Veteran defense attorney and civil liberties advocate Lynne Stewart is facing 20 years in prison as the latest victim of the U.S. government’s “war on terror.” After a seven-month-long trial, Stewart and two codefendants were found guilty of federal charges that include conspiracy, giving material aid to terrorists and lying to the government.
A lawyer who has devoted her life to defending the civil liberties of unpopular clients, Stewart came under attack by the Justice Department for representing Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.
Abdel Rahman was convicted in 1995 of conspiring with followers in the Islamic Group to bomb several New York City landmarks. Following this conviction, the government tried to prevent Stewart from providing adequate representation–at one point, even refusing to allow her to meet with Abdel Rahman.
In 2000, the Justice Department offered to allow visits to resume as long as Stewart agreed to “Special Administrative Measures”–severe restrictions that prohibited Abdel Rahman from having contact with anyone outside prison walls except his wife, and barred Stewart from anything outside the vaguely defined bounds of “legal representation.” Without her or Abdel Rahman’s permission, the government began recording their visits and tapping Stewart’s phone calls–a clear violation of attorney-client privilege that was legal under a 1994 federal law.
In June 2000, as part of a legal strategy to keep her client in the news, Stewart called a Reuters reporter in Cairo and read him a statement from Abdel Rahman, announcing that the sheik was withdrawing support for–though not canceling–a cease-fire that the Islamic Group had observed for three years in Egypt.
Nearly two years later–using the September 11 attacks as an excuse–then-Attorney General John Ashcroft indicted Stewart and the others, saying that the act of releasing the statement amounted to “aiding terrorism.”
During the seven-month trial, the government never produced a single witness or statement to show that any violence resulted from the actions of Stewart or her co-defendants. But that didn’t stop prosecutors from continuously invoking the September 11 attacks. They were even allowed to play a videotape of Osama bin Laden threatening to “spill blood in the fields of jihad” if Abdel Rahman was not released.
Newly installed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declared in a statement that Stewart’s conviction sends “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.”
But the real message is that the Bush administration will go to any lengths to make an example of someone willing to stand up against government attacks on civil liberties.
In fact, prosecutors had no comment on the actual terrorist threats in this case–those made against Stewart just days before the jury announced its verdict. Fliers printed by the Jewish Defense Organization–a far-right Zionist group–were found distributed around the courthouse and taped to the door of Stewart’s home. The fliers called Stewart a “traitor to America,” and the group’s recorded voice mail message announced the beginning of “Operation Crush Terror Against Lynne Stewart”–giving her home address and saying that she needed “to be put out of business legally and effectively.”
The message is clear: When right wingers make threats, government officials will look the other way–but standing up against attacks on civil liberties won’t be allowed.
“The U.S. 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,” said National Lawyers Guild President Michael Avery. “The government is bent on intimidating attorneys from providing zealous representation to unpopular clients.”
Stewart and her supporters are vowing to fight back. The National Lawyers Guild has called for a “National Day of Outrage” on February 17, with Stewart–who remains free on bail pending a July sentencing hearing–speaking at a meeting at the Community Church of New York.
“This is the beginning of a longer struggle,” Stewart told reporters outside the courthouse last week. “I think everyone who has a sense that the United States needs to protect the Constitution at this time understands that struggle…I’m not giving up. I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right.”
Standing up for our rights
THE VERDICT against Lynne Stewart is part of a coordinated right-wing offensive to vilify and silence everyone on the left.
Since last fall, supporters of Palestinian rights at Columbia University have faced a concerted attack led by pro-Israel organizations. And now, Fox News has organized a high-profile slander campaign against left-wing academics like University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and Northeastern University professor M. Shahid Alam. Fox’s blowhard-in-chief Bill O’Reilly is demanding that Churchill be tried for treason–for the “crime” of writing essays that O’Reilly doesn’t like.
Though Churchill made some inflammatory statements after the September 11 attacks–implying that all the victims at the World Trade Center bore responsibility for U.S. imperialist aims–O’Reilly doesn’t care about the nuances. He’s using the campaign against Churchill, Alam and others to try to intimidate all critics of U.S. policy.
Attacks like these can’t go unchallenged. When the bigots and conservatives try to preach their backward ideas on our campuses and in the media, we have to turn out to confront them.
Students at San Francisco State University had the right idea when they organized a demonstration against right-winger David Horowitz when he came to campus. The left has to stand up in a clear, confident and visible way–or the right will only continue on its rampage.
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.