By Finian Cunningham
Ms Stewart (73) is dying in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, from cancer that has spread from her breast to the rest of her body. Her family has little doubt that her life-threatening illness has been induced by the vindictive conditions of her incarceration by the US authorities.
Ralph Poynter, her husband for the past 50 years, and more than 10,000 petition signatories from across the world are mobilising to face down the barbarity of the American regime. Her supporters are demanding Lynne’s immediate release from her prison cell on compassionate and legally entitled grounds.
Lynne Stewart’s story is not just one of personal harrowing torment. The US state’s cruel persecution of this woman epitomises the general destruction of human rights and the rise of draconian police powers across America in the aftermath of 9/11 and the fraudulent “war on terror”.
This climate of repression and xenophobia also became evident last week in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, where one of America’s major cities was put under a state of virtual martial law for several days while the security apparatus hunted down two brothers, who were already known to these authorities.
Lynne Stewart came of age politically in the turbulent 1960s. Growing up in the poor New York working-class districts of Brooklyn and Harlem, she became a defence lawyer with the express purpose of upholding the rights of the oppressed, marginalised and downtrodden - many of whom were her friends and neighbours.
She witnessed how many of her friends from the African-American community were harassed and brutalised by American racist police forces. She saw how the courts denied justice to poor communities and how these communities were neglected and abandoned by elitist governments, to live in open-air prisons called inner-city ghettoes.
With irrepressible passion and wit, Lynne Stewart saw her duty to her fellow human beings as representing those who had been cast aside as untouchable and unwanted in an American society where all too often poverty and racial prejudice automatically impose a harsh life sentence of misery and suffering at birth.
Once, she stated publicly her purpose as a defence lawyer:
Lynne’s words were not those of a bookish lawyer, but rather those of an impassioned human being who clearly saw injustice as an enemy of the people, as a political oppression that must be fought with all her body, heart, mind and spirit.
Her trenchant defence of the principle of presumed innocence saw her take on cases that many other attorneys shunned.
During the 1990s, typically Lynne recognised the plight of American Muslims who were increasingly being harassed and demonised by America’s state security and police services. She took on the case of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh”.
Following the 1993 World Trade Center bombings in New York, the Egyptian-born cleric was accused in 1995 of “seditious conspiracy” in another plot to blow up various city landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the United Nations Building.
As with the recent Boston marathon bombings, there are many unanswered questions about the shadowy role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1993 New York blasts and the subsequent alleged landmarks bombing plot.
Lynne Stewart was not intimidated out of defending Sheikh Omar even though the increasingly unhinged American corporate media portrayed him as the “embodiment of Islamic terrorism”. By then, there was a growing pernicious climate of Islamophobia in the US - a disturbing trend that has since become a hate-filled crescendo in the decade following the 9/11 explosions in 2001.
Sheikh Omar was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 along with nine other defendants. His prosecution was seen then as a travesty, owing to Lynne Stewart’s vigorous defence and evidence.
True to her humanitarianism, Stewart maintained professional client relations with the incarcerated Sheikh Omar - who is currently serving out his sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina. The sheikh may have been behind bars, but Lynne Stewart continued working to clear his name and for his eventual acquittal.
This legal representation of an unfairly demonised man would lead to Lynne Stewart’s downfall in the following decade at the hands of the increasingly militant US authorities.
After 9/11, President George Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft instituted a raft of laws that would target defence lawyers and prevent their exercise of constitutional rights of free speech.
Lynne Stewart was arrested in 2002 and charged with “materially supporting terrorism”. Bizarrely - and indicating the witch-hunt climate that has gripped the US following 9/11 - the arrest was announced by Attorney General Ashcroft during an appearance on the David Letterman Late Show aired on the television channel CBS.
After a lengthy controversial legal battle, Lynne Stewart was herself sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment at the end of 2009 for aiding and abetting terrorists. She has now served more than three years of that sentence.
The conclusion from this American state-sanctioned barbarity is clear. Lynne Stewart’s imprisonment is an attempt by the US regime to bury her alive behind bars.
If voices like those of Lynne Stewart had remained free and active, it is probable that the US secret government would not be able to get away so easily with expanding its panoply of barbarities, such as the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, torture of detainees held without charge, the wholesale collapse of civil liberties, spying and surveillance on citizens, the illegal invasions and aggression towards other countries, and - perhaps the ultimate totalitarianism - the extrajudicial murder of foreign and American nationals with assassination drones by presidential order.
Owing to her life-long commitment to defending the rights of others and her rapidly deteriorating health, Lynne Stewart’s prison ordeal has won a growing public call for her immediate release, both within the US and across the world.
Her cause has gained support from thousands of ordinary people who recognise Stewart’s towering defence of society’s weak and vulnerable members.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice calling for Stewart’s immediate release, as has veteran American actor Ed Asner, who said: “Given the enormous good that Lynne Stewart has done for humanity throughout her life as a courageous lawyer for the poor, the oppressed and the unjustly accused, I am shocked by the cynical perversity of an American government that has pursued her savagely and vengefully.
Author and media commentator Ralph Schoenman said:
African-American comedian and political commentator Dick Gregory has vowed to continue a hunger strike until Stewart is freed.
In sum, we may return to the words of the late Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is high time for the US authorities to free Lynne Stewart from her unjust imprisonment.
NOTE: Those wishing to sign the petition for Stewart’s release can do so here.