(Image TecNica Volunteers)
Michael Ratner, one of the most effective and respected constitutional rights attorneys in the USA and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, died of cancer yesterday. The NY Times ran an obit that was noteworthy for its recognition of his accomplishments (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/us/michael-ratner-lawyer-who-won-rights-for-guantanamo-prisoners-dies-at-72.html). When a leftist gets such a tribute from a newspaper infamous for its corporate loyalties, that is a sign of his importance.
I also recommend the obit that appeared in the Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/michael-ratner-1943-2016/) by David Cole, an outstanding constitutional rights attorney in his own right. Cole’s article concluded:In an era of globalization, Ratner adapted the tactics of the classic civil-rights lawyer to concerns about global justice. Many of his lawsuits challenged US interventions abroad, especially in Central America. He pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789, to bring human-rights claims in US courts for torture and other grave human-rights abuses. He invoked the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits countries to prosecute torturers wherever they are found, to pursue accountability for US torture in German, Spanish, and French courts, when US avenues were blocked. In the latter cases, he did not prevail. But as he would have put it, “We filed 100 percent on principle.”
As someone who had a brief encounter with Michael Ratner and his former wife Margaret Ratner Kunstler in 1987, I can attest to the importance of his work and more generally that of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
At the time I was the President of the Board of TecNica, a group that recruited volunteers to work with government agencies in Nicaragua. The focus was on programmers like myself but delegations included machinists, welders, physicians, engineers and other types of skills—either blue or white-collar. When people returned from a week in Nicaragua, they frequently returned for a longer period to begin work with a government ministry, a cooperative or other entity committed to the Sandinista revolution. Those that were not placed often became activists in their community as part of a broader movement in solidarity with a revolution Reagan was trying to crush.
In April 1987 the FBI launched an offensive against TecNica that involved interrogating returned volunteers at their workplace about our group supposedly being involved in an espionage network transferring technology from Nicaragua to Cuba and then to the USSR. The Washington Post editorialized against the harassment on May 14th:
The Washington Post
May 14, 1987, Thursday, Final Edition
Questioning Nicaragua Volunteers
IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.
In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.
That is all the more so given the unpleasant method in which some of the most recent questioning is said to have been conducted, which has prompted a House subcommittee to look into this matter. According to some who were subjected to the process last month, agents have arrived unannounced at work places. They have gone directly to personnel managers and asked to see specific employees in connection with a national security investigation. One volunteer charges that an agent threatened to deal directly with her boss if she refused to answer questions on the spot.
Those questioned believe they are being harassed for their political beliefs and activities. They say there is no evidence that any person who has traveled to Nicaragua in support of the contras, for example, has been treated in a similar manner. Public faith in the FBI depends critically on the perception that it will not be used for political purposes. The agency and the administration both owe a full explanation.
Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of TecNica who died four years ago, came to New York to meet with Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler at Bill Kunstler’s townhouse on Gay St. in the village. I joined him to go over the ramifications of the FBI intervention. Basically the two regarded it as a form of harassment and doubted that it would lead to arrests since clearly—as the Post editorial pointed out—we were doing nothing except sending volunteers to work in Nicaragua.
That being said, it was reassuring to have their commitment to handling our legal defense in the event that things escalated. I was very impressed with Michael Ratner’s ability to put this incident into historical perspective and to make us feel as if we had powerful allies against whichever obstacles would be put in our path.
On the day after the FBI visits to personnel offices took place, I have to admit that I was spooked. This was in the Reagan era when fears of an out-of-control executive were well grounded. In building up the Center for Constitutional Rights as an asset for activists taking considerable risks in building movements considered subversive by the national security state, people like Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Bill Kunstler himself performed a yeoman service to the revolutionary movement—god bless them.