Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 2009

Civil Rights in Prison!

December 14, 2009

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I could never imagine it would turn out this way. For me, Lynne Stewart’s case, although it showed the extent to which the last administration would attack our civil liberties, was nevertheless a cause for optimism. Even as our rights diminished, as long as Lynne remained vocal and out of jail, I never lost hope in the justice system.

While other attorneys may have shied away from the challenge, Lynne Stewart did not. This remarkable activist and lawyer continued to use every day out if jail to speak out. She took every opportunity to warn others what her case, an assault on client-attorney privacy, threatened.

With the arrival of a man committed to change, a man who stood for integrity, Barak Obama, I expected a reversal of the worrying trend we saw during the last decade over our constitutionally protected rights.  (see www.lynnestewart.org)

Now Ms Stewart is ordered to jail. What has happened? Why pursue the conviction against Lynne Stewart now? What precipitated this?

Stewart had been free on bond for several years. Even so she endured much personal anguish, illness and the loss of her livelihood. (She was barred from practicing law.)

Eventually she received a sentence of 28 months. Imprisonment was in abeyance while her lawyers argued for adjournments. We hoped that meanwhile, a new administration might reconsider the her case and indeed overturn a discriminatory policy instituted by its predecessor.

Bad enough that Stewart should was be found guilty in 2005 along with two others. Charges against her of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists was initiated with the personal involvement of former of Homeland Security secretary, John Ashcroft. Stewart’s conviction stems from her defense of Omar Abdel Rahman found guilty on the 1993 NY bombing and subject to anti-terror laws instituted thereafter.

“You can’t lock up the lawyers,” explained Stewart. Many of those following this case believe charges against Stewart effectively served as a warning to all civil rights attorneys: “Stay away from terror defense cases”. That motive may indeed lie behind the government’s move against her. And it probably does discourage some civil rights lawyers.

But Stewart’s work on behalf of Rahman was consistent with her long career as a fearless, committed civil defense attorney. Some call her a radical activist. She does not seem to mind. There are doubtless injustices and ‘unpopular’ cases for which a lawyer has to be radical. Given the threats to our constitution in the government’s zeal to prosecute terror subjects, perhaps one is obliged to adopt radical views.

During the past four years while Stewart’s lawyers submitted their appeals Stewart, her family and supporters remained optimistic, energetic and indomitable. Stewart herself, although debarred and unable to practice law, travelled the country speaking to concerned citizens about injustices and the danger her case poses for lawyer-client confidentiality as protected by the US constitution.

I have no doubt that hearing her, many Americans began to understand the wider issues she was defending and the reality of the threats she spoke about.

We need to see Stewart’s current incarceration in a positive light. First, it warns us that the new administration is not what it promised, not what we voted for. Second, the jailing of such an admired woman, a 70-year-old attorney, a grandmother and a free and fearless thinker, warns us just how tenuous everyone’s rights are. (contact Ms Stewart at www.Lynnestewart.org)

[ Civil Rights in Prison! ]


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