Still fighting from behind bars
A federal appeals court upheld the harsher sentence imposed on lawyer and civil liberties championafter she was convicted on bogus charges that she "supported terrorism" while serving as attorney for an imprisoned Muslim cleric.
Stewart, who worked for decades as a defense attorney for clients targeted by aggressive prosecutors, was targeted herself in the Bush administration's "war on terror." In 2005, she was convicted for allegedly helping her client, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, communicate with an Islamic organization at a time when he was barred from contact with anyone but his attorneys. Her "crime"? Issuing a press release on behalf of her client.
Stewart was originally sentenced to 28 months in prison by U.S. District Judge John Koeltl. But federal prosecutors demanded a lengthier sentence on the grounds that her actions were a supposed danger to "national security." After an appeals court sent the case back to Koeltl, Stewart was given a 10-year-sentence--a potentially life-threatening one given her battle with breast cancer. That was the sentence upheld in late June.
Despite being behind bars since 2009 and suffering health problems, Stewart has continued to work for the oppressed and vulnerable in society. Here, she explains why she continues to fight for justice from prison.
MY NAME is Lynne Stewart, and I am currently jailed by the U.S. government at Federal Medical Center, a medical prison in Texas. I am serving a 10-year sentence. Before this, I was a top criminal defense lawyer in New York City for many decades.
Like so many others, I came to "the city" from somewhere else--not Kansas or Iowa, but only a subway ride away--Eastern Queens, white Queens of the 1950s. In l961, I lived with my infant daughter, Brenna, on Broome Street near Pitt, with a view of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Lower East Side was the beginning of a post-graduate education which was advanced in depth and racist enlightenment the following fall, when I began as an elementary school librarian in the heart of Black Harlem.
My experiences there and as part of the activist militant movement of the 1960s, particularly community control of schools; anti-Vietnam war; my meeting and partnership with Ralph Poynter, my husband; my subsequent move to PS 64 on 9th Street and Avenue C; and the challenge of fighting the problems of my own neighbors and community--all contributed to changing a very savvy innocent into a woman warrior for people's and particularly children's rights.
By the early '70s, the thrilling spirit of the 60's, and particularly our struggle around the schools, was dying--co-opted and blatantly coldly bought off. "Comrades" we thought were at the barricades shoulder to houlder with us were more interested in a job or an apartment or a political appointment than in saving the children, even their own. (The beginning of the "I got mine" mentality that has morphed into the privileged 1 percent.)
I was in a quandary: Should I squander my talents shoring up an educational system that was racist and doomed children to future failures or should I move on?
I will never forget the day I went, after school, to his storefront motorcycle shop to talk to Ralph. I told him that I felt if I remained in the school system, I would end up an eccentric, a shopping bag lady, driven mad by the daily wanton cruelty and racism. He said, "Well, what do you want to do?" (At that moment, I had two children, and he had four, and I was expecting our youngest. He had a struggling small business.)
I said, "You know, I always wanted to be a lawyer, go to law school." He said, with no hesitation, "Then I guess you better do it." And I did.
Our baby girl was born in April 1971. I started Rutgers Law School with a scholarship (a full ride, as the young people say today) in September, and was fortunate to find Arthur Kinoy, a renowned Constitutional law scholar and a warrior of the civil rights legal struggle in Mississippi, as a teacher. Thirty years later, when the government came after me, Arthur accorded me my highest accolade when, at a public rally he, said I was the "people's lawyer." And I was.
I don't want to present my career to you--that's for another day. I can say that for 30 years I practiced law as I lived my life, according to principles of love and service, that which we talk about every Sunday at St. Marks--the "do unto others" and the "love your brothers and sisters as yourself"--and according to the principles of Justice that have become part of my life from my years of political struggle. I had a forum to fight in--the courtroom--and I loved every minute of it.
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MANY OF you know that the U.S. came after me for being too good a lawyer for my clients, and when representing Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric, accused of terrorism on the word of a double agent, I made a press release to Reuters News on his behalf.
He had been a leader in the anti-Mubarak, free Egypt movement for 20 years and the news release was to express his views of the current situation in Egypt, publicly. For this, I was convicted of aiding terrorism. It is a joy to me that the Arab Spring that ousted Mubarak and the continuation of the Egyptian quest for true democracy has put the lie and the shame to the U.S. government.
When I spoke earlier of the philosophy I espoused during my career, I think it was best expressed in a speech I gave to the National Lawyers Guild Convention. I stated the following:
We have formidable enemies not unlike those in the tales of ancient days. There is a consummate evil that unleashes its dogs of war on the helpless; an enemy motivated only by insatiable greed, with no thought of consequences. In this enemy, there is no love of the land or the creatures that live there, no compassion for the people. This enemy will destroy the air we breathe and the water we drink as long as the dollars keep filling up their moneyboxes...
[W]e have been charged once again with, and for, our quests...to shake the very foundations of the continents.
We go out to stop police brutality, to rescue the imprisoned, to change the rules for those who have never ever been able to get to the starting line, much less run the race, because of color, physical condition, gender, mental impairment. We go forth to preserve the air and land and water and sky and all the beasts that crawl and fly. We go forth to safeguard the right to speak and write, to join; to learn, to rest safe at home, to be secure, fed, healthy, sheltered, loved and loving, to be at peace with one's identity...
Our quests are formidable. We have in Washington a poisonous government that spreads its venom to the body politic in all corners of the globe. We have war--big war in Iraq, big war in Afghanistan, smaller wars in Colombia, Central Africa, Southeast Asia. We have detainees and political prisoners at home and now...we have those Democratic and Republican conventions and then an election, with the corporate media ready to hype the results and drown out the righteous protests.
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WE STILL have quests, and they are not those that can only be accomplished by lawyers. They are for everyone. I am still fighting from inside the prison--speaking out for the underdogs and those who are always kicked to the curb.
I want to be in the real world (although this is real enough) to be able to organize everyone to the terrible torture and tragedy of prisons and particularly, the brave men and women, of the struggles of the '60s who are held in the harshest conditions, and have been for 30 or more years--to name a few, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jaan Laaman, Mutulu Shakur, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. Many more political prisoners are listed on the Jericho website.
I, too, confronted the judges who thought that my original sentence was too light for my "crime" on February 29 in the Federal Court at Foley Square. It was good that many people came to demonstrate collectively our contempt for this kind of prosecution and our recognition that their punishment of true defenders will not deter the brave warriors who seek justice!
First published at ZNet.