By Peter Daniels
21 November 2009
A three-judge panel of a US federal appeals court has upheld the
conviction of outspoken civil liberties lawyer Lynne Stewart,
convicted in 2005 of assisting terrorism by transmitting the contents
of a press statement by her client, the blind Egyptian cleric Sheik
Omar Abdel Rahman, in 2000. Also convicted at that time were Ahmed
Abdel Sattar, who is presently serving a 24-year term for assisting
the cleric, and Mohamed Yousry, a translator who was sentenced
originally to 20 months.
The appellate court also ordered the revocation of Stewart's bond,
and she surrendered to prison authorities on November 19 to begin
serving a 28-month sentence.
The latest decision was not unexpected considering the present
political and civil liberties climate. An additional ominous note was
injected, however, by the judges from the Second Circuit of the US
Court of Appeals; they ordered the trial judge, John Koeltl of the
Federal District Court, to hold another hearing on December 2 to
consider resentencing Stewart to a longer term on the grounds that
she had lied at the trial.
Koeltl had shocked the authorities in October 2006 when he sentenced
Stewart to a term less than 10 percent as long as the 30 years called
for the prosecution. At the time, Koeltl, in part voicing a broad and
widespread sympathy for Stewart, especially in New York, called her
"a dedicated public servant who had, throughout her career,
represented the poor, the disadvantaged and the unpopular."
This positive evaluation undoubtedly angered federal prosecutors. The
latest decision comes about as close as the appellate judges legally
can to demanding a longer sentence. It forces Koeltl to increase the
sentence for the 70-year-old Stewart, who was treated for breast
cancer in the period between her conviction and sentencing, or to
explain why he will not. Judge Robert Sack, who wrote the appellate
decision, said Koeltl should have determined whether Stewart lied in
court. "We think that whether Stewart lied under oath at her trial is
directly relevant to whether her sentence was appropriate," he wrote.
A further indication of the mood of the higher court judges was the
partial dissent of Judge John M. Walker, who called the sentence
"breathtakingly low." Walker was not satisfied with the majority
decision merely sending the case back for resentencing, claiming that
it "trivializes Stewart's extremely serious conduct with a 'slap on
Stewart denounced the appellate decision, pointing in particular to
the recent decision to try some of the Guantanamo defendants at
criminal trials in New York. She said that the timing of the decision
in her case, "coming as it does on the eve of the arrival of the
tortured men from offshore prison in Guantanamo," was intended to
intimidate lawyers who would be defending these men.
"If you're going to lawyer for these people, you'd better toe very
close to the line that the government has set out," said Ms. Stewart.
Otherwise, she added, you "will end up like Lynne Stewart. … This is
a case that is bigger than just me personally." Stewart's attorney,
Joshua Dratel, said that an appeal to the Supreme Court was possible.
The National Lawyers Guild, of which Lynne Stewart is a member,
issued a statement as she reported to jail. "The National Lawyers
Guild issues its continued support of longtime member and former
veteran civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart," it stated. NLG
President David Gespass was quoted as saying, "We are proud that
Lynne has been, is and continues to be a member of the National
Lawyers Guild. Her long history of vigorous advocacy on behalf of the
most unpopular of clients is an example to all of us and reflects a
commitment to justice and due process that is too often only given
lip service by the bar."
Stewart was first indicted in 2002, at which time then Attorney
General John Ashcroft held a press conference to trumpet his attack
on civil liberties. Now a Democrat is in the White House and the
Attorney General is Eric Holder, but the vindictive attack on
Stewart, part of the bipartisan assault on civil liberties and
democratic rights, continues.