Lynne Stewart Frame-Up Unravels
by Jeff Mackler
Almost 17 weeks after some dozen federal government prosecutors had begun their marathon presentation charging progressive New York attorney Lynne Stewart with aiding and abetting terrorism, Stewart finally took the witness stand in her own defense.
On Oct. 25, before a packed courtroom of her supporters and a myriad of attorneys who were similarly outraged at Stewart’s persecution—ordered by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft—her defense counsel, Michael Tigar, methodically queried Stewart to expose the fraud of the “evidence” against effectively tore apart and reduced to ridicule every aspect of the government’s frame-up.
The multi-racial jury panel of eight women and four men seemed transfixed, paying close attention as Stewart’s responses to each key government exhibit demonstrated the innocence of her actions. There is no doubt this was to be a show trial designed to buttress the government’s contention that Americans face real terrorist threats, not the least of which come from life-long radicals like Stewart, who has been a partisan in the struggle for social justice since her youth.
Stewart is being tried in the very room in the Manhattan Federal District Court House where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were railroaded to the electric chair in 1953 during the witch-hunt era of Joseph McCarthy and his governmental and judicial associates. Much as the McCarthyites made a mockery of the U.S. Constitution by executing the Rosenbergs, so their modernday incarnations seek Stewart’s life. If convicted of the “aiding and abetting terrorism” charges against her, Stewart, 65, faces 45 years in prison.
Prosecutors spent more than four months presenting thousands of pages of Middle Eastern and U.S. press clippings, wiretapped phone calls, intercepted e-mails, and secret government video/audio recordings of Stewart’s confidential jailhouse meetings with her 1995 client, Sheik AbdelOmar Rahman. Rahman was convicted on frame-up charges of conspiracy to blow up historic landmarks in New York City.
The government’s aim in the present trial is to postulate an intricate scenario in which Stewart and her codefendants—professional Arabic translator, Mohamed Yousry and post office employee/paralegal, Ahmed Abdel Sattar-—had been involved in a vast terrorist conspiracy.
Press clippings refuted as evidence
A central part of the prosecution’s case consisted in presenting a seemingly never-ending series of Arabic and English-language press clippings on terrorist activities in several countries. The clippings had been confiscated from Stewart’s office as well as from the home of Yousry. This was designed to demonstrate that Yousry’s home and Stewart’s law office were repositories of vast tomes of material that could only be of interest to terrorists.
The procedural rules of law exclude the use of such press clippings. They are legally considered hearsay since the views expressed or the facts presented in them represent only those of the author and cannot be taken by the jury as fact.
Early in the trial, however, at the government’s request, presiding Judge John Koeltl approved an exception to the hearsay rule allowing introduction of the clippings, accompanied with instructions to the jury that the material was to be considered not in regard to factual accuracy but only to demonstrate “the state of mind” of the defendants. And what could be the “state of mind,” the government implied, of persons who collect press clippings on terrorism, other than committing terrorist acts?
With this ruling, the jury was subjected to prosecution attorneys’ reading, line by line, countless press articles on terrorist activities into the official record. The fact that none of these connected any of the defendants to any of these activities, or any other terrorist acts, was deemed irrelevant.
The government’s verbal presentation of each article was accompanied by its simultaneous visual presentation on a huge courtroom movie screen and further elucidated with the aid of individual monitors placed in the jury box itself.
In 16 weeks, with the exception of the testimony of a government bureaucrat who attested to his drafting government documents mailed to Stewart, not a single witness was produced to prove the government’s charges.
When defense attorney Tigar opened his questioning, holding up one of the government’s press clippings, he blithely asked Stewart if this clipping actually came from her office. “Yes,” Stewart responded. “And where did you get this press clipping?” Tigar continued. “From the U.S. government,” Stewart answered. Stewart explained that many of the press clippings in her alleged terrorist file box had been sent to her office by government prosecutors.
This was a routine procedure employed as part of the 1995 trial proceedings, in which Stewart served as the chief counsel for Sheik Rahman, whom the U.S. government tried and convicted as a terrorist conspirator. Stewart explained that press clippings that the government intended to introduce as evidence were, in effect, required to be sent to her office.
Additionally, Stewart and her staff made it a practice, in the course of the defense of their client, to collect such press clippings, as was her longstanding practice when handling such cases. Thus, in the course of a minute’s testimony, the government’s case began to unravel.
What about the collection of press clippings and other material directly related to the Egyptian “Islamic Group” (which the U.S. government had designated a terrorist organization) that were found in the home of co-defendant Yousry?
Yousry told this writer and will testify in early November that in addition to his professional work as a translator, he was a Ph.D candidate at a New York City university preparing his doctoral dissertation on the very same Islamic Group. At the suggestion of his doctoral adviser, who is also expected to testify on Yousry’s behalf along with a dozen other defense witnesses, Yousry had long ago begun work on this subject. But his innocent collection of material for his thesis was turned by the government into “proof” of his engagement in criminal acts.
“To fight zealously for our clients”
The government seeks to associate the fact that Stewart represented Sheik Rahman as legal counsel with her having agreement with Rahman’s ideas. Stewart, a radical political activist, supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, has been legal counsel to a host of clients from left-wing socialists to members of the Mafia. She told the jury in response to Tigar’s inquiry about her view of Rahman’s ideas, “I’m not in the habit of fundamentalism.”
“We are bound to accept the cases of even those who are hated by the public,” Stewart asserted. “We are abjured by the ethical system to fight as hard and as vigorously and as zealously as we possibly can for our clients.” Stewart originally became involved in the Rahman case at the behest of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara, former head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. In the course of her testimony Stewart maintained that despite the government’s attainment of a “guilty” verdict in the 1995 Rahman “terrorist conspiracy” trial, she still believed in her client’s innocence.
Defense attorney Tigar, turning the tables on the government’s use of hearsay material, introduced into evidence a Wall Street Journal article authored by a prominent staff writer who had observed Rahman’s trial. The article held in essence that the government’s prosecution of Rahman was without foundation. It concluded that Rahman was likely innocent of the charges against him. Stewart’s defense was bolstered by an honest representation of her work as an attorney who provided her legal services to a blind Egyptian cleric with fundamentalist ideas opposing the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship.
Stewart’s attention then turned to a critical government charge that she consciously violated a government Special Administrative Measure (SAM) that prohibited her from relaying messages or otherwise allowing her client to communicate with terrorist groups. The government asserts that Stewart’s violation of this order took the form of her releasing to Reuters News Service a press statement from Rahman that announced his withdrawal of support to a cease-fire or “peace initiative” that had been in effect in Egypt for several years. The peace initiative was declared by the Islamic Group in the hope of reaching a rapprochement with the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
The Mubarak regime is renowned for murder and incarceration of its political opponents
In the course of her defense Stewart introduced a key document, a decision of a U.S. immigration judge who had rejected a government effort to deport one of Rahman’s associates to Egypt, Nasser Ahmed, after jailing him on “secret evidence” for 3 years. The judge’s decision was based on his conclusion that, despite Nasser Ahmed’s illegal entry into the U.S., he would be granted political asylum based on the Egyptian government’s lack of any democratic structures. In short, the judge ruled Nasser Ahmed would be tortured, if not murdered, for his political opposition to the Mubarak regime.
Stewart’s 1995 client, Abdel Omar Rahman, is a leading Islamic fundamentalist scholar and Ph.D, who was perhaps the leading critic of the Egyptian government. The indictment and charges against Stewart focused on the assertion that her release of Rahman’s statement might have resulted in a series of terrorist acts. Stewart’s testimony proved these charges were totally without foundation.
Stewart said that Rahman’s 2000 press statement, when Stewart continued to represent him, did not result in a single act of terror. To the contrary, she told the jury, the Islamic Group debated Rahman’s statement and then formally decided to maintain the cease fire or “peace initiative.”
Stewart insisted that she had never violated any government SAM. Rather, her interpretation of the SAM was that it could not be designed to prevent her from fully representing her client in accord with her sworn oath as an attorney. This, she said, required her to make public Rahman’s views. She was guided by the Rules of Ethics and by the accepted practices of her co-counsel Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara.
Attorney Tigar proceeded to demonstrate that the government’s response to the press release was merely to state its disagreement with Stewart’s action and to bar her from further visits to and phone calls with Sheik Rahman until such time as she agreed to sign an amended SAM. After months of negotiations with government officials, a new SAM was indeed drafted by Stewart’s attorney Stanley Cohen, and approved by the Government attorney, Pat Fitzgerald, and Lynne Stewart visited the Sheik in July 2001.
There were no government reprisals until years later, when the new U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft, appearing on the David Letterman television talk show, announced his intention to prosecute Lynne Stewart as a terrorist.
Stewart concluded her Oct. 28 testimony by responding to a question posed by her attorney. “Ms. Stewart, looking back at the events of May and June and July and August of 2000, if you had to do it over again, would you do it the same way?”
“Sitting here today, Mr. Tigar,” Stewart responded, with uncontrolled tears coming to her eyes, “It’s a very difficult question. I am diminished by the loss of my clientele. My family has suffered tremendously. I don’t know if I would do it again.”
Stewart was interrupted by an objection from the prosecution that was overruled by Judge Koeltl. This was followed by another question from attorney Tigar, “As you sit there today, Ms. Stewart, do you believe that you violated any legal duty that you owed to the United States of America?”
Regaining her composure, Stewart first responded to Tigar’s initial question, “I’d like to think I would do it again because it was a duty owed to a client. I do not believe I ever violated anything, any command, any restriction by the United States of America.” Stewart is expected to complete her testimony by early November. This will be followed by an expected period of three to four weeks when her co-defendants will present their cases. Following closing remarks by both sides, the case will go to the jury. A verdict is expected in late December. I’m betting on Lynne Stewart.
The articles and transcript above are reprinted from the Justice for Lynne Stewart Newsletter.