The conviction of defense lawyer Lynne Stewart after a vengeful prosecution by the Justice Department, who now faces a sentence of up to 20-30 years in federal prison, has shocked defenders of civil liberties. Over the course of her long career as a left-wing defense lawyer, she represented Attica prisoners, Black Panthers, suspected terrorists, and student activists, and vigorously defended civil liberties.
Stewart’s arrest stemmed from her defense of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Sheik Rahman was connected to an organization called the Islamic Group, and was on the Secretary of State’s terrorist watch list. The government watched Stewart for years and set up every conceivable barrier to the vigorous defense of her client. This included a massive amount of wiretapping and interception of correspondence (with and without warrants), and the issuing of Special Administrative Measures (gag orders issued to prevent communication between prisoners and the outside world, or even their lawyers on certain topics).
Finally, when Stewart issued a press release written by Rahman, which called for a withdrawal of a ceasefire between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government, the Justice Department arrested Stewart along with paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Arabic interpreter Mohammed Yousry. Stewart was charged with five counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States and also with “conspiring to prepare to assist a conspiracy” to conduct terrorism – even though “conspiring” to “prepare” is two steps removed from any sort of criminal act.
As Marxists we do not support the political ideas or methods of Rahman or the Islamic Group, nor do we necessarily agree with Stewart’s decision to issue Rahman’s call for ending the Islamic Group’s ceasefire. However, we recognize that the “war on terrorism” has meant a massive assault on civil liberties. Denying basic rights to “terrorism suspects” and attacking their lawyers sets a very dangerous precedent that will be used against other opponents of the government in the future.
The fact that the Bush administration wants to put Stewart in jail for 20-30 years sends a vengeful message: Flout our rules and we will lock you up for life. This is a warning to the lawyers of Guantanamo Bay detainees – don’t vigorously defend your clients or you will find yourself sharing a cell with the people you are representing. This is especially meant to silence any opposition to the war in Iraq and the attacks on our rights and living conditions here at home.
We have the power to stop these repressive measures in their tracks. We must go out into the streets, not only to secure Stewart’s freedom but to fight back in the war that Bush and his co-conspirators have been waging against us.