Justice, freedom, and necessity


One to keep an eye on. Peter Daniels explains:

A three-judge panel of a US federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of outspoken civil liberties lawyer Lynne Stewart, convicted in 2005 of assisting terrorism by transmitting the contents of a press statement by her client, the blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, in 2000. Also convicted at that time were Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who is presently serving a 24-year term for assisting the cleric, and Mohamed Yousry, a translator who was sentenced originally to 20 months.

The appellate court also ordered the revocation of Stewart’s bond, and she surrendered to prison authorities on November 19 to begin serving a 28-month sentence.

The latest decision was not unexpected considering the present political and civil liberties climate. An additional ominous note was injected, however, by the judges from the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals; they ordered the trial judge, John Koeltl of the Federal District Court, to hold another hearing on December 2 to consider resentencing Stewart to a longer term on the grounds that she had lied at the trial.

Koeltl had shocked the authorities in October 2006 when he sentenced Stewart to a term less than 10 percent as long as the 30 years called for the prosecution. At the time, Koeltl, in part voicing a broad and widespread sympathy for Stewart, especially in New York, called her “a dedicated public servant who had, throughout her career, represented the poor, the disadvantaged and the unpopular” ….

…. A further indication of the mood of the higher court judges was the partial dissent of Judge John M. Walker, who called the sentence “breathtakingly low.” Walker was not satisfied with the majority decision merely sending the case back for resentencing, claiming that it “trivializes Stewart’s extremely serious conduct with a ‘slap on the wrist.'”

Stewart denounced the appellate decision, pointing in particular to the recent decision to try some of the Guantanamo defendants at criminal trials in New York. She said that the timing of the decision in her case, “coming as it does on the eve of the arrival of the tortured men from offshore prison in Guantanamo,” was intended to intimidate lawyers who would be defending these men.

“If you’re going to lawyer for these people, you’d better toe very close to the line that the government has set out,” said Ms. Stewart. Otherwise, she added, you “will end up like Lynne Stewart …. This is a case that is bigger than just me personally.” Stewart’s attorney, Joshua Dratel, said that an appeal to the Supreme Court was possible.

A lifetime ago, it seems Ms. Stewart’s words would seem the sort of improper paranoia disdained by most of American society. It’s hard, though, to not be somewhat cynical about the way of things in the United States in recent years; such tales as we have witnessed were once inconceivable to many—to tell ourselves twenty-five years ago what the future held would have sounded like crazed conspiracy theories. Enron? Tyco? Global Crossing? Describe everything about the Bush administration; would they not have laughed? The march to war in Iraq? Hell, many people couldn’t conceive of Osama bin Laden. The Patriot Act, Karl Rove; a vice-president who couldn’t figure out what branch of government he belonged to, alternately claiming executive privilege and then attempting to duck executive branch archiving rules.

If the Obama administration was willing to bring every detainee to public trial, perhaps Ms. Stewart’s ominous suggestions would seem less plausible. But as it is, many wonder if trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City isn’t just a show for the world, a pantomime of justice that we might show off around the world. That remains to be seen. Blatant conspiracies on such a scale require the participation of far too many people, but there is no question that American justice involving questions of this magnitude is fraught with politics.

But it need not be a conspiracy. Perspectives are subject to circumstance; framing the debate is part of the battle for hearts and minds, and at some point we must accept that some people sincerely believe ideas that another finds repugnant. Thus one need not buy off, coerce, or conspire with judges to achieve a certain outcome. There are judges who tend to be more sympathetic to government authority, just as there are those who are wary of it. And as governments push for greater authority, the question really becomes where one draws the line. With the public discourse constantly reframed, the implications of a living Constitution can drift and even transform over time. For some people, the United States is already well beyond the pale; for others, we have a long way to go beyond indefinite detention without trial, or torture, or fraudulently-justified wars before we must stop calling ourselves the land of the free or the home of the brave.

What is our American justice? If we merely believe we are free, does that mean we are?

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