My personal tribute to Ramsey Clark

My personal tribute to Ramsey Clark

-Camilo Mejía

Ramsey Clark leaves behind an inspiring legacy of commitment and dedication to peace and justice across the world. Many tributes will undoubtedly encompass a much more comprehensive account of his work and legacy than anything I can write. But I am privileged to say he was part of my legal defense team against the United States Army following my public refusal to return to the Iraq war; I believe a brief account of the two times I met him will help those who never knew him understand the kind of human being he was, and why so many people, myself included, are mourning his death and celebrating his life and legacy.

Our first meeting took place the first day of my court martial in May of 2004. As fate would have it, while I was being tried for desertion in a U.S. military base in Georgia, one of the soldiers involved in acts of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison was also being tried in a U.S. military base in Iraq. As part of my defense team, Mr. Clark referred to accounts of torture I wrote about in my Conscientious Objector statement to draw parallels between the two cases.

Here is a summary of his argument before the presiding military judge and panel of high ranking commissioned and non-commissioned officers:

The papers in New York were describing the courts-martial that are beginning in Iraq at this time. The first one today, as (…) the most important courts-martial trials in the history of U.S. military law. We might all have our opinions on that, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that they’re of enormous importance. And they have to do directly with the proposition that I hear from the prosecution today that somehow or another the military is not subject to laws in some ways, at least. That the Congress has its duties and the President and the Executive have their duties, but particularly in the military area, there is some level at which it seems to be above the law, at least and so far as courts can address and control it. And I think that’s the worse message the United States could send to the world and I don’t believe it for a minute. 

And there is this irony that is the cases in Iraq are important, because they’re tragically the prosecution of young Americans, and it pains all of us, for allegedly at least, the allegations are, of outrageous abuses of the person and dignity and rights of Iraqi prisoners or detainees. Here you have the question … of whether a soldier could be prosecuted for refusing to obey an order to commit such crimes. And perhaps, the first thing that most of us think of when we think of Nuremberg and the UN Charter, which is a treaty, which is binding on the United States, is that obedience to the order of a superior is no defense in the commission of a crime. I believe we would all have to desire that to be true, because criminal conduct will be irrepressible if obedience to an order is a justification. We do have a Constitution. [And] our military, which provides for the maximum defense of security, is a creature of that Constitution. 

Here you have this young soldier thrust into that situation and suddenly on orders, being told to continue the sleep deprivation of prisoners who have already been subject to that sort of treatment. And it’s hypothetical in the sense that there is no evidence directly before the court at this time, but if on the basis of the hypothetical from his conscientious objector statement, we can see that his squad was ordered, directly, to violate the Field Manual (…) which prohibits torture …, inhuman treatment or willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. 

Now, here we have this incredible situation where the United States is seeking to convict soldiers in (…) [Iraq] for alleged violations of the rights of prisoners and at the same time, prosecuting a young soldier half-way across the world because he did what he was authorized to do under International Law, what he had a duty to do under International Law, and that is refused to return to a duty that would involve him immediately, if it were the same duty or close to or similar to the same duty that he had before, in war crimes. 

The thing you have to hope for most is that the message be that [the] United States military intends, fully, to comply with the requirements of International Law, which is accepted as its own law. And that includes not giving orders to people to go commit such offenses or to place them in circumstances where they will be forced to commit such offenses (…). So I would beseech you to give a full consideration to all of the facts involved and not to prejudge the matter prematurely by a motion (…) that would take the substance out of the proceeding and reduce it to a simple fact question, or two, that wouldn’t have anything to do, really, with whether the United States military intends to live in accordance with International Law (…). Thank you. 

People familiar with my case already know the judge and panel of my peers ruled against me and sentenced me to twelve months of incarceration, but they would be wrong to believe Mr. Clark’s argument did not have a profound impact on everyone who was there that day. Despite his life’s commitment to causes and values that stood in direct opposition to U.S. militarism and aggression, Mr. Clark’s words were met with the utmost respect and reverence I have ever witnessed in a military trial.

Five years later I was once again privileged to see Mr. Clark deliver arguments in my defense, that time before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington D.C. For the second time in my life, I was able to witness a courtroom packed with military officers observe and listen, with the utmost respect and reverence, as Mr. Clark, already in his 80s, delivered the most elegant yet searing indictment of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq I had ever had the honor to witness. It did not matter whether those young officers, most likely military lawyers, were in favor of or against the war, attending the hearing was a rare opportunity to learn from one of the most brilliant and legendary attorneys in the history of the U.S. government.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces refused to overturn my conviction, but Mr. Clark’s words did not fail to leave a profound impression upon those young officers, who patiently waited until the end of the hearing to form a line so they could, one by one, shake Mr. Clark’s hand and expressed their admiration. Over the years I was able to cross paths with Mr. Clark on several occasions: at marches, rallies, conferences and other events where he would always leave a profound impression on those who had the honor and privilege to witness the love and passion that drove his work for peace and justice for all citizens of the world, but I was always a moment too late and never got to see him again.  Today, as I mourn his death and celebrate his life, I consider it a great honor to add my own tribute to the indelible mark he left for all of us.

Ramsey Clark, presente!

Camilo Mejia (b. 1975) is a Nicaraguan who deserted the U.S. Army during the Iraq war on grounds of conscientious objection, was convicted of desertion and went on to become an anti-war activist.