Born on June 13, 1943 in Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Ratner was an attorney and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University. He also served stints as President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR); a Board of Advisors member of Grassroots International; co-host of a Pacifica Radio program that reported legal developments related to civil liberties, civil rights and human rights issues; and President of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). Ratner once wrote that Che Guevara “has remained my hero” since boyhood.
Ratner was the individual most responsible for the legal campaign aimed at shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, where the U.S. detained several hundred suspected Islamic terrorists.
Ratner’s first involvement with events at Guantanamo was actually in the early 1990s, when he fought the U.S. government’s effort to detain (in Guantanamo) hundreds of Haitian asylum-seekers because they were infected with the HIV virus.
Years before Guantanamo began to be used as a prison for Muslim terror suspects, Ratner and CCR were already defending such notorious Islamists as Omar Abdel Rahman, Mousa Abu Marzook, Moataz Al-Hallak (a Texas imam suspected of having close links to al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers), and Mazin Assi (who firebombed a New York synagogue).
Immediately after 9/11, Ratner began taking steps to attract major U.S law firms to his campaign against the war on terror. Citing a concern for “civil liberties,” he publicly condemned virtually every aspect of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks: the Patriot Act; profiling techniques targeting people of Middle Eastern extraction; the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security; the granting of greater surveillance powers to the FBI and CIA; and the looming invasion of Afghanistan.
Ratner detailed how he first became involved specifically in the Guantanamo issue as follows: “I became involved back in November 2001. The President had just issued a military order saying he had the power to indefinitely detain any non-citizen who he believed was involved in international terrorism. The idea that you could pick up people anywhere in the world and hold them forever without a trial is outrageous. We at [CCR] decided that we would represent the first people who were detained under that military order. In early January 2002, we got authority to represent David Hicks. … I started personally representing the [Guantanamo detainees] in the Supreme Court … Once we won in the Supreme Court case [see Rasul v. Bush, below], we got authorizations from family members to represent about 100 detainees.”
In April 2002 Ratner led CCR in filing 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 Ratner 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, Ratner and 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. This victory, too, sparked the assistance of many additional law firms which were now willing to help Ratner’s cause.
Said Ratner in June 2004, “Guantanamo represents everything that is wrong with the U.S. war on terrorism. The Bush administration reacted to 9/11 with regressive and draconian measures worthy of a dictatorship, not a democracy.”
Two months prior to the Rasul ruling, Ratner (on March 10, 2004) had gone to the United Nations with Corin Redgrave, who co-chaired the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission, and demanded the immediate closure of Guantanamo prison.
In March 2002, Ratner explained his views on the origins of anti-American terrorism. “If the U.S. government truly wants its people to be safer and wants terrorist threats to diminish,” he said, “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.”
Ratner further condemned America’s post-9/11 attack on Afghanistan, suggesting 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.”
Regarding the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, Ratner said, “If you’re going to have any kind of criminal trial here, if you want any sense of legitimacy or fairness, you cannot go after Saddam Hussein. After all, the U.S., as is well known, has a war of aggression that they just fought against Iraq, a violation of any international law.”
Ratner’s opposition to American policies was longstanding and cuts across Party lines. He sued President George Bush Sr.’s administration (to stop the Gulf War in 1991) and the Clinton administration (to end the U.S. bombing of Kosovo).
In November 2006, the Democratic Lawyers of Germany, along with the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights, presented Ratner with the Hans Litten Prize “in recognition of his pioneering work on international human rights with the [CCR].” In his acceptance speech, Ratner condemned the United States as an oppressive nation infested with injustice and evil. His remarks included the following:
“[W]e have sought to stop the United States from initiating aggressive wars whether in Central America in the 1980s or in Iraq today and we have been concerned with domestic discrimination against women, Blacks, Hispanics and immigrants.… We continue to fight for the rights of Guantánamo detainees … who are currently in cages … The excesses and utter illegalities of the United States in the so-called war on terror continue to dominate my and the Center’s work.… A few weeks after [a] Berlin Bar Association meeting I bought the book [Hans] Litten’s mother wrote about her struggle to free her son, Beyond Tears. It makes chilling reading and not just for what the Nazis did then, but for where the Bush administration is taking us today.… In a number of respects, we in the United States are no longer living in a legal state; and law has become weaker as a guardian of justice.… If the U.S., in the name of fighting terror, can go off the page of law and human rights, why cannot every country do the same thing?”
Ratner was a longtime admirer of Philip Agee, the former CIA agent who became a Communist and (in the 1970s) publicly identified hundreds of fellow agents, at least one of whom — Richard Welch — was murdered shortly thereafter. When Agee (who subsequently fled to Communist Cuba to avoid prosecution for treason) died in January 2008, Ratner eulogized him as one of those rare individuals “who find the courage to expose criminal misconduct by their own governments.”
In August 2014, after Israel had launched a military operation designed to degrade and destroy Hamas’s missile stockpiles and vast underground tunnel network in the Gaza Strip, Ratner condemned the Jewish state. Among the charges he made were the following:
Ratner authored several books, including Che Guevara and the FBI: The U.S. Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary; Against War with Iraq: An Anti-War Primer; and Guantanamo: What the World Should Know.
Ratner died on May 11, 2016 in Manhattan, New York.