Radical attorney Lynne Stewart has many friends and fans. But the U.S. government is not one of them, and now it seems ready to turn the 73-year-old’s prison sentence into a death sentence, by denying her the medical care she needs to defeat a spreading cancer.
In 2005, Lynne was convicted of supporting terrorism after serving as the court-appointed lawyer for Egyptian cleric and alleged terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman. Her crime? Helping her ailing client publicize a press release that she hoped might play a role in transferring him back to Egypt.
The charges came in April 2002, two years after the fact. Post-9/11 hysteria over terrorism and the persecution of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. was at a peak. Bush had begun war against Afghanistan six months earlier.
The case against Stewart was a show trial, announced by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft during an appearance with David Letterman. The message: Don’t defend the victims of the government witch-hunt, or you will become one yourself.
On March 10, I spoke by phone with Lynne’s partner, Ralph Poynter. The two met while working at a public elementary school in Harlem in the 1960s, she a young white librarian and he a slightly older Black teacher, a unionist fighting for labor rights and improvements in Black lives.
Lynne’s legal career was spent defending the poor, the outcast, and the targets of the ruling class, from teenagers accused of dealing drugs to Black Panthers and Weather Undergrounders. She believes, as Poynter told me, “We must be consistent in seeking justice for everyone.”
There’s a terrible irony here. While Stewart understands the racist, sexist, and anti-working class nature of the justice system, she fearlessly fights for its supposed principles, like innocent until proven guilty; equality under the law; the right of the accused to a capable, vigorous defense.
And for this the system punished her.
Now, after decades spent jousting with the legal system on behalf of others, Lynne is struggling for her own life.
During her long ordeal in the courts after she was charged and before going to prison, Lynne was battling breast cancer. This was treated at a highly respected New York hospital and went into remission. Now, after two years in the prison system hellhole, the cancer is back, and has invaded lymph nodes, bones, lungs, and shoulder.
Woefully substandard medical care is a well-documented “double jeopardy” for U.S. inmates. A spot on Lynne’s lung was discovered in June 2012; after a slow progression of tests, treatment began this February. Lynne goes to the doctor with 10 pounds of shackles chained to her wrists and ankles; when in the hospital, she’s shackled to the bed.
Stewart desperately needs expert medical care. And there’s a remedy for her problem: compassionate release, which the Bureau of Prisons can recommend for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” But, as the New York Times editorialized last December, the justice system has not only underused this program, it has “crippled it.”
There is much more to Stewart than her important legal defense of the marginalized and oppressed. She is a feminist and all-round critic of the status quo who is quick to respond to all manner of appeals, from accepting speaking gigs for Radical Women to agitating for freedom for other political prisoners, like Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Poynter and Lynne’s defense committee have posted an online petition for compassionate release at www.lynnestewart.org. Sign it and circulate it! At the Web site, readers can also find information about the legal case. Lynne has filed a request for the Supreme Court to review her case. If it does, supporters will be able to file friend-of-the-court briefs; if interested, Poynter asks that you contact him at 917-853-9759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also needed are letters and cards to keep Lynne’s spirits up and let her wardens know we are looking out for her. Write to her at Lynne Stewart #53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, PO Box 27137, Ft. Worth, TX 76127.
Giving a speech to the National Lawyers Guild in 2007, Lynne described her credo: “We go forth to safeguard the right to speak and write; to join; to learn; to rest safe at home, to be secure, fed, healthy, sheltered, loved and loving, to be at peace with one’s identity.”
It is time now for those of us who benefit from Lynne’s commitment to fight for her. Don’t let Lynne Stewart die a victim of bureaucratic murder behind bars!