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Stanley Cohen: Dreamer or Felon?

May 26, 2014

Stanley Cohen defends people and organizations that Americans hate: cop shooter Larry Davis; terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah; the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad.

“My role is moderation,” he says. “I try to find peaceful and just resolutions to explosive affairs.”

Usually, his clients don’t listen to him.

So is Cohen a naif and a dreamer? Or is he seen as a threat to the U.S. government, as he claims? He says federal prosecutors targeted him for his political beliefs and indicted him for impeding the IRS. The indictment charges him with not reporting over $3 million in fee income. 

Cohen pleaded guilty to the charges last month and may be sentenced to 18 months in prison when he is sentenced. He says he pleaded guilty only to end years of litigation and spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense fees, and to avert fracturing his American-Indian family on the Mohawk Akwesasne territory in upstate New York, where his common law wife of 18 years, Joni White, was born.

 “The government targeted me to criminalize dissent,” said Cohen, whose plea followed his representation of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith — an adviser to and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who was convicted in March of conspiring to kill Americans.

A law enforcement official familiar with Cohen’s case says:  “Law enforcement agencies target people who commit crimes.”

To people who know Cohen, the idea that he would hide money to enrich himself is both bizarre and startling. Sixty-three years old with a full white beard, he lives above a bodega on the Lower East Side, drives a Land Rover that, as of May 9, had 161,806 miles on it.

 “I have strong and unpopular beliefs,” he says. “I spent years pissing off anyone I could in the west regarding the Middle East. I’ve played a heavy role in Hamas for years. I walk between different worlds.”

How does he view himself? As “a Jewish revolutionary, fighting fascism,” he says. His hates, in the following order, are: the government of Israel; President Obama. [He’s worse than Nixon;”] and Attorney General Eric Holder: [“A pimp.”]

On his apartment wall is a picture of Cohen standing between Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Ismail Abu Shanab, founders of Hamas. The picture was taken in Gaza in 2003. In Yassin’s house, he says.

“Within a few weeks both were assassinated by missile attacks by Israel,” said Cohen. “Shanab was killed in his car. I was close to both of them. I was in that car two months before.”

Cohen says he is the son of an Orthodox Jewish father and the first person in his family to attend college. A brother is a Baptist minister.

He says he started college at Long Island University, was thrown out for anti-Vietnam war activity, graduated in 1973 from Manhattanville College, formerly an exclusive Catholic girls school — its 36th male graduate. In 1974, he volunteered for VISTA, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. He was sent to Kansas City, where the first thing he did was to organize the chambermaids at the hotel where he was training to strike over working conditions.

In 1987 while working as a Legal Aide attorney in the Bronx he represented 20-year-old Larry Davis, who shot and wounded six cops, becoming the subject of a city-wide manhunt.

“Larry’s family approached me to negotiate peaceful resolution,” he said. “I negotiated with the police department and local precincts, trying to put a protocol together to arrange for his surrender to guarantee his safety.”

As it turned out, Davis’s surrender was not an issue. He surrendered peaceably as police closed in on him.

Cohen joined attorneys Lynn Stewart and William Kunstler in defending Davis, who had become a folk hero among some black New Yorkers. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, including attempted murder, but was subsequently convicted of murdering a drug dealer. He was killed in a prison fight in 2008.

In 2010 Stewart was convicted of passing confidential information to a designated foreign terrorist organization from one of her clients, the blind Egyptian Sheik Abdel-Rahman, ringleader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Now disbarred as an attorney, she was freed on a “compassionate release” in Januray. Cohen maintains that, like him, she was targeted by the government.

His first prominent Mideast client was Mousa Abu Marzook — of the political wing of Hamas and whom Cohen represented from 1997-99. “He was busted at Kennedy Airport on a federal immigration violation, although he had lived in the U.S. for 14 years.”

Cohen says Israel requested his arrest after a series of suicide bombings and demanded his extradition.

“I represented him for 22 months. Eventually, I negotiated a settlement whereby he gave up a lawful claim of residency in the U.S.. He was transported to Jordan where he lived for five years, then relocated to Damascus. He is now in Egypt. I have seen him two to three times a year for 15 years.”

Cohen says he has also represented Hezbollah, which the U.S. also designated a terrorist organization, following the marine barracks bombing in Lebanon in the early 1980s. “I was asked to give a legal opinion concerning al-Manar, a television station they run, after the U.S., designated that a foreign terrorist organization.”

While in Beirut at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Cohen said he was asked for advice by the Syrian government. He says he ended up at a government palace outside Damascus, meeting with a female Syrian lawyer who was an advisor to Bashar Assad.

“She asked my opinion on the unfolding events in Syria. I spent two hours with her, saying they still had time to build a national consensus, that the government had to open up and offer opportunities to people. They didn’t take my advice. I never heard from her again.”

Cohen says he also developed contacts with the Iranian government. “Political people, intelligence people, military people, some of which was documented in the Abu Gaith trial. Iran and the U.S. were exchanging prisoners. The U.S. turned over people from revolutionary groups the Iranians wanted. The Iranians turned over at least 11 Al Qaeda activists. Seven ended up in Guantanamo, four disappeared.”

He says he saved the life of a CIA contract agent in Gaza, who was escorted to the border and released to Israel. He says the agent contacted him five years ago to thank him. “I received a phone call. ‘Is this Stanley Cohen? You have no idea who this is, I never got a chance to thank you for something in Gaza in 1997.’ Then he hung up.”

Then, there was Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan. “A client of mine, who was in trouble with the government, received a tape of the assassination. I was involved in negotiations in which the tape was given to the feds. There was a quid pro quo. It ended with my client’s being allowed to leave the country on the eve of his indictment.”

Cohen’s impending prison term doesn’t seem to faze him. Two weeks ago he was in Switzerland, speaking to the Swiss Islamic Association on “Nachba” — what Arabs call the “catastrophe” of the founding of Israel. 

“I’m not afraid of prison. I don’t care about money, only about fighting the fascist state. I refuse to go silently. I am a role model for the next generation. I am 63, I have 15, 20 years of fight left. An International public outcry is developing, including Amnesty International, in South Africa, Paris, Istanbul. I am getting support from people all over the world.” 

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