By Karin Friedemann, TMO
Lynne Stewart and husband Daniel Poynter stepping off plane.
Famous civil rights defense attorney Lynne Stewart was freed from Carswell medical prison in Texas and welcomed by a group of cheering supporters at Laguardia Airport in New York City on January 1, 2014. Stewart, 74, was granted â€œcompassionate releaseâ€ because she is suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer, after Stewartâ€™s doctor said she had only 18 months to live.
Earlier petitions for her release had been denied. Stewartâ€™s freedom is the result of organized public pressure, including over 40,000 signatures collected on a petition via change.org.
On December 31, 2013, Judge John Koeltl finally conceded that her â€œterminal medical condition and very limited life expectancy constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons that warrant the requested reduction [of her sentence].â€
â€œWe the people got her out!â€ cheered Lynneâ€™s husband, Ralph Poynter to the crowd.
Stewart will seek treatment at Sloane-Kettering hospital in New York. She lives with her son under the standard rules of parole for an ex-convict. She is allowed to travel within the local area and there are no special restrictions on who she can talk to.
â€œShe would have rather stayed in jail than agreed to be restricted in what she says to people,â€ Poynter told TMO.
The attorney, known for representing controversial, poor, and often unpopular defendants, is considered the arch-enemy of John Ashcroft. She dedicated her life to fighting his subversions of the US Constitution.
Stewartâ€™s integrity even won the respect of her opponent, US Attorney Andrew McCarthy, who said he found Stewart to be â€œeminently reasonable and practicalâ€ and commented that â€œwhen she gave her word on something, she honored it.â€
â€œHer smile is infectious and her manner disarmingly maternal, and she can home in like sonar on the weakness in a prosecution case,â€ wrote Michael Powell in the Washington Post.
Stewart was convicted on charges of providing material support to the Egyptian group, Al-Gamaâ€™a al-Islamiyya in 2005 â€œfor distributing press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the â€˜blind Sheikh.â€™â€ reports Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!
Former US attorney general under Ronald Reagan, Ramsey Clark had originally persuaded Stewart to take Rahmanâ€™s case.
â€œWe hit it off,â€ Stewart said about Rahman, â€œHeâ€™s really an incredible person.â€
During Rahmanâ€™s trial, Stewart argued to the jury that Rahman had been framed for his political and religious teachings and not, as the prosecution alleged, for conspiring in any violent acts against the United States.
She infuriated the government by continuing to speak of the imam as innocent and visiting him in prison, even after he had been convicted. She also alienated fellow defense attorneys, who backed away from supporting her libertarian stance regarding the ongoing struggle for the establishment of an Islamic government in Egypt.
â€œIâ€™m not going to say whatâ€™s healthy for someone who lives somewhere else in the world,â€ she said.
This was too much for some liberal progressive defense lawyers, many of whom harbor stereotypical Islamophobic sentiments very similar to those of government prosecutors, even while taking on Muslim clients.
Stewartâ€™s outspoken support of her client was interpreted by the government as â€œa plot to obtain the releaseâ€ of the imprisoned spiritual leader, who is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement for â€œinspiringâ€ the first World Trade Center bombing with his politically-charged sermons at a mosque in New York.
The federal governmentâ€™s indictment of Stewart in April 2002 marked the first time that it had brought charges of conspiring to provide material support for terrorist activity against a defense attorney in a terrorism case.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t just to punish her, but to send a message of intimidation to other committed lawyers who might follow her lead,â€ writes Mauri Saalakhan of the Peace and Justice Foundation.
â€œHow could I be happier? I feel like Iâ€™ve waited my whole life for this fight!â€ Stewart told supporters in 2004, knowing she was facing the possibility of life in prison.
Chris Hedges describes her trial: â€œThe state demanded an outrageous 30-year prison sentence. It showed the jurors lurid videos of Osama bin Laden and images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, and spun a fantastic web of Islamic, terrorist intrigue.â€
Stewart was accused of speaking gibberish in order to distract the prison guards so that her Arabic translator could converse in Arabic with her client during a prison visit. She then passed along a written statement from the imam regarding Egyptian politics to Reuters. The government argued that Stewart was thus aiding terrorist violence.
â€œHis word matters,â€ Stewart said regarding the Egyptian imam. â€œHe wouldnâ€™t be the first man accused of terrorism who is released from prison when times change.â€
She added that her clientâ€™s statement was followed by a clarification: â€œI [Omar Abdel-Rahman] am not withdrawing my support of the cease-fire (in Egypt), I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.â€
Judge John Koeltl of Federal District Court in Manhattan originally sentenced Ms. Stewart to only 28 months in prison. Expressing relief to her supporters massed outside the courtroom after the sentencing she exclaimed exuberantly: â€œAs my clients would say, I can do this standing on my head.â€
But federal prosecutors goaded by John Ashcroft appealed the light sentence, claiming that Ms. Stewartâ€™s public statement indicated a lack of remorse. Koeltl then resentenced her to 10 years in prison.
Scheduled for surgery the week she was sentenced, Stewart instead had to wait eighteen months for that surgery. Yet, even from prison, Stewart continued to make statements to the media.
â€œI believe that since 9/11 the government has pursued Muslims with an ever heavier hand. However, cases such as the Sheikhâ€™s in 1995 amply demonstrate that Muslims had been targeted even earlier as the new ENEMYâ€”always suspect, always guilty,â€ she wrote to Chris Hedges of Truthdig.
â€œI hope that my imprisonment sends the wake up call that the government is prepared to imprison lawyers who do not conduct legal representation in a manner the government has ordained.â€
Lynne Irene Stewart, born October 8, 1939, attended a Calvinist college for her BA and went on to Rutgers for her law degree. She is Swedish/German and Irish/English by parentage.
Dr. Aafia Siddique and Green activist Marie Mason are incarcerated at the same prison federal prison hospital where Stewart was held, but in a separate area. There are about 2,500 women in there, Stewart told Democracy Now!