Lawyer, two colleagues convicted in terror case

Jury finds they conspired to help imprisoned cleric, made false statements

February 11, 2005|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - In a case with broad implications for civil liberties and America's war on terrorism, an outspoken civil rights lawyer and two colleagues were convicted yesterday of conspiring to smuggle information to an imprisoned Egyptian cleric and helping him communicate incendiary messages to terrorists around the world.

After 13 days of deliberations, a federal jury convicted attorney Lynne Stewart on charges of giving material support to international terrorists and making false statements to the U.S. government. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the verdicts "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."

The high-profile case grew out of Stewart's representation of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and other New York landmarks. She was accused of smuggling a letter to her client that asked him to use his influence to oppose a cease-fire between Egypt and militant groups, and then relaying his views to the news media.

Stewart, 65, vowed to appeal, saying, "I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right." She remained free on bail pending a sentencing hearing July 15.

Also convicted were U.S. postal worker Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who could be sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to "kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country" by publishing a statement calling for the murder of Jews and their supporters. Arabic interpreter Mohamed Yousry faces 20 years in prison for providing support to terrorists.

When the verdicts were read, Stewart shook her head and tears began streaming down her face. Some of her supporters in the Manhattan courtroom cried out in disbelief. A group began chanting "Free Lynne Stewart!" as she walked out of the courthouse, and a group of friends, many visibly upset, flocked to her side.

The convictions represented a major victory for the Justice Department, which had made the case a centerpiece of its national anti-terrorism campaign. Then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft singled out Stewart in announcing the July 2002 indictments, saying she had brazenly attempted to help her client wage an international terror campaign from prison.

But civil liberties experts warned that the case represented an attack on the rights of lawyers to represent their clients and an erosion of attorney-client privilege that could prevent other lawyers from representing unpopular figures.

"We have all in our lifetimes seen well-meaning juries get caught up in the media-dominated government rhetoric of their time, based mostly on fear," said Michael Tigar, Stewart's attorney. "I do not criticize these jurors. ... I have every confidence this verdict will be set aside."

The government's case focused on a visit Stewart made five years ago to her client, Abdel-Rahman, in a federal prison in Minnesota. She was required to sign "Special Administrative Measures" drawn up by the Justice Department that barred her from smuggling terrorist-related materials to him, or communicating his views and political pronouncements, either to other terrorists or through the media.

During the seven-month trial, Stewart conceded that she took Abdel-Rahman a message in Arabic from Sattar, the sheik's paralegal. The letter conveyed a message from Rifai Taha, a leader of the Islamic Group, which has been identified as a terrorist group based in Egypt.

In the letter, Taha urged Abdel-Rahman to use his influence to oppose a cease-fire in Egypt between the government and terrorist organizations.

Stewart later told a Reuters reporter about the sheik's statements opposing the cease-fire. She said she was simply keeping her client "visible" and working to have him transferred to an Egyptian prison.

Tigar had argued that the meaning of the administrative guidelines was unclear, and that Stewart acted in good faith when relaying her client's views to a journalist.

But government attorneys contended that these actions showed Stewart's "utter contempt" for the federal guidelines. They said she used her visits to Abdel-Rahman as a cynical "cloak" to cover up support for terrorist activities overseas.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the government had prosecuted Stewart for purely political, not legal, reasons.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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