John Laughland

The devils’ advocate

John Laughland meets Ramsey Clark, who is campaigning for the rights of the two most despised men in the world

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For most people, to defend a blood-stained tyrant is perverse and shocking; to defend two seems like recklessness. Yet the causes of both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are what occupy Ramsey Clark, 78, as he crowns a political career that started with his appointment to the US government on the first day of the Kennedy administration in 1961. Promoted to the post of US attorney general by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Clark’s left-liberal political trajectory has taken him so far from the political mainstream that he is now campaigning for the rights of the two most hated men in the world.

Is he mad? These men’s very names resound with the thud of the scud and the sear of the flame-thrower’s torch. The shock is all the greater because, in office, Clark pursued a host of politically correct causes such as African-American emancipation and the abolition of the death penalty. How, I asked him when I caught up with him recently in a modest family-run hotel in a quiet residential quarter of The Hague, can a man who says he sticks up for the weak now side with thugs and dictators? How can you defend people who represent everything you hate — authoritarianism, brutality, nationalism, cruelty, war?

‘The question contains the assumption of guilt,’ Clark replies carefully. ‘Whatever my political views, the main thing I am about is this: are you going to follow the law? People used to react in the same way to my death-row cases. “Why are you standing up for those killers?” they would ask. This is no different.’ Clark is convinced that Saddam’s trial will be unfair. ‘Is there a pre-existing competent court with jurisdiction to try him?’ he asks. ‘The very name “Iraqi Special Court” suggests that there is not. If equality is the mother of justice, then there should not be special courts at all. That is how history will judge us. Without the law, only sheer power will prevail, not truth or justice.’

To be sure, all lawyers get irritated at the outside world’s silly amazement that they defend criminals. But Ramsey Clark’s political campaigns go way beyond the duties imposed by the taxicab principle. Born into the political establishment — Clark is the only attorney general in the history of the USA whose father also held the same post — he joined the Marines at 17. ‘In China in 1948, I saw people dying where they could not bury their own. They had to drag bodies out to the edge of the road where carts would come and pick them up. In Western Europe in 1949, people were still emerging from the destruction. All this informed me in a way I could never escape: the enormity of human misery on the planet; the enormity of poverty and suffering; the contrast between raw power and the vaster poverty of the impotent.’

Returning to the US, Clark completed three university degrees in four years, culminating in a law doctorate. The civil rights movement was then ‘a seedling’ and Clark decided to nourish it. ‘I was extremely aggressive on civil rights, which made me very unpopular.’ He joined the justice department and was sent to supervise desegregation in Georgia and Alabama. Race riots killed scores of people. ‘We were intensely involved and focused: our job was to protect children.’ He supervised the drafting and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. ‘It was the most radical piece of political legislation in the history of the United States. The percentage of African Americans registered to vote, in Mississippi say, rose from 7 per cent in 1964 to 70 per cent by 1968. It meant that white liberals could be elected by the black vote.’

Clark also remains intensely proud that as attorney general he abolished the death penalty at federal level. As a result, 1968 was the first year in the country’s history that there were no judicial executions, a moratorium which lasted until 1977. ‘While governor of Texas,’ Clark interrupts his life-story to point out, ‘George W. Bush executed more people than anyone else in the US in the 20th century: 153 executions, including retarded people, minors, foreigners. This was about one third of the American total during that period. His legal adviser,’ he adds piquantly, ‘was Alberto Gonzales (the current attorney general). There is credible evidence that he used to spend no more than 30 minutes reviewing execution orders before advising the governor that the prisoners be sent to their deaths.’

What Clark describes as his ‘hatred of violence’ applies above all to war. ‘Aggressive war is the most dangerous thing humanity can do, because you never know where it will end. There can be no war crimes without war.’ He is clearly pained by the fact that he was in the government during the Vietnam war, even though President Johnson removed him from the national security council because of his opposition to it. Leaving government on Nixon’s election — the Republican candidate had repeatedly promised to appoint a new attorney general — Clark became interested in the Swedish prison system, having tried to block US prison construction when in government. He is appalled that the number of prisoners in the US has now ‘ballooned’ to some two million, ‘in a huge archipelago which characterises the US attitude that you control by power’.

Clark seldom misses an opportunity to attack the US. His international campaigning seems to have been exclusively directed towards anti-American causes. He visited Chile during the 1974 coup, and represented air force officers ‘disappeared’ by the US-backed junta; he spoke on 50 campuses in Iran during the reign of the US-backed Shah (against whom ‘the people’ rose up in 1979); he visited North Vietnam in 1970 — ‘very controversial’ — and witnessed the bombing by living in villages for days; he got into Grenada in 1983 before anyone from the press, where he duly took up the cause of patients in a mental hospital killed during the US invasion; he was ‘very close to the Sandinistas’; he went to Panama when the US invaded it in 1989. He even alleges that the Tutsis started the war in Rwanda and that they killed more Hutus than vice versa.

Clark has formed friendships to fit his provocative political opinions. I winced when he told me that he liked Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, because of his interests in poetry and psychology, and that his personality betrayed no evidence of a propensity to violence. Clark is even more outspoken in his admiration for Slobodan Milosevic: ‘I have watched the law for a long time and I do not know of a more heroic individual resistance. He has stood up tall.’ He has visited Iraq every year since 1990; he became ‘personally fond’ of Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister; he has spoken eloquently of ‘the brave resistance’ of the Iraqi people during the two Gulf wars.

Astonishingly, Clark even manages to feel pity for people with whom he has no political sympathy at all. He has defended Lithuanian and Ukrainian exiles accused of Nazi war crimes, and he felt strongly for them. ‘It is terrible to see the fear which such indictments strike into men’s hearts, and the shame they feel before their families,’ he tells me. ‘I have seen defendants being spat at in the face during trials.’ Perhaps he just believed that his own clients were innocent, but his pity extends even to the Nazi leaders themselves: he thinks it ‘terrible’ that eight of them were executed at Nuremberg, and that Rudolf Hess was sentenced to solitary life imprisonment in Spandau.

Clark describes himself as ‘a lawyer who is struggling for peace, who believes that power must be outfa ced, who stands up for the despised, the demonised and the impoverished’. He certainly stands up for the despised, to a degree most people find shocking. But if his hatred of American foreign policy blinds him to the evils of the men he defends, are we any less blind to the evils we commit because of our habit of hating our enemies? And if, in the art world, we label daubs good because they are ‘challenging’, why not also contrarians in politics and the law? The rules of both civil debate and the judicial process demand that everyone must have an advocate — even the very Devil himself.