HINOJOSA: Welcome to NOW on PBS. I'm Maria Hinojosa. This week, we're talking to Lynne Stewart, the former civil rights lawyer who was sentenced to 28 months in prison for five counts of conspiring to aid terrorists and lying to the government.
The sentence was considered a victory by the Stewart camp. Prosecutors were pushing for a 30 year sentence in prison. She was convicted for smuggling out messages from her jailed client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as 'the blind sheik.'
He's serving a life sentence on terror charges related to plotting to bomb a number of targets in New York City. Stewart was convicted of helping the sheik contact followers in Egypt with messages that could've ended a cease fire there and ignited violence. Stewart's case marks the first time the federal government prosecuted a defense attorney in a terrorism case. Welcome to NOW on PBS, Lynne.
STEWART: Thank you, very much, Maria. Happy to be here.
HINOJOSA: And I just asked you a second ago, before we went on the air—how you're doing, and you said you're exhaling.
STEWART: Yes. You cannot imagine, I mean, I can hardly imagine how tense and stressful the days were. We really did not know what the judge was going to do. Of course, uncertainty is the worst of feelings.
And both my husband and I were fully prepared—when we went into that courtroom—that we would not be walking out together. And—you know, this is—this is—a 46 year relationship, my children were there. It was an—all—the ultimate painful experience is all I can say.
HINOJOSA: All right, Lynne. So, we're going to talk about the verdict and the sentence in a second. But I was in that courtroom when you were defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the mid-1990's. And there may be many people who don't remember that that was the first and largest terrorism trial in U.S. history. Eleven men charged with plotting to bomb New York City landmarks. I want to take you back to—when you think back now—why—why did you want to take on Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman as a client back then?
STEWART: Well, as you may or may not know, I of course, in my legal career, which at that point was about 20 years into—had defended many people whom the government declared to be pariahs, to be beyond the pail, to be not worthy of—of decent representation. There is a group of lawyers, of which—of course, Bill Kunzler, and there are other political lawyers who take on the difficult cases. It was a challenge to take on this case. I had been asked to do so by Ramsey Clark, a person who is respect is—is—is greatly valued by those of us in the profession.
And I felt that it was the right thing to do. It was a tremendous challenge to come up against the United States government in a case that—the client had been so thoroughly demonized. And it also—it was a professional challenge—to fight this case, to try to make this man a human being before a jury. It was not an ambition case, believe me—in the sense that—I was going to get great financial rewards or that I was going to get great notoriety or anything else. It was basically—it was my kind of case, and I thought I should do it.
HINOJOSA: So, I wonder now when you look back—in a post-9/11 world. I mean, at that time—in the mid-1990's, this notion of terrorists plotting to bomb New York City landmarks—many of us—really thought that that was entirely impossible. That—that—that just could never happen. Well, it did on September 11th, 2001. So, in hindsight now—how do you think that what happened on September 11th might have changed how you see your former client, Omar Abdel Rahman?
STEWART: You know, it's—it's very important that we, as Americans, distinguish between what is—the rhetoric we are sort of fed by our government, and the mass media, and sift out. Of course, Omar Abdel Rahman, as I maintained in that trial, and I still maintain—his only concern was Egypt. His concern was what was happening with Egypt. He had harsh words for the United States, but I never believe he ever formed an intent to hurt anyone in the United States.
HINOJOSA: So, even after - Even after the attack in New York City, you still believe that someone like Omar Abdel Rahman did not have any intention to perhaps conspire -
STEWART: No,—in my mind—and I tell you—and in my heart, and in my—my entire being, I believe that Omar Abdel Rahman was a—primarily a religious man—an ultra religious man—certainly not my religion. But that he believed ultimately in changing Egyptian politics. He of course, castigated the United States, but he had no connection to Al Qaeda. He had no connection to the people who were formulating plans for the World Trade Center.
I mean, it—you cannot view, quote, terrorism. We're not talking about the mob here. We're talking about very separate groups that have different goals and different agendas.
The government would like us to think of it in some way—just like we used to think about the Russian empire. That the Communists were out there, and they were all interlinked—China, Vietnam—Soviet Union. But you know—and—and now that things have come to a different stage of history, we see things as being disparate and different.
And I think that history will prove that the—the Sheik would never ever have had anything to do with the World Trade Center, notwithstanding that his name is always mentioned in connection with World Trade Center One. He was never ever put on trial for that. He was never accused of that, except as a—an act along with 30 other things in the indictment for which he was convicted. But we have no idea where—the jury felt that he had any part of it. There certainly was no proof at all that he did.
HINOJOSA: There was a point when you crossed the line of normal legal duties. You basically admitted that in a letter that you sent to the judge before your sentencing. And here's what you said—and I'm going to read from that letter. It says—I'm quoting you now—"I inadvertently allowed those with other agendas to corrupt the most precious and inviolate basis of our profession, the attorney, client relations."
You go on to admit to doing this intentionally when you say, "The acts in violation of my—special administrative measures—speaking to a reporter and allowing prohibited communications—were committed intentionally." This is a huge admission on your part. I want to know—one, what made you do this? What made you cross the line? And what made you admit this to the judge?
STEWART: Let me first just say, we're talking here not about law. We're not talking about criminal law. We're talking about prison regulations that were put in place by the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons. I believe that—then, and I do now—and actually, that is part of the context of the letter—was that I did everything as a lawyer. Everything I did I did for my client. I did not do it to further any terrorism or any terrorist conspiracy.
To talk to the judge about how and why I did it, of course, it—it was obvious I had made a press release. This is the [thrust] of the offense against me was that I very openly called Reuters, hardly a—a secret underground organization, and gave them the release that my client asked me to give them. I explained to the judge that my client at that point, after eight years in prison, and three years under these SAMS, which are the special prison regulations—was so diminished, was in such terrible, terrible shape physically and mentally—that I felt to keep hope alive—which is what defense lawyers do—and to have him—have any platform in the world from which we could carry on our negotiations with the Egyptian government—and Ramsey Clark was steadily negotiating with them in an attempt to get him back over there—he had to remain someone on the world scene. This is why I did it. His political agenda is not my political agenda. But of course, I believe the government likes to fold anyone who has spoken out critically about the United States—in opposition to United States policies—has basically made us all—into the same people. Whether you're talking about Sheik Omar or Lynne Stewart, you are all the same. You are part of the same conspiracy against us.
HINOJOSA: You've always been on the left. You've always called yourself an anti-imperialist. Was there a part of you that just said, "Well—you know, I—I sympathize with what Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman—symbolizes." He's fighting against big powers, and so, you had beyond a lawyer, client sympathy. You had a political sympathy. I mean, did that influence you in the decision to not only represent him, but then to—to carry out these messages?
STEWART: Well, Maria, I think that even if you were a—a lukewarm liberal, you had to hate the Egyptian government. They are the worst on the—one of the worst on the face of the earth. This is a government that is elected with only candidate for the last 25 years. They imprison the opposition.
When the United States renders people, they render them first to Egypt where systematically they are tortured. The first thing we understand is that their fingernails are removed. So—you know, you don't have to be a radical or anything else to be anti-Egyptian government.
But the fact of the matter is—the Sheik's ultimate goals—the Islamic goals, the idea of bringing a theocracy—I don't think is any closer to my heart whether the Sheik proposes it or whether Ashcroft proposes it. But the fact of the matter is, I had a client—and I cared very much for him—it's what happens—it's what happens with good defense lawyers. We get into a position where the client is very close to us. And as I said before, I do not think that anyone would mistake my political goals for the Sheik's political goals. Whatever I thought about the Egyptian government, I was prepared—if they would accept him back there, we would've been more than happy to have him go back there. And I said that in the letter—under any condition, just so he could be back on his home soil again.
HINOJOSA: Well—you know, I was in New York—on September 11th. I imagine you were there. I mean, that—that event changed me as a reporter, as a mother, as a New Yorker—in profound ways.
So, I remember thinking back then when your charges first came down about six months after 9/11—I wonder if Lynne Stewart would have the capacity to take on Osama bin Laden as a client? Would you—even consider doing that? I mean, in the scheme of legal things, is that something that—should be done? And could you see yourself also doing what you did for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman for someone like Osama bin Laden.
STEWART: The—well, let me say—I'm not as—so presumptuous as to think that I would even have been asked. But I think any lawyer has to say, "If we believe that the process—the legal process lives," that you have to say, "I would represent people with whom I have vast differences." There are certain people that I won't represent.
I cannot say what the circumstances would be or could be. But if I would be asked, I think I would consider it. Not because of what he is, but because I believe in the process, and I believe my talents are such that I must reach out to those who have been demonized the most.
HINOJOSA: But—help us understand how that's possible, because I'm sure people are listening to this and they're saying—in—in this moment in history, how do you—you know, how do you go to sleep at night saying, "Okay. You know, I'm—I'm taking on these difficult—hateful clients, and yet we have to do this, because this is defending the process." I mean, do you see this in a historical way? How do you—manage this—you know, when you're alone at night?
STEWART: Maria, I—I had trouble sleeping after Sabra and Chatilla—the massacre of the—Palestinian refugees. I had trouble sleeping after Rwanda. I had trouble sleeping after Mandela was slapped in prison and kept there for 39 years.
You know, I have shed many tears over—world events. I hardly have tears left almost, but I still shed them, because I'm still human. And I say to you—yes, we suffered a terrible blow. I'm not certain that these things ever get resolved in courtrooms. I think perhaps, this is bigger than a courtroom.
We didn't put Hitler on trial. We might've tried had we captured him. But that has never been an issue.
So, I say to you—there are so many outrages that I see that go completely unnoticed, unpunished. We talk about the 3,000 who died. Do I care for them? I care deeply—all death—is just—seems so absurd in a barbaric way. But I also care for all the other—people. And I use the word, other, advisedly, because—you know, we have Americans have been taught to believe in ourselves and the others. So, that other that we are thinking about—yes, do they deserve punishment for the deaths of these people? Probably. But for me, I'm a lawyer. If they come into my arena, I defend. I don't prosecute, I defend. And if that is the case, then I will defend.
I have defended other people—people who were accused of killing policemen. People who—the Sheik himself. It is what we do and how we do it. And that is what is important to me.
HINOJOSA: On—on the front page of The New York Post after your sentencing—and again, you could've been sentenced to 30 years in prison—you were given 28 months—and—and basically the—the judge said that—because of your prior work—your legal work—that you had—earned time, in a sense, for good behavior in all of your good works. But The New York Post had a big picture of you, front page, saying, "Sickening Victim Act Fooled The Judge." You are vilified in that paper. You have suffered from breast cancer since you were first indicted on this—how do you handle being a person—a woman who is—creates such a—a—a—a vile reaction from so many people?
STEWART: You know, Maria, it's an interesting thing. The New York Post may be its' own best friend. And by that I mean—you know, I don't get this reaction.
I walk into a restaurant and people send over bottle of wine. I walk down the street and people give me a thumbs up. The cab drivers—I rarely pay a cab fare. When they say, "Oh, you are the lawyer. You are the lawyer that fights for us." I tell you—and I—I'm not saying this out of—any kind of exaggerated uberous, I guess or—patting myself on the back—the love expressed by the people is—is really for me, what the struggle has been about.
HINOJOSA: But let me interrupt you there. When you're in a cab, and the cab driver says, "You're the lawyer who represents us" or you're in a—you know, restaurant and somebody says that—who's the us that you believe they're referring to?
STEWART: When I just said a few moments ago—the other—the demonized other. The other that—when he walks into a store, the store detective follows him. The other—the person who knows that in the—in the scheme of this—in America, his chances—his children's chances of success are not as great as that white baby that's born on the other side of town.
I know this—I know what skin privilege is. I have fought against it all my life. And I think when people say, "You are for us," they have adopted me into that underclass that exists.
And—you know, Deb said it—while there is a vigil being held, I am there. When there is a prisoner in prison, I am there. I feel that this is the fight—this is what America must come to terms with—almost before it comes to terms with anything else. Because we have never resolved the problems that existed across the color line. And I see it in—all the politics of today. And I think that that is why they identify with me, and I identify with them.
HINOJOSA: So, what would you change, Lynne Stewart, if—if you could go back ten years? Would you still take on Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman?
STEWART: I would take on his case. I also feel that—you know, what—what happened thereafter really was to some degree—I too was a victim of 9-1-1. And I say that—I'm not saying this to garner approval or anything else, but what really was an offense that might have separated me from my client while I litigated whether the government could do that—became after 9-1-1—six months after 9-1-1—with Ashcroft—became an indictable offense. And the lawyer became part of the conspiracy.
HINOJOSA: So, what is the lesson that all of us needed to learn?
STEWART: The fact that we are galloping down the road to—really—the only word to use for it—people say, "Oh, you're over the top when you say Fascism." But I don't think we're over the top when I see the habeas corpus has now been voted out. Voting out of habeas corpus is to say that the government has—can throw anyone in jail, they can languish there forever, and—it—those—those lives don't count, those lives don't matter. And we will decide who will do that and who will not.
So, when I say the lessons to be learned are—we must keep people aware. We must organize people. The greatest prevention of these times in which we live is not to become cocoon like and say, "Well, there are bad guys out there. My government will protect me." But to analyze why—America is so hated in the world. We have never done that. We have never asked the why questions.
These questions have to be asked and answered. And we must breed politicians who will stand up—who will stand up against the government, and who will do the right thing. Like—
HINOJOSA: And I'm sure—
STEWART:—the judge—like the judge did in my case.
HINOJOSA: And I'm sure, Lynne Stewart, that there are people who are listening to this and saying, "But my gosh. Where is Lynne Stewart's sense of humility? Why doesn't she say, 'The lesson learned is that I, as a lawyer, should never cross the line with my clients." What about that, Lynne?
STEWART: First of all, one doesn't become a criminal defense lawyer by being humble. One becomes a criminal defense lawyer by being feisty. Humility—I don't think the times call for humility. I can say, I very—I cannot say—more strongly that to have lost the ability to be a lawyer—there is no greater punishment.
HINOJOSA: That's right, because you were—
STEWART: And I am—
STEWART:—really humble about that. And I have lost a—a real sense of my own definition and my own purpose in life. But you know, I—I cannot say that I can be humble when a government that has lied to the people countless times said that I lied to them, and convicts me of it. In a case where nothing happened. They came out and they unfurled these banners, terrorist messages being passed, Luxor massacre—all of this. But the fact of the matter is the press release went out. It was a two day wonder in the Middle East only. It subsided, and things went back to exactly where they had been before.
HINOJOSA: Thanks for speaking with us on NOW on PBS, Lynne Stewart.
STEWART: Thank you, Maria.
HINOJOSA: I'm Maria Hinojosa. We'll talk again next week.