Every now and then, a smug, gloating know-it-all unexpectedly comes face-to-face with painful reality, causing his or her seemingly permanent smirk to be wiped away in a mere instant. For the self-proclaimed “radical human rights attorney” Lynne Stewart, such a day came last Thursday, when she learned, to her astonishment, that the length of the prison sentence she already has been serving will be more than quadrupled.
The roots of Stewart’s imprisonment date back at least to the year 2000, when she illegally smuggled messages from her incarcerated client, the Muslim terrorist sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, to his violent devotees in his native Egypt. In 2005, the now-disbarred Stewart was convicted of those transgressions. Given the serious nature of her crimes, prosecutors at the time asked the court to impose a 30-year prison sentence. But instead, judge John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court in Manhattan sentenced her to a mere 28 months. Koetl explained that while Stewart’s actions did indeed constitute “extraordinarily severe criminal conduct” – as well as “dishonesty and breach of trust” with “potentially lethal consequences” – during her long legal career she had “performed a public service, not only to her clients, but to the nation.”
Because her prison term was so short, a gloating Stewart instantly depicted herself as the victor in the case. Soon after her sentence had been handed down, she told a crowd of supporters: “He [the judge] gave me time off for good behavior, and he gave it to me in advance of the sentence … he said that my extraordinary work meant that I could not get a sentence that the government wanted.” Stewart then told the press not only that she could serve such a brief period “standing on my head,” but also that, if ever the opportunity were to present itself, she would once again do the very things for which she had just been convicted. After numerous delays, the 70-year-old Stewart finally began serving her 28 months in November 2009. Then, last Thursday, Judge Koeltl increased that sentence to ten years.
Stewart herself sowed the seeds of this bitter harvest by gloating without restraint after the original sentence had been handed down. Soon thereafter, prosecutors filed an appeal of the sentence, arguing that a more appropriate prison term would be in the range of 15 to 30 years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – after considering how egregiously Stewart had abused her position as an attorney in her dealings with Rahman, and how Stewart had subsequently committed perjury when testifying at her trial – overturned the original sentence and sent the case back to Judge Koetl, asking him to consider lengthening Stewart’s jail time. Koetl concluded that Stewart’s self-congratulatory statements and jovial demeanor in the aftermath of her first sentencing indicated “a lack of remorse” on her part, and suggested that “the original sentence was not sufficient.” Thus he imposed the ten-year sentence.
To provide context, a quick review of the precise nature of Stewart’s crimes, and the crimes of her client, are in order. The client, Omar Abdel Rahman, is the longtime “spiritual leader” of the Egypt-based Islamic Group, which was was originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and is closely linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. From its inception, the Islamic Group’s objective was to overthrow Egypt’s existing government and replace it with a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Eschewing diplomatic compromise entirely, the Islamic Group viewed violent jihad as the only acceptable means of advancing its power. In addition, the organization advocated the spread of violence and mayhem to “infidel” countries like the United States and its allies, and openly called for the destruction of Israel. In 1981 Rahman issued a religious edict condemning Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to death for the role he had played in negotiating peace with Israel; soon thereafter, Muslim fundamentalists assassinated Sadat.
In October 1995 a federal court in New York – in a case where Lynne Stewart served as the head of a legal defense team that also included Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara – convicted Rahman and nine co-defendants of seditious conspiracy for planning to wage a “war of urban terrorism” against the United States. This war, which Rahman never managed to launch successfully, was slated to feature the near-simultaneous bombings of the United Nations Building, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and the main Federal office building in Manhattan. According to prosecutors, the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, was also part of Rahman’s overall conspiracy, though the latter was never accused of helping to carry out that particular attack. In addition, Rahman was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1993. In January 1996, three months after his convictions, Rahman was sentenced to life in prison. Fifteen months later, the U.S. government, in an effort to terminate Rahman’s connections to active terrorists, blocked him from communicating with anyone in the outside world.