Civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has been ordered to prison to begin serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence after a federal appeals court upheld her conviction on Tuesday. Lynne 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. The panel also described Stewart’s twenty-eight-month sentence as "strikingly low" and sent the case back to the trial judge to determine whether she deserved a longer prison term. In a Democracy Now! national broadcast exclusive, Lynne Stewart joins us from New York. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has been ordered to prison to begin serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence after a federal appeals court upheld her conviction on Tuesday.
Lynne 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’s serving a life sentence on terror-related charges. Prosecutors had sought a thirty-year sentence, but Stewart was sentenced to two-and-a-half years after the judge rejected the prosecutors’ argument that she threatened national security and ruled there was no evidence her actions caused any harm.
On Tuesday, a three-judge appeals court panel ordered the trial judge to revoke Stewart’s bond and said she must begin serving her twenty-eight-month sentence. The panel rejected Stewart’s claim she was acting only as a “zealous advocate” for her imprisoned client when she passed messages for him. The appellate ruling said, quote, “a genuinely held intent to represent a client ‘zealously’ is not necessarily inconsistent with criminal intent.”
The panel also described Stewart’s twenty-eight-month sentence as, quote, "strikingly low" and sent the case back to the trial judge to determine whether she deserved a longer prison term. The ruling said Stewart, who’s seventy years old, was to surrender to US marshals immediately, but her lawyers won her an extension until at least 5:00 p.m. today.
Well, Lynne Stewart has come to our studios here in New York. And we welcome you, Lynne, to Democracy Now! Can you describe your reaction to the ruling?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, in its sweeping and negative tone, I must say I was first a little bit shocked, because we had expected, or had hoped, at least, that some of these important constitutional issues would be decided, and then very disappointed, on my own behalf, certainly — personally, you can’t discount — but actually, for all of us, Amy, because these important constitutional issues — the right to speak to your lawyer privately without the government listening in, the right to be safe from having a search conducted of your lawyer’s office — all these things are now swept under the rug and available to the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you, for people who haven’t followed your case, explain exactly what happened, why you were 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.
The course of the case followed. We tried the case in 2005 to a jury, of course sitting not ten blocks from the World Trade Center, and an anonymous jury, I might add, which I think went a long way to contribute to our convictions. And all three of us were convicted. Since that time, the appeals process has followed. The appeal was argued almost two years ago, and the opinion just came like a — actually like a thunderclap yesterday. And to just put it in perspective, I think, it comes hard on the heels of Holder’s announcement that they are bringing the men from Guantanamo to New York to be tried. That — I’ll expand on that, if you wish, but that basically is where we’re at. It’s said that I should be immediately remanded, my bail revoked.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lynne Stewart. She could be going to prison at any point. Lynne, I wanted to read to you from the Times, their description, saying, “In addressing whether [Ms.] Stewart’s sentence was too lenient, Judge Sack wrote that Judge Koeltl had cited her ‘extraordinary’ personal characteristics, and had described her as ‘a dedicated public servant who had, throughout her career, “represented the poor, the disadvantaged and the unpopular.”’
“But Judge Koeltl had declined to determine whether Ms. Stewart had lied at trial, a factor he should have considered in weighing her sentence, Judge Sack wrote. ‘We think that whether Stewart lied under oath at her trial is directly relevant to whether her sentence was appropriate.’”
What they talking about? What is their accusation about you lying at trial?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, of course, I’m not rendering a legal opinion here, Amy, because I’m officially disbarred. But I will say that my understanding of the law is that the judge may consider whether or not a client or a person who testified in their own defense lied or even shaded the truth to their own benefit. And my sense of reading — and I haven’t read them over recently, but my sense of the sentencing was that the judge did consider it, at least in a manner. He basically said he did not think it was relevant, and the court of appeals argued with this.
I, of course, committed no perjury. I spoke on my own behalf. I described what I did. I’m not sure that the court of appeals may have liked what I said, but that is, you know, because the US attorney went into my politics at great length, as if to say, “See, she has radical politics, so we know she would have done something radical.” I’ve always said my politics are very, very different from the sheikh’s politics, and that was an unfair cut. But notwithstanding that, they do have the right to consider it. It can be something, if the judge believed you lied, that can increase your sentence.
I have every reason to believe that Judge Koeltl, who is a most careful judge, a most — a judge described, in the opinion by Judge Calabresi, as being someone who makes very wise decisions, considered it — considered it, rejected it, and went ahead. This was the number —- the sentence he arrived at, twenty-eight months, and we hope that he will retain the courage that he had in making that sentence, to stick with it now that the government, through the Second Circuit, has challenged it.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart, as you were being sentenced in 2006, you had breast cancer. How are you today? How’s your health?
LYNNE STEWART: The breast cancer is good; I have no recurrence. I just had a mammogram, even though I’m seventy. I don’t know how that falls into the new warnings. But at any rate, I’m cancer-free. I have some other aging problems, woman plumbing stuff, which I actually am scheduled for surgery on December 7th. My lawyers are hoping to be able to go to the Second Circuit and ask them to extend the period of time that I would have to surrender, in order that this surgery may be accomplished right here in New York at Lenox Hill Hospital. We’re not sure of that. It does seem that they’re -—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how this happens today, because at this point you have an extension until 5:00 p.m. today —-
LYNNE STEWART: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- before going to prison? What will happen today?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, the judge has asked the lawyers to research whether he has the power at this point — I mean, this is like ancient English Magna Carta law. You know, the case has been appealed. It’s in the Second Circuit. In order for him to order me to prison, it has to be before him. In other words, the papers, I guess, have to be carried from the upper floor to the lower floor to the district court. He wanted them to research whether or not he can do anything before he has that mandate. He, of course, can decide that I’m turning myself in tomorrow. He can also decide that he doesn’t have it until —- usually the mandate takes a week to ten days to come down. So we’re sort of on the edge. It will not preclude my lawyers from going to the circuit directly and asking them to stay their order of my immediate remand and revocation of bail. So we’re sort of on the edge. We’re -—
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know where you will be imprisoned?
LYNNE STEWART: Say that again?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know where you will be imprisoned?
LYNNE STEWART: No. See, that’s one of the other reasons. It’s not only my surgery. It also is the fact that I’ve never been designated and also the fact that the pre-sentence report on which they usually base these designations is three years old at this point. It doesn’t take into account anything that has happened since then.
So we think there are some grounds for extending the time, but I think it’s fair to say that at this point I have brought my books and my medicines with me to go to court this afternoon, and I expect — I expect the worst, being Irish, but hope for the best, because I’m a leftist and always optimistic.
AMY GOODMAN: What books have you brought with you?
LYNNE STEWART: I have Snow by — I never pronounce his name right — Orhan Pamuk. I have The Field of Poppies; I can’t remember the author, terrible, given to me by a dear comrade, Ralph Schoenman. And I have a couple of mysteries, because I’m an addict of mysteries, and it passes the time quickly for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, would you do anything differently today, or would you do anything differently back then, if you knew what you knew today?
LYNNE STEWART: I think I should have been a little more savvy that the government would come after me. But do anything differently? I don’t — I’d like to think I would not do anything differently, Amy. I made these decisions based on my understanding of what the client needed, what a lawyer was expected to do. They say that you can’t distinguish zeal from criminal intent sometimes. I had no criminal intent whatsoever. This was a considered decision based on the need of the client. And although some people have said press releases aren’t client needs, I think keeping a person alive when they are in prison, held under the conditions which we now know to be torture, totally incognito — not incognito, but totally held without any contact with the outside world except a phone call once a month to his family and to his lawyers, I think it was necessary. I would do it again. I might handle it a little differently, but I would do it again.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart, I want to thank you for being with us. I hope we can talk to you in prison. Lynne Stewart has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail, to be served beginning today, unless a judge is able to intervene. Thanks so much for being with us.