From Consortium News
The People's Attorney, Lynne Stewart, on 24 February 2007.
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Civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart, who died March 7 from cancer, saw her condition worsen while she was in prison as a result of her legal representation of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric who was convicted of planning terror attacks. The U.S. government then won a conviction against Stewart for passing on messages to the Sheikh's friends and supporters.
Journalist Chris Hedges wrote about Stewart in 2014 after Stewart was released having served four years of a 10-year sentence. Suffering from terminal cancer, she received a compassionate release after thousands protested and signed petitions against her continued incarceration.
Hedges wrote: "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 upheld the tradition of the people's lawyer as embodied in the work of Clarence Darrow and William Kunstler. Like them, she deeply believed that all people deserved a vigorous defense.
I interviewed Stewart for the Flashpoints show on Pacifica Radio, along with her husband, Ralph Poynter, in 2014, right after her release from Maximum Security prison in New York.
Dennis Bernstein: Why do you think they put you in jail? Is it because for a zillion years you represented the poorest of the poor, the people who really had the right to be represented, but not the money?
Lynne Stewart: Well, I think it's a combination really of wanting to send a warning shot, as we say, to ice the zeal of lawyers who represent such people. I mean, the fact of the matter is that I was the stalking horse, and they wanted to let lawyers know they could represent controversial people but they had to do so within the bounds set by the government: "Do it our way." Don't do it the way, you and the client, I mean which is traditional thing. You sit with the client, you decide on a strategy and you do it. But, no, they wanted to make it, "You have to do it within the parameters we suggest." And that, of course, is a terrible incursion on the attorney/client privilege, and the relationship.
DB: How thoroughly were you and your clients bugged?
LS: Well, we didn't know it, at the time. But, it was visits, in a prison setting, and they recorded everything. They had audio and visual. And it was very funny because they couldn't put it like where we would be seeing a camera or anything, so they mounted it above our heads. So you see these hands moving across a table. The Sheikh's hands, my hands, my interpreter's... really showing nothing. But they liked that, they liked that, just everything they could get.
DB: And where are we? Here we are, 2014, where we're seeing endless revelations about the level of national security activities that undermine all the core aspects of free speech. How would you evaluate where we are now, in that world of first amendment free speech? Do we have any left?
People protest for the release of Lynne Stewart in NYC, July 1, 2013.
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LS: Well, I tell you, it was interesting. You know, of course, we raised that as an issue for the case, when I was indicted. That their intrusion in 6th amendment sacred precincts should preclude them from being able to prosecute. However, by that time, the Patriot Act had been passed, in the interim between the time they did it, and the time that we raised this. And it was more or less to say, well, under the Patriot Act they could do it, so what's the problem?
Even though it was not done under the Patriot Act. But it's the halo effect of the Patriot Act that allowed them to do it. And I think that that covers a lot of situations nowadays. Now they want to be able to take someone's cell phone, which is really a mini-computer. And if you're arrested they can get any information off there, including medical information, including any information that's private and confidential. So the fact of the matter is, I think we all have to say ourselves [...] "What would I say, freewheeling. They're out there, they can get anything they want, whenever they want it." And we act accordingly.
DB: Lynne Stewart in the studio, she's free, she's with us. What's the advice [for lawyers]? Should they take on these tough clients? Should they be afraid?