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.
As a prerequisite to being permitted to continue her work as Rahman’s attorney, Stewart signed an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to pass no information to or from her client other than what was legally necessary. As Sharon Chadha observes in The Middle East Quarterly: “Since the sheikh had already been convicted and had exhausted his appeals, Stewart’s role should have been limited to assuring his humane treatment in prison.”
But Stewart chose not to keep her end of the bargain. Instead, she repeatedly did precisely the things she had sworn never again to do. Her accomplices were the sheikh’s court-appointed translator Mohammad Yousry and a paralegal named Ahmed Sattar. Incontrovertible proof of their crimes was provided by secret FBI surveillance videos of Rahman’s prison visits with Stewart and the others. On these videos, Yousry can be seen conveying messages to and from Rahman while Stewart created what the prosecution described as “covering noises” by means of such actions as shaking a water jar, tapping on a table, and uttering random comments while pretending to take notes in her legal pad. The affidavit against Stewart stated that she, along with Rahman and Yousry, had “shared laughs” about the “fine acting job that [Stewart] was doing in successfully tricking the guards.” At one point, a cackling Stewart told her accomplices: “I can get an award for it.”
Perhaps Stewart’s most brazen transgression occurred in June 2000, when, in open defiance of the restriction against her facilitating communications to and from her client, she told the Reuters news service that Rahman had decided to withdraw his support for the cease-fire that the Islamic Group had negotiated with the Egyptian government three years earlier. In other words, the sheikh wanted his followers back home to resume their terrorist operations. One of their more noteworthy previous operations had taken place in 1997 (just before the cease-fire went into effect), when a number of Rahman’s followers, in an effort to force the U.S. government to release their leader, gunned down 62 people at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt.
Stewart also smuggled out of Rahman’s prison cell a fatwa (religious edict) that bore the sheikh’s name and exhorted “the Muslim nation to fight the Jews and to kill them wherever they are” by means of violent “Jihad.” In that same fatwa, Rahman instructed his fellow Muslims to help him win his freedom by killing Americans, “to treat them with brutality,” and to “drown their ships, shoot down their airplanes, kill them on earth, in the sea or in the sky, kill them everywhere you find them.”
Stewart’s support for Rahman’s vile objectives was clearly heartfelt. In a May 2000 conversation that the FBI secretly taped, Yousry informed the sheikh and Stewart that the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group had kidnapped some tourists in the Philippines and was threatening to execute them if Rahman were not set free. “Good for them,” Stewart retorted in praise of this “very, very crucial” development that she hoped would elevate Rahman’s standing among jihadists.
It is not at all surprising that Stewart should have felt an affinity for Rahman’s murderous goals. Indeed, she once told an interviewer: “I hope that my politics are represented in the people I actually represent.” It is worth noting that Stewart, who is a Maoist, has also defended such America-hating luminaries as Weather Underground bomber Kathy Boudin and Black Panther Willie Holder. More recently, Stewart has hailed Muslim jihadists as “forces of national liberation,” and has characterized “Islamic revolution” as “the only hope” for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. “If their people see that they want to reinstate a system of law [Sharia] and government that was in existence for hundreds and hundreds of years, I’m not going to judge,” Stewart says.
Moments before Judge Koeltl issued his ruling on Ms. Stewart’s extended sentence last Thursday, the defendant projected none of the smugness, the glibness, or the indomitable self-assurance that has long been her trademark. Suddenly, needing mercy, she was as meek as a lamb, telling the judge that she had found prison life to be much harsher than she could ever have imagined:
Over the last eight months, prison has diminished me. Daily, I confront 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.
People like Lynne Stewart, who have successfully gamed the legal system for years and decades on end, commonly grow to believe that they themselves will remain forever beyond the reach of actual justice. When that fantasy eventually crumbles, their smug smiles vanish rather quickly; they are in uncharted territory. Lynne Stewart’s day came last Thursday.
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