It was a tremendous victory that on New Years Eve, our comrade, Lynne Stewart was ordered released from prison on compassionate grounds. She is now free, with her family in New York, and getting the treatment she needs. She should never have spent one second in prison.
Lynne was targeted as an attorney for representing a controversial client. She was targeted for providing the kind of defense that every client deserves but the government did not want this client to receive.
In 2000 she violated a prison rule that forbade her from passing on any messages from her client – a convicted terrorist – to the media or anyone else. For violating the rule, and passing on a statement to a Reuters reporter, she was barred from visiting her client for a few weeks. That was it. An ethical violation perhaps, though the rule in question was a bad one.
It wasn’t until after September 11, 2001 and the start of the U.S.’s “War on Terror,” that the Justice Department saw an opportunity to go after Lynne. She was charged with, and convicted of, conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization.
The government fought hard to prosecute her and keep her in prison. Video of Osama bin Laden was put before the jury to provide “background,” along with other prejudicial information that had nothing to do with Lynne or the charges against her. When her sentencing judge initially gave her 28 months in prison, the government appealed and demanded more. She was later resentenced; this time to 10 years in prison.
Suffering from cancer, she had been serving her sentence at a medical facility for women prisoners in Texas – far from her friends and family. As her prognosis got worse, she was given less than 18 months to live and she clearly fell within the guidelines for compassionate release. At least two applications for compassionate release made it to the head of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the latest being in September of 2013.
Tens of thousands of people signed two online petitions. Emails were sent and calls were made to the BOP and Attorney General Eric Holder. Rallies and vigils were held throughout the country – including two here in San Francisco in 2013.
I have no doubt that there were, and are, people in the Justice Department who wanted to see her die in prison. Ultimately we pushed the system just enough that keeping a dying, 73-year-old woman incarcerated was simply not worth it to them anymore.
It was a victory, but one that came at a price, reminding us of the work we still need to do. Lynne Stewart, who is a longtime Guild member, is free but still very ill. She paid a price after years of taking on poor and unpopular clients, while lawyers like those who came up with novel defenses of state torture have in some cases been rewarded. The effect of all this may be that attorneys prefer a tepid defense of controversial clients – especially when that client is an accused terrorist – to avoid any trouble of their own.
For us, this bittersweet victory should serve as a lesson that we could always use reminding of: legal battles are important, but political struggle is what will save us.