The conviction of New York civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart on charges of aiding terrorism is a travesty of justice. It is a major blow against the right of criminal defendants to defend themselves, a right provided by the Sixth Amendment of the US Bill of Rights.
Stewart, 65 years old, is a veteran advocate and activist who has made no secret of her radical political views, and has effectively defended a wide range of clients over the past three decades, from the poor and defenseless, to more high-profile cases involving the Weather Underground and other middle class radicals.
The guilty verdict came after a trial that lasted an unusually long seven months. The jury deliberated for a total of 13 days over a one-month period before pronouncing Stewart guilty on all five counts on February 10. She faces up to 30 years in prison on charges including conspiracy to provide and conceal terrorist activity, providing and concealing material support to terrorist activity, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and making false statements by promising to uphold various administrative rules. Under rules for those convicted of a felony, Stewart was immediately disbarred. She was allowed to remain free on bond, pending sentencing on July 15.
The ominous-sounding charges of which Stewart was convicted all flowed from one thing—her effort to defend her client. Stewart never engaged in or planned terrorist activity. The only argument used by the government was that she had promised to abide by extraordinary restrictions barring any communication by her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, with the outside world. Abdel Rahman is the blind Egyptian cleric currently serving a life term after being convicted of conspiracy to blow up various New York City landmarks.
Convicted along with Stewart in the current trial were her co-defendants—Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who had worked as a paralegal on the 1995 case involving Abdel Rahman, and Mohammed Yousry, the interpreter in the work with Abdel Rahman. Abdel Sattar faces a possible life sentence, and Yousry 20 years.
Stewart and the other defendants took the stand at the trial and denied any support for terrorism. Basing its case on illegal spying on Stewart’s meetings with her client, however, the government made the claim that Stewart had abetted terrorism by making Abdel Rahman’s views available to his supporters in Egypt. The prosecution presented thousands of pages of transcripts of phone calls, as well as videotapes of Stewart’s meetings with Abdel Rahman, to tie Stewart to terrorism. Although Federal District Judge John Koeltl repeatedly informed the jury that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden were not part of the case, the court allowed the prosecution to present constant reminders of the World Trade Center disaster and of the government’s “war on terrorism.”
As Stewart said after the verdict, “When you put Osama bin Laden in a courtroom and ask the jury to ignore it, that’s asking a lot.” The prosecutors played a videotape of bin Laden threatening to “spill blood in the fields of jihad” if Abdel Rahman were not released.
As the New York Times acknowledged in its report on the verdict, “The government never showed that any violence ever resulted from Mr. Sattar’s calls or from any action by Ms. Stewart or Mr. Yousry; there were no victims in the case.”
Nevertheless, violations of procedural rules, conduct which would normally lead to administrative penalties, were in this case utilized to build up the Bush administration’s campaign against basic democratic rights.
The trial itself presented numerous echoes of the McCarthyism of more than 50 years ago. Just as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage on the basis of hysterical and false claims that they were responsible for giving the “secret” of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, the prosecutors in the current trial demonized Stewart as a traitor and cross-examined her on her political views. Statements by her that violence was sometimes necessary to overthrow oppressive governments were used to argue that she advocated the overthrow of the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak. This was the charge sanctimoniously leveled by a government which boasts of the “regime change” it carried out through unprovoked aggression in Iraq at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
There were other sinister incidents during the trial. A few days before the verdict, when the notorious fascistic group that calls itself the Jewish Defense Organization put up flyers near the courthouse providing Stewart’s home address and calling for her to be hounded out of the city, the prosecutors, not even paying lip service to Stewart’s rights in the face of this physical threat, claimed that it merited no attention from the court and was no different from the actions of Stewart’s supporters who had proclaimed her innocence.
The defense argued that Stewart was within the bounds of attorney-client privilege when she attempted to help her client keep his name and his views before the world. Stewart testified that she had been an aggressive defense lawyer, and that she had not attempted to pass messages but had tried to prevent prison guards from overhearing what she regarded as confidential and privileged communications with her client. “I see myself as being a symbol of what people rail against when they say our civil liberties are eroded,” Stewart declared after the verdict. “I hope this will be a wake-up call to all the citizens of this country, that you can’t lock up the lawyers; you can’t tell the lawyers how to do their jobs.”
Several jurors reportedly held out against the guilty verdicts but finally succumbed to pressure in the jury room after 13 days. When the jurors were polled to confirm the verdict, several were obviously distressed and one was barely audible in affirming the guilty verdict.
In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, civil liberties and civil rights attorneys around the country warned that it represented a dangerous escalation of attacks on democratic rights. This was the first case of the government prosecuting an attorney for someone accused of terrorism. “This will have a chilling effect on lawyers who might represent an unpopular client,” said David Cole, a noted civil liberties advocate and professor at Georgetown University. Cole accused the government of conducting its case against Stewart in a “very inflammatory” fashion.
National Lawyers Guild President Michael Avery issued a statement declaring, “The US Department of Justice was resolute from day one in making a symbol out of Lynne Stewart in support of its campaign to deny people charged with crimes of effective legal representation. The government is bent on intimidating attorneys from providing zealous representation to unpopular clients. The National Lawyers Guild strongly urges its own members and other defense lawyers to continue to proudly represent clients who are openly critical of government policies. We will not be intimidated and this prosecution has only strengthened our resolve to oppose the repressive attacks this government has made on the civil liberties of everyone in this country. We will also continue to stand by Lynne Stewart.”
The political significance of this trial was also spelled out in the immediate reaction of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to the verdict. The motive behind the prosecution of Stewart was clear from the fact that the indictment in 2002 was announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft at a Washington press conference. Today Ashcroft’s successor, the man who told the White House the Geneva Conventions were “quaint” and gave the green light to Bush for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere, wasted no time in hailing the verdict as sending “a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals.”
In the eyes of the current regime in Washington, devotion to due process and the Bill of Rights and the application of these rights to all constitute “assistance” to the enemy. This is a government which no longer even makes a pretense of defending the Constitution, even as it makes its lying claims to be spreading “freedom” through invasion and conquest.
Lynne Stewart will be appealing her conviction to the US Court of Appeals. She will also be handing over outstanding legal cases to her son, who has been a part of her law practice. “I will fight on, I’m not giving up,” she said after the verdict. “I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right.”