Born in 1950 to Orthodox Jewish parents whom he has described as “hardworking F.D.R. Democrats,” Stanley Lewis Cohen was raised in Portchester, New York. Though he attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed, he stopped practicing Judaism at age 14 and has considered himself non-religious ever since. Cohen’s current ties to the Jewish faith are based largely on his view that it can serve as a vehicle for redistributive social justice rather than as a conduit to the divine. “I’m proud to be a Jew—very proud of it,” he says. “Not the Judaism of Ariel Sharon. Not the Judaism of the generals of the Israel Defense Forces. But the Judaism that stands with the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the disaffected.”
Cohen became active in the leftwing antiwar movement during his high-school years in the late Sixties and then attended Long Island University. After graduating from LIU, he worked as a volunteer for VISTA, an anti-poverty program initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. Cohen’s VISTA work took place on the Winnebago, Omaha, and Santee Sioux reservations (in Nebraska), where he helped establish a legal-services project.
Following his tenure with VISTA, Cohen worked as a community organizer in New York City, headed a drug program for homeless teens in Westchester County, New York, and administered a federally funded anti-poverty agency. Eventually he enrolled at Pace University Law School, where he earned a J.D. degree in 1983. This career path represented an unexpected change of plans for Cohen, who would later recall how, as a young person, he had no desire to become an attorney: “That’s the last thing in the world I wanted to become. I was too busy as a revolutionary to practice law.”
Throughout his adult life, Cohen has regarded the United States as an intractably racist nation whose criminal-justice system routinely denies fair treatment to racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Consistent with this perspective, he portrayed the U.S. government’s post-9/11 war-on-terror as little more than a pretext for depriving Muslims of their civil liberties—analogous, he said, to America’s internment of Japanese civilians during World War II: “The Germans weren’t locked up. The Italians weren’t locked up. Only the Japanese were. This tells you that ‘civil liberties’ in this country are a matter of race.”
In the early 1980s, when he was still a law student, Cohen teamed up with attorney Lynne Stewart to defend a number of far-left radicals against state prosecution in New York. In one of their more high-profile cases, the pair together represented Kathy Boudin—a Weather Underground and May 19 Communist Organization member who had participated in the deadly 1981 Brink’s armored-car robbery, a heist whose purpose was to acquire the funds needed to finance a war against “Amerikka” and establish a “Republic of Black Afrika” in the United States. Cohen and Stewart would thereafter maintain an enduring, close relationship—both personally and professionally—as evidenced by Stewart’s characterization of Cohen in a 2001 interview as her “dear friend.”
After completing his legal studies, Cohen spent seven years working with the Legal Aid Society in the South Bronx, where he defended a multitude of robbers, rapists, and killers. “I loved the people I represented,” Cohen recalled during a 2001 address which he delivered at a Paterson, New Jersey mosque. “Poor people, people of color. People that the system was designed to beat to death.”
Also in the 1980s, Cohen became a protégé of the self-described “radical attorney” William Kunstler, with whom he jointly represented Larry Davis—a longtime violent felon suspected in the killings of several drug dealers—who had recently shot six New York City policemen. Cohen concocted a defense which maintained that Davis, an African American, had shot the officers—who were, by Cohen’s telling, part of a rogue-cop drug operation—in self-defense. Though Cohen’s claim was entirely without substance, a Bronx jury acquitted Davis in 1986.
Soon after the Larry Davis trial, Cohen left the Legal Aid Society and went into private practice where he began to compile a client list that included all manner of radicals and revolutionaries. Below is a list of some of his most noteworthy clients, most of whom are enumerated on Cohen’s website, iStanleyCohen.org:
But it was Cohen’s so-called “Islamic practice,” through which he has defended a host of Muslim terrorists and terrorism-affiliated operatives, that gained him more notoriety than any other aspect of his legal work.
For example, in the 1990s Cohen teamed up with William Kunstler, Lynne Stewart, and Ramsey Clark to defend Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Group leader who was prosecuted for his role in a number of terror plots, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Cohen later defended Lynne Stewart when she was charged with contempt, for refusing to answer questions in front of a grand jury.
From 1995-97, Cohen represented Moussa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas political leader who co-founded the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (both terror-related organizations). Specifically, Cohen worked to thwart Israel’s effort to extradite Marzook out of the U.S. and try him for the role that he and Hamas had played in a number of bombings. As the Marzook case dragged on for some 22 months, Cohen visited his incarcerated client in jail almost nightly throughout that entire period, usually discussing matters unrelated to his case. “I got the best gossip about the Middle East. We grew incredibly close,” said Cohen. Ultimately, Cohen was successful in helping Marzook win his freedom, evade the Israeli justice system, and resettle in Syria. Articulating his high regard for Marzook, Cohen would later refer to him as “my dear friend” and “the Gerry Adams of Hamas.”
Other noteworthy Islamists and pro-Islamist organizations defended by Cohen include those listed below, most of which are enumerated on Cohen’s website, iStanleyCohen.org::
Cohen’s sympathy for Islamic terrorists was further reflected in his reaction to the events of 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, he told the Village Voice: “If Osama bin Laden arrived in the United States today and asked me to represent him, sure I’d represent him.” In fact, Cohen was reluctant even to believe that al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks, as he articulated on September 22, 2001: “I don’t think this was an Osama bin Laden job at all. But I think for a lot of reasons the government would prefer it be Osama bin Laden. Because then there’s an identifiable bogeyman.” That same day, Cohen speculated: “I fear the government is going to use this [9/11] as a pretense … to go after those people who have stood up to Israeli interests and the pro-Israel lobby in this country.” Moreover, he said he was “absolutely” certain that “this operation was assisted by ex-CIA, ex-Mossad [Israeli intelligence agency] officers.” Recounting an incident where a Texas resident had called Cohen and told him that it was his [Cohen’s] duty, as an American, to convince his clients to cooperate with law-enforcement if they knew anything about the 9/11 conspiracy, Cohen stated: “I said, ‘First of all, I’m not an American. Right now, I’m a lawyer’ …. The World Trade Centers, they don’t belong to the United States; they don’t belong to George Bush. They belong to New York City. I live in the country of New York City.”
Cohen was also sympathetic to the plight of the so-called “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, who was captured as an enemy combatant in Afghanistan later in 2001. By Cohen’s reckoning, Lindh, who confessed to having taken up arms against the United States, “deserves the presumption of innocence.”
In October 2001, Cohen addressed a Muslim gathering at a Paterson, New Jersey mosque and advised those in attendance not to cooperate with FBI investigators who, in the course of 9/11-related probes, might question them regarding their activities or affiliations. “Just say no,” Cohen stated. “It’s the safest way.”
In 2004 Cohen served as a consultant to the Lebanon-based, Hezbollah-dominated al-Manar television network, helping the latter develop a litigation strategy for challenging the U.S. government’s decision to designate it as a terrorist entity—and thus to block and criminalize its broadcast signal. Complaining that “the U.S. has now succeeded in completely convincing Americans that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization,” Cohen cited the organization’s broad popularity in Lebanon and declared: “It is another intimidation by the U.S. administration targeting groups that are independent from Washington’s influence.”
In 2007 Cohen provided consultation services to the government of Yemen vis-à-vis United States v. al Moyaad et. al., a case where a Yemeni tribal leader was convicted of fundraising activities on behalf of Hamas.
Cohen has frequently served as a consultant to Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist movements in the Middle East, the Gulf States, South Asia, and North and South America, regarding U.S. and international laws and litigation strategies. In October 2014, NBC News quoted him saying: “Hamas represents the kind of commitment and integrity that is so important to me — the leadership in particular, is comprised largely of physicians, engineers, academics, and political scientists. So they’re a people that not only do I share a common bond with in terms of their struggle, but they’re folks who I just love hanging out with.”
With regard to the large number of suspected Islamic terrorists he has represented, Cohen said in 2013: “I’ve probably done more terrorism cases than any other lawyer in this country…. I consider it a good fight.”
In January 2015, The New Republic quoted Cohen saying: “People ask how I can be friends with people who support going into a café or a bus and blowing up 32 civilians. My response is, how is dropping a bomb from an F-16 any different? Death is death. I have had political debates with clients of mine over acts that they may have approved or been involved with. It doesn’t change the fact that I like or respect the person.”
Two of Cohen’s more noteworthy close friends were the late, high-ranking Hamas members Ismail Abu Shanab and Ahmed Yassin, who were assassinated by Israel in 2003 and 2004, respectively. In 2015, Cohen’s Twitter profile featured a picture of himself flanked by the two men.
The Communist publication Revolutionary Worker has lauded Cohen as “a longtime people’s lawyer beloved by many for his uncompromising willingness to provide legal defense for the unpopular … and those [whom] U.S. imperialism may feel should be ‘tried’ with no defense at all.” Joel Blumenfeld, a New York State Supreme Court Justice who formerly worked with Cohen, once said of the latter: “[I]f this were 1941-42, he would be representing the Japanese people who were being detained.”
Cohen himself has explained the rationale underlying his choice of clients. “If I don’t support the politics of political clients, I don’t take the case.” “Most of my clients [are] involved with struggle, many of them armed struggle,” he notes, proudly.
Cohen’s clear affinity for Islamists finds an alternative expression in the attorney’s harsh rebukes of Israel, which he has long characterized as a “terrorist state.” Asserting that “what Israel does is far more morally repugnant than what Hamas does,” Cohen in 2002 affirmed the Palestinians’ “right” and “obligation” to “resist occupation … by any means necessary.” “To much of the world,” he elaborated on another occasion, “Hamas is not viewed as a terrorist organization but rather a national liberation movement involved in low-intensity, asymmetric warfare.”
In July 2002 Cohen filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the U.S. government stop giving financial support to Israel’s “program of killing, torture, terror and outright theft” targeting the Palestinians. The suit named President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, various Israeli military officials, and a number of U.S. arms manufacturers, accusing them all of “genocide.” Cohen also sought damages on behalf of Palestinian Americans who had been victimized by Israeli “war crimes” (allegedly carried out with U.S.-made weapons) in Gaza and the West Bank. Joining Cohen in a news conference announcing the lawsuit were American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian.
In a related effort, Cohen was a founding member of an international group of lawyers who, on behalf of Palestinians, have filed suits against Israel in such far-flung locations as Morocco, Belgium, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as before the International Criminal Court. These suits have charged the Jewish state with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and Geneva Convention violations.
Characterizing himself as “among the few Jews in the United States capable of bridging the gap between the West and the militant politics of the Middle East,” Cohen in 2001 boasted that he had once “had lunch with the alleged mastermind of the Achille Lauro ship hijacking,” a 1985 incident where Palestinian terrorists stormed a cruise ship and threw an elderly, wheelchair-bound American man overboard to his death; that he had once “spent a day with [Yasser] Arafat in Ramallah on the West Bank” and was treated “like a head of state”; and that he had been given a number of audiences with the late Sheik Ahmed Yassin, former spiritual leader of Hamas. According to a 2002 news report, Cohen’s office decor at that time featured a picture of himself seated alongside Yassin, as well as a photo of Lenin and a wall poster stating, “History cannot be written with a pen. It must be written with a gun.”
In June 2012 a federal grand jury in Syracuse, New York indicted Cohen for failing to file individual and corporate income tax returns from 2005 through 2010, and for attempting to evade IRS detection of large cash payments he had received from two of his clients in 2008 and 2010. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard:
“The indictment against Cohen says he failed to file a report with the IRS showing his law practice had received cash from two clients for more than $10,000 each. One payment was from a client with the initials TJF for $20,000 in August 2008, and the other was from client JS for $15,000 in the summer of 2010…. Cohen made regular deposits of cash into his personal bank accounts in amounts less than $10,000 to avoid having to file a report with the IRS for deposits of that amount or higher…. Cohen also received non-money payments in exchange for legal services and failed to maintain records of those payments as income, the indictment said.”
In December 2013 a Manhattan federal court similarly indicted Cohen for wire fraud and five counts of failure to file income-tax returns (on more than $3 million in earnings) for the 2006-2010 tax years. An NBC News report stated: “The government alleged that Cohen was paid at least $500,000 in fees each of those years but hid the money by having clients pay in cash or telling them to wire payments directly to American Express to pay his card bills.”
In January 2015, Cohen, who had pleaded guilty to obstructing and impeding the IRS and failing to file tax returns, surrendered himself to the Canaan federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania, to begin serving a scheduled 18-month sentence. As he prepared to commence his sentence, Cohen said he did not want Joni Sarah White, his domestic partner of twenty years, to visit him in prison. “We are both very independent—I don’t know how she will handle seeing me in a closed environment. I don’t know how I will handle it,” he said.
During his time in prison, Cohen published a blog called “Caged But Undaunted.” After he was released in March 2016, Cohen said: “Prison didn’t touch me. It didn’t change me. It didn’t soften me, it didn’t harden me.”
In addition to providing legal representation for his clients, Cohen once served as counsel and legal advisor for the New York City-based anarchist newspaper The Shadow, and for World War 3 magazine, a publication with a leftwing political orientation.
Further Reading: 64 Reasons to Support Stanley Cohen” (StanleyCohen.org); “Kunstler Protege Stanley Cohen Brings American Rights to Hamas” (Observer.com, 10-1-2001);
Stanley Cohen: Terrorist Mouthpiece
By Michael Tremoglie
December 17, 2002