The Byrne Report
Saturday, April 23, dawned with a storm. The weather did not bode well for the Butter and Egg Day parade in Petaluma, not to mention that the entire nation was on Code Yellow alert status for “elevated risk of terrorist attack.” Nonetheless, I was looking forward to watching the quaint ritual. Every year, half of the citizenry lines main street, sitting in lawn chairs, while the rest of the populace marches, waving like movie stars from butter-yellow floats, horses, tractors, antique cars or fire engines.
After breakfast, my three-year-old son was stomping around, raring to go downtown. I was in a more somber mood, having heard a talk the night before by Lynne Stewart, the renowned criminal defense lawyer who was recently found guilty by a federal jury in New York City on five counts of defrauding the government, conspiracy and providing support for terrorism.
Stewart, 65, spent Butter and Egg Day speechifying in Marin to raise money for her defense fund. Convicted on the basis of evidence obtained by wiretaps, she faces 30 years of hard time. The Feds taped conversations between Stewart and her imprisoned client, the Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel al-Rahman, a bosom buddy of Osama bin Laden. Al-Rahman was convicted of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism in New York City, including the World Trade Center bombing. At his 1995 trial, Stewart was one of his court-appointed attorneys. She continued to represent the elderly, blind, diabetic sheik–who is a genuine terrorist–occasionally visiting him at a prison in Minnesota. The government charged that from 2000 to 2002, Stewart enabled al-Rahman’s violent agenda by releasing his political positions to the press.
Stewart says she was indicted for doing what any decent defense lawyer would do for a client. Unfortunately, she had signed a paper saying she would not facilitate the “blind sheik’s” access to the media or help him to communicate with his followers. (In 1997, al-Rahman’s followers had murdered 58 tourists at Luxor, Egypt, in protest of his imprisonment). Stewart’s defense is that the regulations she promised to obey violate the right of an accused person to have counsel, and that she was obligated by the ethics of her profession to create public opinion for the sheik and better his conditions. She argued that recording her conversations with her client shredded the principle of attorney-client privilege, a pillar of Western jurisprudence. The jury disagreed.
Although most of what Stewart did occurred before 9-11, the judge allowed her to be prosecuted under provisions of the Patriot Act and a 2002 memo written by Attorney General John Ashcroft that gives government law enforcers the authority to eavesdrop on a lawyer’s consultations with her client–without obtaining a court order or warrant–if the government decides that the client, or the lawyer, is a threat to national security.
Stewart says no harm resulted from her actions. She was convicted of “conspiring to conspire” by a jury inflamed by the prosecution’s focus on the sheik’s hatred for Israel. She notes that her co-counsel, former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clarke, now part of Saddam Hussein’s defense team, did exactly the same things for the sheik and was not indicted. She was targeted, she says, for her history of representing black revolutionaries in court and because the Bush administration needs scapegoats to defuse its failure to find bin Laden.
But mostly, says Stewart, she was prosecuted in order to frighten lawyers who might be tempted to defend politically unpopular defendants.
With Stewart’s words echoing in my mind, we traipsed downtown to the parade. The rain held off as the extravaganza commenced. As usual, a garbage truck headed the parade. Behind the garbage strutted the Petaluma Patriots sporting American flags and “Support the Troops” signs.
A thousand feet behind them came the women of the pro-peace group Code Pink bearing an effigy of Gandhi. The Patriots had tried to ban Code Pink from the parade, complaining that the group is “political.” Of course, Code Pink does “call on women around the world to rise up and oppose the war on Iraq.” That statement could be construed by the Fox News-washed Patriots or malevolent U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as support for international terrorism. Were the Code Pinks to be detained, they might sit indefinitely in citizen-Gitmo sans competent counsel, thanks to the chilling precedent set by the Stewart case.
Pass the butter. Pass the eggs.
And pass the ammunition.
From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.