The U.S. government made a big show of going after New York lawyer
Lynne Stewart when then Attorney General John Ashcroft announced her
arrest on David Letterman's late-night talk show in 2002. It took the
mighty U.S. Empire nearly eight more years to put her in prison,
because she and the social justice movements she represents fought
back. That fight is far from over, as was evidenced by the supporters
who protested with her on Nov. 18, when an appeals court panel upheld
Government persecution of Stewart was designed to fan public fear
around terrorism after 9/11, and chill anti-war mobilizing against
the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Throughout the case, the Justice
Department inflamed racism and xenophobia, detained hundreds of
innocent people who "looked like Muslims," and attempted to gag
Today, far more people know to what unethical and criminal lengths
the U.S. and its justice system will go to protect business as usual.
A great many people are changing sides, asking questions, speaking
up. Lynne Stewart's principled, public struggle has a lot to do with
this advancing political sophistication. Those on the side of civil
liberties, freedom of expression, equality and the right to defy
repression have a model in Lynne Stewart on how to conduct the good fight.
The facts. Way back in 1995, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman was charged and
convicted of conspiring to commit a terrorist act in New York. A
judge appointed Lynne Stewart as a defense lawyer in the case. The
sheik, aged, ailing and blind, was convicted on the evidence of two
informants one a high-paid FBI spy and the other, an alleged cohort
of the sheik who pleaded guilty and collaborated with prosecutors.
Five years later Stewart helped her prisoner client issue a press
release, which supposedly violated a prison administrative measure.
Only after 9/11, as the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and
began a campaign of domestic repression, did the government decide to
go after Stewart. She was charged for conspiring to support terrorism
in a case completely unconnected with the 9/11 attack. The
prosecutor unabashedly made irrelevant allusions to Osama bin Laden
during trial, and presented evidence based on violations of
attorney-client privilege and illegal wiretapping.
Stewart was convicted in 2005, disbarred and sentenced to 28 months.
It was far less than the 30 years prosecutors wanted, and which would
have condemned the 67-year old attorney to life in prison for
violating a constitutionally questionable prison rule. A federal
appeals court upheld the verdict in November, instructed the original
trial judge to reconsider his "extraordinarily lenient" sentence, and
ordered Stewart to jail. The new sentencing is scheduled for April 22.
The politics behind them. Stewart's trial attorney Michael Tigar said
that she was on trial for "who she is, not what she allegedly did."
And who is she? An attorney who defends political prisoners, civil
rights clients, poor people of every race and ethnicity, and
unpopular defendants such as Islamic fundamentalist sheiks. She has
no sympathy for the religious rightwing of any stripe, is openly
anti-capitalist, and defends her lawyering job as "the one thing that
comes between a prisoner and torture." She is a radical in the best
sense, one who seeks to change things at the root.
Stewart and her life partner Ralph Poynter, former Black Panther and
longtime rebel, first met leading a fight in 1963 for improvements in
a Harlem elementary school where they worked. She said of her
co-workers then, "I loved everybody who fought back and in so doing
kept their sanity." Today, she writes from jail in New York City that
she and her sister-prisoners share mutual respect, support and
Stewart's case is a rallying point for defenders of civil liberties
across the country. This newspaper, along with the Freedom Socialist
Party and Radical Women are among the thousands of organizations and
activists that continue to back Stewart and combat anti-terrorist hysteria.
For info on how to help, visit lynnestewart.org. Donations can be
sent to her defense committee, 350 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10013.