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Founded by pro-Castro radicals
Opposes post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) was co-founded in November 1966 by the radical attorneys Morton Stavis, Ben Smith, Arthur Kinoy, and William Kunstler, longtime members of the Communist and radical left. All four were well known for their pro-Castro politics. Kunstler, for instance, once said: "The people of Cuba are a hell of a lot better off now [under Castro] than they were under [Fulgencio] Batista when American gangsters ran the island." Attorneys Victor Rabinowitz and Leonard Boudin (father of Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin) were both part of CCR and its ally, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, and they actually provided legal representation for the Castro government. According to a New York Times report:
"The two lawyers [Rabinowitz and Boudin] won the new revolutionary government of Cuba as a client over a poolside chess game with Che Guevara at Havana’s Hotel Riviera in 1960 ... Guevara won, then gave them Cuba’s business.
"It quickly provided considerable work. The United States banned Cuban sugar imports, and Cuba retaliated by nationalizing American corporate holdings. This led Mr. Rabinowitz to defend Cuba’s position in the case of Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino before the United States Supreme Court in 1963."
David Horowitz and Peter Collier, in their book Destructive Generation, state that all four CCR founders "had long histories of public support for communist causes," and that by "representing such paramilitary groups as the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Black Liberation Army," they "had attempted to justify terrorist acts and criminal violence by indicting America and its democratic allies as partners in a system of economic oppression and social injustice."
Another significant figure in CCR's early history was Peter Weiss, who served a stint as the organization's vice president during the 1960s.
CCR characterizes itself as an organization that "uses litigation proactively to advance the law in a positive direction, to guarantee the rights of those with the fewest protections and least access to legal resources." In pursuit of these ends, CCR only defends clients whose political views it supports, among the more notable of whom have been Tom Hayden, the Black Liberation Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Catonsville Nine, the Chicago Seven (in a case handled by Kunstler and co-counsel Leonard Weinglass), the Communist Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and Women’s Strike for Peace. The organization also took up the cause of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian rights activist who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975, a crime for which he is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
CCR identifies its major issues as follows:
Illegal Detention and Guantanamo: "Since 2001, the government has illegally detained thousands of people, the most recognized example being the men at Guantánamo. CCR has fought for the right to due process, filing countless cases on behalf of detainees and others swept up in the so-called War on Terror."
Surveillance and Attacks on Dissent: "For decades, the U.S. government has engaged in unlawful surveillance and attempted to expand Executive powers to monitor and intimidate activists, from the Black Panthers in the 1960’s and 70’s to the Central America Solidarity Movement in the 80’s to administration critics today."
Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration: "In a country that puts more people in jail than any other country in the world, we will continue to fight the mass incarceration of millions in our nation’s prison system, as well as challenge practices such as racial profiling, immigrant detention, and discriminatory laws that lead to a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars."
Corporate Human Rights Abuse: "CCR pioneered the prosecution in U.S. courts of human rights abuses committed abroad—and some of the worst perpetrators have been corporations. From the murder of activists, to the degradation of the environment in countries ranging from Nigeria and Vietnam to the Occupied Territories in Palestine and South Africa, corporations must be held accountable when torture and killings are committed to further profits. CCR also fights to hold domestic companies accountable for injustices committed against those who can least afford them, from the families of prison inmates to sub-minimum wage workers."
Government Abuse of Power: "CCR was the first organization to challenge the Bush administration’s policy of 'extraordinary rendition,' where suspects are secretly transferred from U.S. custody to foreign governments that are notorious for poor human rights records. Since our founding, we have fought against similar government abuses of power -- restrictions on travel to Cuba, illegal surveillance and wiretapping, and U.S. military aggression in Central American and Iraq."
Racial, Gender, and Economic Justice: "From pioneering pro-choice and anti-domestic violence cases, to fighting employment discrimination and racial profiling, CCR finds innovative ways to challenge the status quo and support activists and movements engaged around these central questions of injustice."
International Law and Accountability: "As citizens of an increasingly interconnected world, it is critical that all nations, the United States especially, recognize and incorporate the norms of international law into their systems of justice.... We have also brought cases against U.S. officials in foreign courts under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, which is based in the belief that some crimes are so heinous that they defy national boundaries."
Vis a vis international matters, CCR has argued in court that: U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was unconstitutional and criminal; America's bombing of North Vietnam was illegal; the Nuremberg war crimes laws should have been applied to Americans involved in the Vietnam War; the American military should have been restrained from fighting in Cambodia; and the U.S. Navy should not be permitted to use the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing exercises. In addition, the Center attacked America’s anti-Communist foreign policies concerning El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, and elsewhere in Central and South America.
CCR is a core member of the open borders lobby, which seeks to effectively initiate an era of mass, unchecked immigration. In 2002 the Center filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of illegal alien detainees, seeking punitive damages and a declaratory judgment that the detentions were unconstitutional and violated customary international law.
Since 9/11, CCR has focused its efforts heavily on reining in the U.S. government's newly implemented anti-terrorism measures, which the Center depicts as having "seriously undermined civil liberties, the checks and balances that are essential to the structure of our democratic government, and indeed, democracy itself." "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the government's actions," says CCR, "has been its attack on the Bill of Rights, the very cornerstone of our American democracy."
When law-enforcement agencies attempted, in the wake of 9/11, to conduct voluntary interviews with several thousand Middle Eastern men who were in the United States on temporary visas, CCR denounced such "racial profiling"; it issued this same complaint in response to the government's detention of hundreds of non-citizens from the Middle East for possible terrorist connections. When Attorney General Ashcroft warned in 2002 that visa violators would henceforth be arrested, CCR characterized his comments as "chilling." When new regulations permitted the FBI, CIA, and INS to share information about possible terrorist plots with one another, CCR lamented such assaults on "our privacy."
CCR’s views on the political and psychological roots of anti-American terrorism were summarized in March 2002 by the organization’s President, Michael Ratner, who said: "If the U.S. government truly wants its people to be safer and wants terrorist threats to diminish, it must make fundamental changes in its foreign policies ... particularly its unqualified support for Israel, and its embargo of Iraq, its bombing of Afghanistan, and its actions in Saudi Arabia. [These] continue to anger people throughout the region, and to fertilize the ground where terrorists of the future will take root." Condemning America's post-9/11 “aggression” against Afghanistan, Ratner suggested that as an alternative to war, the U.S. ought to "treat the attacks on September 11 as a crime against humanity, establish a UN tribunal, extradite the suspects, or if that fails, capture them with a UN force, and try them."
CCR was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress to oppose the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, also known as “Patriot Act II,” which was then under consideration. The letter asserted that the new legislation "fail[ed] to respect our time-honored liberties," and "contain[ed] a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers … that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights." In addition, CCR supports the California-based Coalition for Civil Liberties, which tries to influence city councils to pass resolutions creating "Civil Liberties Safe Zones"; that is, to be non-compliant with the provisions of the Patriot Act.
In April 2002 CCR filed a class action suit, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, seeking damages on behalf of illegal aliens and non-citizens who had been picked up for questioning by U.S. authorities in the immediate post-9/11 period. The suit alleged “that the INS arrested this group on the pretext of minor immigration violations and secretly detained them for the weeks and months the FBI took to clear them of terrorism, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and international human rights law.” The Turkmen case won CCR much publicity and, consequently, assistance from other law firms that had previously been fearful of taking cases involving 9/11 suspects.
After the Turkmen filing, CCR became directly involved in other major suits filed on behalf of terror suspects. These included, most notably, Habib v. Bush and Rasul v. Bush, both of which challenged the Bush Administration’s contention that because the Guantanamo prison camp is located outside of U.S. jurisdiction, its inhabitants are not entitled to access American courts. CCR later combined both cases under Rasul v. Bush and won an important ruling in that case (on June 28, 2004), which ultimately paved the way for CCR to gain direct access to the Guantanamo detainees.
CCR has been a strong supporter of radical attorney Lynne Stewart, who in February 2005 was convicted on charges that she had illegally "facilitated and concealed communications" between her client, the incarcerated "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman, and members of his Egyptian terrorist organization, the Islamic Group, which has ties to al Qaeda. CCR called Stewart's indictment in 2004 "an attack on attorneys who defend controversial figures, and an attempt to deprive these clients of the zealous representation that may be required."
In March 2005, CCR joined with the parents of deceased anti-Israel activist Rachel Corrie (the International Solidarity Movement volunteer who was accidentally crushed to death while trying to obstruct the path of a bulldozer that was engaged in anti-terror operations by Israeli Defense Force soldiers in Gaza) in filing a federal lawsuit against Caterpillar Inc., the Illinois-based manufacturer of the bulldozers used for such purposes by the IDF. Arguing that Caterpillar had violated international and state laws by providing the IDF with this machinery, CCR sued the company, marking the first time that American citizens had filed suit against a U.S. corporation for alleged misdeeds in a foreign country.
On January 17, 2006, CCR filed a lawsuit against President George W. Bush, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), and the heads of the other major security agencies, “challenging NSA's surveillance of persons within the United States.” (The NSA program targeted communications between persons in the United States and persons abroad where one party was suspected of having connections to terrorism.)
Characterizing President Bush as a political leader who is "out of control" and engaged in the "reckless abuse of power," CCR in 2006 produced a book titled Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush. This screed accused Bush of "illegally spying on U.S. citizens, lying to the American people about the Iraq war, seizing undue executive power, and sending people to be tortured overseas." CCR exhorted likeminded people to sign its online impeachment petition.
In November 2006, CCR filed a criminal complaint requesting “an investigation and, ultimately, a criminal prosecution that will look into the responsibility of high-ranking U.S. officials for authorizing war crimes in the context of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’” The defendants in the case included former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, and former Chief White House Counsel (and current Attorney General) Alberto R. Gonzales. The complaint was brought on behalf of 12 Iraqi citizens who were held at Abu Ghraib prison and one Guantánamo detainee -- all of whom were, according to CCR, tortured by American authorities.
In December 2006, CCR and the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) jointly petitioned a federal judge to dismiss many of the charges brought against the Hamas-linked organization Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which in 2001 was shut down by the U.S. government because of its terrorist ties. Defense attorneys argued that Executive Order 13224, the statute under which HLF was named as a financier of terrorism, is overly broad.
In 2010, CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly filed a lawsuit seeking to end a U.S. government program authorizing the killing of accused terrorists like the Muslim cleric (of Yemeni descent) Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual citizen of the United States and Yemen. (The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Awlaki's father.) An al Qaeda "regional commander," the younger Awlaki is known to have called for Muslims worldwide to wage jihad against America and the West. His sermons were attended by three of the 9/11 hijackers (two of whom he met with privately) and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan (with whom he communicated regularly, and whose deadly 2009 shooting rampage he praised). Moreover, "Christmas Day bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab identified al-Awlaki was one of his al Qaeda trainers and spiritual advisers. In July 2010, Awlaki published an article in al Qaeda's English-language magazine, Inspire, calling for Muslims to assassinate several people, including a young female cartoonist in Seattle and the novelist Salman Rushdie.
In April 2010, after the New York Times hadpublished of excerpts from a trove of WikiLeaks-obtained documents identifying former Guantanamo Bay detainees who had allegedly returned to jihadism following their release, CCR issued a press release depicting onetime detainee (and CCR client) Abu Sufian bin Qumu -- one of those named in the documents -- as a harmless individual who was actually pro-American. Condemning the Times for its "unfiltered recycling of out-of-date and long-discredited DOD [Department of Defense] claims," CCR complained that Qumu had been wrongly "listed as a recidivist, when in fact he was jailed on his return to Libya and is now allegedly fighting with the U.S.-supported rebels ..." But on September 11, 2012, Qumu, whose freedom CCR had helped secure five years earlier, led the deadly terrorist attacks that killed four Americans (including Ambassador Chris Stevens) at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.