The lynching and disbarring of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, who because she has terminal cancer was recently released from prison after serving four years of a 10-year sentence, is a window into the collapse of the American legal system. Stewart -- who has stood up to state power for more than three decades in order to give a voice to those whom authorities seek to crush, who has spent her life defending the poor and the marginalized, who wept in court when one of her clients was barred from presenting a credible defense -- is everything a lawyer should be in an open society. But we no longer live in an open society. The persecution of Stewart is the persecution of us all.
Stewart, 74, is living with her husband in her son's house in New York City after being released from a Texas prison a month ago. Because she is disbarred she cannot perform any legal work. "Can't even work in a law office," she said softly last week when I interviewed her at the Brooklyn home. "I miss it so terribly. I liked it. I liked the work."
Her career as one of the country's most renowned civil rights lawyers coincided with the fall of our legal system. She said that when she started practicing law in the 1970s it was a "golden era" in which a series of legal decisions -- including rulings affecting police lineups and what information and evidence the government had to turn over to defendants on trial -- created a chance for a fair defense. But these legal advances were reversed in a string of court decisions that, especially after 9/11, made the state omnipotent. As citizens were stripped of power, she said, "a death of the spirit of the bar" occurred. Lawyers gave up, she said. They no longer saw defending people accused of crime as "a calling, something that you did because you were answering a higher voice."
"I don't want to make anything a kind of religious thing, it wasn't that, but you know, you defended people because they were up against the mightiest organism in the universe: the government of United States, whether they were state or federal," she said Thursday evening as we sat with her husband, Ralph Poynter, at her son's dining room table.
Stewart, working with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and lawyer Abdeen Jabara in 1995, was the lead trial counsel for Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim known as "the Blind Sheikh," who was convicted in October of that year for alleged involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He received life in prison plus 65 years, a sentence Stewart called "outlandish." She said Abdel Rahman was put on trial not for any crimes he committed but because the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, as well as Washington, was frightened of his influence over the Egyptian masses. The United States, along with Egypt, wanted to "take him off the scene" and "get him put away where he would no longer exert the influence he had." The cleric, now 75 and in poor health, is imprisoned in the medical wing of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.
The court, through numerous rulings, refused to let Stewart mount her defense, ensuring that the government prosecutors would not be challenged. The proceedings were a tawdry show trial, a harbinger of the many judicial assaults against Muslims in the United States after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I was based in Egypt at the time of the trial as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I remember being stunned at the repeated mendacity of the government prosecutors, who blamed Abdel Rahman for terrorist attacks he had, in fact, publicly denounced. The prosecutors, for example, accused him of orchestrating the killing of 62 people in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, although the sheikh at the time condemned the attack and had no connection with the Egyptian group that carried out the massacre. When the guilty verdict was read, Stewart burst into tears, "the only time I ever cried in the courtroom."
Stewart continued to visit the sheikh after the sentencing. Three years after the trial the government severely curtailed his ability to communicate with the outside world, even through his lawyers, under special administrative measures known as SAMs.
Abdel Rahman asked Stewart during a prison visit in 2000 to release a statement from him to the press concerning a negotiated cease-fire between the Egyptian government and militants. The Clinton administration did not prosecute Stewart for conveying the press release, although she was admonished and prohibited from seeing her client for several months. The Bush administration, however, in April 2002, with the country baying for blood after the attacks of 9/11, decided to prosecute her for the two-year-old press release. Stewart says she never expected to be charged for releasing the press statement.
Minutes before her arrest on April 9, 2002, her husband, who later would organize the successful fight to win her a compassionate release from prison after she diagnosed with breast cancer, was outside on the stoop of their house, which, she said, "in New York is where you go sit on the steps in the summertime when you can't afford to go to East Hampton." She heard him in a heated conversation.
"I go to the door and I hear him saying 'I don't see any badge, I don't see any warrant, what are you doing here, anyway?' " she said.
Assuming Ralph was being arrested, she told him to take it easy, she would have him home by lunchtime.
"I come around the door and the guy looks and says -- and he was clearly a cop, you know, the cheap shoes -- and he says, 'We're not here for you. We're here for her,' pointing to me," she said. "I was flabbergasted."
FBI agents took her from her home, and she was released later on a $500,000 bond signed by her three children.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to New York in April 2002 to announce that the Justice Department had indicted Stewart, along with a paralegal and an interpreter, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. Ashcroft that night went on "Late Show With David Letterman" to tell the nation of the indictment as part of the Bush administration's "war on terror."
In Stewart's trial the government again endlessly spewed myths about Islamic terrorism. It demanded a staggering 30-year sentence. U.S. District Judge John Koeltl instructed the jury more than 750 times that the photos of Osama bin Laden and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks shown to the jury by the government on a 10-by-12-foot screen were not relevant to the case. Stewart was sentenced, to most people's astonishment, to 28 months.