"I see myself as being a symbol of what the people rail against when they say our civil liberties are eroded. This case could be, I hope it will be, a wakeup call to all of the citizens of this country and all of the people who live here that you can?t lock up the lawyers. You can?t tell the lawyers how to do their job. You?ve got to let them operate. And I will fight on. I am not giving up. I know I commited no crime. I know what I did was right."
Attorney Lynne Stewart, after her Feb. 10 conviction on felony charges
In April 2002, then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced to the news media that the government had indicted radical civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart on serious charges of "conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists and defrauding the U.S. government."
Almost three years later, on February 10, Ashcroft?s successor?Alberto Gonzales?spoke to the national media to hail the conviction of Lynne Stewart on all five counts that she faced.
The extraordinary attention focused on this case by Ashcroft and Gonzalez points to the stakes involved?and the stakes are very high. The conviction of Lynne Stewart is very bad ?for defense lawyers, for those who oppose this government, and for the people generally.
The government set its sights on Stewart because of her determined work as a defense attorney for her client, 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. But as the National Lawyers Guild said after the verdict, this case was "an attack not only on our cherished colleague and fellow NLG member but also on all members of the legal community who represent unpopular clients and causes."
Defense attorney Ron Kuby said, "It?s a dark day for civil liberties and for civil liberties lawyers in this country. In the post 9/11 era, where dissidents are treated as traitors, it?s perhaps no surprise that a zealous civil rights lawyer becomes a convict."
Carl Dix, national spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party, said: "Lynne Stewart?s actual ?crime? was aggressively defending a client who was on the wrong side of the U.S.?s ?war on terrorism.? Her conviction underlines the ugly reality the rulers are determined to create?one where any opposition to their aims has been criminalized. This represents a dangerous legal precedent that must be opposed."
The guilty verdict on Lynne Stewart came after a seven-month trial and 12 days of deliberation by the jury. The same jury also came out with guilty verdicts on all charges against Mohammed Yousry (a translator for Rahman) and Ahmed Abdel Sattar (a paralegal).
Stewart, who is 65 years old, faces a possible maximum sentence of 45 years.
The government alleged that Stewart helped to communicate a message from Rahman to his organization in Egypt, the Islamic Group?by passing on a press release expressing his opposition to a ceasefire with the Egyptian regime. The government claims that this violated the "Special Administrative Measures" (SAMs) against Rahman. SAMs severely limit the ability of certain federal prisoners to communicate with the outside world.
The New York Times noted, "The government never showed that any violence resulted from the defendants? actions. The Islamic Group never canceled the ceasefire. The defendants were not accused of terrorism in the United States." The judge himself told the jury that bin Laden and al-Qaida were not at issue. But the prosecution blatantly tried to pin a "terrorist" label on Stewart?for example, by showing videotapes of Osama bin Laden in the courtroom.
As Lynne Stewart pointed out, "If you mention Osama bin Laden?s name, you don?t have to present any evidence. You can tell the jury that he has nothing to do with the case, but there?s been this discourse, this drumbeat, that makes it very difficult for our voice to be heard."
Since 9/11, the Bush administration has been on a fascistic offensive against the rights of the people. Such things as the right to an attorney and attorney-client privilege that have been cosidered established principles of this legal system are being undercut and undermined. And the government?s trial of Lynne Stewart is part of this reactionary offensive.
The hundreds of exhibits presented by the prosecution in the trial consisted largely of secret government surveillance of Mohammed Sattar?s communications?"telephone calls, monitoring his Internet usage and his e- mail account and his fax machine." This spying operation was then used as an excuse to extend the secret surveillance to Lynne Stewart?s meetings with her client.
There is an Orwellian quality to all this. One of the government?s accusations against Stewart is that she tried to distract the guards so that others could communicate secretly with Rahman. How do they supposedly know this? Because, they say, they were videotaping the meetings between Stewart and her client.
In an article on the Counterpunch website, legal scholar Jennifer Van Bergen wrote, "The words she spoke to her client were meant for her client alone and the one who has violated rights here is the Department of Justice. They violated something so sacred that it can hardly be spoken without somehow losing the value of it: they violated the attorney/client privilege. The DOJ violated this privilege by listening in on her conversations with her client, which they then took out of context and tried to make into a monstrous thing. But is anyone prosecuting them for this violation? No."
In response to the government charges that she violated the Special Administrative Measures against Rahman, Stewart has insisted that her obligations as a defense attorney were what she considered of primary importance.
Stewart told the radio program Democracy Now the day after her conviction: "We thought about this for a while before we made the press release [on Rahman?s views on the ceasefire], and it was considered that it was important to him, considered important to our handling of the case, that this press release be made to keep him a figure on the world stage. If we had lost that, we would not have had any bargaining power, we would not be able to do anything that would move him from this really torturous situation in which he was being held?a blind, sick man who did not speak any English. These prison regulations, these SAMs, said, you know, ?If you break these regulations, you may be cut off from your client.? That was our greatest concern, that we would be cut off from the client. The idea of prosecution never entered our minds. But the fact of the matter is, even with what has happened, it was the right decision. You can?t start saying, ?Well, maybe I will do this, but I won?t do that.? It has to be that, within the rules of ethics, what vigorously and zealously defending a client means. You carry through on it, and you do so wholeheartedly."
Also on Democracy Now , Stewart?s attorney, Michael Tigar, pointed to further implications of such government restrictions on prisoner communications: "The only way that we will ever get to the bottom of the American concentration camp abuses at Gitmo [the U.S. military prison at Guant?namo, Cuba] and Abu Ghraib is that if lawyers for these prisoners are permitted to tell their stories to the world. If the government can shut off that communication, which they have attempted to do over and over and over again, these activities will continue in secret? blessed as they are by the highest officials of government in a country which has for the first time in its history given a cabinet job to a fellow [referring to Alberto Gonzales?RW] who says that the Geneva Convention is obsolete."
Because of her conviction on felony charges, Lynne Stewart was immediately disbarred, or deprived of her status as an attorney. She told Democracy Now , "That is my greatest sense of loss?that I will be cut off from this profession that I love and that I feel I have served?and I have served people who had no voice."
The conviction of Lynne Stewart is sending reverberations through the entire legal community. Criminal defense lawyer Jed Stone said, "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 face of this "chilling attack," some are stepping back, even saying that Lynne Stewart may have "crossed the line." Others are taking a principled stand of supporting Stewart and condemning the conviction.
Defense lawyer Stanley Cohen said, "I don?t think that there?s a political lawyer in this country who doesn?t believe that the government has a plan to target the lawyers who do what we do and to silence us. If anything, it [Stewart?s conviction] will make us more determined."
A statement issued by the National Lawyers Guild on February 10 quotes Guild President Michael Avery: "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. 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 National Lawyer?s Guild has called for a National Day of Outrage in response to the Lynne Stewart verdict for Thursday, February 17.