The defense continues closing arguments in the trial of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart. She is accused of conspiring to assist terrorists in a case that is being watched closely by lawyers around the country. She faces up to 45 years in prison. Lynne Stewart joins us in our firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]
Closing arguments in the trial of human rights lawyer Lynne Stewart continued yesterday in a packed New York courthouse just blocks from our firehouse studio.
Stewart is accused of being part of an international conspiracy to provide support to terrorists, of conspiring to defraud the United States and making false statements. She is being tried with two co-defendants, the Arabic translator Mohammed Yousry and a Staten Island resident Ahmed Abdel Sattar.
But the focus of the trial centers on a man already in jail, the Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the blind sheikh who is serving a life sentence on terror-related charges.
While he is still in jail, the government is accusing Stewart, who is the sheikh’s attorney and her two co-defendants of conspiring to sneak messages into the sheikh and then to sneak his words out. Most notably the government claims the three conspired to release a press release announcing that the sheik no longer supported a cease fire in 2000 between the militant Islamic Group and the Egyptian government.
The case is being closely watched by defense attorneys around the country who fear the government aims to limit their freedom to fight for unpopular clients.
The 6-month trial 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. If convicted, Stewart faces up to 45 years in prison.
Stewart is being defended by the acclaimed attorney Michael Tigar who is best known for representing Terry Nichols during the Oklahoma City bombing case.
On the first day of his closing arguments, Tigar said the case against Stewart was a “house of cards,” and that prosecutors presented no evidence that Stewart knew of any conspiracy or even if one existed. He argued that Stewart is being prosecuted on hyped-up terror charges to destroy her career of defending unpopular clients.
Tigar said “If a lawyer is sworn to represent someone who is despised and neglected and hated, it is a mark of pride and badge of honor to pay attention to that client’s needs.”
- 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart will be headed to the trial right after this program. Your response so far, Lynne Stewart. Your lawyer calls you courageous, brash and feisty. The thousands of tape recordings that have been made, did this number surprise you? What is it now, 8,500?
LYNNE STEWART: No, 85,000.
AMY GOODMAN: 85,000.
LYNNE STEWART: They were mainly made of Mr. Sattar’s telephone, and then laterly Mr. Yousry’s telephone. I was never tapped. I was never a target until John Ashcroft decided to make me the centerpiece of this particular prosecution. But it is notable that with all of these calls, and supposedly a conspiracy, that we question, I’m not on any of those calls. I’m just not there. It’s just not — my name is not mentioned. There’s no reference to the female lawyer who’s going to help us out with this or anything else. So, the absence of evidence is also supposed to count for something, I think. So, we’re a winding down, in answer to the first question, I guess. The six month-trial. I was on the witness stand for three weeks, which Michael will be commenting on today. At least at this point it will be in the hands of the jury, and as I have said to you before, Amy, I have great faith in the jury system. I’m not saying it works perfectly, because of course, it brings inherently all of the prejudices of the society.
AMY GOODMAN: The prosecutors have raised a lot of questions, and in the summary arguments as well, about why you went and visited the sheikh in prison. I mean, they say it’s a life sentence, no chance of getting out. Raised questions, and of course, focusing on that 2000 release that you were trying to communicate with his supporters in Egypt, when the government was trying to cut off all communication to say — end the cease-fire?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, of course, we do. As Michael said yes, we lawyers do this kind of pro bono work for people who are despised or thought little of, we wear that as a badge of honor. It wasn’t me alone, of course. That’s one of the big points of our case. It was me. It was Ramsey Clarke, Abdean Jabar. We were all doing this. The tapes show we all dealt with him in pretty much the same way. It was mainly done because you want to keep pressure on the government so the conditions don’t worsen. You want to bring up a lawsuit if the time is right to make a lawsuit. You cannot let the government dictate how you practice law. Lawyers being autonomous is really to some degree the backbone of the entire legal system when it does work well, and lawyers making decisions based on the rules of ethics. So, those things are all in the case, but I always like to say, there’s absolutely no proof that I’m linked to any terrorist conspiracy. That they have to prove. The second thing is, everything I did Ramsey Clarke did, Abdean Jabar did, and I’m sure the jurors are going to say, why aren’t they arrested and why aren’t they part of this?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Why do you think that Ashcroft decided to target you specifically, and to go after you in this way that even most defense lawyers, no matter what their political persuasion cannot believe happened?
LYNNE STEWART: Yeah, I think that. well, Ashcroft, as we know, has a certain viewpoint, and a certain viewpoint towards women, I think is clear also. So, my friends do say, if you don’t think this has to do with your being a woman, you’re crazy. But I also think that one of the things they said in their summation was something like, if it’s a revolution, Stewart’s for it. She will back any revolution. Like I’m some wingnut — left wing — wingnut out there, espousing soapbox violence for everything. They sort of wanted to commingle my personal politics with my work as a lawyer. They are really, very, very separate. I’m hardly a fundamentalist. But I think Ashcroft saw me as an easy target. I hope he now knows that he was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: They also accuse you of covering up political conversations that your translator was having with Sheikh Abdel Rahman, putting out words that might cover as they were having a conversation, since you weren’t supposed to have political conversations, but only legal conversations. They knew this because they were recording your conversations.
LYNNE STEWART: Exactly. You know, when you visit someone in a jail, when the guards seem to get too interested, we now realize they were so interested because the F.B.I. was in the next room taping all of this. It was a different scenario, but we couldn’t understand why they were leaning in, why they would turn around and look at us. We said, let’s deal with this. I know that I have the right as a lawyer to protect my client’s confidences, whatever they may be. If he says, I’m having trouble with my teenage son, I’d like you to tell my wife to do this and that. He has to have confidence in saying that to me, confidence in me and also a confidence. So, when we whisper, we lawyers, when we talk in somebody’s ear, whatever way we do it, even Patrick Fitzgerald, who was their first witness, the government’s first — the sinny qua non prosecutor, said there are things that lawyers do that are secret and we are bound to protect them. Thats all we were doing. There was no big secret. When they recorded it, we were equally protecting conversations that are totally innocuous to those which might have had political content.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In other words, they are prosecuting you for being too good at preventing them from being able to listen in on what should be confidential conversations with your clients?
LYNNE STEWART: Exactly, Juan. As Michael Tiger likes to say, they were not supposed to be listening in, but you’re wrong for preventing them from listening to what they’re not supposed to listen to. It’s a little convoluted, but it is sort of the hallmark of the entire case.
AMY GOODMAN: We will continue to follow this case, again closing arguments continue today in New York at 40 Foley Square. It is open to the public. We went down yesterday afternoon to hear the beginning of these closing argument, and we will continue to follow your case, Lynne Stewart, the attorney who faces 45 years in prison.