Half a century ago this month Martin Luther King wrote his famous prison protest against racial injustice, entitled ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. An excerpt reads: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Fifty years on to this very month, King’s defiant cri de coeur could hardly be more apt to express the barbarous injustice being committed by the US government against one of that nation’s bravest defence lawyers – Lynne Stewart.
Ms Stewart (73) is dying in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, from cancer that has spread from her breast to the rest of her body. Her family has little doubt that her life-threatening illness has been induced by the vindictive conditions of her incarceration by the US authorities.
Ralph Poynter, her husband for the past 50 years, and more than 10,000 petition signatories from across the world are mobilising to face down the barbarity of the American regime. Her supporters are demanding Lynne’s immediate release from her prison cell on compassionate and legally entitled grounds.
Lynne Stewart’s story is not just one of personal harrowing torment. The US state’s cruel persecution of this woman epitomises the general destruction of human rights and the rise of draconian police powers across America in the aftermath of 9/11 and the fraudulent “war on terror”.
This climate of repression and xenophobia also became evident last week in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, where one of America’s major cities was put under a state of virtual martial law for several days while the security apparatus hunted down two brothers, who were already known to these authorities.
Lynne Stewart came of age politically in the turbulent 1960s. Growing up in the poor New York working-class districts of Brooklyn and Harlem, she became a defence lawyer with the express purpose of upholding the rights of the oppressed, marginalised and downtrodden – many of whom were her friends and neighbours.
She witnessed how many of her friends from the African-American community were harassed and brutalised by American racist police forces. She saw how the courts denied justice to poor communities and how these communities were neglected and abandoned by elitist governments, to live in open-air prisons called inner-city ghettoes.
With irrepressible passion and wit, Lynne Stewart saw her duty to her fellow human beings as representing those who had been cast aside as untouchable and unwanted in an American society where all too often poverty and racial prejudice automatically impose a harsh life sentence of misery and suffering at birth. Without fear or favour, Lynne saw her vocation as, in her own colourful words, to not just defend those who couldn’t make it to the finish line, but to defend those who couldn’t even make it to the starting line.
Once, she stated publicly her purpose as a defence lawyer: “Our quests are formidable. We have in Washington poisonous government that spreads its venom to the body politic in all corners of the globe. There is a consummate evil that unleashes its dogs of war on the helpless. Our enemy is motivated only by insatiable greed, with no thought of other consequences. In this enemy there is no love of the land or the creatures that live there, no compassion for the people, no thought of future generations. 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 go out to stop police brutality; to rescue the imprisoned.”
Lynne’s words were not those of a bookish lawyer, but rather those of an impassioned human being who clearly saw injustice as an enemy of the people, as a political oppression that must be fought with all her body, heart, mind and spirit.
Her trenchant defence of the principle of presumed innocence saw her take on cases that many other attorneys shunned. These cases included members of the Black Panther movement and other radical social movements, such as Anti-Vietnam War, Weather Underground and Irish freedom fighters. She defended a great many other unknown ordinary citizens who were victims of daily American police brutality and racism. For Lynne Stewart, the courts were not a place to make a moneyed career in – they were battlegrounds to take up the plight of people who were victims of elite privilege and abusive state power.
During the 1990s, typically Lynne recognised the plight of American Muslims who were increasingly being harassed and demonised by America’s state security and police services. She took on the case of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh”.
Following the 1993 World Trade Center bombings in New York, the Egyptian-born cleric was accused in 1995 of “seditious conspiracy” in another plot to blow up various city landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the United Nations Building. Many observers denounced the prosecution as a set-up, pointing out that Sheikh Omar was poor, blind and disabled. Also, it was well known in the communities that FBI undercover agents had been for months going into mosques inveigling youths with these very same hare-brained terror schemes.
As with the recent Boston marathon bombings, there are many unanswered questions about the shadowy role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1993 New York blasts and the subsequent alleged landmarks bombing plot. There are strong suspicions that the FBI used “sting” tactics to entrap unwitting felons – in much the same way that many people have questioned how the two Tsarnaev brothers in Boston were permitted to apparently evade known security concerns.
Lynne Stewart was not intimidated out of defending Sheikh Omar even though the increasingly unhinged American corporate media portrayed him as the “embodiment of Islamic terrorism”. By then, there was a growing pernicious climate of Islamophobia in the US – a disturbing trend that has since become a hate-filled crescendo in the decade following the 9/11 explosions in 2001.
Sheikh Omar was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 along with nine other defendants. His prosecution was seen then as a travesty, owing to Lynne Stewart’s vigorous defence and evidence. For many observers, she proved in court not only the sheikh’s innocence, but also that the American government, the legal system and the law enforcement agencies were all implicated in insider-job terrorism and perverting justice. Recall that these revelations made by Lynne Stewart’s legal work were six years before 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror”.
True to her humanitarianism, Stewart maintained professional client relations with the incarcerated Sheikh Omar – who is currently serving out his sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina. The sheikh may have been behind bars, but Lynne Stewart continued working to clear his name and for his eventual acquittal.
This legal representation of an unfairly demonised man would lead to Lynne Stewart’s downfall in the following decade at the hands of the increasingly militant US authorities.
After 9/11, President George Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft instituted a raft of laws that would target defence lawyers and prevent their exercise of constitutional rights of free speech. Under these new stringent so-called anti-terror laws in the aftermath of 9/11, Stewart was accused of aiding terrorism because of her prison visits to Sheikh Omar and for allegedly passing written communications to his supporters on the outside. This latter accusation was based on a highly contaminated misrepresentation of a press release Lynne Stewart sent to the Reuters news agency concerning the case of her client. In the pre-9/11 era, such legal activities would have been considered normal confidential defence-client relations. Not any more; they are now seen as “collaborating with enemies of the state”. That is a measure of how extreme political and legal conditions in the US have deteriorated.
Lynne Stewart was arrested in 2002 and charged with “materially supporting terrorism”. Bizarrely – and indicating the witch-hunt climate that has gripped the US following 9/11 – the arrest was announced by Attorney General Ashcroft during an appearance on the David Letterman Late Show aired on the television channel CBS.
After a lengthy controversial legal battle, Lynne Stewart was herself sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment at the end of 2009 for aiding and abetting terrorists. She has now served more than three years of that sentence. Such is the sadistic nature of her incarceration, for some of the time she has been shackled with arm and leg irons to her prison bed, even while receiving medical treatment for her cancer.
The conclusion from this American state-sanctioned barbarity is clear. Lynne Stewart’s imprisonment is an attempt by the US regime to bury her alive behind bars. Of all people, Lynne Stewart knew best how the Washington shadow government of corrupt politicians and secret services were constructing the war-on-terror charade to demonise Muslims and create a climate of fear and paranoia in American society – a climate that would soon enable the shadow government to strip citizens of their human rights and constitutional protections. In a word, Lynne Stewart had to be silenced and got rid off. She knew too much and was too articulate about the vile inner-workings and scheming of the US secret state.
If voices like those of Lynne Stewart had remained free and active, it is probable that the US secret government would not be able to get away so easily with expanding its panoply of barbarities, such as the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, torture of detainees held without charge, the wholesale collapse of civil liberties, spying and surveillance on citizens, the illegal invasions and aggression towards other countries, and – perhaps the ultimate totalitarianism – the extrajudicial murder of foreign and American nationals with assassination drones by presidential order.
Owing to her life-long commitment to defending the rights of others and her rapidly deteriorating health, Lynne Stewart’s prison ordeal has won a growing public call for her immediate release, both within the US and across the world. Her case has also drawn widespread awareness and concern about the repressive trajectory of US society and the encroachment of a full-blown totalitarian police state.
Her cause has gained support from thousands of ordinary people who recognise Stewart’s towering defence of society’s weak and vulnerable members. Her supporters include human and social rights activists, UN special rapporteur on human rights Richard Falk, and many renowned thinkers and writers, such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Ralph Schoenman, Alice Walker and Cornel West, as well as former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice calling for Stewart’s immediate release, as has veteran American actor Ed Asner, who said: “Given the enormous good that Lynne Stewart has done for humanity throughout her life as a courageous lawyer for the poor, the oppressed and the unjustly accused, I am shocked by the cynical perversity of an American government that has pursued her savagely and vengefully.
Asner continued: “Lynne Stewart must be freed. The law requires her compassionate release and the medical care that can save her life. We must deny the US state a death sentence aimed at the freedom of us all. The state power that torments Lynne Stewart invades countries at will, murders hundreds of thousands with impunity and creates a climate of fear and repression to prevent the people of this country from calling those in power to account.”
Author and media commentator Ralph Schoenman said: “We must mobilize world opinion to stop the judicial and political murder of Lynne Stewart, an ominous measure of the mass repression in preparation for all working people and the oppressed. Few cases encapsulate so fundamentally the destruction of democratic rights in the United States as the persecution of Lynne Stewart.”
African-American comedian and political commentator Dick Gregory has vowed to continue a hunger strike until Stewart is freed. Nearly three weeks after refusing food, Gregory said: “The prosecution and persecution of Lynne Stewart is designed to intimidate the entire legal community so that few would dare to defend political clients whom the state demonizes and none would provide a vigorous defense. It also was designed to narrow the meaning of our cherished first amendment right to free speech, which the people of this country struggled to have added to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights.”
In sum, we may return to the words of the late Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is high time for the US authorities to free Lynne Stewart from her unjust imprisonment.
NOTE: Those wishing to sign the petition for Stewart’s release can do so here.
Finian Cunningham, originally from Belfast, Ireland, was born in 1963. He is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For many years, he worked as an editor and writer in the mainstream news media, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. He is now based in East Africa where he is writing a book on Bahrain and the Arab Spring. He co-hosts a weekly current affairs programme, Sunday at 3pm GMT on Bandung Radio.
Lynne Stewart is a New York attorney who is serving a 10-year sentence in the federal penitentiary for being a supporter of terrorism.
Two years after the 9/11 attacks, she read the following message from her client, convicted terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman, at a press conference in New York City:
“I [Omar Abdel-Rahmn] am not withdrawing my support of the cease-fire, I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.”
What’s criminal about that message?
The U.S. federal courts construed the message as exhorting the members of Abdel-Rahmn’s Islamic organization in Egypt, which U.S. officials had labeled a terrorist organization, to use violence to overthrow the Egyptian government. They said that made Stewart a supporter of terrorism.
The case is fascinating on several levels, not the least of which was that many Egyptian citizens were of the mindset that the Egyptian government was one of the most brutal, tyrannical military dictatorships in the world, one that had long oppressed the Egyptian people. It was, in fact, that deep-seated discontent among the Egyptian citizenry that ultimately led to the ouster of Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
So, why is that important?
It’s always been a belief of Americans that people everywhere have a right to use violence to overthrow tyranny. Stewart was convicted for going one step further and actually exhorting the Egyptians to use force to overthrow the tyrannical regime under which they had long suffered.
Let’s assume, hypothetically, that what Stewart did at that press conference was stand up and read the Declaration of Independence, specifically the following section:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
If she had done that, there is no way that the federal courts could have convicted her. After all, the Declaration of Independence is part of America’s heritage of freedom. It’s not against the law to read it in public.
Suppose she had added the following sentence: “The principles of the Declaration are not limited to Americans. They apply to people in every nation on earth who are suffering from tyranny.”
Could she then have been convicted? Again, I think that it would have been very difficult to convict her for supporting terrorism by simply extending the principles of the Declaration to people everywhere.”
Where Stewart crossed the line was in exhorting Egyptians to actually do what the Declaration says they have a right to do — use force to overthrow the Egyptian government.
So, why is that against the law? After all, one could rationally think that under principles of free speech, a person should be free to exhort people to do anything they want. After all, this is America, not Russia under Vladimir Putin, where people are being convicted for saying the wrong things.
There is one big reason why Stewart is in jail today for exhorting Egyptians to violently overthrow their government: The Egyptian government was a longtime ally and partner of the U.S. government and, therefore, wasn’t considered by U.S. officials to be a tyrannical regime that would trigger the right that Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration. Any American (or Egyptian) who would use violence to overthrow a non-tyrannical, pro-U.S. regime or exhort others to violently overthrow that regime is considered to be a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism.
Among the things that the Egyptian people hated most about Mubarak’s military dictatorship were the “emergency” powers enforced by Mubarak and his military, police, and intelligence forces. Such powers had come into existence some 30 years before, when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. The “emergency” enabled Mubarak, who was a military man, to use the Egyptian military to arrest people without warrants on suspicion of being terrorists, incarcerate them, torture them, and execute them — all without due process of trial or trial by jury.
These extraordinary powers were supposed to be temporary. They were to expire when the “emergency” arising from the assassination had expired. But some 30 years later, they were still in existence. And they were employed brutally against the Egyptian people, especially those who dared to challenge Egypt’s military dictatorship, military supremacy over the civilian population, and Egypt’s military dictator himself, Hosni Mubarak. Most Egyptians learned to just keep their mouths shut.
Not surprisingly, the Egyptians considered the exercise of such powers to be the hallmarks of a tyrannical regime. Indeed, such powers have long been the most distinguishing characteristic of a tyrannical regime. It was mainly the exercise of those “temporary, emergency” powers that drove Egyptians into the streets, risking their lives at the hands of the military dictatorship to bring fundamental change to their society.
In fact, one of the principal demands of the protestors throughout the protests was that Mubarak relinquish those “temporary, emergency” powers that came into existence 30 years before. Mubarak refused to do so, arguing that his temporary, extraordinary powers were more necessary than ever, especially given the global war on terrorism that came into existence on 9/11.
For those entire 30 years, the U.S. government took the side of Mubarak and his military dictatorship. Those temporary, emergency powers weren’t tyrannical, U.S. officials believed. They were instead the essential prerequisite for protecting Egypt’s “national security” and for maintaining “order and stability” in the Middle East.
After all, don’t forget that immediately after 9/11, President Bush did precisely what Mubarak had done during Egypt’s terrorist emergency some 30 years before. Bush decreed that the terrorist emergency that America was now facing meant that Bush, as commander in chief, now wielded those same extraordinary powers — the powers to arrest people as suspected terrorists without judicially issued warrants, torture them, incarcerate them indefinitely, and even execute them, perhaps have some sort of kangaroo military tribunal. Later, President Obama would expand those powers with a widespread assassination program.
Thus, how could U.S. officials look upon the Mubarak dictatorship as a tyrannical regime, since it was a loyal, pro-U.S. regime that was doing nothing more than what U.S. officials would do in similar circumstances?
It goes without saying, of course, that throughout those 30 years, U.S. officials continued plowing billions of dollars in cash and armaments into the coffers of the Egyptian military dictatorship, helping build it up and fortify its omnipotent military control over the Egyptian people. In fact, it came as no surprise when the U.S. government made the Egyptian military dictatorship one of its principal rendition-torture partners in its global war on terrorism.
Throughout the Mubarak dictatorship, if anyone called for the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government, the Egyptian government, not surprisingly, considered him a “bad guy” — i.e., a terrorist. But as Lynn Stewart found out, so did the U.S. government.
Now, one might point to Syria, where U.S. officials are doing precisely what Stewart got convicted of — exhorting the Syrian citizenry to violently overthrow the Syrian dictatorship.
Ah, but they would be missing an important point. Syria is no longer a partner and ally of the U.S. government. It used to be — i.e., when President Bush and the CIA entered into a secret torture partnership by which the Assad regime agreed to torture Canadian citizen Maher Arar for the U.S. government. But once that partnership was dissolved, it became okay for U.S. officials to exhort Syrians to violently overthrow the tyranny under which they have long suffered.
For exhorting the Egyptian people to violently overthrow their tyrannical regime, Stewart got sentenced to serve 28 months in jail, a fairly lengthy term for a 73-year-old woman suffering from breast cancer. Unfortunately for Stewart, however, in a public statement to the press after her sentencing, she scoffed at her sentence, declaring that she could serve it “standing on her head.” Her statement garnered the wrath of federal prosecutors and federal judges and earned her a resentencing, one that sent her away for 10 years instead of 28 months.
I wonder if Stewart has learned her lesson, one that the Egyptian people learned during the 30 years of the Mubarak dictatorship. In the age of the national-security state and never-ending emergencies, it pays to keep your mouth shut.