U.S. Attorney Assails Lawyer in Terror Trial

Lynne F. Stewart and two colleagues are accused of conspiring to ferry illegal messages for imprisoned cleric Omar Abdel Rahman.

By Josh Getlin

Los Angeles Times

December 30, 2004

NEW YORK — A well-known civil rights attorney and her associates showed "utter contempt" for anti-terrorism laws by smuggling secret communications from terrorists to an imprisoned Egyptian cleric, and then communicating his incendiary views to colleagues worldwide, a federal prosecutor charged Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Dember's comments came during closing arguments in the trial of attorney Lynne F. Stewart and two colleagues in New York. The defendants had provided legal assistance to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

Stewart is charged with conspiring with two other defendants to help Abdel Rahman send messages from his prison cell to followers overseas; she also is accused of providing and concealing material support to terrorist activities and with making false statements.

Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who served as Abdel Rahman's paralegal, is charged with conspiring to murder and kidnap people in a foreign country; Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic translator, is accused of conspiracy and perjury.

"These three defendants carried messages from a known designated terrorist into prison to a convicted terrorist," Dember said, describing the defendants' alleged links with Rifai Taha, a leader of the Islamic Group, an international terrorist group based in Egypt. "And then they communicated a statement from [Abdel Rahman] opposing a cease-fire in Egypt that was in place … he was advocating a return to the terror and killing that existed before" the cease-fire was agreed to.

Stewart and her co-defendants have all denied any wrongdoing. During a six-month trial, they have insisted that they were simply bringing relevant information to a legal client and representing him as best they could.

They also have said that they had no links with the Islamic Group, which claimed credit for the 1997 attack that killed as many as 60 foreign tourists in Luxor, Egypt.

Although some members supported a cease-fire that was instituted after the attacks, Taha and others lobbied Abdel Rahman to end it, sending him several letters while he was in prison.

By aiding communication between Taha and Abdel Rahman, Dember charged, Stewart and her aides "broke Abdel Rahman out of jail, not literally but figuratively. They made him available to other criminals, the worst kind of criminals — terrorists."

The case, which is expected to go to the jury next week, marks one of the first times the U.S. government has put a well-known attorney on trial for allegedly supporting terrorist activities.

Some civil-liberties activists have criticized the Bush administration for bringing the controversial case, calling it an unconstitutional intimidation of public-interest lawyers who happen to represent unpopular clients.

Stewart and Yousry could face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. Sattar, who also faces charges of conspiring with terrorists to kidnap and murder people overseas, could face life in prison.

Stewart and Yousry are free on bail, but Sattar has remained in custody. All three defendants had been working on Abdel Rahman's case until their 2002 arrests. Although the sheik is in prison in Rochester, Minn., he remains influential with followers in Egypt and other countries.

The complex trial in federal court in Lower Manhattan has focused largely on a series of prison visits that Stewart's legal team made in 1999 and 2000 to Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence.

Before their visits, prosecutors said, Stewart had agreed to follow Special Administrative Measures strictly regulating contact with Abdel Rahman that had been developed several years earlier by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The guidelines bar attorneys and other legal aides from bringing in letters, tape recordings, videos or other communications to Abdel Rahman that have not been screened; the legal team also was prevented from communicating his views to third parties or through the media.

Dember said the "pivotal moment in the case" occurred during a May 2000 meeting that Stewart and Yousry had with Abdel Rahman. At that meeting, Dember said, Stewart and Yousry allegedly smuggled in a letter to Abdel Rahman from Sattar that was written in Arabic and included a secret communication to the sheik from Taha.

As he had on several other occasions, Taha asked Abdel Rahman to call on his followers to abandon the cease-fire they had agreed to with the Egyptian government. During his prison meeting, the sheik indicated that he no longer supported the cease-fire.

"These visits were an opportunity to pass messages from Taha through Sattar to Rahman and back again," Dember said. "Did the defense team know about the SAMS barring such communications? You bet they did."

During their trial, all three defendants surprised some observers by testifying in their own behalf. Amid withering cross-examination, the legal team said they were simply representing Abdel Rahman and keeping him abreast of worldwide developments.

Dember, however, said Stewart had crossed the line when she contacted a Reuters correspondent after the May 2000 prison meeting with Abdel Rahman and told the reporter about the sheik's statements opposing the Egyptian cease-fire.

"That was a clear, unambiguous" violation of the federal law banning communications between Abdel Rahman and other terrorists, Dember said.

The prosecution is expected to finish its closing arguments today, and the defense will be given two days next week to make final arguments.