More than 300 of Stewart’s supporters showed up at a July 8 fundraiser for her defense at Judson Memorial Church on Washington
Square South. Many paid more than the recommended $20 apiece to hear speakers like former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Fred Hampton, Jr., and WBAI talk show host Ralph Schoenman proclaim Stewart’s innocence.
Several speakers and event organizers demanded her immediate release. They seemed concerned that the U.S. district judge who sentenced Stewart, 70, to 28 months in 2006 might impose significantly more prison time. Federal prosecutors had first asked that Stewart get 30 years after her 2005 conviction for smuggling messages from her imprisoned client, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (a.k.a. “The Blind Sheik”), to his violent followers in Egypt and for defrauding the U.S. government.
Nibbling on cookies and fruit selling for $1 a plate, the audience roared approval when Schoenman a conspiracy theorist who believes 9/11 constitutes “treason at the top” delivered an impassioned stemwinder, claiming that the government’s prosecution of Stewart was “the act of a criminal state.”
Earlier, Green anarchist Richard Degen, a former East Village squatter, expressed his views about the U.S. war on terror by sitting in a chair with a black hood over his head. Percussionist Urbano Sanchez pounded a drum. A group of antiwar Raging Grannies sang a praiseful song about Stewart, their fellow grandmother.
Before the four-hour program began, larger-than-life film images of the smiling, radical ex-attorney splashed across a wall above the altar, her disembodied voice noting that her zealous advocacy for Abdel-Rahman led to her 2002 arrest. The federal charges against Stewart stemmed chiefly from her issuing a June 2000 press statement to a Reuters reporter in Cairo, announcing that Abdel-Rahman had withdrawn his support for a cease-fire with the Egyptian government still in effect by his Islamic Group, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist network.
Federal prosecutors also charged Stewart with lying to the U.S. government by violating prison rules known as SAMS (special administrative measures) that she had agreed to abide by, which severely limited Abdel-Rahman’s communications to the outside world.
She was convicted by an anonymous jury after a nine-month trial in Foley Square and automatically disbarred. Two Muslim co-defendants were also convicted.
In sentencing Stewart to 28 months, federal Judge John G. Koeltl cited her pro bono work for the poor and the despised, claiming she had performed a public service “not only to her clients, but to the nation.” Both federal prosecutors and Stewart’s lawyers appealed, and late last year a panel of judges of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals revoked her bail and ordered Koeltl to reconsider her sentence, which one of the three panel judges called “breathtakingly low.”
Federal prosecutors are now asking that Koeltl give her a sentence “substantially” stiffer than 28 months, claiming Stewart perjured herself several times at trial; for example, she said she didn’t know one of the leaders in the Islamic Group, a man named Rafai Taha, who had been implicated in the murders of some 72 people, mostly tourists, by six assassins at an architectural site in Luxor, Egypt, in 1997.
In court documents, Elizabeth M. Fink, one of Stewart’s lawyers, noted that Stewart’s “extraordinary” life had been mostly devoted to community service “helping others for little or no financial gain.” Fink called on the judge to exercise “mercy and compassion” in his decision, considering her client’s health and life’s work.
Stewart suffers from hypertension and has already undergone a bout with breast cancer. Her husband, Ralph Poynter, called on the audience to show up July 14 on the eve of her sentencing at Tom Paine Park on Worth St. and then join a march three blocks to the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row where Stewart has been detained.
“She gets lifted up every time she hears demonstrators outside the prison walls,” Poynter said. “We want a demonstration of demonstrations.” Others called on the audience to “scream and yell” at the M.C.C. building and “bring those walls down.”
In his low-key remarks, Ramsey Clark, whose wife, Georgia, died earlier that week, recalled that he had asked Stewart to become his co-counsel for Abdel-Rahman in 1994 and to defend the sheik at trial.
“And Ralph [Poynter] said, ‘Lynne, don’t do it,’” he noted of Stewart’s husband, while the audience chuckled. But Stewart finally agreed to take on the case. Clark called her “Mother Courage personified” and described the prison rules she violated as “an abomination.”
Stewart unsuccessfully defended the blind sheik at his 1995 trial for a seditious conspiracy to blow up landmark buildings in New York, including the World Trade Center in 1993. He was convicted in 1995 and sentenced in 1996 to life imprisonment in a federal medical facility. It was a punishment of “total isolation,” said Clark. He said he “didn’t know” if Stewart did anything much differently than he did in representing the sheik.
But in a 155-page memorandum to the court, Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew S. Dember and Michael D. Maimin claimed that Clark refused in 1999 to issue a press release for Abdel-Rahman that announced withdrawal of the sheik’s support for the Islamic Group’s cease-fire with the Egyptian government. Clark was not charged in the prosecution of Stewart and two others on her legal team.
Other speakers included Stewart’s lawyer son, Geoffrey, and her daughter, Brenna. Mumia Abu-Jamal, another leftist cause célèbre, imprisoned on death row for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, delivered a prerecorded address. Deposed University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who sparked outrage in some quarters for his 2001 essay calling 9/11 victims “Little Eichmanns,” was a no-show. But one of the fundraiser’s organizers said Churchill had decided to attend Stewart’s resentencing Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at the Federal Courthouse on 500 Pearl St.