Crime of Courage
The Satya Interview with Lynne
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
For more information visit www.LynneStewart.org.
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