Michael Ratner is the anti-Ashcroft, the scourge of the US Attorney General. As president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in Manhattan, the wiry, impish lawyer with a Woody Allen voice makes a mockery of the Bush administration’s claim to be “defending freedom”.
In a debate with Ratner on Fox News regarding the 585 Muslims the US has detained for two and a half years at Guantanamo, Ashcroft asserted that “terrorists don’t deserve constitutional rights.” Ratner rounded on him. “How do you know a person is a terrorist until you give him a trial?” he demanded.
Ratner says that Ashcroft “symbolizes everything this administration has done wrong in terms of violating our civil liberties.” He keeps pounding away at restrictions on the right to dissent, discrimination against Muslims, abuse of executive detention and the use of torture in Guantanamo and Iraq.
The CCR’s greatest triumph to date is a case known as Rasul versus Bush. It took more than two years for the case challenging the denial of habeas corpus for Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo to reach the Supreme Court. But on June 28th – Ratner grins at the mere mention of the date – America’s highest judiciary body ruled that the Guantanamo prisoners have the right to challenge their detention in US courts.
“The court cited the Magna Carta, as I had in my speech,” Ratner says jubilantly. “They actually said that since John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, every person has a right to their day in court. They went back 900 years to reaffirm the basic principle of no executive detentions. Our government tried to take us back to 1214 – they believe they can detain people without any kind of process.”
The US administration mounted a counter-offensive to Ratner’s landmark victory, creating “combatant status review panels” – called “Wolfowitz hearings” after the US Deputy Secretary of Defense.
“By ruling that these men are ‘enemy combatants’ before they reach federal court, they think judges will simply have to rubber stamp the process,” Ratner explains.
In the last week of August, the US military began a second offensive against the Supreme Court ruling, seeking convictions on terrorism charges by a military tribunal in Guantanamo before the habeas corpus cases reach US courts. Ratner denounces the tribunals as “kangaroo courts” with serious consequences: “You can get executed.”
Ten leading US law firms have joined Ratner and the CCR in challenging the legitimacy of the Guantanamo tribunal. “This is a huge fight, going on now in federal court,” he explains. “In Guantanamo, the military judges are utterly biased. Four of them were involved in designating prisoners for transfer from Afghanistan. The translations are shoddy. They are using coerced evidence and there is no right of appeal.”
In a campaign entitled “The People versus Ashcroft”, the CCR continues to challenge the constitutionality of the USA Patriot Act, which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
“The right to dissent was hit hardest [by the Patriot Act],” Ratner says. “I’m talking about the right to protest. Ashcroft has said that those who criticize the denial of constitutional rights are aiding terrorists. They have created a milieu in which it is unpatriotic or anti-American or in favor of terrorists to dissent.”
US authorities have sought to prevent public protests against the Bush administration’s policies. In February 2003, New Yorkers were denied the right to hold a static demonstration against the impending invasion of Iraq. The CCR took the case to the highest court in the state, but lost. “The police put up pens that people had to go into,” Ratner recalls. “They used horses and prevented people marching. In other cities, they used wooden bullets against protesters. In Boston this summer, they established a ‘free speech zone’ far from the Democratic Convention.”
Hundreds of protesters arrested during the Republican Convention in New York last week were held for up to 60 hours at Pier 57 on 15th Street, in cages in a disused garage for buses, renamed “Guantanamo on the Hudson” by Bush opponents.
There were only two ‘porta-potties,’ no beds, and detainees had to sleep on the oil-soaked floor. The purpose, Ratner says, is clear: to intimidate Americans so they refrain from dissenting. A US citizen who “minds his own business” is at minimal risk from Ashcroft’s zealotry, says Ratner. “But if you’re a non-citizen of Muslim origin, forget it.” After September 11th, Ashcroft announced he’d arrested 1,200 Muslims in the US; the total was more than 3,000 by Ratner’s count. Almost all have been deported on immigration technicalities. Of the three charged with terrorism-related offences, two were acquitted.
The CCR was founded in the 1960s to defend Martin Luther King and other leaders of the black civil rights movement. During the Vietnam War and the CIA’s “dirty wars” in Central America in the 1980s, the center was considered left-wing. “The political spectrum has gone so far to the right that the center is now defending the most fundamental civil liberties – executive detentions, torture. That’s the bread and butter of the Constitution,” Ratner says. “I represent a mainstream view of civil liberties and preserving the rule of law.”
Ratner inherited a generous spirit from his father, Harry, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Ohio in the 1920s. He says he thinks about moving to Canada if Bush is re-elected, but his wife tells him, “Michael, we have to struggle here”.
“It is really bad,” Ratner says in conclusion. “What is going on now in this country is not just a roll-back on civil liberties. At the Convention, they were cheering against gay marriage, cheering for the ‘right to life’. They’re trying to roll back the 1970s social revolution for women, for gays, for blacks, to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We’re not going any further and we’re going to roll back rights for minorities’.”
The predominantly white audience at the Republican Party Convention was not the America he loves, Ratner says. His America is nearly a third black, Hispanic and Asian. “The people there are trying to build a dike, but there’s holes all over it. I don’t get it. I don’t get how 60 percent of the country could believe that Iraq was involved with 9/11. But the president convinced them. In some ways, you understand fascism. It’s not at that point yet, but you understand mass hysteria, how a population can be controlled through media and fear.”