by Saira Viola
Clive Stafford Smith OBE is one of the leading lights of the legal profession, a recipient of numerous awards for services to the law, including the Gandhi International Peace Prize and shortlisted twice for the prestigious Orwell Book of Fiction award. A tireless defender of human rights and justice, Gonzo celebrates the ultimate legal rock star.
Saira Viola: Lawyers are generally perceived as leeching piranhas, who shamelessly profit from other peoples’ misery, but you have successfully bucked this trend and are very much seen as the pinup of peoples’ justice. Who or what influenced you to become a lawyer?
Clive Stafford Smith: In my view there is only really one purpose to any professional qualification, and that is how it may facilitate assisting those who are less fortunate. My own preference is to look around the world and see who is most hated, and then get between them and the ones doing the hating. In that sense, having a law degree is a helpful tool as it gives one the power to do some good.
S.V. As someone who is passionate about the Rule of Law and the legal process, ostensibly working within the system to change the system, the founder of the non-profit legal charity Reprieve, a staunch death row activist, and someone who has championed the rights of the disenfranchised and wrongly incarcerated for over three decades, can you explain what it feels like to witness a state execution when you hold an unequivocal gut belief that the person you are representing should in fact be freed and the system has crucially failed ?
C.S.S. I don’t care whether they should be released from prison or not. But whenever anyone is executed that is a failure of the system. Witnessing an execution in the 21st Century, where we sacrifice a human being to the mythological notion that it makes the world a better place, is (I imagine) rather like going back to the 17th Century and watching a witch being burned at the stake.
S.V. Moreover, was it your belief in the system that allegedly prompted you to pen a 50 page brief in defence of Saddam Hussein, allegedly contending that he should be tried in the U.S. under U.S. criminal law?
C.S.S. That is nonsense, as I never penned such a brief. I don’t see why he should be tried in the U.S. at all, as the U.S. has no right to try him. I did, however, write a brief detailing how he might be defended from the grisly fate that awaited him, based on the fact that the U.S. was meddling in the Iraqi justice system in ways that were reprehensible.
S.V. Can you sum up in simple terms what has been the effect of the WAR ON TERROR?
C.S.S. It’s not the War on Terror, it’s the War of Terror. The U.S. and its allies have visited more chaos and terror on the world than Bin Laden ever did, though obviously 9/11 was a dreadful and deranged act. The effect of the WOT has been to make the world a vastly more dangerous place, though not for those who are most afraid (the Americans and the West) but rather for the people who actually suffer in it everyday across the Middle East and elsewhere. In the words of Michael Franti, you can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.
S.V. You are probably most well-known for representing detainees of Guantanamo Bay. And this year, after years of wrongful imprisonment, Shaker Ameer was finally freed. We are now witnessing grassroots activism and public anger at the way prisoners and alleged enemy combatants are treated, and you have successfully saved over 300 death row inmates from state execution and defended over 80 detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Former detainees of GITMO have highlighted the barbaric treatment they were subject to culminating in calls for reform .But we are also witness to police brutality on the streets, civil unrest and extra judicial killings of black citizens in America. There is a strong wave of public outrage at what some commentators see as the ethnic cleansing of the black community in the U.S. Quentin Tarantino, the film director, has spoken out against these killings and he has suffered an unprecedented backlash from police federations. There is a general mood of discomfort and anger about the erosion of citizens’ rights and what appear to be the systemic racially motivated killings of black citizens in the U.S. What are your thoughts?
C.S.S That violence has been there for all my life in the U.S., and long before it. Only now people are finally seeing how terrible it is.
S.V. Finally, as someone who is at the forefront of the civil liberties debate who or what do you think is the deadliest threat to our civil liberties today?
C.S.S. Secrecy. If power can do terrible things and claim that they should be secret, we are in grave danger.