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The Persecution of Lynne Stewart

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Posted on Apr 21, 2013
AP/Stephen Chernin

Lynne Stewart at a news conference in New York City in 2002.

By Chris Hedges

Lynne Stewart, in the vindictive and hysterical world of the war on terror, is one of its martyrs. A 73-year-old lawyer who spent her life defending the poor, the marginalized and the despised, including blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, she fell afoul of the state apparatus because she dared to demand justice rather than acquiesce to state sponsored witch hunts. And now, with stage 4 cancer that has metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones and lungs, creating a grave threat to her life, she sits in a prison cell at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is serving a 10-year sentence. Stewart’s family is pleading with the state for “compassionate release” and numerous international human rights campaigners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have signed a petition calling for her to be freed on medical grounds. It is not only a crime in the U.S. to be poor, to be a Muslim, to openly condemn the crimes committed in our name in the Muslim world, but to defend those who do. And the near total collapse of our judicial system, wrecked in the name of national security and “the war on terror,” is encapsulated in the saga of this courageous attorney—now disbarred because of her conviction.

“I hope that my imprisonment sends the wake up call that the government is prepared to imprison lawyers who do not conduct legal representation in a manner the government has ordained,” she told me when I reached her through email in prison. “My career of 30 plus years has always been client centered. My clients and I decided on the best legal course, without the interference of the government. Ethics require that the defense lawyer DEFEND, get the client off. We have no obligation to obey [the] ‘rules’ government lays down.

“I believe that since 9/11 the government has pursued Muslims with an ever heavier hand,” she wrote, all messages to her and from her being vetted by prison authorities. “However, cases such as the Sheikh’s in 1995 amply demonstrate that Muslims had been targeted even earlier as the new ENEMY—always suspect, always guilty. After 9/11, we discovered that the government prosecutors were ordered to try and get Osama Bin Laden into EVERY Muslim prosecution inducing in American Juries a Pavlovian response. Is it as bad as lynching and the Scottsboro Boys and the Pursuit of Black Panthers? Not as of yet, but getting close and of course the incipient racism that that colors—pun?—every action in the U.S. is ever present in these prosecutions.”

Stewart, as a young librarian in Harlem, got an early taste of the insidious forms of overt and covert racism that work to keep most people of color impoverished and trapped in their internal colonies or our prison complex. She went on to get her law degree and begin battling in the courts on behalf of those around her for whom justice was usually denied. By 1995, along with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara, she was the lead trial counsel for the sheik, who was convicted in September of that year. He received life in prison plus 65 years, a sentence Stewart called “outlandish.” The cleric, in poor health, is serving a life sentence in the medical wing of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. Stewart continued to see the sheik in jail after the sentence. Three years later the government severely curtailed his ability to communicate with the outside world, even through his lawyers, under special administrative measures or SAMs.

In 2000, during a visit with the sheik, he asked Stewart to release a statement from him to the press. The Clinton administration did not prosecute her for the press release, but the Bush administration in April 2002, the mood of the country altered by the attacks of 9/11, decided to go after her. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to New York in April 2002 to announce that the Justice Department had indicted Stewart, a paralegal and the interpreter on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. That night he went on “Late Show with David Letterman” to tell the nation of the indictment and the Bush administration’s vaunted “war on terror.”

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“Rev up the military industrial complex,” Stewart wrote when I asked her what purpose the “war on terror” served. “Keep the populace terrorized so that they look to Big Brother Government for protection. Cannon Fodder for the ‘throwaways’ in our society—young, poor, uneducated, persons of color.”

Stewart’s 2005 trial was a Punch-and-Judy show. The state demanded an outrageous 30-year prison sentence. It showed the jurors lurid videos of Osama bin Laden and images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, and spun a fantastic web of Islamic, terrorist intrigue. To those of us who covered groups such as al-Qaida and the armed Islamic groups in Egypt—I was based in Cairo at the time as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times—the government scenarios were utterly devoid of fact or credibility. The government prosecutors, for example, blamed numerous terrorist attacks, including the killing of 62 people in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, on the sheik, although he publicly denounced the attack and had no connection with the radical Islamic group in Egypt that carried it out. And even Manhattan District Judge John Koeltl instructed the jury more than 750 times that the photos of Osama bin Laden and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks were not relevant to the case. Stewart was sentenced to 28 months. The Obama administration appealed the ruling. The appeals court ruled that the sentence was too light. Koeltl gave her 10 years. She has served three.

Her family’s appeal for a “compassionate release” must defy the odds. Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) noted in a 2012 report, “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons,” that the Federal Bureau of Prisons rarely even bothers to submit compassionate release requests to the courts. Since 1992, the bureau has averaged two dozen motions a year to the courts for compassionate release. The bureau does not provide figures for the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release.

“No messy side effects—vomiting, diarrhea—thank goodness,” Stewart wrote to me about her cancer care. “I have one more treatment and then they have used all the poison it’s safe to use. I am bald but the hardest for me to endure, who has always relied on her memory and quick wit, is the chemo brain that slows and sometimes stops me.


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