The conviction on February 10 of Lynne Stewart, a leading civil-rights lawyer, on five counts of conspiring to aid “terrorists” and lying to the government has shocked the American legal profession. Others, too, have expressed concern about civil liberties and see fascism on the march in the US under George W. Bush and his army of “neo-cons”. With Bush eagerly “exporting democracy” worldwide, albeit by cruise missiles and bombs, people can understand why the US has a “democratic deficit” at home, but fascism is a more serious phenomenon. Until recently, in general only Muslims were targeted; now “homegrown” white Americans (and, in the case of professor Ward Churchill, a Native American who wrote soon after 911 that some people will hit back) are also now coming into the firing line.
Stewart’s conviction is related to her representation of Shaikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian alim who is serving two life-sentences totalling 140 years, for his alleged role in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February 1993. Her co-defendants, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a postal worker who acted as a paralegal for Shaikh Omar, and Mohammed Yousry, a translator, were also convicted on all charges. The jury deliberated for several days, leading to speculation that either the charges would be dismissed or there would be a hung jury; when the verdict was read out it provoked audible gasps of astonishment in the packed New York courtroom. Three women jurors wept throughout as the verdict was read, suggesting that they felt that justice was not being done or that they had been pressured into agreeing with the other jurors, or both.
After the verdict Stewart, 65, said: “You can’t lock up the lawyers”, meaning, presumably, for doing their job. Her conviction has raised concerns that the government is targeting lawyers who defend clients on politically motivated charges. Despite years of detention, interrogation and torture of hundreds of suspects, the US government has not been able to secure a single terrorist-related conviction. Almost all the cases brought to court so far have involved immigration violations, which are a far cry from terrorism.
Stewart is on bail until the sentencing takes place on July 15. Her defence attorney, Michael Tigar, has said that he will appeal the verdict. In the mean time Stewart is barred from representing clients and is not permitted to leave New York State. She gained international fame for her vigorous defence of Shaikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Stewart’s alleged offence is that she issued a statement to Reuters newsagency early in 2002 on behalf of the Shaikh, stating that he was withdrawing hius support for the ceasefire announced by his followers in Egyptbecause the Egyptian regime had broken its pledges. The statement, however, also said that Shaikh Omar wanted his followers to debate the issue publicly and make their own decision. Shaikh Omar’s position on this issue had already been public knowledge but the US government, apparently bent on punishing Stewart for her role in defending him, charged her with supporting “terrorism”.
John Ashcroft, then US attorney general, personally announced Stewart’s indictment in April 2002, indicating the government’s determination to persecute defence lawyers who dare take up the cases of those who are being intimidated and harassed by the US government. The verdict on Lynne Stewart has also been hailed by Alberto Gonzales, Ashcroft’s successor, who has said that the convictions “send a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals.” In early 2002 Gonzales, as US president George Bush’s legal counsel, had sent Bush a memo saying that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners inGuantanamo Bay, and that it is permissible to use torture to extract information from them. The torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib (Iraq) stems directly from this attitude. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Gonzales had tried to minimize the significance of this memo about torture.
The case against Stewart and her co-defendants featured very few witnesses: the government’s case is based primarily on transcripts from more than 85,000 secretly recorded audio- and video-clips of meetings between her and Shaikh Omar, as well as from the home phone of Ahmed Abdel Sattar. One of the charges against Abdel Sattar was that he planned to kidnap someone; the judge would say neither who was to be kidnapped nor where the alleged kidnap plot was to take place. The charges were based on “secret evidence”, with the defendants not privy to what they had allegedly done wrong.
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Stewart said: “I’m still very shook up and surprised and disappointed that the jury didn’t see what we saw. But I think, as one of my counsels put it, when you put Osama bin Laden in a courtroom and ask the jury to ignore it, that’s asking a lot. We are not giving up, obviously. We are going to fight on. This is the beginning of a longer struggle… I hope it will be a wakeup call to all the citizens of this country… that you can’t lock up the lawyers. You can’t tell the lawyers how to do their job. You’ve got to let them operate. And I will fight on. I’m not giving up. I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right.”
Even as Stewart’s troubles hit the news, Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado, a Native American, was being hounded for writing that not all the victims of “911” were innocent. He had written that the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC had been provoked by US foreign policy in the Middle East and by the sanctions-driven genocide in Iraq; when told to retract his statements he refused, saying “I owe no one an apology.” In his essay, “Some People Push Back”, he wrote that the hijackers had mounted “counter attacks” against Americafor killing their babies and families. “Naturally and inevitably, what you put out will blow back on you and that’s what happened,” Churchill wrote.
As usual, the US’s right-wing press, particularly Fox News, a conservative network, and CNN, have jumped into the fray, accusing him of being “unpatriotic” and demanding that he be fired from his tenured position. The University of Colorado has launched an investigation, possibly the first step towards firing him, but others have rallied to his defence, saying that free-speech rights are at stake and that firing a tenured professor because of unpopular remarks would threaten academic freedom. Churchill was forced to resign as chairman of the university’s Ethnic Studies department, but he has threatened to sue the school if he is fired.
Since September 2001, the US has clearly been moving toward becoming a fascist state. There was much oppression and brutality even before then, especially of the African-American community (the overwhelming majority of the prison population is made up of African Americans because of the unjust legal system); now it has spread to the rest of the population as well. In an essay called “Fascism Anyone?” Dr Lawrence Britt, a political scientist, has identified the social and political agendas common to fascist regimes and how fascism operates.
The rising tide of nationalism and the constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs and flags: all are part of the campaign to keep the populace in check. Under the rubric of patriotism, human rights and civil liberties are curtailed, while an identifiable group (Muslims in the US, at the moment and for the foreseeable future) and those who dare to defend them are targeted. Such clichés as terrorists/terrorism are parroted to keep the people fearful and apprehensive, helped by frequent terror alerts, facilitated by the pliant media. CNN and Fox News must make the media in the Middle East green with envy. Big corporations are given government handouts while workers’ rights are curtailed. Despite being the world’s biggest economy, there are 45 million people living below the official poverty line in the US, and its minimum wages are lower than those of almost all other industrial countries. Not surprisingly, there is rampant corruption in the big corporations. Enron and Worldcom are just the tip of the iceberg; Halliburton and others are awash with scandals, yet no one can touch them when jingoism reigns supreme and dissenters and their lawyers can be hailed off to imprisonment because of political motives or at politicians’ whims.