Lynne Stewart Interview
conducted by El-Hajj Mauri' Saalakhan, Director of Operations for The Peace And Justice Foundation, on Jan 6, 2005
Question: How much time do you and your codefendants potentially face?
Mr. Sattar faces life in prison. Mr. Yousry faces, I believe, 25 years; and I face 45 years. The government did come back and they wanted to get enhancements. There is part of the sentencing law that says if it's tied to terrorism the judge can jack up the time even further...
Question: What is your impression of this judge? Did you know him before this case?
I didn't know him at all. I was impressed with him at the very beginning ... at the beginning we felt that he was really being fair, not just trying to be fair. He didn't let the government go through all of the materials that they had taken from the office; and he dismissed the first indictment. We really had high hopes that he would dismiss the second indictment for the same reasons it was too vague, there was no way anyone could really understand what was prohibited by this law. But sometime between dismissal in July, and re-indictment in December, he either had a change of heart, or else someone spoke to him. We don't know what happened, but he was a very different judge in December than he had been in June - and that very different judge has persisted; it's almost as if he was told, 'This is a very important case to the government and we don't expect you to be monkeying around with it, we expect you to go with the program.'
Most of the rulings in the case, and certainly all of the rulings that would help the government for example the Bin Laden references he has gone along with. It's as if he doesn't want to make any mistake that they will reverse the case on;
but as far as being fair, or giving us a fair trial, he no longer seems to really care very much about that.
Question: It sounds as if you have divided this whole proceeding into two parts.
We were arrested in April 2002, but then we needed time to review all of the materials, and everything else; so we made motions. In July 2002 he dismissed the first indictment, but he didn't dismiss all of the charges just the one charge that had to do with materially aiding. He determined that no one could know what was and what wasn't materially aiding as long as it was written up the way that the government did it. So then they came back the following December with a new indictment; but basically it was just the old one in a new glass. It was nothing new, it was just putting it in a different way.
They did say that they had a higher burden, they now had to prove knowledge and intent that we not only knew that we were aiding a terrorist conspiracy, but that we intended to aid it. And what was the terrorist conspiracy? It was this fictitious conspiracy that Ahmed Sattar was accused of being a member of; the conspiracy that says, 'The guy in Staten Island is going to conspire with the guy in Afghanistan to do something in Egypt or maybe not Egypt! We don't know where this was supposed to be; they never have clarified where this conspiracy was supposed to occur. So we're not enamored with the judge. His instructions to the jury are good, but we don't see him cutting us much slack at all.
Question: The trial began when?
The trial began in May of 2004 with jury selection; jury selection took most of May and June to complete. Opening statements were given at the end of June.
Question: The next question moves somewhat away from your trial, but it's definitely connected. Have the appeals for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman ended?
Question: His case for all intents and purposes is now over?
Well, as I explained on the witness stand, on a purely legal basis, the indictment that was brought and tried, and of which he was convicted, and the appeals of that trial have ended. But you know for criminal defendants it never ends, because there can always be newly discovered evidence. There can be a change in the law; something that reopens the case, so it's never really over. We always had that in the back of our minds. So was clemency, which the prosecution made fun of. But actually, the Puerto Rican nationalists attacked Blair House, they were all [subsequently] given clemency so you can laugh at that in 2000, but in 2010 it could be a reality.
Also for me... for a person who is a political prisoner, the case is never over, because they always need the protection of a lawyer; they always need to have that buffer between them and the State with the State knowing that they (that prisoner) can call a lawyer and that lawyer will come in. If there were lawyers at Abu-Graib there would have been no torture.
Right now the State has moved all of the Muslim prisoners that had any political connections to a separate prison. It's located in Florence, Colorado, it's part of the supermax [prison system] out there. The lawyers in this case did travel out there to meet with the Sheikh, and interview him for the purpose of this case. Ramsey Clark went with them. But it was such a ridiculous setup; first of all, they had to bring a government interpreter; they had to be accompanied by a US Attorney during the interview; they were all herded into this one little sound proof booth (about six lawyers), and the Sheikh on the other side of the glass so that there could be no contact of any kind. It was really a farce.
They had to get certain answers from him about what was supposed to happen,
and whether he would agree to certain things or not agree to them because a lot of the material in this case was privileged. And his answer, as I would have expected it to be was, 'If it helps Yousry, Sattar and Lynne I agree to it being used, if it helps the government I don't agree to it being used.' (Lynne chuckles as she recounts this.) But it was determined that as a witness there was not really much that he could add.
Question: So in light of what has happened to you, Mohamed Yoursy, and Ahmed Satter, I get the impression that Sheikh Omar is now completely cutoff from the outside world. Is that the case?
I believe Ramsey Clark is still representing him, is still his contact person; but because of the restrictions they [the government] have now put on [him] - every conversation must be monitored. Ramsey has said, we can't agree to that, but he also hasn't been able to get the issue in court either...
I think he still gets his [once per month] call to his family, those are always monitored. And when they visited him he seemed, I think the word Ramsey used is remote. It took a while for him to really get into the flow of things. We're talking about someone who is completely alone who never has any human contact at all. Florence is completely inhuman. I think that the diabetes takes a tremendous toll on your body; and the blindness of course, the fact that he has this impairment.
He does have a television set, but the television is in English; but I believe there is one channel where the Qur'an is recited, which he likes very much. On the other hand he can recite the Qur'an himself, he knows the whole book by memory, so while that's pleasant for him I don't think that it substitutes for being able to stimulate him [under those conditions]. We tried once to get him some books on tape, [but] I don't think there are Arabic books on tape... and charity organizations are not that charitable.
Question: Well you've answered why you continue to be involved despite the fact that the door to any legal redress appears to be closed...
Well like [Attorney] Michael Tigar said, people are locked up for years and years and years - and we all know about the African American political prisoners that came out the BLA (Black Liberation Movement) and the Black Panther Party, and we still continue to visit them, despite there being nothing on their legal horizons that give us much hope. There are parole hearings every once and awhile, things of that nature; but mainly it's because we believe in these people as people that they are entitled to hear from the outside world and be kept in contact with it. As Michael said, and it was very moving for me, the lawyers who serve pro-bono and then go in the prisons to keep hope alive deserve a badge of honor in this profession especially when they represent people that most people think are not deserving.
I think for us... even though we did have hopes of moving him, because he was a mover and a shaker; I mean Sheikh Omar was someone very important. The thought that we might be able to get him back to Egypt, and that things could change there I understand that just a few days ago one of the leading human rights organizations in Egypt called for his return, and basically said, 'This is going to be an Islamic state sooner or later, so why don't we just stop acting like this is never going to happen and do what's right, and what's right would be to repatriate Sheikh Omar.' But the United States right now is...embedded in the notion that this is how you fight terrorism; lock people up, as they say, and throw away the key.
Question: How has the legal community responded to your case? And is it's response to it different now than it was at the beginning?
At the beginning I think there were more people who said I want to see what it's all about. I think the word that the government has put out, [that this case is about] carrying messages of violence, this portrayal has of course turned a lot of people off. We also can't forget that a large part of the New York bar is very Zionist, very oriented to that and sort of feels like this marvelous, liberal community that for years supported so much that was human rights, and the movement, and labor, has really sort of withdrawn at this point to some degree, because they've found a different interest; and that interest is, I want to have a country where I know I can always go [Israel]. So that has had an affect on the amount of support from lawyers.
But I can say that some of my biggest supporters, some of the people who represent me are from that very community so it's hard to draw any total conclusions. People are very afraid of terrorism; people are very afraid and this includes lawyers of being associated with, and being accused of the same kind of thing. Do you know what I mean? They don't want to be too close to me. They're afraid they'll be tarred with the same brush or something.
But by and large the part of the bar that you'd expect the National Lawyers Guild, the criminal defense lawyers, the people that I've worked personally with on cases that know me none of them have deserted, none of them have changed, all of them are coming to court. My old comrades, Michael Warren, Roger Warrum, these are black lawyers who have fought the fight for a long time, they're there. So while it's not as broad based as we had hoped it would be, we had hoped the entire bar would be up in arms about the infringement on the attorney-client privilege but as my husband Ralph pointed out, those lawyers from the fancy law firms are privileged. They don't have to worry about that privilege. It's only when you represent people who are over on Rikers Island
(a well known prison in New York) who are powerless and voiceless then they are not automatically given the privilege. So we didn't garner that kind of support, but we've done very well without it...
Question: Lynne, I expected two things: I expected that this case would galvanize and sustain the attention of the legal community, because of the very important potential precedent here; but on the other hand, given my years of activism, given my reading of My Life As A Radical Lawyer, by Bill Kunstler, and knowing how he received cautionary messages from many of his colleagues in the legal community when he began representing Muslims, I expected that...you know...
The people who support me - who come to court, and contribute to the defense committee - they support me absolutely. Are people paying attention to it? Oh yes. I think that there's a lot of attention being paid to it, maybe not as a supporter, but because people want to know, 'am I going to have to give another three feet to the government,' because they're always encroaching on the defense function. There is no question that if this case is lost, we will lose a lot of the autonomy that lawyers have in defending people. It then will become very obvious that by setting up a series of prison regulations they can control how you represent someone.
Would I like a lot of people out there signing petitions, and being very outspoken, and going to bar association meetings, sure; but I also understand that the case has focussed the media attention as it has because it wants to undercut that fear and say, 'It's all going to be okay, because we're watching out for you. You don't have to worry about this.'
Question: New experiences provide new insights. You are someone who has been in the struggle for many years, but this is a new experience for you . As I said during our walk from the courthouse to your office, never would I have expected, years ago when we first met, that I would be coming to a courthouse with you in the dock as a defendant. This is a new experience (for both of us), and no doubt you are gleaning new insights from this experience. How would you advise the community especially the Muslim community, which is bearing the brunt of this Post 911 madness, this so-called War on Terrorism - what would you say to the community in light of this case, and other similar cases around the country?
I think the first lesson I learned in this case was to step outside the usual parameters that constrain us; by that I mean, most defendants are told, 'Don't speak to the press.' But from the very first day I've been speaking out; because in cases like this the government counts on people not talking about the case, not making a public statement out of the case. Even though I know from many, many immigrants, and people who are not familiar with this system of justice, and who come from a place where to step out and say 'I'm fighting the government,' means to end up in a torture chamber - still in all, to me, if the person has the right lawyer, that is the thing to do. If the person can't do it himself then empower the lawyer to do it for him; to speak out, to go public, to make sure that people understand that you're not isolated; that this case isn't one of a kind, that there are others happening that people need to focus on what the government is doing as a whole.
I think the scariest thing about what is happening is the isolation we all sense; that I'm alone in all of this. Am I the only one thinking like this? I hope that to some degree I've been an example of the goodness that comes with speaking out that people come to support you, that this empowers other people, like jurors, hopefully, to do the right thing. That's one lesson.
The other lesson I've learned and of course I'm in a little different position being a lawyer is not to be constrained, as a defendant, from speaking to your lawyer and saying, 'Look, this is how I want to do the case. I don't want to plea bargain and go talk to the government, I want to fight the case. I want to do it in a way that's principled, I don't want to point at my codefendants and say they did it, I don't even speak Arabic.' My lawyer has said that more times than I would have liked, perhaps (that Lynne doesn't speak Arabic), but he also has a duty to defend me.
I had to learn to be more passive in the courtroom, that I'm not conducting this trial; I have counsel who is very able, but it provides a different perspective. I understand better how clients feel when they're sitting there and they've put all of their trust and hope into the lawyer. It really is an awsome responsibility to be a lawyer.
I was asked on the witness stand, if you may remember, would I do it again? Would I take a press release from Sheikh Omar and make it public? And you know, I had a moment there - because I thought about what terrible destruction this case has brought to my practice as a lawyer, to my wonderful family who love me so much, to my friends and I thought, could I visit this upon them knowing that the government might do what it's doing; and I ended up saying, 'I'd like to think I would. Because it was the right thing to do, it still is the right thing to do.
Question: This final question segweys from the observation you just made about attorneys and clients. Unfortunately these days, Lynne, I come into contact with too many cases around the country involving Muslims who for the first time in their lives are finding themselves at the mercy of a process they don't really understand. I'm also seeing far too many practicing attorneys who have become involved in these cases who are just like sharks in bloody water. I wish that we had attorneys like you in every city that we could refer people to, when calls come in from time-to-time for assistance or advice. But there aren't. What would you advise the Muslim community to do in order to better safeguard themselves from being exploited by these sharks?
And secondly, how would you advise young Muslim (and non-Muslim) law students who approach me for advise when I speak at some of the nation's colleges and universities? Young people who want to become involved, and who are looking for direction.
I do believe, and I know that it's asking much of the mosques, as well as people who attend the mosque, but it is possible to set up educational classes. For example, the local lawyers guild could send some lawyers to talk about what people's rights are if there's a knock at the door from immigration, or the FBI, the local police, whoever it's from so that there's some point of reference for people, they know what their rights are. I have to also say that another great safeguard, and what I did when I was first arrested is, to get in touch with the [National] Lawyers Guild. I can't speak for every legal organization in the country, I can speak for the Lawyers Guild, and I know they are there. They were there when the government vamped on the Communists. I know that they are there today for people, they still remain there; and they are a tremendous resource of course; I think that there is a chapter in just about every city.
Along with that is the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee (ADC), that was founded by Abdeen Jabara, whose name has been mentioned so often, I think that they also have literature or something to direct people on how to defend their rights. Some of it is education, because some people have no idea. They think a knock at the door is synonymous with being taken away, and I think with the government we have right now it may become that way, but it's not quite there yet.
The thing that I say to most people when I speak to groups is, understand that you don't have to speak to them; you don't have to be nasty, you don't have to slam the door in peoples face, but you can say I'm not speaking to you. If you want a lawyer to call, give me your card and I'll have a lawyer call you. That of course invites the next question, which you just made - where do we find a lawyer to call back? That is a very, very, hard question. I don't know if I can answer that question, I just have to hope that there are people of good will, and that some how or other we'll get them all together.
But I go back again to the [National Lawyers] Guild. I do know the Guild; I know that most of their members are people who are dedicated to people, not to money, not to things, not to the institutions. But I think its got to be a combination of educating the community and developing power; getting together and making elected representatives accountable... I think our elected representatives are out there running without any thought of who put them in power, who keeps them in power, they're just not responsive at all they vote whatever way the man upstairs tells them to vote. But that's a bigger question for a bigger day.
The question regarding the young people, all I can say is, go to law school, get the best marks you can get, get good training in a public defenders office, or even a prosecutors office; and then when you get out try to apprentice yourself, in whatever way, to lawyers who are dedicated to this work people like Michael Tigar, like [the late] Bill Kunstler was, like myself people who can point you in the right direction. It isn't easy, because they have tremendous debt coming out of law school that they have to pay back. It isn't easy because jobs are not all that easy to come by. It takes a lot of guts these days to hang out a [shingle], unless you're going to steal from people which of course lawyering is, someone said, I license to steal while people need to be able to trust lawyers. Still in all there's room for everybody, and if you have that fire in your belly to do it, you'll find a place to accommodate that kind of fire.
For more information on the case, you can go to www.lynnestewart.org