugs,” he had said to this writer in October of 2002. If only in defense of hundreds of years of legal history “we were compelled to take the case” — in point of fact, the cases of four Guantanamo detainees he personally was representing, two from the United Kingdom plus two Australians.
“Now it’s a big deal,” Ratner said this past weekend, “but when you and I talked before, the Center was all alone. By the time we got to the Supreme Court, a year ago August, the [New York] City Bar Association was the only bar association backing us.
“It then began to shift, and now big law firms are stepping forward to take pro bono [Guantanamo] cases. We went outside our own office and got a very prominent Republican, John Gibbons of New Jersey, a retired judge of the 3rd Federal Circuit Court and a good man, to conduct the argument before the Supreme Court.”
The Center’s incoming e-mail, which used to run to rants about “Taliban lovers,” not to mention death threats, has now markedly swung around.
In short, the ruling states the prisoners have a right to habeas corpus — a hearing in court to decide on the legality of their detention.
It was under a legal doctrine called “Next Friend” that Ratner, and the Center, were able to enter — indeed, to initiate — the cases of the two British citizens, Asif Iqbal, 20, and Shafiq Rasul, 24, both from Tipton, in the Midlands; and the two Australians, David Hicks, 27, and Mahmoud Habib, 46.
“They don’t even know there’s a lawsuit on their behalf,” he had said of the four back in 2002. “I’m actually representing their parents.”
That had come to pass when, in January 2003, a batch of people picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan were flown to Guantanamo Bay, and Ratner spotted the name of one of them, David Hicks, in a newspaper account, as well as that of Stephen Kenny, a lawyer in Australia who was handling the case for Hicks’ parents.
“I picked up the phone, called him. He knew of the work of the Center, and my work” — which, among much else, included springing thousands of H.I.V.-screened Haitian refugees out of a much larger Guantanamo hellhole back in the early 1990s. “He said he’d be interested in our representing his client.”
The two U.K. captives, picked up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, were released this past March and dispatched home to Tipton.
“I spent some time with them in England,” Ratner said. “Twenty-two-year-old boys [he’s splitting the difference] who are about as far from being terrorists as my son. They were among the 10,000 people scooped up by Rumsfeld’s scoopers — that was Rumsfeld’s phrase, ‘scooped up.’
“They told me about the treatment: the dogs, the stripping, the whole business. One of them finally, after three months, ‘confessed’ to having met Osama bin Laden at a training camp in Afghanistan — until it was proved the kid was in England at the time.”
Iqbal and Rasul also told Ratner that another of his clients in Guantanamo, Mahmoud Habib, the 46-year-old, “was in terrible shape.”
The fourth client, David Hicks, has now actually been charged and brought before a military tribunal — one of those established “under my inherent powers as Commander in Chief” by George W. Bush’s Presidential Order No. 1. Ratner says that a military lawyer assigned to the case “is outraged at the procedure.”
That leaves Mahmoud Habib — “obviously our first effort now.” Born in Egypt, Habib was picked up in Pakistan, taken to Egypt — “where, from what we’ve gathered, he was tortured for three months; the Egyptians are pretty bad on torture. From there he was shipped to Guantanamo. A lot of these people, you know, thought they were going to be killed when they got to Guantanamo.”
No, no one has ever yet met with Habib. Does he know that this is going on — the Center’s intervention on his behalf?
“I don’t think so, unless he’s heard rumors.”
As for David Hicks, Rumsfeld has paid him the compliment of placing him among “the worst of the worst.”
Well, the father of the worst of the worst, a working-class Australian named Terry Hicks, hasn’t stopped fighting. He in fact came to New York along with filmmaker Curtis Levy and an 8-ft.-x-6-ft. Guantanamo-size cage that he, Terry Hicks, had built by hand. He set it up on the corner of Bond St. and Broadway, outside the building that houses the Center for Constitutional Rights, donned an orange prisoner-type jump suit, climbed into the cage, and waited for the media.
Even levelheaded Michael Ratner is not completely immune from all the scare talk about terrorists. He acknowledges that at times he was concerned “that I might be representing people responsible for 9/11.”
“I think Rumsfeld’s statements about the worst of the worst are highly exaggerated.”
But if you knew that somebody WAS a terrorist, or had been involved in 9/11?
“I’m not a criminal attorney, and it’s always difficult to defend guilty people, but as one of my Republican legal cousins has said, this [detention without representation] is ‘off the reservation.’ In that sense I think I would continue to fight for the right to have a lawyer, the right to a hearing.
“I mean,” said Michael Ratner, who was once, in the tumultuous spring of ’68, clobbered by a cop on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Library, “my whole life has been spent jousting with government.”
Why should it stop now? No way.
Michael Ratner has a new book coming out this week, “Guantanamo: What the World Should Know” (Chelsea Green).