Incarceration Nation

Healing Wounds of Injustice

By Steve Downs and Kathy Manley

Lynne Stewart is dying of breast cancer in federal prison.

She is a people’s lawyer who fights for the poorest, most reviled defendants. All too often they are political prisoners prosecuted and demonized because of their beliefs. The government has not forgiven her for believing that even these dissidents deserve a zealous defense.

Lynne represented the blind Sheikh Omar Rahman who was convicted in an FBI sting of plotting to bomb the U.N. and other New York City landmarks in 1993. Prosecutors restricted the Egyptian-born cleric’s contacts, forbidding any reporting of what the sheik said from his prison cell. Lynne believed these restrictions should not apply to her legal work because a lawyer cannot represent a client zealously if she cannot discuss the client’s words with others. She told a news conference that Sheikh Rahman had no opinion about whether his followers in Egypt should withdraw from a cease-fire with the Egyptian government.

After 9/11, the Department of Justice charged her with material support for terrorism for her pre-9/11 statement. She was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Lynne Stewart, the people’s lawyer who defended political dissidents, became, herself, a political prisoner.

Herman Wallace, a Black Panther in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s Angola Prison for 42 years for a murder he said he didn’t commit, was dying of liver cancer. On Tuesday, October 1, 2013 a federal judge overturned his conviction and ordered his immediate release. He died three days later on Friday. October 4.

Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, entrapped in an Albany FBI sting, are serving 15-year sentences. This summer the defense moved to vacate Aref’s conviction based on documents showing that the FBI believed Aref was an Al Qaeda agent of another name who is now dead. Aref was a victim of mistaken identity.

These are not isolated individual cases. Long before 9/11, the FBI created hundreds of “Black radical” political prisoners, many of whom are still in jail after 40 or more years. Since 9/11 the war on terror produced hundreds of new political prisoners, mostly Muslims.

They were targeted by the government for their beliefs or status, not for what they did. Many of them represent the best and most committed members of their communities. They embody wounds of injustice on the body of America that have never healed, because the wrongs have never been acknowledged, and the prisoners have never been set free.

We need a truth and reconciliation commission to provide a forum to hear these stories of injustice, leading to the release of those wrongfully convicted and healing for their communities. Until our nation can acknowledge the truth of what happened, the infection of injustice will continue to poison our trust in the criminal justice system and in our government.

Authorities at the federal prison in Carswell, Texas, have recommended that Lynne Stewart be given compassionate release to go home to die, but the Bureau of Prisons has ignored that request.

Steve Downs and Kathy Manley are lawyers and co-founders of Project SALAM and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms., October 4, 2013