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An Interview with Lynne Stewart

"They Want the Fear Level at a High Pitch"

by NICOLE COLSON

Lynne Stewart has dedicated her career as a lawyer to defending civil liberties, left-wing causes and politically "unpopular" clients. Now, at age 66, she faces a possible prison sentence of 30 years and the end of her legal career–for nothing more than doing her job in representing her client.

The government witch-hunt against Stewart stems from her work as a defense attorney for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a Muslim cleric convicted in 1995 of conspiring with followers in the Islamic Group to bomb several New York City landmarks.

In 2000, as part of a legal strategy designed to keep Abdel Rahman–in ailing health and held in total isolation in prison–in the public eye, Stewart read a press release to a Reuters reporter in Cairo detailing Abdel Rahman’s withdrawal of his personal support for a ceasefire between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government.

Two years later, in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the passage of the civil liberties-shredding USA PATRIOT Act, Stewart was indicted for this "crime. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to claim that her actions in 2000 "materially aided" terrorists.

The government also claims that Stewart’s actions violated "special administrative measures"–regulations imposed on Abdel Rahman in 1997 that prohibited him from communicating with people other than his lawyers or certain family members.

Stewart and interpreter Mohammed Yousry were tried, along with Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who the government claims conveyed messages from Rahman to his followers in the Islamic Group.

Evidence at the trial included taped phone conversations and prison meetings between Abdel Rahman and Stewart–a clear violation of attorney-client privilege, approved in Stewart’s case by a secret government court and since made "legal" under the Patriot Act.

The government admits that no violence ever resulted from Stewart or Yousry’s actions. Yet because the judge refused to hold separate proceedings, the jury was bombarded during the seven months of the trial with a mountain of prejudicial "evidence" that included more than 85,000 intercepts of Abdel Sattar’s phone conversations with Islamic Group militants over a seven-year period, two videotapes of Osama bin Laden, and the testimony of a German citizen who was present during the 1997 bombing of tourists in Luxor, Egypt.

Incredibly, the judge allowed the evidence–while instructing the jury that it was either not "offered for the truth," not offered against Stewart, or only offered as "background" or for "state of mind." But the idea that a jury sitting less than a mile away from the site of the World Trade Center would be able to disregard videotapes of Osama bin Laden when deliberating on Stewart’s case is preposterous.

On February 10, 2005, Stewart, Yousry and Abdel Sattar were convicted on all counts. Stewart’s original sentencing, scheduled for March, was delayed after it was announced that she has been fighting cancer. She is now scheduled to be sentenced on September 25.


COLSON: YOUR CONVICTION rested in part on your reading a press release from your client to a Reuters reporter in 2000. But it wasn’t until two years later, after the September 11 attacks, that you were indicted. Why do you think the government waited so long? Do you think the indictment was politically motivated?

STEWART: TO ANSWER the last question first, there definitely were political motivations. I somehow have a glimmering that it never would have happened if there hadn’t been 9/11.

But of course, the Bush administration was anxious to keep the fear level at a very high pitch. If you remember back to April 2002, which is when I was arrested, they had the Patriot Act in place, they had all this stuff going on, and they had very, very little to show for it–a few enemy combatants that were picked up in Afghanistan, but nothing else.

So I think they reached back and used this to drum up–or trump up I guess–a sense among people that there was something to be feared, and that they were on top of it and were taking care of it. I think this was exemplified by the fact that Ashcroft, the Attorney General, then went on Letterman to beat his chest and say what a great bunch of guys they were.

So definitely, I think [my arrest] was to keep the fear level at a high pitch–because when people are afraid, they tend to give up decision-making power and allow the "authorities" to do it.

HOW DO your trial and conviction fit in more generally with broader attacks on civil liberties?

THE ACTS that are the basis of the indictment took place in 2000, so that’s pre-Patriot Act. But there’s no question in my mind that the Patriot Act gave a certain aura to what the government had done in my case, which made it much easier for the judge to find that listening in on attorney-client conversations was okay.

The judge made absolutely no rulings that said anything the government had done was constitutionally wrong–even though it was a wholesale invasion of probably the First Amendment, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth.

I do think that my case really goes to the heart of the Bill of Rights, and the Bill of Rights is diminished by my conviction. I think that’s exactly what this administration and this government wants to see happen.

YOU MENTIONED that the taping of your conversations with your client was approved under a law that came from the Clinton years, which I think probably will surprise people.

I’M NOT really sure that it was ever thought that the law was going to be applied toward attorney-client privilege material, because traditionally, under all of the law that has been written, privileged material is always exempt from whatever the law provides for.

But we have to assume, because they told us they had warrants. We have no way of finding out if they didn’t. We are making a motion demanding to know whether they listened in on my office phones, my home phone, my cell phone–anything I had–under these NSA wiretaps, because they never revealed that.

WHAT KIND of message do you think surveillance of lawyers’ conversations sends to other defense attorneys?

I CAN only report back from the "front"–in other words, talking to other lawyers. They all say the same thing–that they are really hampered. They think three, four or five times before they do even a simple thing, like call another lawyer to discuss a case. Or if the family of some of the Guantánamo detainees, for example, calls and says, "How is my brother/cousin/uncle?" they have to think about whether they can give this person that information.

Certainly, I think there’s nobody practicing today who does not at least account for the possibility that the conversations between the client and him or her are being listened to.

This is the bedrock foundation of representation–that the client can tell you anything, and you can absorb it, keep it to yourself and utilize it if you can, and not utilize it if you don’t need to. It establishes the kind of trust that’s necessary.

For those reasons, I think it really has been a cosmic shift in the way we represent people in this country–the fact that government could do this, and it wasn’t held to be illegal.

THE GOVERNMENT admitted that no violence ever resulted from your actions, yet prosecutors played a videotape of Osama bin Laden during the trial?

RIGHT, TWO of them. And when you say "played," you have to envision a screen that’s about 20 feet high by 15 feet across, and it’s being played in a foreign language, and it looks so ominous.

The purpose was clearly just to put a smear on it–to make the jury "appreciate" what terrorism was all about.

I understand there was a news article–I think in the New Jersey Bergen Record–where they said that that there was a memo circulated that anyone who was doing a terrorism case in the U.S. Attorney’s office should definitely try to get bin Laden into the evidence somehow or other. Because, of course, it’s got to have an impact on a jury. It’s like getting hit in the gut.

But we expect that of the government. That’s my whole career. I’ve always fought the government because I know that they will stoop to anything to accomplish their aim, whatever that may be. It may just be wanting a conviction of a certain person, but in other cases–certainly the political cases–it’s very clear that their goal is broader than that.

YOU WERE tried along with two co-defendants. Do you think that harmed your case?

WE DID ask for a severance, and we were denied. We asked for many severances during the trial. When the bin Laden stuff came up, we asked for a severance since it was only directed toward one of the defendants–and only for his "state of mind," because he possessed this tape. But those requests weren’t granted.

I think my case was unique. I would have preferred to have the jury focus on the lawyer and whether "materially aiding" is really separable from doing the work we’re expected to do.

I’m not saying they hurt my case. But I think it took away from the jury’s ability to really focus.

CAN YOU talk a little bit about the "Special Administrative Measures" that you’re accused of violating, and what effect they actually have on you as a lawyer and your ability to properly defend a client?

THIS IS a new animal. It’s basically a Bureau of Prisons regulation. It’s like a lot of government regulations, executive orders, etc., that form a network of regulations that most people aren’t even aware of.

They impose these special administrative measures in order to restrict a defendant–not the lawyer, they were against my client–in communicating with the outside world.

Maybe in the case of some Mafia guy who’s ordering hits from prison, it might be appropriate. But there’s no proof that my client was ever doing that. He was merely maintaining relationships of longstanding.

If we were to think of Mumia Abu-Jamal, for example, under a regulation where he could only call his family once a month and speak to his lawyers once a day, we would never have the insight and understanding of the man that we have, and we would not be favored by his opinions of what’s going on in this world of ours.

It’s a double restriction, and probably one that is questionable regarding the First Amendment. But it’s in place–it’s "allowable." They’ve been litigated, but mainly for persons of violence, who were advocating "do this, do that to so-and-so." So I don’t think it’s ever had a true Constitutional test.

Notwithstanding that, they were in place and, in my mind, almost impossible to interpret. If you’re thinking on the one hand, "How do I advocate for my client?" and on the other hand, "How do I stay within these regulations?" it’s very, very difficult to find a place of safety.

It was certainly something the government could slam me with on almost every occasion.

We also pointed out to the jury that although I had read out this press release in June of 2000, Ramsey Clark had made many press releases on behalf of the sheik, some almost identical, by calling Reuters and doing it over the phone, or handing them out at a press conference. He never even got a letter.

I’m not saying I’m Ramsey Clark. My father was a schoolteacher, not a Supreme Court Justice, and I was never the Attorney General of the United States.

In my own mind, I thought they accorded us this courtesy–that press releases filtered through lawyers were permissible. And I was wrong. I’m not saying I was set up, but it has a sort of a smell to it.

The fact of the matter is, as you said earlier, that nothing ever happened. They made a big deal out of it, but it was a political statement–just like a million others we’ve seen and read from people in jail. It’s not the same as a call to arms.

THE GOVERNMENT really went after your personal political beliefs, didn’t they?

I REPEATEDLY tried to point out that my politics were my own–and actually, if they wanted to go down that road, it was obvious that my politics were very far from Islamic fundamentalism.

I consider myself a feminist. I consider myself a socialist at the minimum, probably a little further to the left than that–a communist, in the final analysis, maybe a Maoist.

Those words, I don’t think, actually came out at the trial. But what they tried to do was show that I am a person who isn’t opposed to violence. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with my representation of clients. They are each entitled to their politics, and I do my best to represent the person, not the politics.

As a matter of fact, you really have to set this aside many times, because you deal with such terrible selfishness and greed in doing criminal work. My politics only inform me. They don’t inform the way I work.

YOU’RE NOW facing 30 years in prison. Do you have any expectations for what you might receive as a sentence?

I REALLY don’t know, but I think we’re going to give it a tremendous fight.

Liz Fink, the attorney for the Attica Brothers, is now part of my defense team. She understands, probably better than anyone else, how we lawyers who are decidedly anti-government, when we sign on with a client, we sign on for life. It doesn’t stop when the court recesses. It’s a commitment to that human being.

I think we’re going to present all that at sentencing, and we’re going to talk about my health problems–this cancer that, although it seems to be in check now, I’m happy to say, remains an open question. They’re never completely sure that you’re "cured."

So those issues, plus my age, plus my service to the community–all of those things will be issues. But it’s really all up to this judge, and it’s very difficult to predict what he will or will not do.

The government is going to take a very hard line. We know that.

THROUGHOUT THE trial, and in spite of your health problems, you’ve remained very outspoken. Can you talk about why it’s important to keep up that fight?

BECAUSE WE have an obligation to expose what’s happening. That’s all we can do these days. We’re not so organized to be able to put pressure to bear on them, akin to something like a real general strike. We don’t seem to be able to get people to see things in as stark a terms as we do.

But I do believe it’s incremental. I think that, compared to where we were when I was first arrested in April 2002, today, there are more and more people who are not willing to accept anything the government says anymore.

I think that’s valuable. Reminding people that the government is conducting a "war on terror," but look who the victim is here–a lawyer who fought for the underprivileged, who went out there at no monetary gain and defended people who other people wouldn’t even look at.

There’s also the sense that Muslims have been demonized by this government as "the enemy," as "non-human beings," as "devils," or whatever. To say that this grandmotherly lawyer went the full nine yards for her client, who happened to be one of these people, also sends a message.

It’s also to give people courage. You can’t imagine how many young people come up to me and say, "You know, because of what you’re doing, I feel that I can do something." And that makes me very, very happy.

WHAT CAN people do to help support you?

SEPTEMBER 25 is coming. We’re going to have a tremendous turnout. We not only want to fill the courtroom, but we’d like to fill the courthouse, and the square out front and everyplace else to show the numbers who are willing to take out a day from their lives to oversee what this judge is going to do.

We are also always in need of contributions, especially now that I’m unable to do much speaking or anything else to try to raise money, because I’ve been convalescing here for so long.

But the real thing is to stay with me in spirit. I think that the worst thing in this era is this alienation–the sense that you’re all alone. So many people are so happy with their SUVs and their remote controls, and are we nuts that we’re out here fighting this? But when I go to an event, and people come over–when I just know that people are there–it’s very, very important to me, and I think to them also.

Really, for me, that’s what being a part of the left is–to be part of a larger group that wants to really make a better world.

How you can support Lynne Stewart

YOU CAN show your support for Lynne by making a donation to her defense fund. To contribute, or for more information on Lynne’s case, visit www.lynnestewart.org on the Web. Donations can also be sent to the Lynne Stewart Legal Defense Fund, 350 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10013.

NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.