The Ramsey Clark Interviews: Defending Saddam Hussein

by Rachel Mason on June 2, 2016 · 1 comment IMG MGMT

Rachel Mason, “The Ambassadors” (2008)

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two conversations between artist Rachel Mason and former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark. In the first, Clark spoke about his years in the Department of Justice under JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson. He went on to become a radical anti-death penalty activist, defending war criminals and dictators, which he discusses here.]

I met former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark right after the video of Saddam Hussein’s grisly execution was uploaded to YouTube. Clark had defended Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi Special Tribunal in 2004 and had sincerely hoped that Hussein would live.

The circumstances were strange, since, at the time, I’d been sculpting a series of portrait busts of leaders of global conflicts in order to better understand their humanity. I brought the busts to our meeting, and Clark referred to each subject as a friend; he looked at the little Manuel Noriega and said that people often called him Pineapple Face, a term he hated, because of his acne scars. He had spoken on the phone to both Bernard Coard (deposed president of Granada) as well as Fidel Castro very recently.

At the end of our conversation, he said that no one had ever asked to read his closing arguments at the trial of Saddam Hussein. He said I could take them with me. So, of course I did.

I sat with this document for a long time. Years, in fact. And what I came to realize from the argument was not about Saddam Hussein. It was about the principle of not invading a country and executing its leader.

If you’re reading this, I wonder if you remember that gruesome and absurd moment, when we watched the president of Iraq publicly executed on a cell phone video uploaded to YouTube. The reality of that video is still hard for me to fully grasp.  I felt sick by the decision to invade Iraq. And I felt betrayed by those in the United States government, which I’d expected would fight to not let this entire wrongheaded invasion happen. Hillary Clinton is one of those individuals that I think of now that the next United States presidential election is underway. This is why it felt necessary to have one more conversation with Ramsey Clark, who tried to fight for a just court.

Rachel: Back in 2007, when you were defending Saddam Hussein– what did you predict would happen if he were executed?

Ramsey: Well, first his legal team had to think about from the standpoint of his family. Then you had to think about the effects on Iraq, and on war history. I had real hopes that he would not be executed.

The execution of Heads of States has a potential for long-term consequences. In fact, I don’t believe executions ever have good consequences. Even before World War II, as a child, I read about some executions in Czechoslovakia in [the children’s magazine] My Weekly Reader. It stuck out to me because we were living in Dallas, where there were a bunch of Czechoslovakian immigrants– we used to get bread and cakes at a Czechoslovakian bakery, so I had an interest in it. It was the first time I ever thought about it, even though they were executing people in Texas and the United States. I thought, how can the government deliberately take someone’s life?

No matter how terrible, or what the person might have done, you place a higher value on life when you refuse to execute the person. You can protect the public satisfactorily by incarceration or some other form of isolation, but when you execute, you state the principle of the government: death is a means of solving problems, and I don’t think that’s a good thing to tell children or anybody else.

Rachel: What was it like to work with Saddam Hussein?

Ramsey: He was a thoughtful person. Almost more than any leader that I’ve met all over the world, he tried to be sure that he accurately understands what you’re saying. For instance, he would use at least two interpreters, and sometimes they’d get into an argument about what the proper translation was. One of them was the preeminent Shakespeare scholar in Iraq.

Rachel: Wow.

Ramsey: For many leaders, formalities are boring, and they don’t really want to spend time or have any depth of talks, but he did and enjoyed it.

Rachel: Is there a conversation that sticks out to you?

Ramsey: That’s been a long time ago now…but he had a daughter who lived in Amman, the capital of Lebanon, and she was intensely concerned for her father and his health. One night I was talking with her before I flew to Baghdad the next day, and I think the phone rang, and she got up off the couch very quickly, and passed out. She came back quickly, and it’s just one of those– I think she was under a lot of tension about her father.

She said that one time when she was a little girl, he was campaigning for office, and she stumbled and scratched her knee. The rest of the day, he carried her around on his shoulders. He bought her a ring, and she had the ring on her little finger that night, and she said she always wore it. She told me about him.

In prison, next time I saw him, I started telling him about that story, he interrupted and said, “Oh, yeah, I remember very well. I thought, that’s so awful, and there was a jeweler over there I knew, so I bought her a ring.” That’s how well he remembered the incident.

I guess the point of that is, people are human. They have children, they love them, they have histories that they remembered. We’ve dehumanized him so much that it’d be hard to imagine him loving a daughter that way or carrying her around on his shoulders. And he gets her a ring, and she’s still wearing it how many decades later.

Rachel: You know, that’s actually what brings me to you. People often said to me that this was wrong to try to empathize with people like Saddam Hussein. But the reason I needed to make art about them was because I couldn’t understand who these people were, as people. There is a faceless quality to these “enemies,” not unlike ISIS now.

Ramsey: Very, very important. Dehumanizing enemies makes them evil, and then you hate them and killing them doesn’t pain you at all. Recognizing our common humanity is the single most important element in the road to peace.

Rachel: You’ve defended people that many, many people in the world would like to see put to death. Is your goal to present their humanity?

Ramsey: Well, my primary responsibility is to provide effective representation to them, but my experience is that a major part of the struggle in those trials is that people almost always side with their own country. That’s what they know, that’s why they’re well-fed and respected in their communities, so you have that built-in prejudice that’s both unquestioning about the goodness of their own cause. Sometimes the presumption of evil, which we tend to demonize, is a big part of international political process. Key to that, wars can be waged with impunity.

Ask the people who have been victims of our wars what they think of us. Particularly take all the U.S. military actions in Latin America in the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. War is hell, and there are no angels in it, or there are very few, and they’re all nurses or something. They’re not the military mentalities.

Rachel: In the end, do you believe that Saddam Hussein was given a fair trial?

Ramsey: I sat through a good deal of it. I think the fact-finding process was generally in accordance with Western principles of fair trial. That may guarantee it’s a fair trial, but you’ve only got biased people, people whose whole experience has been as victims of the government. So to ask [the Iraqi Interim Government] for a fair trial is extremely difficult and improbable. The victims shouldn’t be judges because human nature makes the victims least likely to able to be reasonable, and just.

Rachel: Do you feel that Saddam Hussein is at all guilty for some of the things that he’s been accused of, such as poisoning and gassing his own people?

Ramsey: I assume that those stories are true. Some I know are true. He caused the execution of his two sons-in-law who had become very critical of him. Of course, they had inside access, and I think he had them tried and executed, which is pretty heavy, you know, your own daughters.

Rachel: Where did you first meet Saddam Hussein?

Ramsey: Almost surely in Baghdad. He was in full power. Something had come up while I was in a meeting with him. He said, “I’ll give you a helicopter, and you can fly back to Amman, Jordan,” which is where we come into– you couldn’t fly into Baghdad at that time.

We didn’t even know each other well at that time, but it was nothing to him, he was the head of the government. This was before the war, which has left a poorer Iraq to this day, just a struggle to survive every day for everybody. It’s been a cruel as any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it with too many now. Same is true of Libya, just staying alive is a challenge.

Rachel: Were you ever afraid to, say, go to Iraq during the war and defend Saddam? I mean it was a pretty violent time when you were there.

Ramsey: That’s been true of half a dozen countries where I’ve travelled, at least. You know, it comes with the choice of work. Even coming into an airport in a country like that, there are people hanging out and they see you and they don’t like you.

You pay attention to what you do, where you go. I remember I was walking down this park road in East Berlin in ’46, and I had a coat I bought from up in Sweden, I had some baggy pants. Somehow or other, this guy figured out I was an American, he was on a bike, he came down, he just hit me as hard as he could across the back. Nearly fell off his bike. It was in Germany right after the war, and living conditions were terrible, and he could tell that I was an American, and he didn’t like it.

Rachel: Have you been called a traitor?

Ramsey: Yeah, I’ve been called a traitor publicly and in the press and otherwise, but not by mainstream. There are people who genuinely feel it.

I get death threats. If I’m representing some extremely unpopular client, they’re fairly common. A client like the Harrisburg Seven: they were Catholic radical peace activists who raided draft boards and burned draft records, and talked about destroying the heating tunnels under the Pentagon and stuff like that. They were charged with planning to kidnap someone like Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system in the Pentagon.

They were famous back in those days. We had a long, long trial in Harrisburg. One of the funny things that happened, St. Patrick’s Day came along– and my clients were Catholic pacifists, remember– and the jury came in wearing green carnations. The judge was furious, but it showed a lack of impartiality. It shows how people can begin to identify with those who have broken laws for what they thought was a good cause, peace.

Rachel: Have you ever started to feel less empathetic towards a client while defending them?

Ramsey: Sure. You just have to overcome it. You’ve got a job to do. If your own case, so to speak, affects your ability to present effective defense, you’re in the wrong business.

Rachel: Do you think if you had a chance to defend Osama bin Laden, you would do it?

Ramsey: Yeah, I’m sure I would.

Rachel: Have you ever met him?

Ramsey: I mean, no. See, I’ve represented a lot of people who are considered very evil, by people who believe in evil. I don’t believe in evil as such, I believe that there are people who do bad things, for sure, but the idea of the bad seed, that this is just a wicked person, is contrary to my experience. There are hurt people whom we should try to help rather than hurt further, but the demonization of our society is a very cruel thing. Everyone who does it ought to look in the mirror.

Rachel: Did you meet Muammar Gaddafi as well?

Ramsey: Yeah.

Rachel: What was that like, how did you encounter him?

Ramsey: Let me see…I think he sent word that he had some matters he would like to discuss with me. I went over, flew into Rome, and then flew over to Tunis. This is when we blocked the country.

Rachel: What year?

Ramsey: It must have been around 1986…drove from Tunis down the coast all the way to the capital. I went in right after we bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, very heavily, and spent about a week there. We had planes at Lakenheath Air Force Base in England. Margaret Thatcher was cooperating, and they flew around the Iberian Peninsula.

Rachel: What did you think of him?

Ramsey: He always liked to have long talks. We’d talk about the raid first and the progress of the case. Then we’d talk about all kinds of things. I had a long association with Sub-Saharan Africa and, as you know, the poverty down there is just appalling– he provided more foreign aid, and it was all nonmilitary. We provide millions in foreign aid military, but Libya provided more foreign aid for Sub-Saharan Africa than any other country in the world, by far. We give a lot of foreign aid to Sub-Saharan Africa, but not as much as little Libya. Gaddafi’s was for medicine primarily, and then food. Of course, they had oil wealth and a very high standard of living. Free education through college, and wonderful housing for practically everybody and good health care.

He’d put out these three books [The Green Book, Escape to Hell, My Vision], which were very popular and have a little mystique about them. I wouldn’t say they’re religious, but it’s quasi-moral instruction. They were reasonably good. You could probably boil them down to something like the Ten Commandments, if you took them carefully enough.

He came from Bedouin people in the south, and the south is very desolate. It’s a very big country, and it extends about eight hundred miles into Africa, straight south. It doesn’t have a big population, but he was very proud of his Bedouin heritage. That’s why he had a tent out in this great big yard west of town, where he slept that we bombed out. He’d sleep out in that tent like he was still a Bedouin.

Rachel: Oh, I remember he also wanted to make a tent in the U.S. at one point. He had a thing about tents.

Ramsey: Yeah, it was during U.S.-UN sessions, so it was summer, it was warm. That is, like September. He had it up not far up, and it rained, and it had a canvas bottom and became uninhabitable.

Rachel: You know that Saddam Hussein wrote a mythological book, too, it was called Zabibah and the King. I remember also when he was executed, the New York Times published a poem that he had written. Did you ever read his final poem?

Ramsey: Yeah. I thought it was typical of his character. Have you ever seen the film of his execution?

Rachel: Yes.

Ramsey: You remember he’s standing there in the dock, and it’s in a room, and all these men in there are shouting and carrying on.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Ramsey: He’s got the noose around his neck, he’s looking at them very quietly– these guys are jumping up and down shouting, and he’s looking at them, not quite like a teacher in his classroom who is reprimanding kids for cutting up, but not entirely dissimilar either. And his last words are, “Is this the way Iraqi men act?” And then, plonk.

What it shows is, that he was composed, and that he was, you might say a moralist, because what he was really saying is, should civilized people be celebrating a hanging like this? I could have told him, though, that in lynchings in the south, that that was a common phenomenon, see them grabbing for a toe or an ear or just a shoe or something from the person who got hanged. Not the best moment for human character.

Rachel: Did you immediately get the feeling of a parallel when you saw that video?

Ramsey: I always liked the phrase that “human nature is the same on both sides of the Atlantic.” Some reverend in America suggested it in the War for Independence and got beaten nearly to death because of the expression. You got to think you’re better than they are, don’t you?

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