Michael Ratner was ‘an activist and role model for many lawyers around the world,’ said one colleague who helped his historic defense of the civil rights of Guantanamo inmates.
MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Ratner, a pioneering lawyer with an influence on human rights that stretched from Gaza to Guantanamo Bay, died in New York on Wednesday from complications related to cancer. He was 72.
As news of his death spread, a diverse range of people expressed their sadness over his passing and honored his legacy, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and constitutional lawyer Jules Lobel.
“Michael was a role model and inspiration for many lawyers around the world, including myself,” Lobel told Juan Gonzalez during Democracy Now!’s hour-long program devoted to Ratner which aired Thursday.
Lobel is vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an NGO focused on protecting civil and human rights. Ratner started working there as a staff attorney, and over the course of 40 years, he led the organization into historic legal battles against democratic governments and dictators alike.
“He 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, no matter how much there was a lack of precedent,” Lobel told Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez. “He took cases that nobody else would take, for clients that nobody else would represent.”
Appearing on the same program, Assange called Ratner a “campaigner for justice” who cared less about glory or fame than he did for the rights of his clients.
Ratner defended Assange and others associated with WikiLeaks, including whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, for leaking thousands of documents relating to American warmongering and empire building.
Speaking to Democracy Now! From the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Assange said Ratner resisted American exceptionalism and was just as willing to hold the U.S. accountable for its crimes as any other country:
“He was genuinely concerned about people in Guatemala, about me, as an Australian, about people who face similar problems in Palestine, about people who have been extradited from the United Kingdom. And he was able to work with these other groups and other lawyers across jurisdictions, because they perceived that his genuine human concern for them was not simply about grabbing some prize that he could take back to the United States and exploit within his own, if you like, New York constituency.”
The Guardian reported that Ratner was one of the first to defend the rights of inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, eventually building a network of hundreds of lawyers devoted to the task:
“In a landmark decision, the justices decided in Rasul v Bush that detainees did have the right to challenge their detention and that US courts have the jurisdiction to hear those complaints in the case of foreign nationals.
Ratner was also a founding member of the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association, a group of more than 500 attorneys who provided pro-bono representation to detainees, an effort CCR calls ‘the largest mass defense effort in US history’. Long before the war on terror, Ratner took up the cause of Guantánamo detainees in the 1990s, winning the closure of a detention camp set up exclusively for holding HIV-positive Haitian refugees.”
Watch “Remembering Michael Ratner, Pioneering Lawyer Who Fought for Justice from Attica to Guantánamo” from Democracy Now!:
Ratner’s interest in human rights spanned the globe, including years of work in defense of the rights of Palestinians. Weeks before his death, Slate published an article he co-authored defending economic boycotts to inspire change, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to build economic pressure against Israel’s apartheid policies. In an online statement, Palestine Legal, a nonprofit that defends the rights of pro-Palestine activists, cited his “prescient recognition of the growing need for a legal response to the intense backlash against advocates for Palestinian rights in the U.S.” as a major inspiration behind the founding of their organization.
In a statement marking his death published Wednesday on their website, the Center for Constitutional Rights tried to give readers some sense of Ratner’s outsized reach and influence on countless lives:
“Michael went after dictators, torturers, corporations, and the military, and he challenged the impunity of government officials everywhere. Famously antiwar, he represented members of Congress three times over two decades in challenges to executive war making, and he represented solidarity activists who fought for peace. He fought in domestic and international legal forums for the victims of U.S. oppression in Central America, to end the illegal U.S. blockade of Cuba, and for independence for Puerto Rico.”
Watch “Excerpt from an interview with civil liberties lawyer Michael Ratner” from Luminant Media: