Stanley Cohen is driven to defend Muslims, other targeted groups
Stanley Cohen, the flamboyant New York attorney who last week helped free the religious leader of a local mosque from jail, says he's considering representing other Portland Muslims who have been charged as terrorists.
That's assuming he can find time among the high-profile cases he's already handling Ñ and that he doesn't get arrested first.
Cohen, 49, already has a full docket. He's handling federal cases in three states, the first 'hate crimes' case in U.S. history and a sprawling lawsuit that accuses Israel, President Bush, six U.S. weapons manufacturers and the largest Jewish fund-raising groups in the nation with genocide, war crimes and torture.
Combine that with his post-Sept. 11 statement that he would defend Osama bin Laden, and it's easy to see why Cohen has been labeled a traitor to fellow Jews and the 'most hated lawyer in New York.' He says he has received hundreds of death threats in the last year.
Indeed, when the news broke in April that a New York lawyer had been arrested for providing material assistance to terrorism organizations, many people assumed it was Cohen, rather than his de facto partner, civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart.
Cohen says he thinks he may be arrested next. But that isn't deterring him. He's been arrested a half-dozen times before on political charges, and the arrests have helped his career more than hurt it.
He paraphrases the late defense attorney Clarence Darrow: 'You show me a political defense attorney who fights on the behalf of the powerless and the disaffected, the radicals and the militants, who has never been arrested or charged, and I'll show you someone who's wasted their life.'
Cohen said he should know by the end of the week whether he'll be taking on additional cases in Portland. He says he isn't impressed with the case that federal prosecutors have against the six Portland defendants who allegedly attempted to travel to Afghanistan to fight a holy war against U.S. troops.
'These petty arrests insult our intelligence,' he said. 'It's a cheap way to try to give us a feel-good pill.'
A leading role
The moment Cohen swaggered into federal court in Portland on Friday, the outlook for the city's embattled Muslim community brightened.
Cohen's client, Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, emerged in handcuffs and smiled with relief while Cohen embraced him. A short time later, the imam of the Islamic Center of Portland, also called Masjed As-Saber, was ordered released from prison after a monthlong detention on charges that Cohen describes as 'bogus.'
A crowd of Muslim supporters chanted and cheered when Cohen emerged from the courthouse, with his gray ponytail, full beard and wiseguy smile. 'He's free!' Cohen shouted.
'Allah akbar!' responded the crowd, Arabic for 'God is great.'
Swarmed by reporters, Cohen effortlessly fielded the fluffballs along with the brickbats. He compared the crackdown on Muslim Americans to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and declared, 'When it comes to the Muslim community in this country, the only presumption is of guilt.'
Legally, all Cohen did was get his client released on $250,000 bail. But the show he put on surpassed mere courtroom maneuvers. In every move, gesture and wisecrack, he behaved as if he had found the perfect stage on which to star.
When it comes to his qualifications for defending Muslim leaders charged as terrorists, Cohen makes no attempt to feign humility.
'There's no attorney in this country who knows as much about the groups, the names, the issues, the politics, the communities, as I do,' he says. 'So when the government gets up there with much fanfare and starts throwing the rhetoric around, I can put the lie to it. No 30-year-old FBI agent has got a better handle on what's going on here and overseas than I do.'
Cohen won't say exactly where his funding comes from, or how much he charges. 'Mom and Pop contributions É a hundred bucks here, 500 bucks there, that's how we do these cases.'
Some of his funding does come from overseas, he acknowledges, but not from terrorists. At one point during his interview with the Tribune, he held his hands out and quipped, 'Saddam, please send me money!'
Asked to name his favorite case, the native New Yorker recalls an early victory when, as a 30-year-old legal aid lawyer, he freed a man who had been charged with stealing a case of tuna.
He also has won big cases for the Mohawk Indian Nation, squatters in Greenwich Village and the political wing of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
He explains that over the past decade, he and his colleagues have developed and honed what they call the 'Defense Triage Unit,' which works to keep joint terrorism task forces such as the one in Portland honest.
'We go into communities that are under siege as a result of politics or ethnicity or religion,' he explains. 'We empower the community and give them some breathing room.'
In the process, Cohen runs the risk of helping people who have strong biases against Jews.
Jeffrey L. Battle, one of the six Portland defendants charged with conspiring to make war on the United States, has been accused of plotting to attack a Portland synagogue or Jewish school with automatic weapons.
Another defendant, Patrice Lumumba Ford, reportedly e-mailed anti-Jewish messages to Portland Mayor Vera Katz and other city leaders in August 2001.
Cohen says he sees no contradiction between his Jewish faith and the Muslim cases he takes on.
'There is a concerted effort being coordinated in Washington to paralyze and punish and intimidate Muslim communities in this country,' he says. 'I believe it is my responsibility as a Jew to stand up and say no.'
Charles Schiffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Portland, says, 'I may question the clients that some lawyers choose to represent, but a defense counsel has a job to do, and people are presumed to be innocent until proved guilty.'