Ramsey Clark, Lawyer for Those ‘Demonized’ by U.S., Dies at 93

Ramsey Clark, whose unconventional legal career took him from top law enforcement officer in the U.S. to defender of such widely shunned figures as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric convicted of planning terrorist attacks in the U.S., has died. He was 93.

He died April 9 at his home in New York, according to the New York Times, citing his niece Sharon Welch.

Once a pedigreed member of the Democratic Party establishment, Clark became an internationally recognized critic of U.S. foreign policy and the American justice system. He often said the U.S. “demonized” its enemies, making it hard for them to defend themselves in courts of law and public opinion. Those were the defendants who drew his attention.

“If you don’t stand up in the toughest cases, you’re worthless,” he told the Times in 1991. “The easy cases are easy.”

Ramsey Clark, Lawyer for Those ‘Demonized’ by U.S., Dies at 93

President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 named Clark U.S. attorney general, a post his father, Tom C. Clark, had held two decades earlier. To avoid a conflict of interest, the elder Clark stepped down as a U.S. Supreme Court justice so that his son could become attorney general.

As attorney general, Clark oversaw the prosecution of the so-called Boston Five, including pediatrician Benjamin Spock, for conspiring to assist war critics evade the draft. Spock and three others were convicted but won on appeal.

Defended PLO

He also opposed capital punishment and supported broader rights for criminal defendants, early signs of the direction his career would take after he went into private practice in New York City in the 1970s.

He defended the Palestine Liberation Organization in a lawsuit brought by the family of Leon Klinghoffer, who was thrown overboard to his death during the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. The two sides reached an undisclosed settlement.

He represented survivors of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers who died in the 1993 federal assault on their cult’s compound near Waco, Texas. The survivors’ wrongful-death lawsuit against the U.S. was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge, who found federal agents didn’t use excessive force.

In 1995, Clark defended Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric accused of encouraging followers in the U.S. to attack civilian targets in and around New York City. A jury in New York convicted him of seditious conspiracy, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

Genocide Defendants

In 1997 he unsuccessfully fought the extradition from Texas of Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a 73-year-old pastor and Hutu leader in Rwanda accused by the UN of genocide. Sent to Tanzania for trial, Ntakirutimana was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Clark advised Milosevic, the Serbian leader charged with genocide in Kosovo, before another UN tribunal. Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 before the trial was completed.

“I don’t know if I’m attracted to them or they’re attracted to me,” Clark said on CNN in 2005 when asked about his record of defending rogue leaders. “I’m a lawyer. And I believe in human rights. And I believe you have to reach out to people who have been demonized, and where there’s international tension and friction, and try to show that there are people that will stand up for the rights of others.”

Journey to Iraq

Clark’s support for Hussein traced to November 1990, when he visited Iraq as the U.S. was assembling the multinational force that would expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait. He returned three months later as U.S. bombs were falling to look at the damage and decry the U.S. for “a human and civilian tragedy.”

He took part in humanitarian aid missions and met with Hussein on other occasions, including just before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, which he opposed by helping organize protests in Washington and other American cities.

“This country of ours has committed the most serious act of aggression in its history,” he told reporters in Washington two months after the invasion began. “It has engaged in a war of aggression without a declaration of the Congress, as the Constitution recommends; without approval of the Security Council of the United Nations; but more significantly, in clear violation of the most important provisions of international law, which seek to end the scourge of war.”

‘Palpably Unfair’

Helping represent Hussein at his criminal trial in Baghdad in 2005-2006, Clark joined a defense-team walkout to protest the legitimacy of the U.S.-organized court. After Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death, Ramsey called the trial “not only palpably unfair, it’s egregiously vindictive.”

William Ramsey Clark was born on Dec. 18, 1927, in Dallas, the second son of Mary Ramsey Clark and Tom Clark. His older brother, Tommy, died of spinal meningitis at 6. He also had a younger sister, Mimi.

Clark served in the U.S. Marine Corps at the end of World War II. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in 1949, and a master’s degree in history and a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1950.

For a decade starting in 1951, he worked at his family’s law firm in Dallas, specializing in antitrust cases. He moved to Washington to join President John F. Kennedy’s administration as assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Lands Division, a post he held from 1961 to 1965 under Kennedy and then under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Texas Twang

He was promoted to the department’s No. 2 post, from 1965 to 1967, under Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. When Katzenbach moved to the State Department in September 1966, Clark filled in, then was officially appointed attorney general by Johnson in March 1967. He held the post until Richard Nixon became president in January 1969.

Robert Kennedy, attorney general until 1964, made use of Clark’s Texas roots and twang in civil-rights battles in the South.

“I was in charge of supervising the desegregation of all public schools in ‘62 in the South,” Clark told the New York Observer in 2005. “There were only five, but it was a big job. Doing just one of them was a big job. You had to worry about children being beat up, their homes being firebombed. It seemed incredibly important, exciting and a privilege to be involved in that.”

As attorney general, Clark stiffened enforcement of school-and job-desegregation laws.

Chicago Seven

Clark moved to New York City and joined the law firm that became Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. He did legal work for anti-war and civil-rights organizations. In March 1970 he denounced the contempt sentences of the so-called Chicago Seven, protesters -- including Abbie Hoffmann -- charged with conspiracy to incite rioting at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

He became a champion of leaders of the rebellion at Attica Prison in 1971, writing in the New York Times: “We created the ‘Big House,’ knew of the inhumanity there and waited for the recurrence of death and destruction that was bound to come.”

In 1972 he visited Hanoi and condemned the “inhumane” U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.

Challenging New York’s Democratic establishment, he sought and won the party’s nomination to oppose Republican Senator Jacob K. Javits in 1974. Javits won the general election, in part by using Clark’s North Vietnam trip against him. Two years later Clark ran for Senate again, coming in third behind Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Bella Abzug for the Democratic nomination for the seat that Moynihan went on to win.

In 1980, as Iran was holding 53 American hostages, Clark traveled to Tehran, defying a U.S. ban, to take part in a “Crimes of America” conference. There, he condemned as “lawless” the unsuccessful U.S. military attempt to rescue the hostages.

In 1986, two months after the U.S. bombed Libya in retaliation for its alleged sponsorship of terrorist attacks, Clark visited Tripoli and met with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He said the topic was legal matters for companies he represented. He later sued the U.S. and the U.K., without success, on behalf of people injured or killed in the bombings.

His wife of more than 60 years, the former Georgia Welch, died in July 2010. They had a daughter, Ronda, and a son, Tom II.

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