by Jeff Mackler
The following article appears in the December issue of Socialist Action newspaper.
The Nov. 16 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, to reject radical New York attorney Lynne Stewart’s appeal of her 2005 frame-up conviction on five counts of aiding and abetting terrorism is a legal and political atrocity. The court’s ruling is in line with the 9/11 witch-hunt “anti-terrorism” climate that has been orchestrated to stifle dissent, justify war and, in Stewart’s words, “chill the defense bar.” In interviews with the press, Stewart predicted that the ruling would set the stage for the upcoming U.S. prosecutions of Guantanamo prisoners.
The Second Circuit’s virtually unprecedented decision to order the revocation of Stewart’s bail and her immediate imprisonment took both her legal team, headed by Joshua Dratel, and federal district court officials by surprise since such orders are, as a rule, left to the district court judge—in this case John Koeltl, who presided over Stewart’s jury trial and sentencing. It took three days of discussions, legal wrangles, and informal meetings until Stewart was finally ordered to report for incarceration. She and her supporters used the time to organize two impressive send-off protest rallies in New York’s Foley Square, as well as a series of press conferences and a major interview on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!”
Stewart is currently at the Manhattan Correctional Center. Due to new regulations pertaining to overcrowded federal prisons, she may serve at least 10 months, if not all of her 28-month sentence there—unless the Second Circuit’s efforts to extend her sentence are successful.
The court’s decision affirmed all five conspiracy charges against Stewart. But its seething contempt for Koetl’s 28-month sentence, as opposed to the 30 years sought by government prosecutors, led the court to remand the issue of the length of the sentence to Koeltl with instructions that he consider whether Stewart had perjured herself during her court testimony. If so, the majority of the three-judge panel argued, her sentence should be extended.
The dissenting Judge Walker insisted that Stewarts’s 28-month sentence was “breathtakingly low” and “extraordinarily lenient,” and therefore, “substantially unreasonable.” He insisted, in the face of Supreme Court rulings that give federal judges wide discretion in sentencing, that it be vacated immediately as opposed to being referred back to Koeltl. Walker has called for an en banc hearing (a decision of all the Second Circuit judges) to consider his dissent.
Stewart’s trial took place in the shadow of the post-9/11 prosecutions and mass arrests of some 2000 Muslim-Americans, whom the government sought to associate wholesale with terrorist activities based on their national origin and religious preference alone.
The charges against Stewart referred to the fact that she had issued two press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric who she had defended against conspiracy charges of planning to blow up New York monuments. The Clinton administration’s attorney general, Janet Reno, declined to prosecute Stewart for what was at that time (before 9/11) considered at worst a minor infringement of a Special Administrative Measure (SAM) prohibiting making defense clients’ views known through press releases or other such public vehicles.
Punishment for such violations, as was the case with Stewart initially, was usually limited to temporary cancellation of attorney-client visiting rights until a new SAM, with clear guidelines, was signed. But in the post-9/11 climate of endless wars abroad, the Patriot Act, and associated attacks on civil liberties at home, government officials sought to make an example of Stewart, an outspoken radical critic of U.S. policies. Her “minor infraction” was elevated to a major conspiracy.
Stewart’s legal team in the Omar Abdel-Rahman case included former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee president and founder, Abdeen Jabarra. Sheik Omar, in Lynne’s view, was an innocent victim of reactionary “conspiracy laws” aimed at political dissidents.
The two press releases issued by Stewart were published by the Reuters news agency. They asserted Sheik Omar’s views on a cease-fire accord that his Egyptian co-thinkers had been considering scrapping in light of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s repeated violations, including the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator’s routine torture and murder of political prisoners and political opponents. His release affirmed, “I [Omar Abdel-Rahman] am not withdrawing my support of the cease-fire, I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.” The cease-fire remained intact and no one was harmed in any way as a result of the Sheik’s press statement.
Still fighting, Lynne’s attorneys asked the Second Circuit for a delay of her incarceration so that Lynne could undergo a Dec. 6 surgery scheduled at Lenox Hill Hospital. Her request was denied. Lynne, a diabetic with hypertension and recovering from breast cancer, will now have her operation performed at a prison-administered facility. Her request that her M.D. daughter observe the operation was similarly denied.
Meanwhile, a new sentencing hearing before Judge Koeltl is scheduled for Dec. 2 at the Foley Square Federal Courthouse. Federal prosecutors are expected to ask for the maximum sentence possible. Also appearing in court will be Mohamed Yousry, Lynne’s innocent co-defendant and translator. Koeltl was also ordered to reconsider Yousry’s 20-month sentence. The prison term of a third defendant in Lynne’s case, Ahmed Sattar, who was sentenced to 20-plus years, was not challenged.
One can only speculate as to whether Judge Koeltl will stand by his original sentence. If he does, government prosecutors are expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They, and obviously the Second Circuit, are outraged that a “convicted terrorist” has been traversing the country for the past five years, free to champion her own cause and those of all others who suffer political repression.
It was clear from Judge Koeltl’s relatively short sentence and high praise of Lynne’s record as an attorney and caring human being (a “credit to her profession,” said Koeltl during the sentencing hearing) that he felt compelled to take his distance from the government’s desire to put Lynne, 70, in prison for what would amount to the rest of her life.
Stewart will be appealing her conviction, as well as any lengthening of her sentence, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her defense committee is being re-enforced, with fresh forces joining the effort to further expose the political nature of her frame-up.
Lynne’s parting words brought tears of joy to her supporters at the final New York rally, where she was escorted to the courthouse for incarceration. She pointed to the urgency of winning Mumia Abu-Jamal’s freedom and to fighting against new efforts toward Mumia’s execution. She reminded her supporters of Joe Hill’s admonition, “Don’t Mourn! Organize!” Pam Africa, leader of the fight for Mumia’s freedom, was present and prominent among Lynne’s many supporters at this inspiring and tragic send-off of a fighter who is loved and admired by all who cherish justice and freedom.
The Nov. 21-22 meeting of the Coordinating Committee of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations, of which Lynne has been an active member, unanimously approved a resolution condemning her persecution and incarceration.
Tax-deductible contributions can be made payable to: “National Lawyers Guild Foundation (memo box, “Lynne Stewart defense”) and mailed to: Lynne Stewart Defense Committee, 350 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10013. Lynne is an avid correspondent. She would like nothing more than to hear from friends and supporters. Write her at: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, MCC-NY, 150 Park Row, New York, New York 10007.
-Jeff Mackler is the West Coast Coordinator of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee