Lynne F. Stewart, a courageous human rights lawyer who championed the cause of the under-privileged and took on unpopular cases, died yesterday at her home in Brooklyn, New York. She was 77.
Her son, Geoffrey Stewart, said the cause of death was complications arising from cancer and a series of strokes. This grandmotherly figure while endearing herself to the poor and under-privileged, became a bane for the oppressors and tyrants.
In one of rare instances of a lawyer being sentenced to jail, she was accused of “aiding terrorism” for representing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian Sheikh sentenced to life in prison, accused of plotting to blow up important US landmarks. (Sheikh Omar died in prison on February 18). Ms Stewart would visit Sheikh Omar in prison who was kept in solitary confinement.
Lynne Stewart spent four years in prison before being granted a “compassionate release” in January 2014 after cancer had spread to other parts of her body and she was deemed terminal. Doctors at the time gave her 18 months to live. She had been treated for cancer before she entered prison.
Lynne Stewart did not start her career as a lawyer. She was working as a librarian and teacher at a Harlem Public School and was moved by the squalor that the poor faced in the predominantly black neighborhood. She took to studying law to help promote social justice.
Unlike her colleagues in the profession that are known as “sharks” because they fleece people by charging exorbitant fees, Ms Stewart took up cases of the poor and downtrodden and worked for modest, court-paid fees. She was extremely critical of the US political and economic system that she described as grossly unjust, especially to the poor and downtrodden. She passionately held the view that it needed “radical surgery” to rectify it.
In 2005, Ms. Stewart was convicted of helping to smuggle messages from Sheikh Omar to his followers in Egypt. Her prison sentence was initially set at 28 months. It was later increased to 10 years after an appeals court ordered the trial judge to consider a longer term.
Many lawyers, while disagreeing with her views, felt both the charge against her—aiding terrorism—and her sentence were unjustified. She was, however, the victim of George W. Bush’s witch-hunt launched in the aftermath of the attacks of 911.
Her supporters insisted she had not committed any crimes and that the Bush regime had targeted her to discourage other lawyers from defending terrorism suspects.
Despite her ill health—cancer often proves fatal for most people—she continued her public advocacy of causes that represented the oppressed and those being victimized by the system. She spoke at rallies and forums on behalf of releasing prisoners, even those convicted of killing law enforcement agents, as well as political prisoners. She also spoke forcefully in opposition to charter schools, which she saw as antidemocratic corporate ventures.
While Lynne Stewart had stopped practicing law after her conviction in 2005, a brave voice for justice and fairness has gone silent. This grandmotherly figure clutching a tote bag instead of a lawyer’s leather briefcase would be sorely missed.