Lynne Stewart, in the vindictive and hysterical world of the war on terror, is one of its martyrs. A 73-year-old lawyer who spent her life defending the poor, the marginalized and the despised, including blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, she fell afoul of the state apparatus because she dared to demand justice rather than acquiesce to state sponsored witch hunts. And now, with stage 4 cancer that has metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones and lungs, creating a grave threat to her life, she sits in a prison cell at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is serving a 10-year sentence. Stewart’s family is pleading with the state for “compassionate release” and numerous international human rights campaigners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have signed a petition calling for her to be freed on medical grounds. It is not only a crime in the U.S. to be poor, to be a Muslim, to openly condemn the crimes committed in our name in the Muslim world, but to defend those who do. And the near total collapse of our judicial system, wrecked in the name of national security and “the war on terror,” is encapsulated in the saga of this courageous attorney—now disbarred because of her conviction.
“I hope that my imprisonment sends the wake up call that the government is prepared to imprison lawyers who do not conduct legal representation in a manner the government has ordained,” she told me when I reached her through email in prison. “My career of 30 plus years has always been client centered. My clients and I decided on the best legal course, without the interference of the government. Ethics require that the defense lawyer DEFEND, get the client off. We have no obligation to obey [the] ‘rules’ government lays down.
“I believe that since 9/11 the government has pursued Muslims with an ever heavier hand,” she wrote, all messages to her and from her being vetted by prison authorities. “However, cases such as the Sheikh’s in 1995 amply demonstrate that Muslims had been targeted even earlier as the new ENEMY—always suspect, always guilty. After 9/11, we discovered that the government prosecutors were ordered to try and get Osama Bin Laden into EVERY Muslim prosecution inducing in American Juries a Pavlovian response. Is it as bad as lynching and the Scottsboro Boys and the Pursuit of Black Panthers? Not as of yet, but getting close and of course the incipient racism that that colors—pun?—every action in the U.S. is ever present in these prosecutions.”
Stewart, as a young librarian in Harlem, got an early taste of the insidious forms of overt and covert racism that work to keep most people of color impoverished and trapped in their internal colonies or our prison complex. She went on to get her law degree and begin battling in the courts on behalf of those around her for whom justice was usually denied. By 1995, along with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara, she was the lead trial counsel for the sheik, who was convicted in September of that year. He received life in prison plus 65 years, a sentence Stewart called “outlandish.” The cleric, in poor health, is serving a life sentence in the medical wing of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. Stewart continued to see the sheik in jail after the sentence. Three years later the government severely curtailed his ability to communicate with the outside world, even through his lawyers, under special administrative measures or SAMs.
In 2000, during a visit with the sheik, he asked Stewart to release a statement from him to the press. The Clinton administration did not prosecute her for the press release, but the Bush administration in April 2002, the mood of the country altered by the attacks of 9/11, decided to go after her. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to New York in April 2002 to announce that the Justice Department had indicted Stewart, a paralegal and the interpreter on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. That night he went on “Late Show with David Letterman” to tell the nation of the indictment and the Bush administration’s vaunted “war on terror.”
“Rev up the military industrial complex,” Stewart wrote when I asked her what purpose the “war on terror” served. “Keep the populace terrorized so that they look to Big Brother Government for protection. Cannon Fodder for the ‘throwaways’ in our society—young, poor, uneducated, persons of color.”
Stewart’s 2005 trial was a Punch-and-Judy show. The state demanded an outrageous 30-year prison sentence. It showed the jurors lurid videos of Osama bin Laden and images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, and spun a fantastic web of Islamic, terrorist intrigue. To those of us who covered groups such as al-Qaida and the armed Islamic groups in Egypt—I was based in Cairo at the time as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times—the government scenarios were utterly devoid of fact or credibility. The government prosecutors, for example, blamed numerous terrorist attacks, including the killing of 62 people in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, on the sheik, although he publicly denounced the attack and had no connection with the radical Islamic group in Egypt that carried it out. And even Manhattan 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 were not relevant to the case. Stewart was sentenced to 28 months. The Obama administration appealed the ruling. The appeals court ruled that the sentence was too light. Koeltl gave her 10 years. She has served three.
Her family’s appeal for a “compassionate release” must defy the odds. Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) noted in a 2012 report, “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons,” that the Federal Bureau of Prisons rarely even bothers to submit compassionate release requests to the courts. Since 1992, the bureau has averaged two dozen motions a year to the courts for compassionate release. The bureau does not provide figures for the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release.
“No messy side effects—vomiting, diarrhea—thank goodness,” Stewart wrote to me about her cancer care. “I have one more treatment and then they have used all the poison it’s safe to use. I am bald but the hardest for me to endure, who has always relied on her memory and quick wit, is the chemo brain that slows and sometimes stops me.
“I am up at 4:30 [a.m.] and wait till the ‘Count’ is over and have a shower etc.,” she noted of her daily routine. “I get dressed and take a short rest (feet up) until breakfast at 6 am. I am in a room with 6 other women—the unusual mix of inmates and I rely on them to help me with just about everything—getting to the clinics, picking up meds, filling my ice bucket, helping with my laundry, etc. At 9:00 every day, they laughingly say, I go to the ‘office.’ That means email or the law library where I correspond and meet with women who need my help. I go back up by 10:30 and take a short nap till lunch. Meals here are meager and not well prepared. Of course, I have favorites—the hamburgers (beef THIN patty) served every Wednesday in every federal prison for lunch. Some of the women count their time in terms of how many hamburger days they have left! We are served cut up iceberg lettuce with a little red cabbage and carrots with meals and I have used my commissary purchases to concoct some more exotic dressings than those offered here.
“After lunch I go back to bed for a longer nap and then up for mail call—lots of letters, newspapers, magazines etc.” she wrote, “a time of the day I sometimes shed a few tears at the love and intensity of those who have written to state their support. Then supper and back to bed and reading—pure pleasure—much fiction (mysteries, Scottish etc. and authors I love Morrison, Sarmargo). [There is] some conversing with my roommates and then after the 9:00 pm count I am off to sleep. I have a hospital bed that is next to large windows—no bars. I can see the Trinity River, barely. Trees. This view of nature is responsible for keeping me alive in the real sense.
“I hoped that there would be common cause among the women here because we are all confronted by totally arbitrary authority every minute of every day,” she went on. “Prison is a perverse place of selfishness and sometimes generosity but not much unity. There are a few and we recognize each other but by and large the harsh realities of people’s origins and the system have ruined most of us. It is particularly horrendous to realize the number of children that the prison system rips from their mothers’ arms, thus creating yet another generation to feed the beast of prison industrial complex.
“I fear we are headed into a period of ever increasing cruelty to those who can least stand it,” she wrote. “As corporate agendas become national agendas there is a profound disrespect for all those who are not able to even get to the starting line. We do not love the children except when they are massacred—the daily mental, emotional deaths in the public schools are ignored. We are now a nation of Us and Them. I would HOPE that the people would recognize what is happening and make a move. After all, who in the fifties could have predicted the uprisings of the sixties? There must be a distaste and willful opposition to what is happening and a push to take it back—local movements scaring the HELL out of the Haves.”
In a 2003 speech at a National Lawyers Guild convention in Minneapolis, Stewart eloquently laid out her mission as an advocate, and more important as a mother and a member of the human race.
“For we have formidable enemies not unlike those in the tales of ancient days,” she told the gathering. “There is a consummate evil that unleashes its dogs of war on the helpless; an enemy motivated only by insatiable greed – The Miller’s daughter made to spin gold – the fisherman’s wife: Midas, all 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 money boxes.
“We now resume our everyday lives but we have been charged once again, with, and for, our quests, and like Hippolyta and her Amazons; like David going forth to meet Goliath, like Beowulf the dragon slayer, like Queen Zenobia, who made war on the Romans, like Sir Galahad seeking the holy grail,” she said. “And modern heroes, dare I mention? Ho and Mao and Lenin, Fidel and Nelson Mandela and John Brown, Che Guevara who reminds us ‘At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.’?Our quests like theirs are 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,” she said. “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 ones identity.”
From prison Stewart wrote to me in closing, “I have been fortunate to live a charmed life—parents who loved me without qualification (yes, we fought about Vietnam and my African American husband but I never doubted that they would always be there for me). I had children when I was young enough to grow with them. Today they are the backbone of my support and love. I came to politics in the early sixties and was part of a vibrant movement that tried to empower local control of public schools to make the ultimate changes for children and break the back of racism in minority communities. My partner/husband Ralph Poynter was always—60 years and counting—in my corner and when at a less than opportune moment I announced my desire to go to law school, he made sure it happened. I had a fabulous legal career in a fabulous city—championing the political rights of the comrades of the 60’s and 70’s and also representing many who had no hope of a lawyer who would fight for them against the system. I have enjoyed good friends, loved cooking, had poetry and theater for a joy. I could go on and on BUT all of this good fortune has always meant only one thing to me—that I have to fight, struggle to make sure EVERYONE can have a life like mine. That belief is what will always sustain me.”