As the executive director of human rights charity Reprieve, Clare Algar welcomes President Obama’s focus on the rule of law.
Speaking ;from ;a windowless room at Reprieve HQ, Clare Algar could be forgiven for asking herself why she left a promising career as an IP lawyer to help people she has never met in South America.
But there could be no more fitting place from which to tell her story. In 2008 Algar left a position as an IP partner at Collyer Bristow to become executive director of UK charity Reprieve, helping incarcerated prisoners receive legal representation in prisons such as Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.
“The money hurt, but you can’t take it with you,” muses Algar, who says that last week was her busiest since she began the job 10 months ago. The inauguration of a US president who has already promised to release the prisoners from ‘Gitmo’ is a dream come true for Algar and Reprieve, whose lawyers represent 30 inmates at the US-run detention centre.
Algar’s first contact with Reprieve was through its founder Clive Stafford Smith, spending a year with the human rights lawyer in New Orleans working with death row inmates. This “mind-blowing” experience prior to enrolling in law school stayed with the young wannabe lawyer and changed her previously “sheltered” London life forever.
Fast-forward to a successful career with a decent law firm and one night in front of the TV, where an older and wiser Algar found herself enraged by conservative US political commentator Bill Kristol defending the ;“enhanced ;interrogation technique” of waterboarding. She picks up the phone and calls her old mentor Stafford Smith.
“I thought I could do something about it,” says Algar. “I’ve always found torture horrible and the fact that the US government was admitting to it is something that had to stop. Waterboarding used to be called ‘tortura del agua’ by the Spanish Inquisition and something similar by the Gestapo in World War Two. It’s unfortunate and fascinating that there would be parallels, but essentially it was the act of taking something revolting and trying to make it acceptable.”
It is not hard to sympathise with Algar’s cause, especially when she reels off more optimistic euphemisms used by interrogators under the Bush regime, such as “mild non-injurious contact” – otherwise known as hitting.
Hope has arrived in the form of President Obama, who has announced the closure of Guantanamo and other CIA secret prisons, which Bush denied existed. There were not many cheering louder than Algar and her colleagues at the new president’s inauguration last week.
Aside from the prisons, Obama has ordered investigations into the treatment of detainees, stated that all legal advice to the Bush Whitehouse is unreliable and clarified what constitutes torture.
“It’s been an amazing week. He’s done exactly what we wanted him to do,” says Algar. “Countries have already shown they want to help him more than they did with Bush.”
Portugal, which recently became the first European country to offer asylum to some of the prisoners, appears to agree.
Prior to Obama’s swearing-in ceremony Reprieve had another reason to celebrate after a US judge ordered the release of Mohammed el Gharani, who was seized by Pakistani soldiers from a mosque when he was 14 years old.
The boy from Chad spent seven years imprisoned in Cuba accused of being in an al-Qaida cell in London – despite never having been to London and being aged just 11 at the time in question.
“The use of torture and made-up justice systems has made real prosecutions very difficult,” says Algar, who was pleased to hear Obama’s intention to give Gitmo detainees proper trials. “If you’ve tortured someone then that will probably be used in their defence. The evidence they gained from people through torture was unreliable, yet the US government used this evidence to make strategic military decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Algar, who also has plenty to say about the UK Government’s complicity in extraordinary rendition, believes there is still much to achieve, particularly in terms of accountability litigation.
“It’s too early to hang out a banner saying ‘Mission accomplished’,” she says, “but I have much more faith in Obama.”
Algar has never been more convinced that her decision to leave private practice was the right one.
“I don’t believe that people go to law school with the sole aim of making money. I know that people working in, say, IP have busy lives, but they can also make time to preserve the rule of law,” she says.
Would ;she ;ever ;go ;back? “Absolutely not,” Algar smiles. “There’s too much work to do.”
Name: Clare Algar
Position: Executive director
Sector: Human rights
Reporting to: Legal director Clive Stafford Smith
Total number of employees: 14
Main external law firms: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, Reed Smith, Clifford Chance, Lovells, Herbert Smith, Addleshaw Goddard
1993-96: MA, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
1997-98: Law, College Of Law, London
2000-01: LLM, Queen Mary’s College, University of London
1999-2000: Trainee, Collyer Bristow
2004-08: Partner, Collyer Bristow
2008-present: Executive director, Reprieve