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Then They Came for the Lawyers: The Persecution of Lynne Stewart

On April 9, 2002, in a chilling first application of the USA-Patriot Act (pushed into law after 9-11), the U.S. government indicted attorney Lynne Stewart along with three Arab men, Mohammed Yousry, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, and Yassir Al-Sirri. Lynne Stewart is the lawyer for Islamic cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted and sentenced to life for seditious conspiracy in connection with supposed plots to attack New York landmarks. Prosecutors claimed these plots were part of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Stewart was arrested and indicted chiefly because of conversations that are supposed to be constitutionally protectedthat between an attorney and client.

The government says that Lynne Stewart, Mohammed Yousry, who is Rahman's translator, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a paralegal, and Yassir Al-Sirri violated "special administrative measures" that restrict Rahman's communications with the outside world. Prosecutors say the four helped Rahman pass messages back and forth between Rahman and his organization, the Islamic Group.

Stewart is accused of speaking up in English to distract anyone listening so that Yousry could communicate secretly with Rahman in Arabic. The government says that those indicted were giving "material support" to "terrorists." U.S. prosecutors waited two years _ until after 9-11 _ to make their claims. And the charge against Stewart is particularly ridiculous given that she doesn't speak Arabic and therefore didn't even know what was being said in the conversations in question.

The government case is flimsy and blatantly designed to send a chilling message to anyone who comes forward to represent people being prosecuted by the U.S. government. And if the government successfully convicts Lynne Stewart, this will set a very dangerous legal precedentseriously undermining the rights of lawyers to consult with their clients without government spying and intrusion.

The "crimes" Rahman was convicted of plotting actually never happened. At the center of the case against him was an FBI informant, Emad Salem, who the FBI sent to spy, inform, videotape, egg-on and otherwise set up Rahman and his followers. Salem secretly recorded conversations with the FBI which revealed that he had warned the FBI before the bombing of the WTC, but was ignored.

With the indictment of Lynne Stewart, the Justice Department is, for the first time, invoking its power to monitor communications between attorneys and imprisoned clients without a warrant. This is a major assault on the right of confidentiality between attorneys and their clients and adds on to already existing, "court approved" powers for prosecutors.

According to the Washington Post , "authorities taped Rahman's conversations in a prison in Minnesota under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." This kind of surveillance has been in place against Rahman for some time. As the NY Law Journal reported, the indictment is "the result of more than three years of court-approved monitoring." This is chilling stuff. As attorney Gerald Lefcourt told the Washington Post , "As a defense lawyer now, you basically cannot talk to your clients in prison."

The government seized Lynne Stewart's computer and legal records, giving them access to even more privileged attorney/client information from other cases.

Over several decades Lynne Stewart has been a lawyer who has defended her clients with passion, principle and expertise. She has represented political prisoners David Gilbert and Richard Williams of the Ohio 7, ruthlessly targeted after armed actions against the government. In the 1980s she successfully represented Larry Davis, who defended himself when a crew of drug-dealing cops tried to kill him. And in the 1990s she took up the defense of Arab men targeted by the government after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

For this the government has worked to undercut and end Stewart's work. In 1991, Stewart was subpoenaed by state authorities who demanded she testify against her own client in front of a grand jury. When she refused she was indicted for contempt.

Attorney Ron Kuby told the NY Times , "Lynne is a zealous advocate and a proud defender of the oppressed all over the world. She was always there at any time of night when the police or the FBI were kicking in someone's door and as a distinguished member of the New York bar. Those of us who know her find these allegations to be unbelievable and politically motivated."

The attacks on Lynne Stewart must be exposed and opposed. If convicted, Stewart and the others face up to 40 years in prison. As a statement by the October 22nd Coalition points out: "These are major moves in a climate where the principle of `innocent until proven guilty' is increasingly being reversed, civil liberties are being slashed, and a popular perception is being promoted that `indictment equals guilty.'

In the case of Lynne Stewart, if lawyers who step forward and take on the responsibility of representation are themselves arrested, who is left to defend the accused? Where are the rights of due process? This will further intensify the repressive climate and will affect the ability of the people to fight back against these attackswho is going to defend the arrested, if the lawyers themselves are arrested, merely for doing their job?"

Lawyers who have the courage to defend those persecuted for political activity are precious to the fight for justice and they must be defended.

This article first appeared in the Revolutionary Worker and is reprinted with permission. Subscriptions to the RW are free to prisoners. Contact: Revolutionary Worker, PO Box 3486, Chicago, IL 60654. For more information about this case or to make a donation, write to: Lynne Stewart Defense Committee, c/o National Lawyers Guild, 143 Madison Ave, 4th Fl, New York, NY 10016. Or go to

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