A civil rights attorney in New York City, in 1995, Stewart represented Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "blind sheik." A spiritual leader for the Egyptian Islamic Group, he was accused of encouraging--but not giving material assistance--to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and to terrorists who planned to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and other NYC landmarks.
In 1995, Abdel Rahman was convicted and given a life imprisonment. Since then, Stewart--along with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark--has continued to represent Abdel Rahman. Until two years ago, he sat in solitary confinement in a medical federal prison in Minnesota. He has reportedly been transferred to a super maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado--a newly built facility designed to house the country's most dangerous criminals. Abdel Rahman is blind, diabetic, and confined to a wheelchair.
Last April, John Ashcroft flew to New York City to personally announce a criminal indictment against Lynne Stewart. Standing at WTC Ground Zero, Ashcroft faced cameras and microphones to accuse Stewart of materially aiding and abetting a terrorist's organization. At her client's request, Stewart had issued a press release to Reuters news service stating Abdel Rahman's unhappiness with a current cease fire by his followers. For following her client's wishes, Stewart now faces 40 years in federal prison. Her trial is scheduled for January 2004. Much of the evidence acquired was done in secret, including wiretaps (with no warrants) during confidential meetings between attorneys and their client. In addition, a professor who transcribed and translated the interviews has also been charged with aiding and abetting terrorism. He has lost his job and is facing prison time.
Even more bizarre, that night, Ashcroft appeared on The David Letterman Show where he sang a patriotic song and discussed the charges against Stewart.
Last Friday while out on $500,000 bail, Stewart spoke at Portland State University. Before her appearance, she spent an hour speaking with the Mercury about wiretaps, the USA Patriot Act, and the lack of dissent in American politics.
Mercury: Normally an attorney simply facilitates a client's wishes. But you've actually become the story. Is that strange?
Stewart: Yes, I'm the poster child for John Ashcroft shrinking the constitution. In a sense, I'm the American face of what the Patriot Act seeks to accomplish.
But didn't your alleged offense happen during the '90s, when Clinton-Reno were in office? Is this really about the Bush administration?
Am I secure in the fact that Clinton's people wouldn't have done it? I just know they didn't do it. I have the sense that Ashcroft had no idea who I was, that he saw me as a caricature--female lawyer, wrinkled clothes, hair needs cutting. They love to describe me as 'dowdy,' maybe lesbian.
I mean, I've practiced law for 30 years and I'm very respected by my colleagues. I'm someone--not the aging, out-of-step lefty I'm sure his guys despise. He singled me out to send a message to the Bar saying, "we have certain expectations, and if you step outside those expectations you'll be in trouble like she is." I mean, I face 40 years. In my case, he saw it as what his anti-terrorist machine needed at the moment some gas in the engine.
Since 9/11 it seems that we've moved from a legal-based society to moral-based society. Do you feel like you've been caught in the switchover?
I think we're all caught. The White House posse has an extreme right-wing agenda. Part of that move is to keep people in line in a certain way. And one way to do that is to take away the right to dissent and lawyers.
Do you agree that, in a sense, Americans have allowed "this" to happen? And are we now too deep in the hole to fight back?
I'm a real lefty optimist. If there's one person who can still lift up the banner, then I believe you can win. I really believe that people don't want to live in a state ruled from the top down or where we're all in conformist lock-step.
But at least we have some genesis of a movement now, and we didn't when I was arrested a year ago. Or even three or four years ago, when there was very little awareness [about civil liberties] out there.
But how do we turn it around now? I'm real old-fashioned organize, organize, organize. I believe you talk to people and tell your story. I believe that people see [someone like me] who could be a cousin, an aunt, their mother. It puts a different spin on what the government or mass media wants to put on my case. In doing that, you encourage people to go out and talk about this.
To polish up that silver lining a bit more, maybe the payoff from this current crackdown on civil liberties will be heightened awareness. Can you project two years ahead?
My question is "what will the people do if there's not a candidate pushing us back the other way?" Everyone is so afraid of the "T" word--you know, terrorism. It really makes people quake. Unless the parties can find a candidate or mount a new party that's really daring, we will become more and more jaded and cynical to the point where no one will really listen anymore.
I think there are big problems ahead. I also think if the economy starts to operate again, a lot of people are simply going to forget.