interviewed on Democracy Now! in November 2009.
independent journalist and author of a forthcoming book on terrorism trials in the United States called The Best Terrorists We Could Find.
The civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart’s sentence was increased Thursday after an appeals court ruled that two years and four months of prison time was too light. Stewart was found guilty in 2005 of distributing press releases on behalf of her jailed client Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh." We play excerpts of Lynne Stewart’s last broadcast interview before she was jailed in November and speak to independent journalist Petra Bartosiewicz. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has been resentenced to ten years in prison, which is nearly five times as long as her original sentence of twenty-eight months. In a courtroom overflowing with Stewart’s supporters, Manhattan District Court Judge John Koeltl increased her sentence Thursday after an appeals court ruled that two years and four months of prison time was too light.
Stewart said, quote, "I’m somewhat stunned by the swift change in my outlook" and vowed to look at all available options, moving forward. In her initial statement, the seventy-year-old cancer survivor, who is still on chemotherapy medication, painted a grim picture of how life in prison had diminished her and that she faced the prospect of death everyday.
Stewart was found guilty in 2005 of distributing press releases on behalf of her jailed client Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh," who is serving a life sentence on terror-related charges. In her last broadcast interview just before she began her twenty-eight-month sentence, Lynne Stewart explained the background to the case and why she had been charged.
LYNNE STEWART: I represented Sheikh Omar at trial — that was in 1995 — along with Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara. I was lead trial counsel. He was convicted in September of ’95, sentenced to a life prison plus a hundred years, or some sort — one of the usual outlandish sentences. We continued, all three of us, to visit him while he was in jail — he was a political client; that means that he is targeted by the government — and because it is so important to prisoners to be able to have access to their lawyers.
Sometime in 1998, I think maybe it was, they imposed severe restrictions on him. That is, his ability to communicate with the outside world, to have interviews, to be able to even call his family, was limited by something called special administrative measures. The lawyers were asked to sign on for these special administrative measures and warned that if these measures were not adhered to, they could indeed lose contact with their client — in other words, be removed from his case.
In 2000, I visited the sheikh, and he asked me to make a press release. This press release had to do with the current status of an organization that at that point was basically defunct, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. And I agreed to do that. In May of — maybe it was later than that. Sometime in 2000, I made the press release.
Interestingly enough, we found out later that the Clinton administration, under Janet Reno, had the option to prosecute me, and they declined to do so, based on the notion that without lawyers like me or the late Bill Kunstler or many that I could name, the cause of justice is not well served. They need the gadflies.
So, at any rate, they made me sign onto the agreement again not to do this. They did not stop me from representing him. I continued to represent him.
And it was only after 9/11, in April of 2002, that John Ashcroft came to New York, announced the indictment of me, my paralegal and the interpreter for the case, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. One of the footnotes to the case, of course, is that Ashcroft also appeared on nationwide television with Letterman that night ballyhooing the great work of Bush’s Justice Department in indicting and making the world safe from terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart, in her last broadcast interview. It was here on Democracy Now! the day she began serving her twenty-eight-month sentence last November.
On Thursday, Judge Koeltl praised Stewart’s "exceptional" record as a defense lawyer for the poor and the unpopular, but increased her sentence, ruling she had lied in her court testimony, abused her position as a lawyer, and made statements to the press indicating a, quote, "lack of remorse."
Well, we’re joined here in our studio by independent journalist Petra Bartosiewicz. She was at the resentencing yesterday. She’s finishing a book on domestic terror trials called The Best Terrorists We Could Find. Her article in the Los Angeles Times is about Lynne Stewart; it’s called "The Price of Defending Terrorists."
Well, we welcome you, Petra, to Democracy Now! Describe the scene in the courtroom yesterday.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I was not in the courtroom, because there were so many people who came out for this day that there was no room. Almost no members of the public, relative to how many who were there, actually made it in, though I think the judge did try to accommodate about fifty people who went in. So, the vast majority, though, about 300 of us, were in a jury assembly room where the proceedings were broadcast on two giant video screens, and we could hear everything that was going. We were sort of looking from above, as it were, on what was happening.
And when Lynne came in, there was applause in the courtroom upstairs, where everything was actually happening, and there was — there were cheers and whistles downstairs in the jury assembly room. People were yelling at the screen and saying that they supported her.
The proceedings were quite lengthy. Both the defense and prosecution made statements on — about the resentencing, and then the judge read a very lengthy report that he prepared for the resentencing, which sounded incredibly technical. One lawyer I spoke to later said sort of — describes this process as "two plus two plus two equals blue." And blue was ten years. She’s going to serve ten years. And when she heard the sentence, we didn’t see very well, you know, the immediate reaction, but I could see she was wiping away tears, and she was really barely able to speak later when the judge gave her the opportunity. And people downstairs were very emotional. Some were crying. Some shouted things that we probably can’t repeat on the air here. But people seemed stunned and very disappointed, because they thought that this sentence would not be as high.
And the judge specifically did point to some of the things that she said after the initial sentencing outside the courthouse, and then later on this program, as evidence that she was not as remorseful as she should be and that he should increase the sentence. There were, of course, other factors, but I think that certainly played a part in it, since he pointed it out.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, Petra, I talked late yesterday at the — in the Daily News newsroom to a veteran federal courts reporter who has covered many terrorism trials over the years and — after the sentencing. And he’s not, by any means, sympathetic to Lynne Stewart, but he told me that he — in all of his years, he’s never seen a case where a circuit court ordered a judge to resentence someone to a higher sentence, that this was almost unprecedented. Could you talk a little bit about how unusual the Lynne Stewart case is, in general, and the SAMs, the special administrative measures, and what that represents in terms of lawyers, what lawyers can and can’t do?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Well, there are a lot of extraordinary things about this case. The appellate court was very harsh in its language and in its instruction to the district judge who initially heard the case. And they called the sentence "breathtakingly low," which, you know, the judge could have done anything. He didn’t have to increase the sentence, but he would have really had to justify very carefully what he was doing, because if the government could have come back with another appeal and said, "We want this reviewed again," there might be other legal options, as well, on the appellate side. So it seemed inevitable that some increase would happen. The question was how much?
What is really amazing about this case is that it has spanned now three presidents and five attorneys general. It has gone on for year after year after year. And at the heart of the charges against Lynne is that she violated special administrative measures, and she spoke about that in the comments she made earlier, this morning in the clip we heard. But what is not really talked about a lot is that was a pre-9/11 offense that has occured in a post-9/11 world, and it makes a huge difference in terms of the context in which this has all played out, because at the time that the SAMs were imposed in 1996, Rahman was one of the first individuals who had these SAMs applied to him. It was a very new legal tool. It was evolving. There were several versions of the SAMs that came out. It’s interesting to note that Patrick Fitzgerald, the assistant US attorney who was in charge of that process, when Lynne initially violated the SAMs, his reaction was not to seek an indictment. It was simply to give her a call and say, "Hey, you violated the SAMs. You’re not going to be able to see your client anymore," which is kind of what she was expecting. And it’s true, she was gaming the system to a certain degree. I think that there are a lot of judgment calls that maybe — certainly she — I’m sure she regrets at this point and that were probably the wrong decision to make at the time. But she was not barred from seeing him — well, she was for a while. And then she re-signed a new version of the SAMs, so —-
AMY GOODMAN: The special administrative measures.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yeah, the special administrative measures, which essentially are a series of security requirements. They’re designed kind of to prevent the defendant from communicating with the outside world. That was what she violated, in a sense. But they have other aspects to them which essentially keep defendants in total isolation, which is one of the reasons that she breached the agreement, because she saw how isolated he was.
AMY GOODMAN: And she said in the courtroom yesterday that she was sorry she didn’t challenge the SAMs from the beginning?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I think that that was a very significant comment, because today we see the SAMs applied in terrorism-related cases, not just post-trial, like in the case of the sheikh, Sheikh Rahman, but also pre-trial. Sometimes people are held in isolation for four years.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he was convicted of, why he was in prison, and how an attorney negotiates this, representing her client.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I think it was new territory for everybody, including Lynne Stewart, at the time when she first started representing him. And the issue here is what happened after the trial. He was accused of taking part in a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in and around New York City. It was an extensive case that involved a government informant, and he was convicted on those charges and sentenced to life in prison. After that, these special administration measures were imposed, and he was kept in total isolation. He’s also blind, couldn’t really read because he has diabetes, and so he couldn’t read Braille anymore -— his fingers weren’t sensitive. I think she saw her role as an attorney not only as an advocate in the courtroom, but as an advocate for her client, who I think she came to feel very close to during the course of this trial.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And ironically, I recall that Lynne was not the original attorney for the sheikh. The late William Kunstler was the original attorney for the sheikh, but he was removed from representing the sheikh by Judge Mukasey, who then later became the attorney general, and as a result of Kunstler being removed, then Lynne came to represent him. It’s ironic, as you say, that this case has gone on for so long, for so many years now, and that she’s been singled out in this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Her statement yesterday, very moving in the courtroom, when she talked about having learned no one, including a seventy-year-old woman, can do twenty-eight months standing on her head, something she had said when she had came out of the courtroom originally. Relieved at the two-and-a-half-year sentence, she had said, “I could do it standing on my head.”
And she said, “Prison has diminished me. Daily, I face the prospect of death, losing pieces of my personality. My sense of inquiry and compassion have turned to weariness, my thoughts regimented, my world, once filled with love and laughter and family, slipping away from me.”
And then they talked about what she had said on Democracy Now!, about she would do it again. And she said that she meant the "it" she meant in “do it again" meaning compassionately representing my client, I would do it again. "He was old and blind, no longer could read Braille, couldn’t communicate with anyone. It was his deteriorating health and conditions that compelled me,” she said, “not his politics." And she talked about the unreasonable restrictions, such as the SAMs, that she wished she had challenged right away.
So, can she appeal this?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yes, she can appeal this. Whether she will remains to be seen. I think she has about ten days to file an appeal, or fourteen — it was unclear from the proceedings yesterday. If she does, it’s risky, though, because then the government could appeal the sentence. They were seeking fifteen to thirty years. They could say, "Ten is too low. Let’s go higher." And then who knows what the appellate court will do? So, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
The statement yesterday was very moving. I think that her record certainly did influence the judge, both in the first resentencing and, I suppose, in this one, because he did talk about it. She clearly is diminished. The word she used is very accurate.
AMY GOODMAN: Petra, you’re writing a book called The Best Terrorists We Could Find. This is a book on terrorism trials in the United States. Do you see what happened to Lynne Stewart as a lawyer in one of these cases affecting lawyers in other cases?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I’ve already seen it affecting lawyers in other cases. There was a case of a man named Syed Fahad Hashmi, who pled guilty last — he was actually sentenced last month after pleading guilty to charges of material support to terrorism. He was under the special administrative measures, which meant he was in total isolation for almost four years before his trial. It was almost impossible to get any information about his background, about the charges, any level of detail from his attorney, because the restrictions were so tight. And they know the risk, that maybe nothing will happen, but maybe something will happen, and something could be as bad as what is happening here.
I think Lynne definitely was unapologetic for her actions for a long time — in a sense, really made them angry, and that’s why it got to this level. But it could happen to others, and it certainly is something that I think weighs heavily on the minds of attorneys who take these cases.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And if she doesn’t appeal, what are the prospects of how — the earliest that she could get out?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I think that the rules under the federal — in the federal courts is that you don’t get too much time off for good behavior. She probably would serve most of the ten years, which would bring her out close to eighty years of age. And she’s ill, so there’s a question of how severe this sentence may be the ultimate sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: Petra Bartosiewicz, I want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist covering the Lynne Stewart case.