February 11, 2005

Lynne Stewart aided terrorism?

I wasn't on the jury, so I won't second-guess their verdict. But I'm trying to put my finger on the reasons why Lynne Stewart's conviction bothers me.

Stewart was the lawyer who represented the "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman. She apparently violated prison rules intended to prevent Abdel Rahman from communicating with his followers from prison -- for example, she read a statement from the sheik withdrawing his support for a cease-fire in Egypt to a reporter in Cairo. The government charged her with providing material aid to terrorism, while Ms. Stewart insisted that she was fulfulling her professional obligation to provide her client with zealous representation.

On one hand, I understand the importance of preventing terrorists like Sheik Abdel Rahman from inciting violence from prison. I can see how Stewart's violation of the rules could result in serious harm (although in this case it did not). Perhaps I'd be a lot more comfortable with the verdict if Stewart had been charged with something like endangering public safety by violating these rules.

I guess one of the things that bothers me is that Stewart's behavior doesn't obviously amount to "aiding and abetting terrorism." (By the way, I hope the charge was really of aiding "terrorists.") If someone can be guilty of aiding and abetting every time they do something that may conceivably benefit a terrorist, than it's not clear to me why virtually every American citizen shouldn't be convicted. I'm not sure why anyone in government who's ever done anything that might help terrorist recruitment (most of Bush's team) shouldn't be thrown in jail.

When our political climate allows John Ashcroft to sit before the Senate Judiciary Committee and, without being savagely rebuked, imply that anyone who doesn't support the Patriot Act is flirting with treason, we ought to worry when defense lawyers are convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism. Especially when no one alleges that any actual terrorist acts resulted from this supposed aiding and abetting.

I don't suggest that Stewart ought to escape punishment for violating the no-communication rules applied to Abdel Rahman. But I'm worried that her conviction for aiding terrorism is a little too much.

Posted by Carey at February 11, 2005 09:32 AM

Unless I am amiss in my understanding of what happened here, this is not some lefty civil rights issue as the law relates to her. Now, one may argue that someone inciting people to go kill Jews has a right to that decree. However, her job was to defend him in the face of the law while following the law herself (which was to keep him silnced). Instead of challenging his constitutional right to be a Jew killer, she broke the law herself - seems pretty simple to me. Where am I off?

Posted by: BoSox at February 12, 2005 12:39 AM

I think the issue isn't "can she be punished for what she did" but "can she be punished in this way". Maybe what she did is illegal. But that doesn't mean that we have to be comfortable saying that we can punish her under decrees that are too sweeping for comfort.

The method matters, not just the result.

Posted by: Heidi at February 13, 2005 01:41 PM