Lynne Stewart arriving at LaGuardia airport on January 1. | FLAVIA FONTES
Lynne Stewart is out of prison. Lynne Stewart, the defense attorney convicted of providing material support for terrorism and given a 10-year sentence by the feds. Suffering from metastasizing breast cancer, which doctors say will kill her within 18 months, Lynne was given compassionate release by the Bureau of Prisons after thousands of supporters waged a four-year international campaign to get her out.
On New Year’s Day, Lynne arrived at La Guardia from Carswell Federal Prison in Texas, struggled up from her wheelchair, and walked toward her family, friends, and the press. Then she was taken home, finally to receive competent medical care.
If you forget that Lynne Stewart should never have gone to prison in the first place, this is joyous news. And if you’re part of the queer community that couldn’t care less about Lynne Stewart, think again.
You don’t have to agree with Lynne Stewart’s politics to care about what happened to her. That’s the point here.
Lynne spent her 28-year legal career representing countless poor people who, without her, wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in New York’s hellish legal system. But she became infamous for defending radically unpopular clients, from a Black Panther indicted for hijacking a plane, to a Mafia don on drug charges. She once told the New York Times that she believed in “violence directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism, and sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions.”
She said this in 1995, while defending Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, charged with issuing a fatwa to his Islamic Group followers to bomb such New York City targets as the United Nations headquarters, the George Washington Bridge, and the Holland Tunnel. In order to become the sheikh’s attorney, Lynne Stewart had to sign Special Administrative Procedures (SAMs) papers with the Justice Department, agreeing not to convey information from the sheikh to third parties.
Lynne Stewart broke this agreement in 2000, when she told a Reuters reporter that the sheikh advised the Islamic Group to call off its ceasefire against the Egyptian government. The Clinton White House quickly discovered this and sanctioned her. Lynne admitted that she’d erred and was allowed to re-sign the SAMs. She continued to represent the sheikh, who had been sentenced to life for seditious conspiracy.
This occurred in the remaining months of relative tolerance before the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. In 2002, the Bush administration, reeling from its inability to predict or prevent this tragedy, charged Lynne with passing the same message for which she’d been disciplined under Clinton. These charges ultimately led to her 10-year sentence.
I’m writing this fully aware that, though I’ve found Lynne Stewart eminently likeable, I’ve often disagreed with her — as when, in 2004, she told the Washington Post that she saw Islamic fundamentalism as “the only hope for change” in Mubarak’s Egypt. The sheikh, though representing a plausible threat to the Egyptian government, could never make the kind of revolution I (or Lynne Stewart) would want — or be allowed — to live through. I’ve sat in court, listening to the rhetoric that comes with his movement — misogynist, anti-Semitic, homophobic — and it is to be taken seriously. But Lynne Stewart did not advocate these things.
It’s not that she was the only attorney who could be charged with “supporting terrorism.” Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark wrote a letter defending Lynne, saying that he, as Abdel Rahman’s co-counsel, had done far more to publicize the sheikh’s words than had Lynne.
It’s more that the Bush administration knew just what it was doing when it picked Lynne Stewart to be the post-9/11 exemplar of treason. Lynne was guilelessly funky and used to come to court wearing a Mets hat and carrying purple tote bags. She was a plump granny, easy to laugh with (or at), who sometimes cried openly in public.
But the fact that it was easy for the feds to play the misogyny card obscures a more dangerous fact. What’s been legally done to Lynne Stewart can now be done to any attorney whom the US Justice Department deems to have overstepped its new limits on speech in representing clients.
These days, lawyers defending anyone viewed as dangerous to the government must sign agreements, more restrictive than those Lynne Stewart signed, cutting off any communication from clients with the outside world and virtually obliterating attorney-client privilege. Which makes it all but impossible to say, let alone know, what the United States is doing to its captured “enemies.”
“The only way that we will ever get to the bottom of the American concentration camp abuses at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib,” says Michael Tigar, emeritus law professor at Duke University and Lynne’s former attorney, “is if the lawyers for these prisoners are permitted to tell their stories to the world.”
Now that the feds are smiling on us queers and letting us get married and join the military and all, why should we care about a case like Lynne Stewart’s? And why should we care that there remain some 155 men — most uncharged — who have languished for years at Guantánamo, forbidden to discuss their alleged “jihadist” activities with their own lawyers, or describe how they’ve been tortured? Why should we care that the NYPD and the FBI monitor and infiltrate Muslim communities? Hasn’t this country been good to us?
Meanwhile, Lynne Stewart is out of prison. She’s been given time served. May she rest and enjoy her family and be happy — may she beat cancer’s terrible odds. And may we never, ever again allow someone like her to go to prison.