Convicted of Aiding Terrorist, Translator Prepares for Prison Cell, Still in Disbelief

By JULIA PRESTON

New York Times

August 7, 2005

Mohamed Yousry, an Arabic-language translator, has been practicing for life in a prison cell. He closes himself into small spaces to meditate and combs through his library for nonpolitical books he supposes his keepers will allow him to read.

But he still cannot quite believe that prison is where he is going.

After working for nearly a decade as a translator for Lynne F. Stewart, a New York defense lawyer, Mr. Yousry, 49, was convicted along with her on Feb. 10 in Manhattan federal court of providing material aid to terrorism and conspiring to deceive the government. Now free on bail and awaiting sentencing, which is set for Sept. 30, he faces as much as 20 years behind bars.

Although months have passed since the verdict, Mr. Yousry remains shocked and baffled by it. Throughout the grueling nine-month trial, Mr. Yousry and his lawyers were convinced that he had a strong chance of acquittal.

The charges hinged on Ms. Stewart's provocative legal strategy on behalf of a convicted terrorist client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, in which she defied a prison rule that restricted communications by releasing messages from him to the international press and to his militant followers in Egypt.

Mr. Yousry's lawyers, David Ruhnke and David Stern, showed in court that he took no actions on his own to help the sheik politically and did his translation work based on instructions he received from Ms. Stewart and other lawyers for Mr. Abdel Rahman, a blind Muslim cleric who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for conspiring to bomb landmarks in New York City.

Mr. Yousry's case seemed particularly solid, because unlike Ms. Stewart, he never signed documents pledging to abide by prison regulations. Mr. Yousry's lawyers specified that it was up to Ms. Stewart, as the lawyer, to see that her staff complied with the rules.

The prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Yousry knew that Ms. Stewart was at least bending the prison rules when she took messages from the sheik, which had been translated by Mr. Yousry, out of jail. They argued that he knew full well of the dangers of any communication between the virulently anti-American sheik and his Egyptian followers.

Andrew Dember, an assistant United States attorney, assailed the defense arguments as "nonsense!" in his closing summation. "He knew the restrictions, what they consisted of, and he was aware of the fact that he was doing wrong because of those restrictions. He knew full well that he was bound by the restrictions himself."

He added later, "Clearly, obviously, Ms. Stewart and Mr. Yousry know what they're doing is improper, illegal, criminal."

The jury agreed with the government, convicting Mr. Yousry on all three counts he was facing. On Friday, the Justice Department gave its highest award to the four prosecutors who tried the case.

"I still don't know what it is that I did that was even wrong, much less illegal," said Mr. Yousry, alternately indignant and mournful, in an interview in the Manhattan office of one of his lawyers, Mr. Stern. "I followed a process that was designed by the lawyers. They said this is what we're going to do, and I followed that. That's what lawyers do: They tell you what's right and what's wrong legally.

"The fact that I now know that these lawyers were following a strategy that the government didn't like, that makes me a criminal?" he asked.

What Mr. Yousry finds most confounding is that he was convicted of aiding Mr. Abdel Rahman's fundamentalist Islamic cause even though the prosecutors acknowledged that he was nonviolent, did not support the sheik's politics and was not a practicing Muslim.

In the courtroom Mr. Yousry was the quiet defendant, the one who attracted the least public attention. Ms. Stewart, who is also out on bail, has remained in the public eye as debate rages about her legal approach and as she travels and speaks to raise support for her appeals.

A third defendant, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a Staten Island postal worker and paralegal aide for the sheik, faced the gravest terror charges and the most startling government evidence: wiretaps of his home telephone that showed him talking extensively with known terrorists in Egypt. He remains in prison awaiting sentencing.

Friends and colleagues describe Mr. Yousry, a mild-spoken man with a bushy mustache and quick smile, as easygoing and not inclined to be militant about much of anything. Born in Cairo, he served for five years in the Egyptian armed forces before resigning and coming three decades ago to the United States, where he became a naturalized American citizen.

The only ties he maintained through the years with politics in Egypt were through his graduate research in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.

Mr. Yousry's wife of 24 years, Sarah, is a churchgoing evangelical Christian, also a naturalized citizen, originally from the Dominican Republic. In the years before his arrest, friends said, Mr. Yousry's primary concern was to cobble together enough translating and teaching jobs to pay for his daughter's tuition at Tennessee Temple University, a Baptist college in Chattanooga.

Friends said that Mr. Yousry's social circle was as ecumenical as his household. Naomi Robbins, a translator who is Jewish and who came to know Mr. Yousry through her work, said he gave her tips for organizing her son's bar mitzvah in May and then cheerfully attended it.

Zachary Lockman, a professor in the N.Y.U. Middle Eastern studies department, called Mr. Yousry "a very sweet, mild-mannered guy" whose political views "are not those of Omar Abdel Rahman by any stretch of the imagination." Prof. Lockman, who testified on Mr. Yousry's behalf at the trial, said he was the one who originally urged Mr. Yousry to write his doctoral dissertation about Mr. Abdel Rahman, taking advantage of his rare access to the sheik.

The dissertation caused Mr. Yousry trouble in the trial, making him seem to act independently, even though the research was authorized by Ms. Stewart. The jury watched government videotapes of prison meetings with Ms. Stewart and the sheik in which Mr. Yousry could be seen debating with Mr. Abdel Rahman in Arabic about the sheik's political views, apart from his translations for Ms. Stewart.

While many of Mr. Yousry's professional colleagues have come to his defense, others had mixed reactions.

Prof. Lockman and other professors in Middle Eastern studies at N.Y.U. rallied to his support. Prof. Lockman called the terror conviction "ludicrous" in a letter he wrote to the department faculty the day of the verdict. Mr. Yousry remains a graduate student and will be allowed to finish his dissertation whenever he is able, Prof. Lockman said.

Professor Charles Coleman of the cultural diversity program at York College of the City University of New York, where Mr. Yousry was an adjunct lecturer, testified on his behalf at the trial. His academic colleagues were alarmed that prosecutors had used excerpts from early drafts of Mr. Yousry's unfinished dissertation, seized by federal agents from his computer, and books on militant Islam found in his library to accuse him in court of radical Islamic sympathies.

The CUNY administration, however, fired Mr. Yousry after he was indicted, citing the gravity of the charges. The American Association of University Professors sharply criticized CUNY in a report contending a lack of due process in the dismissal. At its annual meeting in June, the association formally expressed "grave concern" about CUNY's actions but stopped short of censure.

Legal translators in New York were taken aback by Mr. Yousry's conviction, fearing it left them vulnerable to similar prosecution. But the American Translators Association and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators took a more skeptical view.

In a joint statement in March, the two groups said Mr. Yousry had failed to follow "many standard recognized protocols," in particular finding that he had a conflict of interest by pursuing his doctoral research while he was translating for the sheik.

Now unemployable, Mr. Yousry has sadly packed up his belongings from the modest brick town house where he lived for years in Elmhurst, Queens, to move to Bridgeport, Connecticut, so his wife can be close to their daughter, Leslie.

Mr. Yousry said he did not blame Ms. Stewart for his troubles. He concludes that his fate is the result of the change in New York after Sept. 11. After the attacks, he says, New York jurors "would rather believe the government" in terrorism cases. "And I was just part of the collateral damage."