Attorney: Her prosecution is politically motivated
Conviction would cast 'chill,' Stewart says
From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau
NEW YORK (CNN) -- An American attorney accused of helping terrorists and lying to the U.S. government has warned that a conviction could cast a "chill" on defense attorneys across the country.
"It's hard to be zealous when you are looking over your shoulder and thinking, 'Could the government indict me for this?' " Lynne Stewart said in a recent interview in her Lower Manhattan office.
Stewart, 65, and two men have been on trial for seven months. A jury began deliberations in the case last week.
Stewart is accused of abetting terrorism by distributing a message from imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian Muslim cleric and spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, an organization the United States labels a terrorist organization that sought the overthrow of Egypt's government.
He is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 1995 of conspiring to bomb bridges, tunnels and landmark buildings in the city. Followers of the sheik were among the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
Stewart was a member of a legal team that represented Rahman at the trial and afterward.
Rahman, 66, who has diabetes and a heart condition, was moved to the super-maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colorado, after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Joining Stewart on trial are Arabic interpreter Mohamed Yousry and one-time paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar. The three are accused of spreading the sheik's messages to followers in other countries.
If convicted, Stewart and Yousry could each face up to 20 years in prison. If Sattar is found guilty he could could face up to life.
The government's case against Stewart, Yousry and Sattar revolve around meetings in a Minnesota prison with Rahman in 2000 and 2001. After Rahman's conviction, Stewart would visit him about three times a year.
Rahman was kept in solitary confinement and denied visitors, except his lawyer and immediate family, who did not visit from overseas.
He was allowed two phone calls per week from his lawyers and two per month from his wife in Egypt.
In her recent interview, Stewart maintained her innocence.
"The bright line says the lawyer doesn't become part of the criminal enterprise, whatever that enterprise may be," Stewart said.
"I've been doing this work for 30 years, and I am well aware of the bright line and I have never stepped over it, and I certainly didn't do it in this case either."
Stewart's alleged participation in a criminal enterprise stemmed from a press release and her private meetings with her client, according to trial evidence.
Stewart had signed an agreement with the Bureau of Prisons to abide by restrictions that prohibited disclosure of their conversations and distribution of messages from Rahman to third parties. But on at least one occasion, she appeared to flout those rules.
In June 2000, Stewart called a Cairo-based reporter for Reuters to say Rahman was withdrawing his support for the Islamic Group's truce with Egypt that had been in place since a 1997 attack that killed 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt.
"Now if he said to me, 'I want you [to] tell them the blood shall flow and you must attack them,' I would not have delivered that message," Stewart said.
Stewart says she was keeping Rahman in the public eye as part of a legal strategy to get him transferred to Egypt.
Rahman's captivity in the United States had become a rallying point for Islamic militants around the world, including al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
With a court order, the FBI began eavesdropping on Stewart's attorney-client meetings with Rahman -- a move that has troubled defense attorneys and which the government is freer to do since the passage of the Patriot Act.
"The cherished freedoms that we really need to defend, among them being the right to counsel, the right to having a lawyer that you consult with in absolute privacy -- that's been breached in this case," Stewart said.
"It's one of the real sacred precincts of the law -- that your client should be absolutely free to tell you whatever he needs to tell to you, and you should be free to give whatever advice you need to give."
Stewart, a mother of four and grandmother of 12, says political motivations are driving her prosecution. She points to the relatively few court victories the Bush administration has won since the 9/11 attacks.
"Their car was ... running out of gas. They had all this legislation, all this money, all this homeland security, and they had very little to show for it, so they went back into the files and dug us up," Stewart said.
"If they can do this to me, they will do it to other people."