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2006-10-16

Facing Up To 30 Years in Prison, Civil Rights Attorney Lynne Stewart Speaks Out As She Heads To Courthouse for Sentencing

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Civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart is to be sentenced in a federal court in Manhattan later today. She faces up to thirty years in prison. Last year, Stewart was convicted of five counts of conspiring to aid terrorists and lying to the government. Stewart’s case has reverberated with defense attorneys around the country. Many argue that the government’s aim is to discourage them from representing unpopular clients. [includes rush transcript]

Stewart was convicted of smuggling out messages from her jailed client–Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman–also known as the blind sheikh–who is serving a life sentence on terror-related charges. Most notably, Stewart was convicted of helping Rahman contact followers in Egypt with messages that could have ended a cease-fire there and ignited violence. Stewart’s co-defendants–Ahmed Sattar, a postal worker who acted as a paralegal for Abdel-Rahman, and Mohammed Yousry–an Arabic translator, were also convicted of all charges against them. This was the first time that the federal government prosecuted a defense attorney in a terrorism case.

The seven-month trial was held in the same New York federal courthouse, just blocks from our firehouse studio, where the Rosenbergs were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage more than a half century ago. It featured very few witnesses as the government’s case was based primarily on transcripts from more than 85,000 secretly recorded audio and video clips of meetings between Stewart and her client as well as the home phone of Ahmed Abdel Sattar.

Last month, Stewart wrote a personal letter to the court and acknowledged for the first time that she knowingly violated prison rules and was careless, overemotional and politically naive in her representation of her client... She has asked for leniency from the court.

And Lynne Stewart joins me now here in the studio, just hours before her sentencing.

  • Lynne Stewart, human rights attorney

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart now joins me in our firehouse studio just hours before she is sentenced in the courthouse nearby. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lynne.

LYNNE STEWART: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you doing?

LYNNE STEWART: I’m stressed, but I am beneficial of a large outpouring of support and love, recognition of my career as a lawyer in this city — my representation of the poor, of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless, if you will, for over 30 years — that happened last night at Riverside Church and at other meetings all week long, St. Mark’s, up in Harlem, we had an outpouring as well. So I’m buoyed by the people who believe in me, the people who know that everything I did, I did as a lawyer, not as a terrorist, as the government would have people believe.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who are new to this case, explain what you have been convicted of.

LYNNE STEWART: Yes. You know, the government has put in what my dear friend Bill Kunstler used to call "weasel words," words that don’t state the exact facts but really pull a kind of reaction. So they use words like "smuggled out messages." We would visit the Sheik. He would tell us, he would dictate to us letters. He would dictate to us press releases.

The real thrust of my conviction is that I made a press release very openly to Reuters, no secret, nothing under the bra straps, and that press release called for a reconsideration, not an end to the ceasefire, but a reconsideration of a unilateral ceasefire that the Sheik’s group, which he of course had not been a member of for ten years at the time he made the release, had made in Egypt. Ramsey Clark had announced his original position, which was in support of the ceasefire. Ramsey Clark never heard from the government at all. I made the press release saying, "I think you should reconsider this ceasefire," and a year-and-a-half later, I was indicted.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written a letter to the judge. Explain this letter.

LYNNE STEWART: Yes. I’m afraid that if you only read the New York Times, you may get the wrong impression. It’s not a craven, begging letter. I am still very sure of my principled stand in this whole matter, that everything I did, I did as a lawyer, that I never intended to aid my client’s cause. I intended to aid this man, this man who was in terrible isolation.

Now, if we saw it today, we would say, "Oh, yes. This is the torture. This is the kind of torture that we see at Abu Ghraib, that we see at Guantanamo." He had no contact with the outside world. He could not even speak with his jailers. He had one call a month for 15 minutes to his wife and a call a week to his lawyers. He could not pick up a book to relieve this isolation, because he’s blind. He was so diminished, he was in such terrible shape when I went to see him in May of 2000, hallucinating almost, out of this terrible sensory deprivation.

And I just felt that to keep hope alive — as a lawyer, that’s what we do. We say, "We can continue fighting this. We can work on this" — I agreed to make this press release, never imagining that it would become part of a criminal case. I thought the worst that could happen, which was actually spelled out in the regulations, was that they might deprive me of the ability to visit him. If that happened, he still had Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara to visit, and we would have been able to go to court and fight the case.

I told the judge all of this in that letter, because I wanted him to understand how defense lawyers function. We function on behalf of the client. We become involved with the client. There’s a mutuality there. And people find it — you know, we always hear, "How could you defend that guy?" Well, there’s something that happens. There’s a chemistry that happens. And maybe it’s the adversary system, which I’ve always been a backer of. I think it is the best way to decide criminal matters. You become alive with your client, not in his goals, not in his political goals, not in his life goals, but in the sense that you want to further his cause of getting out from under these opprobrious conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lynne Stewart. It’s just an hour before she heads to court. She was tried in the same courtroom as the Rosenbergs were more than a half a century ago. We’ll be back with her in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Lynne Stewart, human rights attorney, arrested in April 2002 on charges that she helped her client, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, deliver messages from his Minnesota prison cell to his followers in Egypt. Today, Lynne Stewart will be sentenced. It is in just about an hour and a half from the time we are broadcasting, and it is just down the road. But before you go there, there’s going to be a rally for you.

LYNNE STEWART: That’s right, in Tom Paine Park, appropriately named for a great champion of freedom. We are going to bring together everyone. We have asked everyone in the movement. And I think probably the most gratifying thing to me after a life in the movement is the coming together of the fractious left, that I have support from all groups, that everyone sees the danger to our politics by this kind of prosecution.

If we can’t go to court, if we can’t defend people with the full arena available to us without the government helping to make the decisions, we have really lost a very, very valuable asset in our war. When we think of the political trials in this country, they never actually went after the lawyers. They locked them up once in awhile. Of course, we remember the Chicago Seven. They were locked up, but they got out. It wasn’t the same kind of criminal prosecution, which said, "If you don’t do it our way, you will go to jail for the rest of your life."

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, since the time you were convicted, you got cancer. Can you talk about that?

LYNNE STEWART: Yes. I went — well, let me start at the beginning. I am notorious for being careless of myself, I guess, and I guess I was also somewhat careless in getting into this whole situation. But from the years '95 on, I really didn't have regular healthcare. When I finally was convicted, I was 65, and I was able to get Medicare, so I had a full battery of medical things done for me, including a mammogram. The mammogram came back with a suspicious blot on it, and when they checked it out, it turned out that I had breast cancer.

In January of last year, I had surgery for the cancer. We elected — when I say "we," because my husband Ralph, my children, we all decided chemo was not a possibility, because it would take such a toll on me physically and that if I’m facing going to jail, it would be not good to be so diminished. But we did radiation, which took a terrific toll on me, but I — at least I had this summer to go to the country, watch the grass and my grandchildren grow. And I’m feeling good. I have no cancer. I just went to see the doctor last week. I’m cancer-free, and I hope to remain so.

However, that said, prison is not a good place for anyone who’s in bad health. I also have a diabetic condition that’s controlled by exercise and diet, high blood pressure and also, of course, cholesterol. All of these things are not going to be looked after in prison. Basically, prison health is a luxury. So, one of the arguments we had made to the judge is that, aside from my age, my physical condition really makes this anything that is in excess of what the government wants or around what is really a death sentence. It’s really a death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know what happens? Will you be taken into custody today once this sentence is pronounced?

LYNNE STEWART: The worst thing is uncertainty. I think that eats at the soul. You don’t know what will happen. Today, I packed up my medicines. I took a good book. I have a list of phone numbers of people, because in this day of cell phones, of course, we don’t remember people’s telephone numbers. I’m ready if they put the handcuffs on me. My lawyers have assured me that they don’t think I will be remanded — that is, put in immediately. They believe the worst that could happen would be that he would allow me a number of months, and then I would surrender at whatever institution I was assigned to by the Bureau of Prison.

I’m not saying this to say we’ve given up, we think we’re going to have a prison sentence, because we are fighting, fighting, fighting. We had a meeting on Saturday. We went over what we can say to move this judge, what do we do to say to him, "Please, come down on the right side of history. Don’t be the judge that interned the Japanese. Don’t be the judge that approved the Palmer Raids. Don’t be the judge that convicted and sentenced the Rosenbergs. Do something for the Bill of Rights." Gore Vidal wrote a letter for me, and he said, "Judge, don’t give her a jail sentence. Do something for the Bill of Rights." And really, it’s the Sixth Amendment. It’s the right to counsel. That’s what’s at stake here this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Your lawyers have filed motions to compel the government to disclose whether it was the National Security Agency who recorded you or your lawyers by wiretapping without warrant?

LYNNE STEWART: Right. That motion was denied late Friday afternoon. It was a peculiar — after we were Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole, because everything is secret, you see. We brought the motion. Then they answered in secret. Then we argued to the judge. Then the judge made a secret order to them. Then they answered that order in secret. Then the judge made another order to them. Then they answered that order in secret.

So we really — we have no idea what’s going on, except that the judge allowed one paragraph to be made public out of this, and it has to do with an old wiretap of my client, Ahmed Sattar, a wiretap that was a garden variety wiretap, Title III, went to a federal judge, got a warrant, and he was overheard on it. So, we don’t know what that means, and we don’t know why it wasn’t divulged ages ago in connection with the case. But that is where the NSA motion stands today. Very confusing, but it will, of course, be part of an appeal, which is coming next. We will undoubtedly have a long appeal process.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ahmed Sattar is your co-defendant.

LYNNE STEWART: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But not your client.

LYNNE STEWART: Not my client, no. He was my paralegal at the time that he was overheard on this wiretap. He was also being wiretapped himself at that time, but this was apparently in connection with another investigation. Why it should have been classified is a mystery to everyone, but perhaps we will find out, perhaps we won’t. That’s the world in which we live today.

AMY GOODMAN: And you will be sentenced along with Ahmed Sattar and Mohammed Yousry.

LYNNE STEWART: I will be, yes. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect the same sentencing?

LYNNE STEWART: No. Ahmed Sattar has been convicted of far, far more serious charges. Of course, sentencing is individualized. It’s whatever that person deserves in the circumstances. The judge’s hands are untied by recent decisions. He can give everybody probation. He could give everybody time. It’s up to him completely. I think that anyone who looks at the case would say that Mohammed Yousry is the least culpable. He was the translator. He basically followed orders. He had knowledge, but he probably had no intent whatsoever, and yet he stands convicted, too. The government has asked 20 years for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you able to communicate with both of them?

LYNNE STEWART: No, I’m not permitted to communicate at all with Ahmed Sattar. Even a birthday card I sent to him last year was returned to me. Mohammed and I speak regularly by phone. We buoy each other up. We rail against the government in this false and completely unfair and untrue conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, as you look back in the conversation we’re having right now, you said you felt that you were reckless. Can you explain what you mean?

LYNNE STEWART: I think for all my political life and for all my understanding of the government and the way it works, Amy, I think I was reckless in the sense that I never understood they would really come after me in the way they have. I believed that I was — I had enough prestige, I had been 30 years at this business. I had a certain cachet when I walked into court. Even the very prosecutors that I had been up against in the Sheik’s case would say, "You may not like the words she says, but no one ever said it better than she did." So I always felt I was removed from it. I think I was also lured into this to some degree, because Ramsey made so many —- Ramsey Clark, that is, made a number of press releases -—

AMY GOODMAN: The former U.S. attorney general.

LYNNE STEWART: Right. And there was never even a letter to him about, you know, the [inaudible] were breached by your press release. Of course, I’m not Ramsey Clark. I’ve said many times my father was not on the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a schoolteacher in Queens. And I certainly never attained the stature that he had.

This is not to demean Ramsey in any way, who has actually written a remarkable letter to the judge challenging the facts that the U.S. attorney has put forth. He pointed out, among other things, that if I’m supposed to be the communications hub for the Sheik, how come I only visited him about once a year, if that, rarely, if ever, took a phone call, because I was in court trying cases? So, he points out all of this, that if anybody was the hub, he was the hub. And yet, of course, they would not go after someone with his prestige and position.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the way the trial was conducted, with the prosecution offering, well, so-called background evidence that critics claim was primarily used to inflame the jury, like shortly before the anniversary of 9/11, playing a tape of Osama bin Laden expressing support for Abdel-Rahman, introducing evidence that the USS Cole bombing and of the massacre in Luxor, in which 58 tourists were killed?

LYNNE STEWART: You know, the Star Ledger in Newark printed a story a couple months after the trial that U.S. attorneys are routinely trained in any terrorism case to get bin Laden in front of that jury, because it such a talismanic, such a visceral reaction they’re calling for when that jury sees bin Laden. Our judge actually told potential jurors this case has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. You won’t see bin Laden.

And then he allowed this evidence to come in for — it came in for the state of mind of Ahmed Sattar. He instructed the jury it had nothing to do with me or Mr. Yousry. But you cannot — you know, there’s an old saying: you can’t throw a skunk in the jury box and tell them not to smell it. There it is, paraded — I’m talking about a screen that’s probably 20’ by 20’. And this is a jury not ten blocks from the World Trade Center site, a Manhattan jury by and large. We also, I think, underestimated the effect of a T-case, a terror case, on a Manhattan jury. I think we assumed that they had a certain sophistication. We should have known they felt it just the way that people would feel it anywhere. They never got past the fact that it was a terrorism case.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart, what happens now, in terms of your thoughts going back, if you would do it any differently?

LYNNE STEWART: Well, you know, I believe that I did the right thing as a lawyer. I think I said at the moment of my conviction, "I’d like to think I would do it again." When I said that, I really and truly meant that the kind of lawyering that we do, that kind that says the client must be protected from the ravages of the government. The fact that they have used this to make a chill effect on the profession, that they have shortened the court, if you think of it more in terms of a basketball court as opposed to a courtroom, but the court in which we operate now is so changed that lawyers are afraid that they are — the Guantanamo lawyers have to think twice before they even tell their clients how their children are, because they’re limited to only discussing the case. So if the client says, "You’ve spoken to my wife. How are my children?" they have to say, "Can I tell him this? Is this going to be off bounds?"

So, I mean, we really have changed the landscape, and that’s very, very frightening to me, that anything I may have done could have caused — given the excuse to the government to be able to do this. One of the things I wrote in the letter is that if I have, in any way, instead of helping zealousness, have diminished it, for that I am truly, truly sorry.

But I think that, you know, if you’re talking about the approach, the fact that we are last champions of liberty, we defense lawyers, I still would have to be — if I were a lawyer — and I said the hardest thing, the worst punishment, regardless of what he does today, is to not be a lawyer anymore, for me. I never intended to retire. I had no pension fund. I intended to work as long as people asked me to do their cases, and when I read the letters and people remembering me in the courtroom, it is the one thing that can cause me to weep uncontrollably, that that is lost. So much is lost. But I like to think that my principles, the principles I believe in for lawyering, are still intact. And they have nothing to do with criminality or terrorism or joining any conspiracy of my clients.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

LYNNE STEWART: Thank you, Amy, for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart goes to court in about an hour from this broadcast. We’ll report on the results tomorrow.

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