US judge releases dying civil rights lawyer convicted of aiding terrorism

Lynne Stewart given 'compassionate release' because she has terminal cancer

Disbarred New York lawyer Lynne Stewart acknowledges her supporters as she arrives at federal court to begin her prison sentence in New York in this file photo taken Nov. 19, 2009.

A federal judge has granted Lynne Stewart, a prominent former civil rights attorney who was convicted of aiding terrorism, a "compassionate" release from prison because she is dying of cancer.

Stewart, 74, has been serving a 10-year sentence for her 2005 conviction on helping a client, blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, smuggle messages from prison to Egypt's Islamic Group, which the U.S. government had listed as a terrorist organization.

Abdel-Rahman was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to attack the United Nations and other New York City landmarks, following the 1993 truck bombing at the World Trade Center.

The case against Stewart, known as an advocate for poor, underprivileged and unpopular defendants, was widely decried by civil rights groups. She was praised by the ACLU for representing Guantanamo detainees when many would not.

Stewart had asked U.S. District Judge John Koeltl in Manhattan for early release under a Federal Bureau of Prisons program for terminally ill inmates.

Koelt denied the request in August, noting that the Bureau of Prisons had not supported it. On Tuesday he granted it, following a recommendation for release from the prison bureau and the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

The judge reduced Stewart's sentence to the time she has already served and ordered Stewart released as soon as her medical condition permits, according to a court filing.

When Koelt sentenced Stewart in Oct. 2006, it was for 28 months, significantly lower than the 30 years prosecutors asked for. The judge declared to the courtroom that "by providing a criminal defense to the poor, the disadvantaged and unpopular over three decades, it is no exaggeration to say that Ms. Stewart performed a public service not only to her clients but to the nation."

He added that she performed her role as criminal defense lawyer with "enormous skill and dedication." He later extended the sentence to 10 years.

The Bureau of Prisons and Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, recommended that Stewart be released from the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, and allowed to live in Brooklyn, New York, with her son, a lawyer.

The government said Stewart has Stage IV breast cancer that has metastasized to the lung and bone and she no longer than 18 months.

The recommendation said her terminal medical condition and limited life expectancy were "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to reduce the sentence and that Stewart posed a "relatively limited" risk of recidivism and danger to the community.

"My client and I are overjoyed that she will be able to spend her remaining days with her family," Jill Shellow, a lawyer for Stewart, said in a phone interview. "It restores my faith in the Department of Justice to do the right thing."



The case is USA v. Sattar et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 1:02-cr-00395.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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