Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 11, 13

Special Report

"People's Lawyer" Lynne Stewart Resentenced to Ten Years in Prison

By Jane Adas

Supporters of Lynne Stewart gather outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan on July 15, 2010. (Staff photo J. Adas)

Holding signs praising her as "the people's lawyer," Lynne Stewart's supporters filled the area set up for them by police outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan prior to Stewart's re-sentencing on July 15, 2010. There were so many that police directed some 200 people to a juror assembly room equipped with two large screens to observe the proceedings. Because the courtroom camera was focused only on the attorneys and the judge's bench, the overflow crowd heard the applause from the courtroom before they could see Stewart enter, dressed in a dark blue prison suit. Then they, too, burst into cheers and applause, as though willing Stewart to hear them eight floors above.

Stewart had served as a court-appointed lawyer for the appeal by Omar Abdel Rahman, "the blind Sheikh," of his 1995 conviction as a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group for seditious conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks. In 1998 the government imposed on Rahman a new legal tool, Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). Designed to prevent any communication with the outside world, SAMs in effect keep the prisoner in total isolation.

As his attorney, Stewart was required to sign a statement agreeing to abide by their restrictions. In February 2000, the FBI began videotaping Rahman's meetings with his lawyers and taping their phone conversations, thus nullifying attorney-client privilege. In June 2000, at Rahman's request, Stewart disclosed a press release indicating the sheikh's withdrawal of support for the Islamic Group's cease-fire with the Egyptian government. Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who became better known during the Scooter Libby trial, initially barred Stewart from seeing her client, then in May 2001 allowed her to resume visits, requiring her to sign another SAMs agreement.

In April 2002, following 9/11 and the onset of the Bush administration's "war on terror," then-Attorney General John Ashcroft went on the "David Letterman Show" to announce indictments of Stewart and two co-defendants for conspiring to defraud the U.S. by providing material support to terrorist activity. The case went to trial in June 2004 before Judge John Koeltl of the Southern District of New York. It lasted seven and a half months, resulting in convictions on all counts and Stewart's automatic disbarment. In October 2006, Judge Koeltl sentenced Stewart to 28 months, although the Justice Department had asked for 30 years.

The government appealed and on Nov. 17, 2009, the U.S. Court for the Second Circuit affirmed the vibrant 70-year-old activist's conviction, demanded that she begin serving her sentence, and remanded the case back to Judge Koeltl for re-sentencing. The appellate court instructed the judge to reconsider the "fortuitous fact" that no person was harmed by the conspiracy and ordered him to take "terrorism enhancement" into account. Introduced in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, terrorism enhancement in sentencing guidelines allows judges greatly to increase sentences if the offense promoted terrorism.

In her statement at the re-sentencing, Stewart said that, as a criminal lawyer, she knew prison was an alienating experience, but that the reality is worse than she could have imagined. "Over the last eight months, prison has diminished me," she acknowledged. "Daily, I face the prospect of death, losing pieces of my personality. My sense of inquiry and compassion have turned to weariness, my thoughts regimented, my world, once filled with love and laughter and family, slipping away from me." Stewart observed that the women prisoners around her are so needy, but institutional rigidity precludes opportunities for her to reach out to them. She became most emotional in talking about her fear of losing touch with her loved ones, whom she is allowed to see for one hour once a week, after which she "shrinks again." Her 15-year-old grandson was so upset by a visit in December that he refuses to return to the prison.

Stewart at the Feb. 24, 2009 New York screening of “Lynne Stewart: An American Story.” (Staff photo J. Adas)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember, speaking from a podium—out of camera range—accused Stewart of giving "aid to the pro-violence faction of a vicious terrorist organization." Dember gratuitously alluded to "Palestinian stone-throwers" and twice mentioned a fatwa calling for "the murder of Jews everywhere," while admitting that neither Rahman nor Stewart had anything to do with it. He concluded his lengthy statement by describing Stewart as "just another criminal who refuses to accept responsibility."

Judge Koeltl then read a 45-minute prepared statement addressing the technical issues of sentencing. He mentioned the mitigating factors of Stewart's age and poor health as a cancer survivor still undergoing chemotherapy; the fact that she committed the offense 10 years ago and has done nothing suspicious in the interim; her "remarkable record" as a lawyer for the poor, disadvantaged, and unpopular, without a view to personal profit; and the unprecedented 400 letters submitted on her behalf. "This is an exceptional case," he concluded. Nevertheless, the judge determined that the mitigating factors were not enough to overcome the severity of the charges. Noting that terrorist enhancement increased the statutory maximum sentence from 151 to 360 months, Koeltl then revised Stewart's sentence from 28 to 120 months.

Stewart's supporters collectively gasped; some in the overflow room sobbed. Stewart's counsel requested and was readily granted a 10-minute break. Then Stewart gave her statement: "I am somewhat stunned by the swift change in my outlook," she said. "I just feel that I've let a whole lot of my good people down."

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.