By Peter Daniels
17 July 2010
In a new and vicious attack on Lynne Stewart, on July 15, Federal
District Judge John G. Koeltl resentenced the disbarred civil
liberties attorney to 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges of
assisting terrorism. The charges arise out of her representation of a
client in a terror-related case that dates back to 1995.
Stewart, now 70 years old, was indicted in 2002, convicted in 2005
after a seven-month trial, and originally sentenced by Judge Koeltl
in 2006 to a term of 28 months in prison. Koeltl's sentencing
statement four years ago amounted to a partial rebuke of the
government, which had demanded a 30-year jail term for the attorney.
Her only crime was the violation of administrative guidelines that
prohibited her from communicating between her client, Sheik Omar
Abdul Rahman, and the outside world, a mistake of the sort that
previously would have led to nothing more than a reprimand at most.
Stewart, who later confessed to naiveté and misjudgment, had during
her appeal of Rahman's conviction openly transmitted to the media a
press statement from her client, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy1995.
In November 2009, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for
the Second Circuit upheld the conviction of Stewart, but went
further, overturning the original sentence and ordering the lower
court to reconsider the punishment. The appellate decision amounted
to a virtual order for a longer sentence. At the same time, the
judges also revoked Stewart's bail and ordered her to report to prison.
These unprecedented steps indicated anger at the highest levels of
the state apparatus and a determination to make an example of this defendant.
Judge Koeltl apparently got the message. Speaking in the courtroom
for about 45 minutes on July 15 on the facts of the case and the
sentencing guidelines, he repeated his praise of Stewart's work in
representing the poor and unpopular over many decades and
acknowledged having received more than 400 letters supporting her.
But he ruled that she had perjured herself and shown "a lack of
remorse" that meant "the original sentence was not sufficient."
One of the letters sent to Judge Koeltl came from the Society of
American Law Teachers, an organization of law faculty, deans and
administrators with members at more than 170 law schools across the
US. It pointed out what was already well known to the court, that
Stewart "did not subscribe to the beliefs of her client, did not
advocate terrorism, and did not engage in any action which resulted
The letter continued: "Ms. Stewart devoted her life to obtaining
justice for clients often considered 'undesirable,' perhaps because
of their race, socioeconomic status, or political beliefs. As law
professors, we are acutely aware that the legitimacy of the criminal
justice system rests on the availability of defense lawyers willing
to represent unpopular clients. We are concerned that both the
prosecution of Ms. Stewart and the lengthy sentence recommended by
the government in this case have already had a chilling effect on
lawyers who might otherwise be willing to represent those charged
with terrorism-related offenses."
It is clearer than ever that this "chilling effect" was precisely the
government's aim in prosecuting Stewart. The prosecution, indeed
persecution, of the civil liberties lawyer for nearly a decade, has
been bound up from the beginning with the government's "war on
terrorism," which was launched in the immediate aftermath of the
attacks of September 11, 2001. Stewart's indictment was announced
with great fanfare at a press conference held by then-Attorney
General Ashcroft. The government spent millions of dollars on the
seven-month trial, which ended with a conviction after 13 days of
jury deliberation, and amid indications that one or more jurors had
been worn down into going along with a verdict they opposed.
The purpose of this case has been to buttress the bipartisan campaign
to use the fear of terrorism to attack long-established civil
liberties and legal protections, including the right to a legal
defense itself. Lynne Stewart became a victim of this campaign
because her long record of political radicalism and outspokenness
made her the object of hatred in official circles, and, in the eyes
of the authorities, she was particularly vulnerable to attack.
Stewart's husband, Ralph Poynter, pointed out recently on the web
site lynnestewart.org that some of the attorneys working pro bono for
detainees at Guantanamo have been accused of administrative
violations similar to those for which Stewart was tried. While making
it clear that he completely defends these attorneys' "zealous"
defense of their clients in Guantanamo, Poynter points out that,
because they were employed by some of the most powerful corporate law
firms in the country, they have not faced prosecution, despite
attacks from the Wall Street Journal and others.
Stewart says she will continue to fight, telling the court that "we
will continue to struggle on to take all available options to do what
we need to do to change this." Stewart was diagnosed with breast
cancer about five years ago, but is now reportedly cancer-free. She
is over 70, however.
Outside of the courtroom, her husband described the judge's new
sentence as "a death sentence." According to her daughter, Stewart
"rarely goes outdoors for recreation…. The worst part of it is the
deprivation of friends and family and arbitrary and capricious
treatment. For example, they take her to hospital for tests only on
the one day of the week she has a family visit. It has happened two
or three times. Her hands and feet are shackled to and from and at
The brutal vendetta against Lynne Stewart, begun under the Bush
administration and continuing under Obama, demonstrates the
bipartisan character of the attacks on civil rights and liberties.
The White House recently announced its backing for legislation that
would deny Miranda rights to those accused of terrorism. It has long
since discarded its pledge to close Guantanamo, unable even to make
cosmetic gestures to appease the worldwide anger over the indefinite
detention and torture of those imprisoned there.
The latest victimization of Stewart is not only a blatant government
attempt to intimidate lawyers who choose to defend those charged as
terrorists by the US government. It represents a frontal assault on
the Bill of Rights and the turn, which is escalating under the Obama
administration, toward methods commonly associated with a police state.