Stanley Cohen: Dreamer or threat?

Defense attorney Stanley Cohen, attorney for Souleymane Abou Defense attorney Stanley Cohen, attorney for Souleymane Abou Ghaith, answers questions from reporters outside Manhattan Federal Court on March 26, 2014 in New York. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Leonard Levitt Leonard Levitt

Leonard Levitt is the author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force."

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

"My role is moderation," said the prominent lawyer, who himself now faces time in prison. "I try to find peaceful and just resolutions to explosive affairs."

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His clients usually don't take his advice, though. 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 on a charge of impeding the IRS and hiding $500,000 in client fees to pay his American Express bill.

Cohen pleaded guilty to the charge last month and faces up to 18 months in prison. He said he pleaded guilty not only to avoid years of litigation and high legal fees, but to avert fracturing his family on the upstate Mohawk Akwesasne territory, where his common law wife, 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 son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans.

To people who know Cohen, the idea that he would hide money to enrich himself is both bizarre and startling. He is 63, lives above a bodega on the Lower East Side, and drives a Land Rover that has 161,806 miles on it.

"I have strong and unpopular beliefs," he said. "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."

On his apartment wall is a picture of Cohen standing between Sheikh Achmed Yassin and Ismail Abu Shanab, founders of Hamas. It was taken in Yassin's Gaza home in 2003.

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Cohen said he is the son of an Orthodox Jewish father, whose brother is a Baptist minister. He graduated in 1973 from Manhattanville College. In 1974, he joined VISTA, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. He was sent to Kansas City, where he organized the hotel chambermaids to strike over working conditions.

In 1987, while working as a Legal Aid attorney in the Bronx, he represented 20-year-old Larry Davis, who shot and wounded six cops he believed would execute him. "Larry's family approached me to negotiate a 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 gave up peacefully as police closed in on him. Cohen joined lawyers Lynn Stewart and William Kunstler in defending Davis. 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.

Cohen's first prominent Mideast client was Mousa Abu Marzook, from the political wing of Hamas, whom he 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."

He said Israel requested Marzook's arrest after a series of suicide bombings and demanded his extradition. "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 said he also represented Hezbollah, which the United States also designated a terrorist organization, after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon.

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Cohen's impending prison term doesn't seem to faze him. Two weeks ago in Switzerland, he spoke 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," he said. "I am getting support from people all over the world."

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