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The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

On the Release of Lynne Stewart

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

“Well, the impossible takes a little longer!!!!!!”

– Attorney Lynne Stewart on her release from US federal prison, Dec. 31, 2013

“Never Give Up”

– Ralph Poynter, Stewart’s husband and as he says, comrade, throughout his campaign first for her acquittal, then for release on compassionate grounds.

‘Never give up’ is an adage easily proffered. But here is living testimony from a man who I personally witnessed devoting every ounce of his energy, his finances and his every day to fighting for justice for his wife. Ralph’s political spirit and personal confidence lies behind this improbable success story. Lynne Stewart’s (www.LynneStewart.org) husband also reaffirms the essential role of family members in securing justice for their loved ones.

Over the 25 years that I’ve participated in and reported on civil rights and justice issues in the US, I witnessed how family unarguably makes an enormous difference to success. Yes, we have some good civil rights lawyers here; we have a justice system that can be challenged; we have citizens who can sometimes be moved to act when they see injustice. Lynne Stewart had all that; and immediately on her release she and Ralph thanked their supporters. http://www.workers.org/articles/2014/01/03/struggle-freed-lynne-stewart/

Still, knowing the campaign that was waged, interacting directly with Ralph Poynter and (from a distance) with Stewart particularly during her imprisonment, victory was assured only with Ralph’s personal leadership. As Lynne noted: “I was not very optimistic.” (To be expected as her health deteriorated.) “But”, she added, “Ralph was sure we’d win.”

US press reports of Stewart’s campaign to defend her actions and win her freedom were absent or downright hostile. Any history of her conviction was reduced to an alleged association with terrorism and the Egyptian-American ‘blind’ cleric Abdul Rahman. These eclipsed Stewart’s noteworthy career defending unpopular cases particularly for victimized minority people in the USA.

When she was first charged in connection with Abdul Rahman, Stewart interpreted the government attack on her as a constitutional issue.  The government, she charged, had breached the right of privacy between lawyer and client; Stewart defended herself on that point. It was a touchy issue at a very scary time here (after Sept. 2001) when attorneys were retreating from defending American Arabs and Muslims.

The government attack on Stewart was, many agreed, a warning to the entire legal profession. It had the intended effect. (Muslims here who were being rounded up, intimidated, detained, jailed and deported were hard pressed to find defense attorneys. Some Muslims may quietly admit that Lynne was their champion during the 1990s; yet they remained silent and few US Muslims joined the long, hard campaign to free her. Note: I have yet to see any announcement from a US Muslim organization welcoming Stewart’s release.)

During two years (2007-09) after Stewart was charged, she was able to meet bail and swiftly set out on a campaign against government abuse of client-attorney privilege. In her late 60s by then and barred from practicing law, she travelled the nation to make her case. A forceful speaker, Stewart drew large audiences.

But the government was out to get her; in fact government prosecutors called for a higher penalty, and indeed it succeeded in turning a 28 month sentence into ten years. Stewart was 70 at the time, already diagnosed with cancer.

During her first two years in prison, Stewart’s attorneys sought to overturn the judgment on legal grounds. When those appeals failed and Stewart’s health deteriorated, Ralph and their children called for compassionate release on the basis of her cancer prognosis. Between travelling from NY to the Texas prison to see his wife, Ralph concentrated on a New York-area campaign. A year ago one rally he organized outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan, drew more police than the 20 protesters. Poynter petitioned passersby outside the White House. Another NYC rally drew 50-60. Online petitions hardly garnered 10,000 signatories– pretty slim in the US.

Undaunted, Ralph and his children posted regular health reports. They informed us how Lynne was shacked in heavy chains, hands and feet, when transferring from her cell to the prison hospital for treatment. He distributed updates at any assembly where he felt someone would be receptive to Lynne’s case. He came to our studio for an interview on my program (http://podcast.radiotahrir.org/2013/04/14/tahrir-april-9-2013-broadcast.aspx); he spoke to any journalist who’d give him a moment. The family updated Lynne’s webpage where we could read Lynne’s letters from prison.

Today, Lynne’s release (even on compassionate grounds) with doctors’ expectations that has 12-18 months to live, may be viewed as a civil rights success. To me, it is a victory for the dogged, hard work and faith of a small circle of good people, led by retired schoolteacher, union organizer and husband Ralph Poynter.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, author and radio producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio-NY . Her work can be read and heard at www.RadioTahrir.org.