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The Life and Times of Ramsey Clark

By DEBORAH HASTINGS
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Las Vegas Sun
April 29, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) - Saddam Hussein's lawyer is walking in Greenwich Village, admiring the brave buds of a skeletal tree slowly stirring from winter sleep. In the twilight of his life, he notices such things: the advent of spring, the daily opera that plays on the streets of Manhattan, the small, simple pleasures that still stir his soul.

He is an old man, untroubled by the fact that his latest client is a former dictator. In his 78 years, he has represented many infamous men and many divisive causes, the latest of which is to impeach President Bush and dispatch his administration.

"So, Mr. Clark," yells a young man standing on the sidewalk. "Are we going to get those (expletives) out of office?"

Texas gentility rarely fails Ramsey Clark - U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Baines Johnson - even when strangers hurl vulgarities on the street.

"I hope so," he answers, in a polite voice branded by a Dallas drawl.

People have said worse things - to him and about him. In his very public life, he has been called misguided, a traitor, a Communist and a fool. People have said good things, too - the NAACP and the ACLU have lauded his civil rights work.

So have despots and dictators - like his newest client, Saddam Hussein, who faces death by hanging if convicted in a chaotic Baghdad trial marked by assassinations of attorneys, emotional meltdowns and shouting matches with the judge.

There have been many others in the last 40 years. Clark has offered legal counsel and advice to a rogue's gallery of the accused:

Nazi concentration camp boss Karl Linnas; Liberia's Charles Taylor, now charged with crimes against humanity; Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, on the run from charges of genocide; former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died last month in his cell in The Hague while on trial for war crimes; Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the Rwandan Seventh Day Adventist pastor convicted by the U.N., with his son, of herding thousands of Tutsis into a church compound and then calling in rival Hutus, who killed them in an all-day massacre.

He accepts these clients, he says, for the sake of justice and to uphold the right of every person to a fair and impartial trial.

"Especially those people," he says, "who allegedly did terrible things."

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William Ramsey Clark is a complicated and contradictory man.

A conversation with him entails listening to legal constructs and the rules of justice - as they pertain to his clients.

Is Saddam's prosecuting body, the Iraqi Special Tribunal, a legal entity? No, in his view. Is Saddam getting a fair trial? A resounding no. Is there any evidence that Milosevic, whose funeral he attended, actually ordered mass rapes and killings in the former Yugoslavia? Absolutely not, he says.

But there is no mention of the humanity lost under the rule of his clients, or of the evils of genocide and murder. Or of what should be done with people who commit them.

Instead, he lives in a reality of his own making, where the rules of rhetoric and logic apply to circumstances of his choosing. There is no evil. There is no death penalty. There are no prisons.

He hesitates when asked what should replace the later two.

"I don't believe in punishment," he says. Pressed to be more specific, he thinks a long while. Finally, he describes a place with "quarters that are reasonably comfortable, where guests can be received. Adequate food and clothing and health care. Where the family could come and live."

Such thoughts have fueled some of the more benign criticism of Clark over the years - that he is gullible and misinformed.

New Yorker correspondent Jon Lee Anderson, in his book "The Fall of Baghdad," described Clark as "well intentioned but morally blind."

Hearing that line, Clark appears wounded.

"Well," he says softly. "That's interesting."

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He was born in Dallas to a privileged family. He married his college sweetheart, Georgia Welch, and recently celebrated his 57th wedding anniversary. They have two children - a son who is an environmental lawyer and a daughter, who suffers from mental retardation and has lived her entire life in the care of her parents.

"She is the joy of our life," says Clark.

He is the son of Tom Clark, whom Harry Truman appointed attorney general and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ramsey Clark, at age 18, joined the Marine Corps when his parents moved to Washington, D.C. Gung-ho and ready to fight, Clark said seeing the reality of war changed him on the spot. "I was appalled at what I saw. I couldn't hardly stand it."

Honorably discharged, he studied law at the University of Chicago. He practiced at his family's well-established Dallas law firm, then followed his dad's footsteps to the Justice Department.

In 1967, President Johnson appointed Clark attorney general. It is said in Washington circles that Johnson had an ulterior motive. He wanted to appoint the first black to the Supreme Court. Tom Clark had to step down when his son was appointed the country's top prosecutor, to avoid a conflict of interest. Johnson replaced him with Thurgood Marshall.

As attorney general, Clark resisted J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. (Hoover did it anyway) and championed civil rights. Then, in 1968, he prosecuted Vietnam war opponent and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock on charges of conspiracy to counsel, aid, and abet resistance to the draft.

He sees no contradictions in the narrative of his life.

"I can't tell you that I've changed all that much," he says. "I wouldn't call it radical change. I would call it growth."

Nonetheless, leaving Washington in 1968, Clark took a decided turn to the left.

And kept going.

He joined the anti-war movement and traveled to North Vietnam in 1972. He ran twice for the U.S. Senate and lost both times.

In 1980, at the height of the hostage crisis, he visited Tehran to attend a forum about U.S. crimes against Iran. Later he voiced support for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

In 1992, he represented Karadzic, who arrived in New York for United Nations deliberations and was handed federal subpoenas for a civil suit filed by Bosnian refugee women accusing him of ordering mass rapes and other war crimes.

Karadzic, indicted three years later for genocide and crimes against humanity, now tops the most-wanted list at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Clark also represented Charles Taylor, who was arrested in New York in the 1980s on charges of looting his country. Taylor escaped from jail via knotted bedsheets and fled the United States.

Clark first met Saddam in 1990, when the Iraqi leader sought advice on how to deal with Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, who was threatening war over Hussein's invasion of neighboring Kuwait.

"I told him that I thought he had no possibility of defending himself against an American invasion and that his country would be destroyed," recalls Clark. He also remembers the dictator agreeing with him. Though Saddam didn't agree for long, to disastrous effect.

"An arrogant person would have been upset," Clark says. "He's a listener. First and foremost, he's human being."

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They met again last year. This time, the dictator was deposed and in jail, charged with human rights abuses before the Iraqi Special Tribunal. He faces death by hanging if convicted; even if acquitted, he faces more trials. Most recently, he has been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a 1980s crackdown against the Kurds.

His first trial began in October, a contentious and cantankerous proceeding televised live. Saddam has ranted, prayed, refused to enter court, gotten into shouting matches with the judge - who responded by emptying the court room and holding the hearing in secret.

Clark, too, has lost patience. He and other defenders have stormed out of the courtroom, he has assailed the judge, on more than one occasion demanding an opportunity to address the court.

There has been bloodshed and murder. Days after the court convened, an Iraqi defense lawyer was dragged from his office and shot to death. A second lawyer was assassinated in Baghdad by gunmen who also wounded another member of the defense team.

Proceedings were adjourned until replacements could be found for the two dead men - and for a third attorney who fled the country fearing for his life.

"It is a three-ring circus," Clark says, and a travesty. But the problem, to Clark's mind, is not Saddam's behavior but the trial itself.

Saddam is charged with the deaths of 148 Shiites who were tried and executed after an alleged assassination attempt on Saddam in 1982. Saddam and Clark acknowledge the deaths, but say that the dictator acted within the law.

Clark's fundamental criticism is that the Iraqi Special Tribunal - established and trained and funded by the United States - is an illegal entity that follows no legal procedures, most notably the right to due process.

"I've never seen the crime scene, we can't get a transcript (of the hearings), the translation is terrible," he complains. "We know nothing about the witnesses' backgrounds. We don't know if they're actors or not.

"All we've got is people crying and talking about things that aren't always coherent."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cliff Wardlaw, who spent a year in Iraq helping prosecutors and judges establish an open judicial system, has little patience with Saddam's lawyer.

"All I have to do is see some quote from Ramsey Clark and I tune out," said Wardlaw, the federal prosecutor in Minnesota.

Tribunal members were taken to The Hague and to London, where they observed "other bodies that are doing the same thing," Wardlaw said. "We're not telling them how to do it. We showed them how Nuremberg worked. It's providing a foundation of knowledge to them."

Nuremberg also holds great meaning for Clark. As a young Marine courier, he spent two days at the Nazi war crimes tribunal. At the defense table in Baghdad, he recalls the words of prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, in his opening statement at the trial of Hermann Goering, Albert Speer and 19 others:

"We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well."

But Jackson also said some wrongs are "so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored."

And these are words that Clark does not quote.

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