The self-proclaimed “radical human rights attorney” Lynne Stewart was born on October 8, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Hope College and American University before earning her B.A. in Political Science from Wagner College in 1961. She went on to acquire a Master’s Degree in Library Science from Pratt Institute, and in 1975 she earned her J.D. from Rutgers School of Law.
Over the course of her legal career, Stewart, who is a Maoist, has defended many notorious figures, including Weather Underground bomber Kathy Boudin, Black Panther Willie Holder, and Mafia turncoat Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. She also has gone on record saying that, if given the opportunity, she would defend Osama bin Laden.
“There are a lot of people I wouldn’t represent,” Stewart said in a 2002 interview with the WW3 Report website. “I wouldn’t represent [Charles] Schwarz, the cop who supposedly held [New York City police torture victim Abner] Louima down [in 1997]. I don’t represent people who are accused of hurting children in any way, either sexually or violently. I wouldn’t take a Nazi case, or an Aryan case. My politics are those of inclusion, and I hope that my politics are represented in the people I actually represent.”
Stewart made national headlines in April 2002 when she was arrested for providing material support to the Islamic Group (IG), an Egypt-based terrorist organization with close links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
Stewart’s connections to IG date back to 1995, when, at the behest of her mentor and confidante Ramsey Clark, she represented the organization’s spiritual leader, the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, during his federal grand jury trial in New York City. Rahman ultimately was convicted of seditious conspiracy for planning to wage a “war of urban terrorism” against the United States. In addition, he was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1993. In January 1996, three months after his convictions, Rahman was sentenced to life in prison. Fifteen months later, the U.S. government, in an effort to terminate Rahman’s connections to active terrorists, blocked him from communicating with anyone in the outside world.
The verdict against Rahman left Stewart in tears — in large part due to the close personal relationship she had developed with her client. As a September 2002 piece in the New York Times Magazine showed, Stewart’s affection for Rahman was profound:
“As Stewart got to know her new client, she came to see him as a fighter for national liberation on behalf of a people oppressed by dictatorship and American imperialism. She came to admire him personally too, for his honesty, his strength of character, his teasing humor. ‘I’ve made up my mind,’ the sheik would say. ‘I’m going to marry you, and that will solve everything.’ ‘And what do women get if they fight in jihad?’ [Stewart] would ask.'”
Their friendship, along with Stewart’s counsel, continued after Rahman was imprisoned at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. Due to federal authorities’ concern that Rahman might attempt to issue fatwahs (religious decrees) and to direct IG activities from prison, Stewart was required to agree to a Special Administrative Measure (SAM) stipulating that she could only talk to Rahman about legal matters, and barring her from conveying messages from the Sheikh to anyone in the outside world, including his family, friends and the media. The SAM allowed an Arabic translator, Mohammed Yousry, to accompany Stewart on her visits to the Sheikh.
Throughout 2000, FBI agents, working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), secretly videotaped Stewart’s visits with Rahman and wiretapped telephone conversations between the two. According to a 19-page indictment issued by federal agents, it was through Yousry that Rahman had delivered messages in Arabic to a Staten Island-based postal worker named Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who in turn — via faxes and telephone conversations — passed Rahman’s messages along to IG representatives in the Middle East.
An FBI affidavit prepared by agent Kimberley Whittle detailed the measures to which Stewart had resorted during her prison visits in order to protect Rahman and assist the IG. According to the affidavit, Stewart “made random comments out loud for the [prison] guards to hear in order to conceal the real conversation” between Rahman and Yousry. During one such exchange, Stewart — while pretending to take notes in her legal pad — misled nearby guards by loudly inserting, into a discussion between Rahman and Yousry, the nonsensical phrase: “Yes, the um … I am talking to you about … him going out on a, uh, chocolate eh … heart attack here.” A subsequent wiretap captured Stewart, Rahman and Yousry joking about Stewart’s deception, with Stewart saying she could “get an award for it.”
In mid-June of 2000, Stewart, in direct violation of the SAM, released to the international media a statement by Rahman indicating that he was “withdrawing his support for the cease-fire that currently exists.” That statement signaled Islamic Group members that they should resume their violence against the Egyptian government and end a cease-fire that had been in effect since 1998. Stewart’s role in passing along this message is what ultimately led to her arrest by federal agents outside of her Brooklyn apartment in April 2002.
After Stewart’s arrest, a litany of leftwing organizations and activists instantly rushed to her aid. These included the Center for Constitutional Rights (which issued a press release describing Stewart’s indictment as “an attack on attorneys who defend controversial figures and an attempt to deprive these clients of the zealous representation that may be required”); the Committee to Support Revolution in Peru (an arm of Peru’s “Shining Path” rebels); International ANSWER; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (which filed a number of amicus curiae briefs on Stewart’s behalf); the National Lawyers Guild (which condemned “the witch hunt against Stewart” as “yet another attempt by the government to dismantle the Constitution and deprive fundamental rights in furtherance of the War on Terrorism”); George Soros‘s Open Society Institute (which made a September 2002 grant of $20,000 to the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee); Pravda; Refuse and Resist, a group headed by Revolutionary Communist Party leader C. Clark Kissinger; and the World Socialist website.
Quickly becoming a veritable icon of the left, Stewart was invited to speak at college campuses all across the United States.
On October 6, 2002, she was a special guest speaker at an anti-war rally organized by Not In Our Name, a project of the aforementioned C. Clark Kissinger. Stewart was joined at the podium by Sami Al-Arian, the onetime North American head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In December 2002 Stewart was a guest of honor at the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York.
In an interview with The New York Times, Stewart expressed her view that the 9/11 attacks were a predictable response to U.S. aggression overseas. “I’m pretty inured to the notion that in a war or in an armed struggle, people die,” she said. “They’re in the wrong place; they’re in a nightclub in Israel; they’re at a stock market in London; they’re in the Algerian outback—whatever it is, people die.” Citing America’s use of atomic weapons during World War II, as wel as the U.S.-British firebombing of Dresden, Stewart added: “So I have a lot of trouble figuring out why that is wrong, especially when people [Islamic terrorists] are sort of placed in a position of having no other way.”
Hailing Muslim fundamentalists as “forces of national liberation,” Stewart in 2002 identified “Islamic revolution” as “the only hope” for the oppressed peoples of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia. “If their people see that they want to reinstate a system of law [Sharia] and government that was in existence for hundreds and hundreds of years, I’m not going to judge,” she said.
In 2004, Stewart characterized herself as a “revolutionary with a small ‘r'” and emphasized her belief that “basic change is necessary.” While “some of it will be accomplished nonviolently,” she said, overcoming “the entrenched voracious type of capitalism that is in this country that perpetuates sexism and racism,” might require violence. On an earlier occasion, Stewart had told The Washington Post: “I’m not a pacifist. I have cried many bitter tears. There is death in history, and it’s not all rosebuds and memorial services. Mao, Fidel [Castro], Ho Chi Minh understood this.”
On February 10, 2005, Stewart was convicted of helping Rahman communicate with his Islamic Group followers in the Middle East. She would not be sentenced until October 2006.
At an April 2005 rally for Stewart’s defense at San Francisco State University, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan publicly lauded Stewart, depicting the latter as “my human Atticus Finch,” a reference to the heroic attorney in the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Explained Sheehan: “He [Finch] did what he knew was right, but wasn’t popular. And that’s what Lynne [Stewart] is doing.” At the same rally, Stewart said: “The sheikh asked me to make this press release and we all thought it was a good idea because we felt our duty was to keep his name alive in the world, in the real world. That when somebody sinks below the level, where nobody remembers him, he’s not heard of, no one cares what happens to him, at that point, that person is, indeed, doing a death penalty, even though we call it “a life sentence.” Moreover, she said that she thought of herself as a victim of U.S. government oppression.
“But I do think that I’m now facing 30 years, not because of what they accuse me of having done, which really I’m completely innocent of and they understand that, too, but really for being 30 years as a movement lawyer and for the 10 years before that, being opposed to their war in Vietnam, being opposed to the racist policies of the Board of Education of the City of New York and fighting against that and standing up for people, regardless of the circumstances, who really were designated enemies of the state.
“So, I’m here today, as an enemy of the state myself … But when I say ‘the state,’ I think of myself, and I know that the tabloid press of New York, notably the New York Post, refers to me as [a] ‘traitor lawyer.’ And that, to me, is not at all true. I think that I’m a greater patriot because I didn’t just come out in the sunshine and when it was good weather but I came out when it was bad weather, and when things were very, very much at a low ebb and I spoke up and I said what had to be said, and I continued with my work and I defended the people who needed defense. That was my job, that’s what I did.”
In 2005 Stewart was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” crafted by the Revolutionary Communist Party-controlled Not In Our Name. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
On September 24, 2005, Stewart spoke at the “Call to United Mass Action,” an anti-Iraq War rally in Washington, DC which was organized by International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice.
At Stewart’s sentencing in October 2006, Clinton-appointed U.S. District Court Judge John George Koeltl opted to break with guidelines that should have landed the defendant in prison for 30 years, and sentenced her to only 28 months. During the penalty hearing, Koeltl praised Stewart as someone who, throughout her career, had “performed a public service, not only to her clients, but to the nation” — though he conceded that her actions vis a vis Rahman constituted “extraordinarily severe criminal conduct.”
Because her prison term was so short, a gloating Stewart instantly depicted herself as the victor in the case. Soon after her sentence had been handed down, she told a crowd of supporters: “He [the judge] gave me time off for good behavior, and he gave it to me in advance of the sentence … he said that my extraordinary work meant that I could not get a sentence that the government wanted.” Stewart then told the press that she could serve such a brief period “standing on my head.”
Stewart was slated to begin serving her prison sentence in late 2006 but received numerous reprieves while seeking treatment for breast cancer. She remained free on bail pending a decision of her appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
On November 18, 2009, Stewart began serving her 28-month prison term. The night before her incarceration began, she was interviewed on Amy Goodman‘s “Democracy Now!” program. Goodman asked her: “Lynne, would you do anything differently today, or would you do anything differently back then, if you knew what you knew today?” Stewart replied:
“I think I should have been a little more savvy that the government would come after me. But do anything differently? I don’t—I’d like to think I would not do anything differently, Amy. I made these decisions based on my understanding of what the client needed, what a lawyer was expected to do. They say that you can’t distinguish zeal from criminal intent sometimes. I had no criminal intent whatsoever. This was a considered decision based on the need of the client. And although some people have said press releases aren’t client needs, I think keeping a person alive when they are in prison, held under the conditions which we now know to be torture, totally incognito—not incognito, but totally held without any contact with the outside world except a phone call once a month to his family and to his lawyers, I think it was necessary. I would do it again. I might handle it a little differently, but I would do it again.”
In 2010, prosecutors filed an appeal of Stewart’s sentence, arguing that a more appropriate prison term would be in the range of 15 to 30 years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – after considering how egregiously Stewart had abused her position as an attorney in her dealings with Rahman, and how Stewart had subsequently committed perjury when testifying at her trial – overturned the original sentence and sent the case back to Judge Koeltl, asking him to consider lengthening Stewart’s jail time. Koeltl concluded that Stewart’s self-congratulatory statements and jovial demeanor in the aftermath of her first sentencing indicated “a lack of remorse” on her part, and suggested that “the original sentence was not sufficient.” Thus he increased her sentence from 28 months to ten years.
At the end of 2013, Judge Koeltl ordered that Stewart, who was suffering from terminal cancer and was not expected to survive longer than another 18 months, be released from prison on grounds of compassion. His decision was in response to a request that the director of the Bureau of Prisons, which is a subdivision of the Justice Department, had issued through the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Stewart continued to champion the causes of those whom she views as “political prisoners,” such as Mumia Abu Jamal (who murdered a Philadelphia police officer in 1981) and Leonard Peltier (who killed two FBI agents in 1975).
When Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Islamic terrorist whom she had represented in court more than two decades earlier, died in February 2017, Stewart told The New York Times: “He was a personification of an American hero. I feel very strongly that he suffered. He suffered unjustly because he was convicted of this bogus crime.”
Stewart died on March 7, 2017.
Among the more noteworthy public statements Stewart made over the years are the following:
Portions of this profile are adapted from the article “Cheerleaders for Terrorism,” written by Erick Stakelbeck and published by FrontPageMag.com on June 17, 2003.