Kunstler Protege Stanley Cohen Brings American Rights to Hamas

On the Saturday evening before Yom Kippur, a hundred or so Muslim men sat on the carpeted floor of a mosque in Paterson, N.J., before a bearded, ponytailed Manhattan attorney named Stanley Cohen.

“In the beginning, I would like to introduce Mr. Stanley Cohen by dialing a number I have with me,” said Magdy Mahmoud, chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the American Muslim Union. Mr. Mahmoud held a cell phone up to the microphone, and a gravelly recorded voice that greets callers to the Jewish Defense Organization filled the room:

“Stanley Cohen defended Hamas terrorists and is now defending bin Laden …. Stanley Cohen is a traitor to the Jews, he’s a traitor to America. And all the victims of the World Trade Center bombing, all those innocent people of all different backgrounds, their fingers point at this greedy pig Cohen and they scream out for justice.”

The voice gave out Mr. Cohen’s home address and phone number. It went on: “Stanley Cohen must be driven from New York.”

The audience tittered. The Jewish lawyer’s bona fides were established-at least for those who hadn’t heard of Mr. Cohen already. How he calls a Hamas leader “brother.” How he went on CNN with another client, a Muslim cleric with purported ties to Osama bin Laden. How he’s compared the investigation of American Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The men(women watched via closed-circuit television from a back room) had come to learn more about their legal rights in dealing with investigators. Mr. Cohen was there to deliver a simple message: Don’t cooperate.

Mr. Cohen grinned. “Greetings to the community; greetings to those people who may work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or may wish to help them,” he began. “Everything we discuss tonight is lawful, truthful and important.”

Mr. Cohen, 47, is an old-time agitator-a 60’s demonstrator, a disciple of leftist celebrity lawyer William Kunstler. And since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he’s become the unofficial head of a small and increasingly unpopular legal fraternity: defenders of suspected members of Mr. bin Laden’s terrorist network. The zeal with which he embraces his cause discomfits even some of his ideological fellow travelers. But the way he sees it, he’s all that’s standing against a groundswell of anger that threatens to engulf law-abiding Americans.

“This is gonna make the Palmer raids, this is gonna make the McCarthy age look like a meeting of the ACLU,” Mr. Cohen says.

He told the mosque about his client, Moataz Al-Hallak, an imam who has become a focus of the F.B.I.’s investigation. During the investigation of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the F.B.I. claimed to have found financial links between Mr. Al- Hallak and Mr. bin Laden-but not enough to indict. One of the congregants of Mr. Al-Hallak’s San Antonio mosque, however, was convicted for his involvement. Last year, Mr. Al-Hallak moved to Laurel, Md., where the men who crashed an airline into the Pentagon also lived the last weeks of their lives.

Mr. Cohen said that Mr. Al-Hallak, who has not been charged with anything, is innocent of any wrongdoing. “The story was that Moataz sent money to Osama bin Laden,” he said. “Someone who has $300 million, he needs $10,000?” On Mr. Cohen’s advice, Mr. Al-Hallak refused to speak to the F.B.I., agreeing only to meet with federal prosecutors.

“Heaven forbid I be accused of telling people not to talk to the F.B.I.,” Mr. Cohen said. Then he exhorted the crowd to follow Mr. Al-Hallak’s example: “Just say no. It’s the safest way.”

Exposing the Beast

A few hours before, Mr. Cohen had explained how a Jewish kid from Westchester County ended up defending Islamic militants.

“The strain that sort of runs between and among all of my cases is, I like very much exposing the Beast in a very public and sophisticated way,” he said. “It’s easy to expose the Beast in the simple cases.”

Mr. Cohen was sitting in his modest loft apartment on Avenue D-a neighborhood he loves for its feel of the old, Taxi Driver New York. The walls are covered with framed pictures: Stanley next to Yasir Arafat, Stanley wearing a bandanna over his face, courtroom illustrations of Stanley next to famous clients, Stanley’s mug shots. A glass jar filled with spent shell casings sits above his television.

“There was a time when I considered myself a pacifist,” Mr. Cohen said.

He grew up in Portchester, a community he described as “a very poor working-class town” sandwiched between Greenwich, Conn., and Rye, N.Y. “My parents are hardworking F.D.R. Democrats,” he said. “When I see Death of a Salesman, I think of my father. My mother is a great letter-writer. When she would get indignant, she’d see something that was wrong, she’d write a letter.”

As a 16-year-old freshman at Long Island University in 1970, Mr. Cohen got involved in radical politics. “You’re 16 years old and you find yourself in the middle of the most intense political period of 100 years,” he recalled. “You’re young, you’re free, you’re independent. You go from there.”

Gradually he became convinced that, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without struggle.”

“Most of my clients [are] involved with struggle, many of them armed struggle,” he said. “I’m not attracted to guns. I’m not a groupie. It’s not simplistic. But I understand very well the relationship between the right of self-determination, self-defense and resistance.”

After law school, he went to work for the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, defending robbers, rapists and killers. “I loved the people I represented,” he said. “Poor people, people of color. People that the system was designed to beat to death.”

“He was one of the stars in the office,” said Joel Blumenfeld, an acting Queens Supreme Court judge who headed the Legal Aid office at the time.

Along with Kunstler, he helped win a much-publicized acquittal for Larry Davis, a black man accused of robbing and killing drug dealers before shooting his way past police officers for a long spell on the lam. Mr. Cohen became one of Kunstler’s protégés, though they feuded at times.

Soon after the Davis trial, Mr. Cohen left the Legal Aid Society and went into private practice, assembling a client list that includes AK-47–toting Mohawk Indian separatists, East Village squatters and Albanian gangsters.

But it’s his “Islamic practice,” as he calls it, that gets the most attention. Mr. Cohen said he’s gotten more than 200 death threats since the World Trade Center attack. One included a faxed photo of someone killed on Sept. 11. On Sept. 23, the Jewish Defense Organization-an offshoot of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League-handed out fliers with Mr. Cohen’s picture on it at memorial services. A spokesman said the group plans to make Mr. Cohen “as famous as Bill Kunstler.”

Mr. Cohen makes no apologies. “Look, if I can’t support the politics of political clients, I don’t take the case,” he said. The unabashed brio with which he defends them, however, baffles even some criminal defenders.

“Stanley is very clever, very committed, and can be-I saw this-very charming with prosecutors and judges,” said Kevin Doyle, an attorney who shared a windowless Bronx office with Mr. Cohen and now heads the New York State Capital Defender Office. “But I find some of his worldview profoundly bewildering at best.”

“Most of [my contemporaries] would think I’ve crossed the line,” Mr. Cohen said. “They may be protégés [of Kunstler], but they consider themselves lawyers.'”

Some raised eyebrows when Mr. Cohen was indicted in Canada for his actions in a Mohawk uprising. “The Canadians alleged, you know, simple stuff: seditious conspiracy, riot, possession of weapons,” he said. (Asked how many times he’d been arrested, Mr. Cohen replied: “I dunno-eight, 10.”) Others were outraged when, in 1995, Mr. Cohen agreed to help the political leader of Hamas, Moussa Mohammed Abu Marzook, fight extradition from the United States to Israel.

“I know more self-professed progressive lawyers and activists that are so torn up over the Islamic thing,” Mr. Cohen said. “Some of them [are] women who rave about ‘Oh, if they win I’ll have to wear veils and be cleaning floors and having babies.’ Some of them [are] very progressive Jewish lawyers, men who, when it comes to Palestine, when it comes to Islam, they’re as reactionary as the next guy.”

For 22 months, Mr. Cohen visited Mr. Marzook almost nightly in jail. He began to believe in his client, whom he refers to as “the Gerry Adams of Hamas,” and his cause-a conviction not lessened by the death of Mr. Cohen’s distant Israeli cousin in a suicide-bombing attack. In 1997, Mr. Marzook was allowed to leave the United States. He lives in exile in Syria.

Mr. Cohen said that he’s hailed on the street in the West Bank; he once had dinner with Mr. Arafat and was treated, he said, “like a head of state.” He believes the C.I.A. monitors his phone calls.

Mr. Cohen is not religious. “My mother stopped asking me to go to temple years ago.”

Mr. Blumenfeld, a devout Jew and professed Zionist, understands. “If I weren’t a judge, and if I were still practicing, I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do what Stanley does,” he said. “But every society needs a Stanley Cohen. If the price we pay for that is Stanley’s ego, so be it.”

Misty View

At sundown, Mr. Cohen turned his Toyota 4Runner onto the on-ramp for the George Washington Bridge, heading toward Paterson.

“Thank God it’s misty,” he said. “I dreaded this view. I don’t want to see it.” His paralegal, Sarah, had told him what to expect. “I have been thinking of this view for nine days because I travel this bridge so much. Whenever I come across the bridge and see those two buildings I go, ‘All right, I’m home.'”

Like everyone else, Mr. Cohen has a story about where he was on Sept. 11. He had been out late and had fallen asleep on his couch. A phone call awoke him; a friend said to turn on the television.

“Very quickly thereafter I said, ‘Yeah, well, here we go,'” he recalled. “I knew it wasn’t Timothy McVeigh that they were gonna try to tag.”

A day later, F.B.I. agents announced they were looking for Mr. Al-Hallak. The imam, they claimed, foreshadowed the attack when he spoke at his old mosque the weekend before. (Mr. Al-Hallak denies knowing Osama bin Laden.)

On Sept. 22, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials arrested another one of Mr. Cohen’s clients, a former board member of an Islamic charity.

“I don’t think this was an Osama bin Laden job at all,” Mr. Cohen said. “But I think for a lot of reasons the government would prefer it be Osama bin Laden. Because then there’s an identifiable bogeyman …. If it ever filtered down to the U.S. body politic that these acts are a result of indigenous struggle and uprising, that there are a lot of people pissed off at the United States for a lot of different reasons, Americans would shit. It’s a lot easier to think there’s six leaders, kill the six, and then life will be fine again and Doris Day will reign supreme.”

Mr. Cohen said one man had called him from Texas to demand that, as an American, he convince his clients to talk. “I said, ‘First of all, I’m not an American. Right now, I’m a lawyer’ …. And I said, ‘The World Trade Centers, they don’t belong to the United States; they don’t belong to George Bush. They belong to New York City. I live in the country of New York City.'”

Mr. Cohen pulled the car into the parking lot of the mosque, beneath a banner that read “The American Muslim Community Strongly Condemns Terrorism.”

Blaming Mossad

Later, Mr. Cohen was nearing the end of his speech: “I fear the government is going to use this as a pretense, and I’m going to use the I-word … to go after those people who have stood up to Israeli interests and the pro-Israel lobby in this country.”

At 8:15, the workshop stopped for prayers. Mr. Cohen took a seat in a back office. “This was a Mossad job,” he said, referring to the Israeli intelligence service. “This is the biggest boon to Israel ever.”

Mr. Cohen said he was joking. “But do I think this operation was assisted by ex-C.I.A., ex-Mossad officers? Absolutely.”

Mr. Cohen returned to answer the audience’s questions. A remarkable number of the men said they’d already been interviewed in connection with the case. They seemed confused, indignant, terrified.

Afterwards, Mr. Cohen hung around and handed out business cards. Then he got into his car and headed back.

“Damn, it’s clear,” he said, as he hit the George Washington Bridge. He craned his neck.

“Oh, God …. Oh, my God.” Down the Hudson River, the Empire State Building was lit red, white and blue. Beyond it-a void.

“Sarah’s right,” he said. “It’s fucking Los Angeles.”