Lynne Stewart has friends in Portland. The activist and now-disbarred attorney is well-known in Stumptown's lefty circles for her 30-year career representing unpopular, often controversial clients and, most recently, for being on trial herself.
Stewart, 67, was sentenced in October to 28 months in prison for providing material support to a terrorist. The conviction stemmed from Stewart's violation of Special Administrative Measures put on the prison sentence of her client, Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Stewart broke the rules when she delivered a press release from the Sheikh to Reuters Media withdrawing his support for a cease-fire then in place in Egypt.
A few hours before her appearance at PSU Tuesday night, Hot Action joined Stewart and her husband Ralph Poynter over a plate of croquettes at Pambiche in NE Portland to talk about naiveté, the “chilling effect,” and how to confuse a jury.
WW: Do you see your sentence of 28 months (rather than 30 years) as a victory?
Lynne Stewart: Oh yeah. We had never had any indication that the judge [District Court Judge John Koeltl] was going to do anything good for us. We were really prepared that I would certainly get some heavy time and that I might not even be free on bail pending appeal, that I might go right in. We had brought my medications and my book and all the stuff you truck along with you. But he granted bail pending appeal and this very low sentence in the face of the government's intransigence on the number. He said at the very end, at the penultimate part of this whole thing, ‘Not only has Ms. Stewart been of great service to her clients over 30 years…but she has also been of great service to the nation.' I'm very much an outspoken critic of the government, and to be [seen] as of great service to the nation was really a surprise to me.
WW: During your trial, you spoke of your case having a “chilling effect” on defense attorneys. What kind of concrete evidence have you seen of this effect in the aftermath of your trial?
I know that on the day the verdict was handed down, they were having a training session for Guantanamo lawyers. These are guys from the big firms who either volunteer themselves or their firms volunteer them to do this work. They spent three hours that day discussing, ‘Is this going to happen to us because we're doing Guantanamo work? How do we avoid it if we can and still be good lawyers?' I also know that there are examples— and I don't want to be too heavy-handed on this because I know there are the opposite examples of lawyers who remain brave in the face of all this—but [there have been] cases where people did not give their utmost. I don't know about all those cases, but I know they happen and I know that lawyers have told me they operated differently now.
WW: People have said that when you were on trial, the American Left was on trial in a way. Do you think that distracted from your case at all?
What the government did fairly cleverly, even though we railed against it, was they blurred the line between me and the Sheikh, between his politics and mine. I mean, I'm a leftist, probably I would describe myself as a Maoist, and he is hardly that. He's a theocratist, really. He wants a theocracy. I think what the government was able to do is say, ‘See, here's Lynne Stewart. She says anti-American things. Here's the Sheik. He says anti-American things. And so they were in this together.' I think the jury was completely confused and it was never clearly pointed out to them what the differences were.
WW: The New York Times said you were “careless, overemotional and politically naïve” in your representation of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Do you think there is any truth to this characterization?
I certainly don't agree at all. I cared about my client; I didn't care about his cause at all and I basically did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do for the client. At this stage of my life, at this age of my life, I'm not about to be taken in and led astray. I'm a lot of things, but if I was naïve about anything, it was that the government would come down as hard as it did. I was naïve about the power of the government.
WW: You were aware of the Special Administrative Measures put on Sheikh Rahman's prison sentence. Do you admit that you violated the law when you disregarded them?
It would be ridiculous to say that I didn't know that they prohibited making press releases. That was what they said, but I also knew that Ramsey Clark had made five or six press releases with [the SAMs] in effect and nothing ever happened to him. Maybe what I didn't realize is I'm not Ramsey Clark. My father was a school teacher; his father was on the United States Supreme Court. He was the attorney general; I've been a journeyman lawyer all my life.
WW: You and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark have been jointly representing the Sheik, as you said. What, if anything, you have you done differently?
Nothing really. His press releases also had certainly political content. I mean, they basically were calling on people [saying] that the Sheik was wrongfully imprisoned and people should do everything they can to get him out of prison and so on. So, I can't say mine was more militant; they were equally militant. Some of [his] were made abroad. Mine, of course, was made by telephone to Reuters. And we want to dissuade people from reading the AP, which repeatedly has said [I] carried messages to a terrorist organization. I made a press release to Reuters. I didn't carry any messages to any terrorist organizations.
WW: Do you think that if Ramsey Clark had issued this press release to Reuters instead of you that he would be facing this kind of indictment?
No. They don't go after ex-attorney generals. It would be too big a step for them. The Bush regime, as we know, is nothing that would surprise you, but on the other hand, I think this would be, even for them, a bit much. JULIE SABATIER
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UPCOMING HOT ACTION EVENTS:
Thursday, March 8
International Women's Day
KBOO Community Radio is once again airing 24 hours of programming by and about women. It starts at 5:30AM with “Women in Early Country Music” and goes all the way until the next morning. Specials include “Women in the Military,” “Oaxacan Resistance,” “Women in Revolutionary Music,” “Young Women's Issues,” and “Local Freelance Writers Speak Out.” For a full schedule, visit KBOO's website
Monday, March 12
Reading: It Can Happen Here
Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis depicted authoritarianism American-style in his sardonically titled dystopian novel It Can't Happen Here
, published in 1935. Now, bestselling political journalist Joe Conason argues that it can
happen here and that bit by bit, essential liberties and constitutional protections are being diminished or discarded. 7:30pm at Powell's City of Books on Burnside. Free.
Wednesday, March 14
Screening: The Fall '01
According to the 9/11 Truth Alliance, which helped to organize this screening, Fall ‘01
is “a choreographic multimedia drama on terror, war and torture, depicting the wholesale dehumanization of the Global War Of Terror.” Maybe not for everyone, but hey it's only 45 minutes long. 7pm at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. $5 suggested donation.