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December 2006/January 2007
A Crime of Courage

The Satya Interview with Lynne Stewart


Lynne Stewart. Photo courtesy of

A hero of the National Lawyers Guild and a sought-after campus lecturer, Lynne Stewart is a woman who enjoys the simple things in life. She is also the “radical” lawyer accused of enabling her client, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, to carry out his “terrorist” agendas while in prison.

Stewart was charged and found guilty under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act with four counts of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. She was unjustly accused of providing material support for terrorism and violating Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which included a gag order on Sheik Abdul Rahman whom she represented in his 1995 trial. Rahman, known as “the blind Sheik,” was convicted and is now serving a life sentence for “Seditious Conspiracy” in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

On October 17, Stewart was vindicated in the Foley Square New York federal courtroom. And while she faced the possibility of 30 years, a virtual life sentence, Southern District Judge John Koeltl handed down a sentence of only 28 months. Aiding her case were years of service to the disadvantaged, her battle with breast cancer, and the fact that her actions did not result in violence. Stewart is currently free on bail pending her appeal.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Lynne Stewart after her sentencing.

Tell us from the beginning, when you decided to take on Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman’s case.
In 1993 the Sheik was accused of plotting to blow up NYC landmarks. The case was based on an informant who was working for the U.S. and Egyptian governments. There were concerns because the Sheik was representing himself at the time. The Sheik’s people said to Ramsey Clark, ‘the Sheik is very brilliant, but he doesn’t speak English and the legal system here is different from that in Egypt and we really thought he should have a lawyer.’ Ramsey also thought it would be a terrible blemish on the American-left if this person who was so respected in all the Middle East was not provided with a lawyer to represent him. Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General, approached me.

I had a long discussion with my family, other lawyers and then finally the Sheik. We hit it off—I can’t really think of a better way to put it. It wasn’t that we liked each other, but that we managed to understand and communicate with each other. The Sheik indicated he liked for me to become his lawyer. I did a bit more soul searching, this was going to take at least a year out of my life and this was NYC. While we pride ourselves on being a very liberal city, the fact of the matter is, this type of case wins you no friends, no clients. But when it came down to it, I wanted the case. I thought it was such a typical political case with a weasily informant who is not only a proven liar but had government interest in getting this man. Besides that, the evidence against the Sheik was weak.

And Lynne, you haven’t always taken on the easiest of cases…
[Laughter.] This is so true. I have not represented the easiest people. But let me tell you, you can represent an American rebel better than you can represent a Muslim rebel.

So, let me ask you this. Would you still have taken on such a case if it were offered after 9/11?
That is an interesting question. While I think there would have been different considerations, I believe it was my kind of case.

For those who have not been following your case closely, could you tell us specifically about the charges you have been found guilty of?
The real thrust of my conviction was that I issued a press release on behalf of my client. That press release called for not an end, but a reconsideration of a unilateral cease-fire that the Sheik’s group (of which he had not been a member for ten years) had made in Egypt. For that I was found guilty of “materially aiding a terrorist organization.” That was the most serious charge. The other charges had to do with Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). Ramsey Clark made press releases all the time and even announced his original position, which was in support of the cease-fire. Ramsey never heard from the government.

Can you talk about the press release you issued for your client?
In May 2000, some of the Sheik’s followers asked if he would comment on the cease-fire that was in place [in Egypt]. His group had unilaterally stated a couple years earlier that they were entering into a cease-fire hoping to deal with the government, get their people out of jail. Anyway, by the time 2000 came around, there was a fraction in his group who said the cease-fire wasn’t working and wanted to know the Sheik’s opinion. The Sheik constructed a press release as dictated to Mohammed Yousry, the translator also convicted in this case, and I brought it out of the jail, the same way I have hundreds of other press releases and letters to the outside world.

About a month later it had been translated and was read in Arabic to the reporter in Cairo. The reporter wanted to verify the Sheik had written it, so I got on the phone and said I was his lawyer. The press release basically said that in his view the cease-fire wasn’t working and it should be opened up for discussion. But there was no call to arms. Our government has made this out to be the proof of the pudding, it became the centerpiece of the government’s case. But nothing ever happened. It did not say pick up your guns and go at them boys. It did not say start operations. It just said the government is still killing students at universities, arresting people, still taking lives. Let’s be realistic here, they tortured people on a regular basis, as documented by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. They are one of the worst dictatorships in the world…yet of course beloved by the U.S. because Egypt is such a great power in the Middle East.

What exactly are “Special Administrative Measures” and what effect do they have on you as a lawyer?
The Bureau of Prisons may in certain cases, when the justice or state department tells them, place upon prisoners in federal systems, rules that isolate them: cutting them off from the telephone, visitors, family, the media, etc. This is what they put on the Sheik in 1997. And so Abdeen Jabbara, Ramsey Clark and I—in order to continue being the Sheik’s legal team—had to sign an agreement that we would respect and follow these rules, the SAMs. But we operated with an understanding that the government knew we had to do the legal work, that certain things were still permissible even though the SAMs seemed to say we couldn’t do them. We had to be able to do our job.

So because you took the press release to the media, you violated the SAMs?
The SAMs did prohibit me from talking to the media on the Sheik’s behalf, but they also said if I broke any of the rules I may be cut off from my client. It never said I would be indicted and face 30 years in prison!

Knowing what you do now….would you do it again?
I believe with my mind and heart it was the right thing to do. But I probably would do it differently. I believe I did the right thing as a lawyer. At the moment of my conviction, I think I said, “I’d like to think I would do it again.” I mean the kind of lawyering that says the client must be protected from the ravages of the government. Yet they have used this to make a chill effect on the profession. And that’s frightening.

What about the fact that the government has total access to privileged conversations between a client and a lawyer?
When this case first became public, I think that was the first thing most people stopped at. That the government could interject a microphone and a camera into the visiting room of a prison where a client is talking to a lawyer and listen to every single thing being said—it’s like putting a tape recorder in a confessional booth or a psychologist’s office. In the marriage bed! These are privileged conversations. We call them privileged because as a society we have an interest in keeping certain things from being listened to by the government. I was shocked when I found out. I once said to the press, don’t ask me about what I am doing wrong, ask what the government is doing listening in on attorney/client conversations.

Do you think the Sheik was innocent?
To be honest, I believe he was wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted. I do not believe he was guilty in this case.

You’ve remained very outspoken throughout the trial. In your opinion, how far should one be willing to press for a cause, a belief system?
I think we are all different and some of us just have the will. It’s funny, I am told I am courageous, but I have a hard time wrapping myself around that word. I feel what I do comes so naturally for me, I don’t have to think about it. I felt I was supposed to do this. I guess basically everyone has to do as much as they can. We should all push our limits as far as we can. Let’s never say, “Oh it’s raining, this demo will have enough people without me” or “I can’t write to this person.” The more you do, the more you have energy to do it. The more you do, the more people you meet, the more strength you build. I guess what I am trying to say is that activism is the solution to a lot of people feeling powerless.

How do you think your case affects other lawyers?
The fear to me is not the people who won’t do these cases, but the people who will do them, but with an eye over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing them the way the government wants. In other words, no challenge, no client-centered defense will take place if you’re thinking all the time, “What am I going to do if they indict me like they did Lynne Stewart?” If we can’t go to court, if we can’t defend people without the government helping to make the decisions, we have really lost the ability to do our job.

How does your trial and conviction correspond with broader attacks on civil liberties we have seen taking place?
I think that it starts with the Patriot Act. Our government, like all fascist governments, began to rule with fear. They now make people frightened to the point we believe our only protection is the government. Part of using that “we are the protector” cover is to take the focus off the fact they are taking more and more of our civil liberties away. Including the suspension or actual elimination of habeas corpus—you can get thrown in jail but not go to court and ask why you have been thrown there, because it is now a state secret.

How has your family held up?
Well we went through the worst trauma that day in the courtroom. For myself and my husband, we were resigned to the notion that the judge would put me in jail the day of the sentencing. We came prepared for that. Now I realize, two weeks after, how much I shut down from my life. I had just stopped doing things. Little things, like I didn’t buy books to read because I wouldn’t be here to read them. And for other members of my family who don’t have the political grounding they just have the sheer emotion of it all. My 20 year-old granddaughter, a senior in college, was less able to cope. She did nothing but fight with her mother the entire time she was here for the sentencing, but we realized that was because she was worried about me and she just had to let it out somehow. And my grandsons, the little ones didn’t really get it all but knew that something bad was happening to grandma.

I can only imagine. I mean you were facing 30 years in prison. How did it feel when the judge said 28 months?
The relief when it was over…the overwhelming relief that I am still here. I mean I am so happy to be chopping onions and doing the wash, what a wonderful thing! The everyday tasks are fantastic. My daughter Brenna—all my children wrote wonderful letters to the judge—but Brenna simply asked, “Restore my mother to her simple pleasures.” And it is so true, chopping onions….all these things I love so much and thought I had lost. It was very trying, very emotional for the entire family. I still think we are dazed. But we know that the fight is not over yet. I had my medications, my book. I had a pair of sweatpants to change into, because I was prepared for the worst.

Now, there is the appeal…
Yes. We have filed a notice of appeal. It has been a very long trial with changes in lawyers, co-defendants, etc. So we have no schedule as of yet. I think it will take a long time.

What now?
We are taking a couple of weeks to figure things out. But I am going to continue speaking widely and attend those political get-togethers and actions I think are worthy of my support. It’s a new chapter. Last January I had surgery for cancer which took a terrific toll on me, so I don’t have the stamina I had before. I am not strong enough to get out there for 12 hours straight as easily. I get tired. Right now I want to just hug each and every one of my 14 grandchildren and just bask in the knowledge that I am still here. My lawyers pointed out to the judge that under new regulations, the government could have forbade me to ever see them again. This is what we have become in this country.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
As a movement, people should focus on what the judge said—I not only preformed a great service to my clients, but to the nation. It proves that when you love a life of service to your fellow man, fighting the causes, you are the true patriot.

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