NEW YORK -- Lynne Stewart, a 67-year-old civil rights lawyer who spent a lifetime helping unpopular defendants and political causes, was sentenced yesterday to 28 months in prison for helping a blind, imprisoned Egyptian sheik unlawfully communicate with followers.
Stewart, whose law license was revoked after her 2005 conviction in the case, was facing up to 30 years in prison. U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl pointed to her years of advocacy for the poor and downtrodden as a reason for a more lenient sentence.
"Ms. Stewart performed a public service, not only to her clients but to the nation," said Koeltl, who refused a prosecution request to sentence Stewart, who has cancer, to a 30-year term.
Stewart, a grandmother, made an impassioned plea for leniency and said she had suffered greatly after losing the privilege of practicing law.
"At the end of my career, this is truly like a sword in my side," she said. "Permit me to live out the rest of my life productively, lovingly, righteously."
Outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, cheers and applause rippled through a crowd of 200 Stewart supporters as word spread of her sentence.
Stewart left the courthouse, free on bail, and told the crowd she saw the sentence as vindication of her work for the unpopular.
"You get time off for good behavior usually at the end of your prison term," Stewart quipped. "I got it at the beginning."
If there was any chill for Stewart, it was in a statement by U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, who said the government is disappointed in the sentence and is considering an appeal.
Stewart was convicted largely for her involvement in releasing a statement by Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Muslim cleric sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate Egypt's president. Koeltl noted that the smuggled messages could have had "lethal consequences."
Also convicted in the 2005 trial with Stewart were paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic interpreter. They were indicted in 2002 during the tenure of then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The 24-year prison term for Sattar, who was convicted of negotiating with militants overseas, was less than the life term called for under federal guidelines. In imposing the sentence yesterday, Koeltl noted that the defendant did not have a criminal record and that no one was killed or injured as a result of his crimes.
"I am not a terrorist, your honor," Sattar said. "I am not a violent person. I am a human being. I am an American. I am a Muslim who practices and believes strongly in his religion."
Yousry, who was convicted of helping Stewart smuggle the sheik's messages out of prison, received a sentence of 20 months.
While the allegations against Stewart had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she has said she was charged because of what she called a climate of hysteria.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember said the case had nothing to do with the attacks.
"What she was doing was smuggling terrorism messages and smuggling out Abdel Rahman's responses," Dember said."
Anthony M. DeStefano writes for Newsday. The Associated Press contributed to this article.