Freedom for Lynne Stewart

On October 8, Lynne Stewart spent her 74th birthday in prison while Guild members and activists rallied across the country for her release. Stewart was a New York attorney, Guild member, and frequent speaker at our annual conventions. She was convicted of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists in 2005; the underlying act, however, was simply the public release of a statement from her client. In San Francisco, on the 8th, we gathered in front of Senator Dianne Feinstein's office in the Financial District. Feinstein sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee which provides oversight to the Justice Department; and it is officials at the Justice Department who have said they want to expand compassionate release but have so far kept Stewart incarcerated despite her age and spreading breast cancer.

We, at the Lawyers Guild, don't believe Stewart should ever have been prosecuted. Back in the '90's, she was appointed by a federal court to represent Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman was an Egyptian Muslim leader living in New York, but who maintained a following in Egypt. He was eventually convicted of seditious conspiracy. Stewart, along with co-counsel, and former Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, continued to visit Rahman in prison and hoped that eventually there could be a prisoner swap or a way to have him transferred to a prison in Egypt, instead of in solitary confinement in the United States. In 2000, Stewart assisted in the release of a press statement from Rahman to a Reuters reporter. This act violated prison rules and, for a time, she was barred from visiting her client, but not prosecuted. It wasn't until after 9/11, and the launch of the Bush Administration's "War on Terror," that she was prosecuted and eventually convicted in a highly-politicized trial.

Stewart has already spent more than 3 years in prison. At the age of 74, she is currently in a medical facility in Texas suffering from breast cancer. The most generous prognosis is that she has less than 18 months to live. She fits the new guidelines for compassionate release outlined by Attorney General Eric Holder in August of this year. Yet despite a 2nd application, approved by her warden and sitting on the desk of the Bureau of Prisons Director, she remains incarcerated.

October 8, 2013 Speak Out in San Francisco

Under the Bush Administration, it was clear that Stewart's prosecution was a political act of opportunism. Attorney General John Ashcroft even announced her indictment during an appearance on the David Letterman Show. During her trial, prosecutors played a tape of Osama bin Laden praising Rahman, and attempted to equate an attorney's act of representation with the bad acts of her client. It was par for the course during the Bush years, but now, under a new administration, it seems there is still politics at play.

Why keep an ailing, former-attorney, in prison when she clearly qualifies for compassionate release? For the same reason Ashcroft went after her in the first place: to send a message that the war on terror will sweep up attorneys who competently and compassionately represent targeted clients, just as it sweeps up journalists, Muslims, and anyone that can be demonized as a threat. Because she is an attorney, Stewart's prosecution and ongoing imprisonment send a message to lawyers about what the government is willing and capable of doing. That message is one that should alarm anyone who believes in the right to counsel and due process.

Still we remain hopeful that Holder's statement on compassionate release was made in good faith and that Stewart will soon be released to her family and receive medical care that is not available to her in the federal prison system. Even moderates in Washington are beginning to view mass incarceration as a financial burden, and that may be enough to compel the compassionate release of Stewart and many others. Until then, we will continue to push for release as a small act of justice in an otherwise troubling attack on the legal profession and on the values of the Lawyers Guild that Stewart embodies.

Carlos Villarreal
Executive Director