By MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH
Sixty-two-year-old New York City criminal defense attorney Lynne Stewart is looking at 18 years in a federal prison. To help put her there, Attorney General John Ashcroft flew from Washington to New York to preside over a press conference announcing her indictment and that of three Arab men, charging them with “materially aiding terrorism.”
Stewart was the defense trial attorney for Egyptian exile Sheik Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 for seditious conspiracy in connection with the first bombing of the World Trade Center. Lynne continued to represent him and visit him in prison.
The Sheik was the main Islamist opposition leader to Egyptian President Mubarak, whose client regime receives more U.S. aid than any other country except Israel. The blind cleric was indicted six months after the other defendants at Egypt’s request and is now serving a life sentence.
Two years ago, when the Democrats held the presidency and before 9-1l, Stewart visited the Sheik in prison. The government spied on her visit with her client. It is this surveillance, in contravention of the attorney client privilege, upon which Republican John Ashcroft fashioned his belated indictment, this underscoring the political nature of her “crime.”
Ashcroft is not much of a defender of civil liberties and in fact belongs to an organization that supports the institutions of the pre-Civil War South. He has refused to condemn slavery. He claims that in cases of “national security” he has the right under the newly passed USA Patriot Act on his own edict to surveil attorney-client meetings, and he is not bothered that this police spying nullifies our adversarial system of justice.
Stewart’s indictment accuses her of announcing at a press conference that her client no longer supported a cease-fire in Egypt, in contravention to a promise Stewart made not to disclose the contents of her speech with her client. She is also charged with distracting a prison guard while the Sheik spoke in Arabic to his translator. Stewart does not speak or understand Arabic.
Stewart appeared in Federal Court in Foley Square for her indictment. The judge asked how she would plead. “Emphatically not guilty,” she replied.
What’s at stake? The Sept. 11 attack handed the rightist Bush administration its agenda on a silver platter, especially with respect to civil liberties, whose erosion was qualitatively deepened with the hasty passage of the USA Patriot Act. The 342-page bill was approved by a stampeded Congress sight unseen, with several members of Congress reportedly phoning the ACLU later to ask about what they had voted for.
What they voted for is a compilation of measures which had previously been objected to by Congress over the last several years as being too offensive to our rights. The new law is of a piece with the arrests and secret detentions, without charges or bail, of over 1000 immigrant aliens of Arab or South Asian nationality and the holding of prisoners of war in Guantanamo, Cuba, without trial, as guaranteed by international law.
The FBI has now been unleashed at a local and regional level to tap into people’s computers and phones, to bug their homes and offices, to uncover what books they take out of libraries and buy on the internet, to infiltrate their political and religious organizations, and to participate in their internet communications.
It is like Cointelpro of the past-when the secret political police were instructed to infiltrate, disrupt, and neutralize political opposition. But this time, with their high tech capacity, their supplemental budget, and an intimidated and fearful public, we have Cointelpro on steroids.
Contributions to the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee may be sent to 351 Broadway, New York, NY 10013.