Profile: Clive Stafford Smith
'Clive is used to the US way, where people play things to the media.
Maybe with Guantánamo that's what you need'
Campaigner who has gained the respect of opponents in the US justice
Friday August 10, 2007
Yesterday, Clive Stafford Smith, the veteran campaigner against
miscarriages of justice, was doing something different. He was
fighting to keep someone in prison.
From his cottage in Dorset, he was filing motions to the US supreme
court to stop a detainee in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, being sent back to
his native Algeria. Ahmed Belbacha is a UK resident, but the
government says it will not allow him to re-enter Britain. The US
has cleared him for release, and the fear is he will be sent back to
Algeria, where he faces torture.
"It's a paradox", says Mr Stafford Smith, "trying to keep someone in
Guantánamo for once."
Mr Stafford Smith made his name campaigning for two decades against
the death penalty in the US and representing prisoners on death row.
He returned to Britain in 2004 and began representing alleged
terrorists held by the US without charge or trial at Guantánamo.
This week the pressure paid off when the British government reversed
policy and said it would ask the US for the return of five UK
residents, whom London had previously refused to help.
Mr Stafford Smith is now legal director of Reprieve, and the group's
charitable status gives him the time to make the week-long trip
required to visit detainees held in isolation on the US-occupied
south-eastern tip of Cuba. The Pentagon will allow only lawyers
licensed in the US to visit the inmates, putting Mr Stafford Smith,
who has dual British and American citizenship, in an unusual
position. He has represented 60 past and present detainees. The US
military, which was forced by the supreme court to allow lawyers in,
has tried to thwart Mr Stafford Smith. It threatened to lock him up
at one stage, and has told his Muslim clients that he is Jewish and
gay. One person he visited in Guantánamo was Moazzam Begg, held
there for four years before his release in 2005.
At their first meeting, in September 2004, Mr Begg was shackled to
the floor when the gangly lawyer entered the room: "My expectation
was I'm screwed, I'm dealing with a lawyer dealing with death row
cases. His manner seemed completely laid back, relaxed, he didn't
seem like a lawyer." Mr Begg, who had been told by the US military
he would never get out, got what he needed most from Mr Stafford
Smith: hope. "He offered me hope that I would go home. What made a
difference was his passion."
Mr Stafford Smith's manner is natural, and deliberate; he says he is
determined not to be a typical stuffy lawyer: "In law school we're
trained to be up ourselves." He is not yet able to practise in the
UK, so here he is a campaigner, while in Guantánamo and the US he
puts his law skills to use.
Unlike British lawyers he is unafraid to use the media, says the
London-based human rights lawyer Louise Christian, who has also
worked on Guantánamo cases: "Clive is more used to the US way of
operating, where people play things to the media. Possibly with
something like Guantánamo that's what you need to do, to keep making
Mr Stafford Smith argues that the game has changed, and the tactics
of human rights campaigners must develop too. "Politicians try cases
in the media; if we don't defend our principles, we might as well
He sees strong parallels between his death penalty work and
campaigning over Guantánamo, and regards both as absolute moral
outrages: "There are no difficult questions when it comes to the
death penalty and Guantánamo: it's wrong, there are no shades of
He is almost boy scoutish in saying his motivation is to make the
world a better place, and says his simple moral outlook is
preferable to the life of his father, who ran a stud farm in Suffolk
and was consumed with how much money he had: "It's such a recipe for
misery". He says he has it easy "bringing power to the powerless.
It's a recipe to be satisfied".
Mr Stafford Smith, 48, was raised in Newmarket, Suffolk, and went to
Radley public school, where he developed a lifelong love of cricket.
He turned down a place at Cambridge to read politics and African-
American studies at the University of North Carolina, and in 1984
qualified as a lawyer in the US, becoming the bane of prosecutors.
One man he frequently clashed with is John Sinquefield, a district
attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He praises Mr Stafford Smith's
talents and says he would happily hire him as a prosecutor. But he
is critical too. "Clive used his talents to help very evil people.
It's a shame, it would have been nice if such a talented man was on
the side of right and justice and good people rather than on the
side of evil people."
Fighting death penalty cases in the southern US, "he was the master
of delays, filing new motions, supplemental motions, amended
motions - he would paper you to death."
But Mr Sinquefield developed a respect for his former adversary. "He
was totally devoted to his cause, he was a tireless worker. Mr
Smith's life seemed to be fighting the death penalty."
Born 1959, near Newmarket, Suffolk.
Education Radley College, taking 10 O-levels and four A-levels. Was
head boy. Instead of going to Cambridge he accepted a scholarship
from the University of North Carolina, then studied law at Columbia
University, New York. Took his bar exams in Louisiana.
Work: 1993 Launched the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Centre,
specialising in representing poor people in death-penalty cases.
1999 Set up Reprieve, a legal campaign group in London.
2004 Returned to the UK to become Reprieve's legal director. Has
since focused on representing inmates held in Guantánamo Bay.
Honours Awarded OBE in 2000.