San Francisco – Chapter members and dozens from the community gathered in front of the federal building in San Francisco on August 1 to demand the release from federal prison of Guild member Lynne Stewart. Stewart, an attorney who spent her professional life representing poor and controversial clients, remains in prison despite her age of 73 and terminal cancer with a life expectancy of less than 18 months. Her prosecution and imprisonment are viewed by many as an attempt to intimidate all those in the legal community who would zealously defend targets of the so-called “war on terror.”
Speakers at the San Francisco rally included NLG national executive vice president Nadia Kayalli, former FBI target and attorney Stephen Bingham, chapter executive director Carlos Villarreal, as well as represenatives from prisoners’ rights groups, unions and political prisoner solidarity organizations.
In 2002, Lynne Stewart was targeted by then-President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for, essentially, providing a vigorous defense of her client. In 2006, Manhattan federal Judge John Koeltl, handed down a 28-month sentence noting: “By providing a criminal defense to the poor, the disadvantaged and unpopular over three decades, it is no exaggeration to say that Ms. Stewart performed a public service not only to her clients but to the nation.” That sentence, however, was not to stand as the Second Circuit Appellate Court remanded the case, demanding a more harsh sentence. On July 15, 2010, Judge Koeltl increased Stewart’s sentence to 10 years – a virtual death sentence for Stewart.
Carol Strickman, a Guild member and staff attorney and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, spoke at the rally and made the connection between Stewart’s struggle and that of the California prison hunger strikers.
Nadia Kayyali, chapter board member and fellow at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said the prosecution and ongoing incarceration of Stewart was intended to intimidate lawyers like her: “I am here to say that I will not be intimidated!”
The National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada as well as notable figures, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky and 26,000 persons of conscience in the U.S. and internationally have petitioned the Bureau of Prisons to file a motion for compassionate release for Lynne Stewart as specified in the 1984 Sentencing Act. Indeed the warden at her facility recommended compassionate release, but the director of the Bureau of Prisons ultimately denied the request.
The San Francisco rally took place the same week Stewart’s lawyers argued to Judge Koeltl that she should be released regardless. Although the judge expressed the desire to release Stewart, he concluded the letter of the law did not allow it until the Bureau of Prisons approves the request and makes a proper motion to the court.