Frightened Jurors Convict Attorney Lynne Stewart

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by Jeff Mackler  /  March 2005 issue of Socialist Action

 

On Feb. 10 a New York federal district court jury convicted progressive attorney Lynne Stewart on five felony-count charges of conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and making false statements to the government.

 

The frame-up charges stemmed from Stewart's 1995 representation of Sheik Omar Abdel Rachman, the blind cleric and leading opponent of the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. Rachman, a member of the Islamic Group that had negotiated a cease-fire with the murderous Mubarak regime, was convicted, also on frame-up charges, of conspiring to blow up New York landmarks.

 

Stewart's codefendants and members of Rachman's legal team, Arabic translator Mohammed Yousry and paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar, were similarly judged guilty by a jury that had deliberated for 13 days following a seven-month trial.

 

Stewart, a distinguished New York attorney who has defended controversial clients throughout her 30-year legal career, will be disbarred. She faces up to 35 years in prison. She is 65.

 

Sattar was additionally convicted on spurious charges of "conspiracy to kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country" and "solicitation of crimes of violence." He faces life in prison.

 

Three jurors noticeably wept as the verdict against the defendants was read. One could not find her voice to affirm the verdict until prompted to do so by presiding Judge John Koeltl. All 12 jurors were victims of the climate of fear and intimidation perpetrated by a government that requires the constant injection of "terrorist" threats to attempt to justify its measures that undermine our democratic rights.

 

In the course of seven months, the prosecution failed to present a single piece of evidence proving or even attempting to prove that any of the defendants had participated in any terrorist acts. No evidence was produced that anyone had been harmed, that any plot to do harm had been planned or contemplated, or that any person was even threatened with injury.

 

The initial government indictment against the three defendants was dismissed by Judge Koeltl on the grounds that it violated U.S. Constitutional provisions requiring precision. The government's second or superceding indictment was even worse in regard to vagueness, but Koeltl led it stand and the witch-hunt trial for terrorists proceeded.

 

Judge Koeltl allowed the jury to hear selected recordings from 85,000 wiretaps, and other forms of electronic, audio, and visual eavesdropping on the defendants—including Stewart's conversations with her client—as well as press clippings reporting on terrorist activity worldwide.

 

The prosecution displayed a Federal Intelligence Security Act warrant to the jury in order to justify the government’s spying on Stewart's meetings with her client. The judge did not intervene, essentially concurring that such spying is not an illegal interference with the attorney-client relationship. He thus allowed the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of confidential representation to be trashed with impunity and flaunted before a jury that might have otherwise been outraged.

 

Stewart's attorney, Michael Tigar, challenged the government's unconstitutional incursion into Stewart's private conversations with her client in his opening arguments.

 

Stewart herself made the point with precision at a mass rally of 500 angry but cheering supporters a week after her conviction. Stewart, who had just come from a similar rally in Harlem, said, "The question that should be asked is not what I was doing in that room, but what was the government doing in that room?"

 

The judge all but allowed the prosecution to affirm, without proof, that the defendants were terrorists, based on press clippings recounting terrorist acts around the world, which the government itself had collected and turned over to the Rachman defense team.

 

However, the massive collection of press clippings was not introduced in court by the government as evidence of wrongdoing. This was in fact stipulated by the judge, who nevertheless allowed its introduction, under a hearsay-exception provision of the law, as "historical background" or to indicate the "state of mind" of the defendants.

 

The jury itself was declared "anonymous" for its own protection, allowing each juror to remain nameless throughout the proceedings and after. They were picked up from their homes in federal vans each day and similarly driven back, supposedly to protect them from discovery and recrimination by terrorists.

 

Charges of conspiracy

 

Conspiracy charges have long been employed by repressive governments to persecute opponents and stifle dissent. They require no evidence of actual crimes but rather merely an association with another person or group who is alleged, also without proof, to have engaged in a conspiracy to commit a crime.

 

In Stewart's case the conspiracy charge was bootstrapped into the proceedings based on the fact that, unbeknownst to her, paralegal Ahmed Sattar had engaged in phone conversations with Islamic Group members who were opponents of the Mubarak dictatorship and who were accused of terrorist acts.

 

Sattar himself committed no such acts. Although the government charged him with plotting to kill and kidnap, they did not consider it necessary to specify either the targeted country or the potential victims.  Sattar was also charged with soliciting the murder of unnamed people in unnamed countries. In his defense he admitted during the trial that he had issued an angry statement (fatwa) in Rachman's name but without his permission.

 

The statement, urging that "all Jews be killed," was made in a moment of terrible grief, said Sattar, brought on by the open, televised, and savage murder of innocent Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army.  Sattar likened his words to a cry of pain at the horror suffered by innocent people.

 

Stewart testified, and the prosecution did not even attempt to prove otherwise, that she was totally unaware of and not in any way responsible for any contacts Sattar may have had with individuals accused by the United States of terrorism. Nor was she aware that Sattar has made any public declarations.

 

The mere fact that Stewart was associated with Sattar by virtue of her being the head of Rachman's legal team, of which he was a part, was used to connect her to unspecified acts anywhere and everywhere in the world.

 

Judge Koeltl, aware that the prosecution's entire terrorism/conspiracy charge against Stewart rested on its capacity to link her with Sattar and his contacts with enemies of the U.S. who are accused of terrorism, denied numerous defense requests that Stewart's case be severed and tried separately from the other defendants.

 

Press release “smuggled” from jail cell!  The essence of the government's case against Lynne Stewart is the charge that she "smuggled" out of a jailhouse meeting with her client a press release wherein Sheik Rachman had urged his followers to consider the merits of a cease-fire agreement that was in place between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government.

 

Stewart's action in this regard was in fact no secret.  She publicly informed Reuters News Agency of her client's views. Rachman's statement did not advocate violence or the breaking of the cease-fire agreement, only that it be reconsidered. Indeed, the Islamic Group did consider Rachman's views and decided to continue the cease-fire.

 

Stewart insists that the press release did not violate a Bureau of Prisons Special Administrative Measure (SAM) that aimed at preventing Rachman from communicating with his followers. The release contained no advocacy of violence, said Stewart, who demonstrated in the courtroom that similar press releases were the norm in regard to making her clients views public.

 

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Stewart's co-counsel during the Rachman trial, testified on her behalf during the frame-up proceedings that both he and a third attorney on Rachman's team, Abdeen Jabarra, had both issued press releases on several occasions in the same circumstances and without government interference, not to mention prosecution on conspiracy charges.

 

During the trial a government witness did testify that Clark had violated a government SAM. But a later government witness, apparently intent on avoiding the implication that the government would now move to prosecute the former top U.S. lawyer and  prosecutor, stated that the previous witness was mistaken.

 

Stewart insists that her action with regard to the press release was a "duty owed to my client" under the rules of ethics mandating good faith and tenacious representation. Keeping her client in the public eye, said Stewart, was part of her efforts, in association with Ramsey Clark, to negotiate an agreement between the U.S. and Egypt to transfer Rachman to an Egyptian jail, where he could associate with persons who spoke his language and would otherwise be more receptive to his medical and personal infirmities.

 

Stewart's defense of the attorney-client privilege has won wide support in the legal community. The National Lawyers Guild declared a day of public protest against her conviction. NLG members participated in protest meetings and press conferences across the country.

 

Judge allows bin Laden video

 

Also critical to the conviction of all three defendants was Judge Koeltl's allowing the jury to hear inflammatory "evidence" that included a videotape of Osama bin Laden.

 

While Koeltl had specifically opened the trial with instructions to the jury that the case had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center or bin Laden, he nevertheless later acceded to a prosecution request that this so-called evidence was "not offered for the truth" of bin Laden's statements, but only to demonstrate Ahmed Sattar's "knowledge, intent and state of mind." No evidence was presented that Sattar had any relationship to bin Laden.

 

The prosecution's intent, achieved with the judge's consent, was to associate and incriminate the defendants with persons, politics and deeds that had absolutely no relation to the charges against them.  Stewart told Socialist Action that she is innocent of all charges and will appeal her conviction. In the meantime, she and her attorneys will appear before Judge Koeltl on two more occasions before the appeals process begins.

 

The first will be to request that Judge Koeltl invoke Rule 29, a provision of the law that allows the presiding judge to vacate a jury's verdict should he decide that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. Most observers believe that Koeltl is unlikely to agree.

 

Second, Stewart and her attorneys are preparing for a scheduled mid-September sentencing hearing, where Judge Koeltl, under the provisions of a recent U.S.

Supreme Court ruling, has the discretion to render a sentence that is far less severe than the previously mandatory jail time required by the statutes under which defendants are convicted.

 

Stewart's defense committee is encouraging supporters to write Judge Koeltl, c/o one of her attorneys, Jill R. Shellow-Lavine, Esq., 2537 Post Road, Southport, CT 06890, to urge that Stewart's proud record as an attorney and exemplary personal history should be taken into account.

 

Judge Koeltl today has the right to sentence Stewart to probation with zero jail time, as opposed to 35 years. Stewart's supporters do not consider such efforts to be an admission of guilt but rather a just and necessary effort to limit punishment while Stewart prepares her appeal to exonerate her completely.

 

Stewart remains free on $500,000 bail pending the final outcome of her appeals, but is restricted, at least for the moment, to travel only within New York State.

 

The all-out defense of Lynne Stewart is an obligation for all who cherish democratic rights and civil liberties. A broad and united effort is required to reverse the cruel, unjust, and reactionary verdict issued by a panicked jury in troubled times. Contact the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee at (212) 625-9696.  Generous contributions are welcome.

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