Trial of People's Lawyer Lynne Stewart Begins

Revolutionary Worker #1245, July 4, 2004, posted at

Opening statements in the government's trial of radical lawyer Lynne Stewart took place in a federal courtroom in New York City on June 22.

The government is charging Stewart with "material support to terrorist activity" for her work as a defense lawyer for Islamic cleric Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman was convicted and sentenced to life in 1996 for seditious conspiracy in connection with alleged plots in the early 1990s to attack New York landmarks.

The government alleges that Stewart and two Arab men--Mohammed Yousry (a translator) and Ahmed Abdel Sattar (a paralegal)--helped pass messages between Rahman and his organization. Stewart is accused of speaking in English to distract prison guards so that Yousry could communicate with Rahman in Arabic. Prosecutors also claim that Stewart tried to keep secret from the government a public press conference where she released a statement from Rahman. And Stewart is charged with violating "special administrative measures" that were put on Rahman by the Bureau of Prisons.

The government is putting a major effort into going after and silencing Stewart--who has a long history of defending political prisoners and others facing the brute force of this system's police and courts. The outrageous charges against her are aimed at sending a warning to other lawyers who might consider defending people accused by the government of terrorism and other political charges.

And the government has been pushing to further corrode the principle of attorney-client privilege through this case. The prosecution's supposed "evidence" against Stewart is based on secret surveillance of lawyer- client communication between Stewart and Rahman. By the government's own account, they have accumulated more than 85,000 audio recordings of voice calls, faxes, and computer transmissions made by Stewart and the others. The government's case is focused on Stewart's conversations with Rahman going back to 2000. It was not until two years later--after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act--that Stewart was indicted.

The moves against Lynne Stewart are also part of the increasing use of charges of "material support of terrorism" to go after those targeted by the government.

Going After Journalists

Another element of this case has been the attempts by the government to compel journalists to testify or hand over information.

The prosecutors subpoenaed four journalists who have covered Lynne Stewart to testify in the trial. The journalists are Joseph Fried of the New York Times ; New York Times freelancer George Packer; Esmat Salaheddin of Reuters' Egypt bureau; and Newsday reporter Patricia Hurtado.

Lawyers for the media companies these journalists work for have filed motions to quash the subpoenas. Newsday objected because Hurtado was assigned to cover the trial--which she would probably be unable to do if she were called as a witness. The lawyer for the Reuters reporter noted, according to the New York Times , "If Mr. Salaheddin is forced to travel to New York to testify for the prosecution, he may be seen in Egypt as working for the United States government, which would cripple his ability to work as a reporter in that volatile country."

The prosecutors subpoenaed Joseph Fried from the Times because of a profile he did on Lynne Stewart in 1995--years before the government brought the charges against her. One of the things she talked about in the profile was her view on the question of violence. According to the Times, she told Fried, "I don't believe in anarchistic violence but in directed violence" and explained "her support for revolutionary movements battling governments she deemed oppressive." What the prosecutors apparently want to do is to use such political statements as "evidence" for their charges against Stewart.

On June 18 prosecutors in the case suspended the subpoena against the Newsday reporter "for now" (meaning it could be reissued). The judge in the case says he'll rule later on whether to throw out the other subpoenas or let them stand.

These subpoenas follow news last December that the U.S. Attorney for Manhattan had sent a letter to Bill Weinberg of the online magazine "WW3 Report" asking for his "voluntary cooperation" in relation to the Stewart case. What the government was asking for was the complete text of an interview with Lynne Stewart posted in the June 30, 2002 issue of the magazine as well as testimony and "unpublished outages, notes, or tapes from the same interview..." According to a message posted on the "WW3 Report" website, "Weinberg is not cooperating with the request at this time, and does not wish to acknowledge whether any materials exist other than the published text. He has had his attorney reply to the U.S. Attorney's Office with a letter to this effect."

The laws giving journalists certain protections and exemptions from testifying in court vary from state to state. And there are different laws that apply to federal cases. There is however, no blanket immunity. In fact, journalists are routinely subpoenaed. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that in 1999, 1,326 subpoenas were served on 440 news organizations. This creates an atmosphere where reporters must be willing to testify in court about what they write--otherwise face jail if they refuse to appear in court or to reveal confidential sources.

Special Administrative Measures

One of the main aspects of the government's indictment against Stewart is the allegation that she violated the "special administrative measures" (SAMs) on Rahman in her communications with her client. The real crime here is the actual regulations.

Since 9/11, the government's executive branch has claimed for itself the power to declare a prisoner an "enemy combatant" and deprive that prisoner of all rights--including talking to a lawyer, the media, family, or anyone else. Short of invoking the "enemy combatant" status, the SAMs allow government officials to impose draconian restrictions on communications on certain federal prisoners. SAMs were hammered out by Bill Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno in 1997.

According to the Reporters Committee for the Free Press, SAMs can be ordered in two types of situations: "first, when the head of a U.S. intelligence agency certified that the prisoner, if allowed to communicate, could disclose classified information that would threaten national security; and second, when, in the judgment of the attorney general or the head of a federal law enforcement or intelligence agency, unrestricted communications would pose a substantial risk of `death or serious bodily injury' to others."

In other words, top U.S. law enforcement officials can basically impose a gag on any prisoner--restricting or banning them from talking on the phone, writing to newspapers, seeing visitors, or any other activity that the authorities declare is a "threat" or "risk."

John Walker Lindh, the U.S. citizen who was captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is one of the prisoners who had SAMs placed on him. Jane Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker who has reported on the Lindh case, told the RCFP of her experience with SAMs: "The basic feeling you get is that it's like dealing with the disappeared. These people are complete black holes."

The government claims that they want to punish Stewart for "supporting terrorism." But, as Stewart's lawyer Michael Tigar told the court, Stewart is being punished "for who she is, not what she allegedly did." He described Stewart as a "courageous and honorable lawyer." By going after Stewart, the government is trying to criminalize the legal defense of those targeted by the U.S.--or at least to spread fear and intimidation among lawyers who might take on such cases. The government must not be allowed to do this--the people must defend lawyers like Lynne Stewart when those lawyers themselves come under attack from the government.

Further information on the defense of Lynne Stewart is available online at Also go to for background articles.