Revolution #67, October 29, 2006
Radical Civil Rights Lawyer Lynne Stewart Sentenced to Prison
The U.S. government’s vicious persecution and prosecution of radical civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart reached a critical juncture on Monday, October 16. A Federal District Court judge in New York City, John Koeltl, sentenced Stewart to 28 months in jail for allegedly providing material support to terrorists and four other counts. She was then released on bail pending her appeal to overturn her conviction. Stewart’s two co-defendants, Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Mohamed Yousry, were sentenced to 24 years and 20 months, respectively.
The sentencing of Lynne Stewart represents the continuation of the Bush administration’s attack not only on her but also on other defense lawyers, on those who oppose this regime, and on the people generally.
Prosecutors for the U.S. government had been demanding that 67-year-old Stewart be given the maximum allowable sentence of 30 years and are now threatening to appeal. The government did not get everything it wanted at this point. But the fact remains that Stewart has been sentenced to more than two years of jail time based on a clearly politically motivated indictment on serious charges of “conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists and defrauding the U.S. government.” This indictment was personally initiated in April 2002 by then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, shortly after 9/11 and passage of the highly repressive USA Patriot Act.
Stewart was convicted in February 2005, after a seven-month trial—on counts that were only slight modifications of Ashcroft’s original indictment and still represented very serious felony charges. And she was immediately disbarred, meaning she can no longer practice law. As Lynne Stewart said on Democracy Now, shortly after her disbarment: “That is my greatest sense of loss—that I will be cut off from the profession that I love and that I feel I have served—and I have served people who had no voice.”
The conviction and sentencing of Lynne Stewart constitute a major thrust in the Bush administration’s overall fascist offensive against people’s legal rights. These include the right to an attorney and attorney-client confidentiality. These are long-established rights that are now being extinguished one after another, all justified on the basis of the Bush regime’s “war on terror” and involving massive legalized secret surveillance and the limitless detention and torture of political prisoners.
The conviction and sentencing of Lynne Stewart is also designed to send a chilling message to other defense lawyers who might want to represent people accused by this government of terrorism or other political charges. As criminal defense lawyer Jed Stone said shortly after Stewart’s conviction: “This verdict is a chilling attack on criminal defense lawyers. The government is telling us, ‘Don’t get involved in cases of people alleged to be terrorists. If you do, you will pay a heavy cost.’ Whatever you think of the individual or the allegations, just like everyone, these people need a defense lawyer, perhaps even more so. But the government doesn’t want lawyers to handle those kinds of cases.”
In the 1990s Lynne Stewart worked as a defense attorney for fundamentalist Islamic cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted and sentenced to life in 1996 for seditious conspiracy related to alleged plots to attack New York landmarks, including the World Trade Center. The government’s case against Lynne Stewart stemmed from its allegation that she and her two co-defendants, Yousry and Sattar, had helped to communicate a message from Rahman to his organization in Egypt, the Islamic Group, by passing on a press release to a Reuters reporter indicating his opposition to a ceasefire with the Egyptian regime.
The U.S. government claimed that this communication violated the “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs) that had been put into effect against Rahman. SAMs began during the Clinton era and permit the government to isolate and thereby silence any prisoner considered a threat to national security. In the case of Rahman, this involved virtually complete isolation and solitary confinement. He couldn’t have visitors, make phone calls, or have contact with other inmates. And in order even to talk with him, Stewart as Rahman’s court-appointed attorney had to sign so-called “SAM agreements” that included various restrictions on what kinds of communications she could have with him—agreements which the government claimed Stewart, along with Yousry and Sattar, violated and which therefore contributed to “terrorism” and “terrorist violence.”
But even the New York Times took note of the fact that, during the trial, “the government never showed that any violence resulted from the actions” of Stewart and her two co-defendants. “The Islamic Group never canceled the ceasefire. The defendants were not accused of terrorism in the United States,” the Times correctly pointed out. And the judge himself told the jurors that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were not an issue in the trial. That, however, did not deter the prosecution from going all out to paint Stewart with the “terrorist” brush—for example, by showing in the courtroom numerous times videotapes of bin Laden.
Also revealing is that the “evidence” the prosecution presented during the trial consisted largely of extensive secret government surveillance of communications by Sattar, nearly 75,000 in all and including his phone calls, Internet usage and e-mails, and his fax machine. This was then used to extend the secret surveillance to Stewart’s meetings with Rahman, which were recorded and videotaped. These conversations took place in 2000, but it wasn’t until two years later—in the wake of 9/11 and the Patriot Act—that the government indicted Stewart.
U.S. law has long held that communication between an attorney and his or her client should be confidential. But that changed with the passage of the Patriot Act, which grants the government unlimited discretion to spy on attorney-client conversations with no judicial oversight. Shortly after her conviction, Lynne Stewart talked about how the abrogation of attorney-client confidentiality “goes to the core of the way we represent persons accused of crime. And also to the core, if you will, of political persons who are criminalized by the government… I mean we enjoyed for all of the years of the Constitution’s life a privilege which said it was in the best interests of the state and the people to allow lawyers and their clients to discuss cases confidentially… This changes all the rules.” (Interview in Revolutionary Worker [now Revolution], April 24, 2005, available online at revcom.us.)
The government had searched Stewart’s office, and she pointed out how this “raises concerns not just of the person who is listened in on, but raises a bigger question. Can you afford to go to a lawyer such as me…who made a practice of representing the demonized, if the government is likely to vamp on the lawyer, come into their office, spend 12 hours searching, take their hard drive, and thus find out not only about the client that may be the point of information, but also all the other clients you may have? Someone said to me, it’s not just a ‘chilling effect’… this is really sub-Arctic, this is the deep freeze, of constraining lawyers in particular. And of course we all know that this administration specializes in constraining lawyers.”
There has been an outpouring of opposition to the government’s persecution of Lynne Stewart, including more than 1,000 letters sent to the judge by defense attorneys and many others. Outside the courthouse on October 16, hundreds of supporters gathered vigorously chanting, “Lynne Stewart must go free! No police state!” The night before, 700 people rallied in her support at the Riverside Church.
Because of her commitment, over several decades, to the fight against repression and oppression, Lynne Stewart has earned the reputation as one of this country’s outstanding “people’s attorneys,” in the tradition of William Kunstler and Clarence Darrow. That is why the Bush regime is so determined to silence her, and why the struggle must go on and be intensified to prevent her from spending even one minute in prison.
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