Terrorizing the defense attorneys

By JULIA PRESTON

New York Times

February 11, 2005

Lynne F. Stewart, an outspoken lawyer known for representing a long list of unpopular defendants, was convicted yesterday by a federal jury in Manhattan of aiding Islamic terrorism by smuggling messages out of jail from a terrorist client.

In a startlingly sweeping verdict, Ms. Stewart was convicted on all five counts of providing material aid to terrorism and of lying to the government when she pledged to obey federal rules that barred her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, from communicating with his followers. Her co-defendants, Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Mohamed Yousry, were also convicted of all the charges against them.

The verdict was a major victory for Justice Department prosecutors in one of the country's most important terror cases since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ms. Stewart's April 2002 indictment was announced in Washington by John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, and the verdict was hailed yesterday by his successor, Alberto R. Gonzales.

The convictions "send a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals," Mr. Gonzales said.

After a trial that lasted more than seven months, the jurors announced their verdict after 12 days of deliberations that spanned four weeks. In a case watched by lawyers nationwide, the jurors were persuaded that Ms. Stewart had crossed a professional line, from vigorously representing her client to conspiring in his followers' plans to launch violence in Egypt.

In recent days the jurors asked for dozens of government exhibits that went to the question of whether Ms. Stewart intended to help the sheik's terrorist followers. One juror complained to the judge at one point of being harshly treated by another juror.

The jurors returned to the courtroom at 3.17 p.m. yesterday. As the foreman, Juror No. 329, announced their verdict on each count, Ms. Stewart slumped slightly in her chair, and her chief lawyer, Michael E. Tigar, put his hand on her shoulder. She grew pale and rubbed her eyes to stop tears from coming down her face.

There were gasps and sounds of weeping from Ms. Stewart's followers, who filled the wood-paneled courtroom. The daughter of Ms. Stewart's co-defendant Mohamed Yousry, Leslie Yousry Davis, began to sob and covered her face with her hands.

Afterward, Ms. Stewart said she was stunned and vowed to appeal the verdict. She called the trial a government assault on the practice of law.

"I see myself as being a symbol of what people rail against when they say our civil liberties are eroded," she said to a small cluster of her supporters outside the federal district courthouse. "I hope this will be a wake-up call to all the citizens of this country, that you can't lock up the lawyers, you can't tell the lawyers how to do their jobs."

"I will fight on, I'm not giving up," she promised defiantly. "I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right."

But then her voice wavered and tears came to her eyes.

Ms. Stewart, who is 65, faces up to 30 years in jail. The judge, John G. Koeltl, set her sentencing for July 15. Because she was convicted of a felony, she will be immediately disbarred. She remains free on bail, but cannot travel outside New York State.

Although Judge Koeltl reminded the jurors repeatedly that Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center attacks were not at issue, images of the Qaeda leader and remembrances of the destruction he wrought pervaded the trial, which took place in a courthouse a few blocks from ground zero.

Ms. Stewart was convicted on two counts of conspiring to provide material aid to terrorists, by making the views and instructions of Mr. Abdel Rahman available to his followers in the Islamic Group, an organization in Egypt with a history of terrorist violence. She was also convicted of three counts of perjury and defrauding the government for flouting federal prison rules that barred Mr. Abdel Rahman, a blind Islamic cleric, from communicating with anyone outside his federal prison in Minnesota except his lawyers and his wife.

Mr. Sattar, 45, an Egyptian-born postal worker from Staten Island who worked as a paralegal in the sheik's 1995 trial, was convicted of conspiring to kill and kidnap in a foreign country, the most serious charge in the trial. He was also convicted of soliciting violence, because of an October 2000 fatwa, or religious edict, that he helped compose that called on Muslims around the world "to fight the Jews and kill them wherever they are." He has been imprisoned and will remain at the Metropolitan Correctional Center until his sentence.

The other co-defendant, Mr. Yousry, 48, an Arabic-language interpreter who helped Ms. Stewart and other lawyers speak with the sheik, was convicted of three counts of terrorism and conspiracy. Like Ms. Stewart, he was out on bail last night.

Ms. Stewart's troubles arose from her work over a decade to defend Mr. Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for inspiring a thwarted 1993 plot to bomb the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and other New York landmarks.

Because of the terror charges in the trial, the eight women and four men on the jury served anonymously, identified only by numbers and their seats in the jury box. Over the past two weeks there were many signs that they were wrestling intensely over the terror conspiracy charges against Ms. Stewart and her co-defendants.The jurors made no comment and left the courthouse at 3:40 p.m. in two vans.

Almost all of the 1,330 exhibits the prosecutors presented were transcripts of secret government audio recordings of calls by Mr. Sattar on his home telephone to the co-defendants and to Egyptian militants overseas, and videotapes of Ms. Stewart's prison meetings with Mr. Abdel Rahman, conducted in Arabic through Mr. Yousry.

The jury appeared to have focused on the evidence that clearly showed that Ms. Stewart had knowingly violated the legal letter of prison rules aimed at silencing the sheik. "She thought she could blow off the rules that apply to everyone else because she's a lawyer," said Anthony Barkow, the assistant United States attorney who made the government's final argument to the jury.

On the stand, Ms. Stewart sometimes appeared deaf to the vicious anti-American preachings of her client, Mr. Abdel Rahman.

The government never showed that any violence resulted from the defendants' actions. The defendants were not accused of aiding terrorism in the United States.

There was little dispute about the central facts in the case. After Mr. Abdel Rahman was sentenced in 1996 to life in prison, his followers issued a series of threats against the United States demanding his release. Prosecutors imposed rules, known as special administrative measures, that barred the sheik, already held in solitary confinement, from communicating with anyone outside prison but his lawyers and his wife.

Ms. Stewart repeatedly signed documents in which she agreed to uphold the rules.

She brought a letter containing messages from Islamic Group members to a meeting with the sheik in the prison in Rochester, Minn., in May 2000. She received a statement from the sheik and on June 14 called a reporter in Cairo and read him the statement. The sheik said he was withdrawing support for a cease-fire the Islamic Group had observed for three years in Egypt. The group never canceled the cease-fire.

Testifying on her own behalf, Ms. Stewart said the press release was part of a legal strategy that involved provoking the government if necessary in order to keep the sheik in the public eye. Ms. Stewart said she was acting within an unwritten lawyer's "bubble" in the prison rules that allowed her to defend her client as she thought best.

Sabrina Tavernise and Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting for this article.