Fitting defender for Hussein

Former U.S. official Ramsey Clark has taken many reviled clients

December 06, 2005|By ROBERT LITTLE | ROBERT LITTLE,SUN REPORTER

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark was in his almost-accustomed place yesterday: addressing a foreign court on behalf of a reviled client, in this case Saddam Hussein.

For Clark, a Johnson administration appointee, a seat at the defense table with Hussein is no less comfortable than the seat alongside former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, or Nazi concentration camp commander Karl Linnas, or former Liberian President Charles Taylor, all of whom he has helped represent.

To people who have watched the 77-year-old lawyer's career, the biggest surprise about Clark's appearance in a Baghdad courtroom yesterday was that the famously contrarian anti-war activist waited so long to stand at the defeated Iraqi president's defense.

"If he had been John Ashcroft, that really would have been something," said Michael P. Scharf, a former State Department lawyer and now a professor of international law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "But seeing how he has made this career for himself essentially defending evil dictators, I think it probably has less impact."

Yet it had an impact yesterday, Scharf and others agree. Although he has been pilloried by the right for his defense of the seemingly indefensible, Clark has also developed useful skills as a courtroom advocate for defendants facing charges of war crimes or other atrocities under international law.

Soon after Hussein's trial reconvened yesterday, Clark challenged the Iraqi court's legal standing to try the country's former president, a question that must be debated publicly before the fledgling bench can gain real legitimacy, legal scholars say.

Next, he promised to challenge the credentials of the judges, another important detail for public scrutiny and something Hussein's other lawyers, had they been more seasoned, might have considered months ago.

"That Hussein and other former Iraqi officials must have lawyers of their choice to assist them in defending against the criminal charges brought against them ought to be self-evident among a people committed to truth, justice and the rule of law," Clark wrote this year in an essay published by the Los Angeles Times.

For his next move, Clark has promised to cast Hussein's trial as an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, the Bush administration and the legality of the 2 1/2 -year-old war in Iraq. For that, champions of Clark are hard to find in the American legal community.

"He's known for turning international trials into a political stage for his attacks against U.S. foreign policy," said Scharf, who helped train the judges on the Iraqi High Tribunal that is trying Hussein. "And he seems determined to do it again."

Clark dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps in 1945, then returned to his native Texas two years later to finish college. He earned a law degree from the University of Chicago.

His early career in private practice and with the Department of Justice was often overshadowed by that of his father, Tom C. Clark, who was attorney general under President Harry S. Truman, who appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1949.

The shadows reversed in 1967, when Johnson appointed Clark U.S. attorney general, a move that seemed calculated to force the elder Clark to resign. Justice Clark complied, and Johnson filled the vacant seat by appointing Thurgood Marshall.

As attorney general, Clark helped write the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was involved in desegregating schools in the South.

Since then, his reputation has been honed from the less-popular side of the courtroom, alongside such clients as Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., the Palestine Liberation Organization, Rwandan genocide suspect Elizaphan Ntakirutimana and the followers of Waco, Texas, religious leader David Koresh.

Before his defense of Hussein, Clark was perhaps best known - and often vilified - for his counsel to Milosevic, whom he praised for his "heroic resistance." His role as adviser to Milosevic, who represented himself, was sometimes perceived as going beyond trial advocacy to something resembling political camaraderie.

"I don't object to attorneys who are practicing the law in a principled way; I object to his principles," said Todd Gitlin, a vocal war critic during the Vietnam era and now a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. "Any tyrant or war criminal, as long as they're on the wrong side of the United States of America, he defends them. And not just in court; he seems to defend their point of view."

Besides his work as a defense lawyer, Clark is the founder of the International Action Center, an activist group often linked to the Trotskyist Workers World Party.

He visited Iraq before the war to protest the impending hostilities, a trip reminiscent of his visit to North Vietnam in 1974. In published interviews and public writings, Clark says he long ago stopped trying to be politically popular and that his defense of Hussein and others stems from the aggressiveness and unfairness he sees in America's foreign policy.

"The defense of such a case is a challenge of great importance to truth, the rule of law and peace," Ramsey wrote in the Times. "A lawyer qualified for the task and able to undertake it, if chosen, should accept such service as his highest duty."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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