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Four Associates of Sheikh Rahman Indicted

Aired April 9, 2002 - 12:55   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now we are going to move over to New York, a breaking news story that we have been following all morning. Our Deborah Feyerick has more on the U.S. attorney's office coming out today and talking about several people being indicted for their material support of a terrorism organization. Deborah, what can you tell us?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to this latest indictment, four people have been charged, including the lawyer and the translator for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The lawyer has been indicted and charged with giving and providing material support to an Islamic terrorist group, specifically the group called al-Gamat.

Now the woman, the lawyer, Lynne Stewart, has been arrested, we are told that FBI agents are searching her office at this hour. Prosecutors say that she passed and disseminated documents to the sheikh, who is in prison under very strict confinement regulations. He was found guilty back in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks, including the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, as well as the United Nations and the George Washington Bridge.

Now, Stewart apparently has been charged with passing information to the sheikh during prison visits, as well as during telephone calls that she had with him. This according to the indictment which I have just received now. Now, also convicted -- or also, I'm sorry, charged in this is the translator. The sheikh does not speak English fluently, and so, apparently, charges brought against the translator as well. All of this happening now, the attorney general is in town, they are expected to have a press conference starting just before 1:00, and he is expected to make those announcements very shortly.

Again, they are going after the people they say are helping Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman continue to spread his message of terror -- back to you in the news room.

PHILLIPS: Deborah, how did the tips come about that lead to these indictments, what is the background?

FEYERICK: Well, apparently, it appears that prosecutors and the FBI agents had information that the sheikh was getting pieces of information while in solitary confinement, and actually during the U.S. embassy bombing trial last year, one of the prosecutors alluded to the fact that Rahman, even though he was being heavily guarded, had been found violating certain telephones, so we don't know what that meant at the time, but know it appears that he was either trying to communicate with his lawyer, or his lawyer was trying to communicate with him. Now, right now, James Helmy (ph) about to step to the podium and begin this press conference.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This afternoon I'm announcing the indictment of four associates of Sheik Abdel-Rahman, leader of the U.S. government- designated terrorist organization, the Islamic Group. Since 1995 Sheik Rahman has been serving a life term, plus 65-year prison sentence for conspiring to wage a war of terrorism against the United States. Included in that conspiracy term is the plot that resulted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a conspiracy to destroy several New York landmarks, including the United Nations.

Today's indictment charges four individuals, including Rahman's lawyer, a United States citizen, with aiding Sheik Abdel-Rahman in continuing to direct terrorist activities of the Islamic Group from his prison cell in the United States.

The United States charges the following individuals: Lynne Stewart, who was Sheik Abdel-Rahman's attorney during his 1995 conviction for the World Trade Center bombing and who has continued to act as one of his attorneys since he has been in prison.

Mohammed Yousry, the Arabic language interpreter for communications between Lynne Stewart and the imprisoned Sheik Rahman.

Ahmed Abdul Sattar, a resident of Staten Island, New York and an active Islamic Group leader, whom the indictment describes as a surrogate for Rahman.

And also indicated is Yasser al-Sirri, the former head of the London-based Islamic observation center. He is currently in custody in the United Kingdom. He is charged with facilitating communications among Islamic Group members and providing financing for their activities.

The indictment charges that these defendants worked in concert with Sheik Abdel-Rahman in violation of special administrative measures restricting Rahman's communications with the outside world, to provide material support and resources the Islamic Group.

The indictment charges that Rahman used communications with Stewart, translated by Yousry to pass messages to and receive messages from Sattar, al-Sirri and other Islamic group members.

The terrorist movement at the center of the facts alleged in this indictment is the Islamic group which has as its credo a message of hate that is now tragically familiar to Americans, to oppose by whatever means necessary the nations, governments, and individuals who do not share its radical interpretations of Islamic law.

The Islamic Group is a global terrorist organization that has forged alliances with other terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. It has an active membership in the United States, concentrated in the New York City metropolitan area. According to the indictment, since at least the early 1990s, Sheik Abdel-Rahman has been one of the principal leaders of the Islamic group and has directed its terrorist operations.

He has defined its goals, has recruited its membership in the United States. In 1997, following his 1995 imprisonment, the Bureau of Prisons implemented special administrative measures that defined the conditions of his imprisonment. Among these restrictions, these measures prohibited Rahman from -- and I quote -- "from passing or receiving any written or recorded communications to or from other inmates, visitors, attorneys, prison staff, or anyone else."

According to the indictment, in 1999, these restrictions were amended to prohibit Rahman from communicating with any member of the news media in person or through his attorneys. Before being allowed access to Rahman, his attorneys, including Lynne Stewart, were required to sign and did sign an affirmation acknowledging that they would abide by these measures and they would be accompanied by a translator only to communicate with Sheik Rahman according to and regarding legal matters.

Today's indictment charges that Lynne Stewart and Mohammed Yousry repeatedly and willfully violated these order in order to maintain Sheik Abdel-Rahman's influence over the terrorist activities of the Islamic group.

Among other overt acts, the indictment charges that, during a May 2000 visit to Sheik Abdel-Rahman, Stewart allowed Yousry to read letters from Ahmed Abdul Sattar regarding whether the Islamic group should continue to comply with a cease-fire in terrorist activities against Egyptian authorities that had been in place following the shooting and stabbing of 58 tourists and four Egyptians visiting an archaeological site in Luxor, Egypt in 1997. That's a terrorist attack for which the Islamic group claimed credit.

The indictment charges that because these special communications -- pardon me. The indictment charges that because these communications violated the special administrative measures placed on Sheik Rahman, Stewart took affirmative steps to conceal the conversation from prison guards, making extraneous comments in English to mask the Arabic conversation between Rahman and Yousry. Following the meeting, and in further violation of the special administrative measures to which she had agreed, Stewart is charged with announcing to the news media that Rahman had withdrawn his support for the cease- fire.

The indictment further alleges that in a January 2001 phone call, Ahmed Abdul Sattar informed Stewart that prison administrators had pleaded with Rahman's wife to tell Rahman to take his medicine. The indictment charges that although they knew Rahman was voluntarily refusing to take insulin for his diabetes, Sattar and Stewart agreed to issue a public statement falsely claiming that Rahman was being denied medical treatment.

The indictment charges that Stewart stated that this misrepresentation was -- quote -- "safe," because no one on the -- quote -- "outside," would know the truth. Shortly after terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the Department of Justice promulgated a rule creating the authority to monitor the attorney-client communications of federal inmates whom we suspected of facilitating acts of terrorism.

At the time, we attempted to make clear of the 158,000 inmates in the federal system, this authority would apply to only 16 inmates who, like Sheik Abdel-Rahman, were already under special administrative measures, a definition of the conditions of their custody. The authority was carefully circumscribed to protect inmates' rights while preventing acts of terrorism.

Each prisoner would be told in advance his conversations would be monitored. None of the information that is protected by the attorney- client privilege would be used for prosecution. Information would only be used to stop impending terrorist attacks and save American lives.

The Department of Justice announced this authority back in October, with the knowledge, which could not be publicly shared for fear of exposing Americans to greater risk, that inmates such as Sheik Abdel-Rahman were attempting to subvert our system of justice for terrorist ends. In fact, the training manual for Al Qaeda terrorists offers detailed constructions to recruits on how to continue their terrorist operations in the event they get caught.

Imprisoned terrorists are instructed to take advantage of any contact with the outside world to -- quote -- and now I'm quoting from the terrorist manual -- "communicate with brothers outside prison and exchange information that may be helpful to them in their work. The importance of mastering the art of hiding messages is self-evident here." And I'm closing now the quotation from the Al Qaeda training manual.

As today's indictment sets forth, Sheik Abdel-Rahman has learned the lessons of the Al Qaeda manual well. Sheik Rahman is determined to exploit the rights guaranteed to him under the United States system of justice.

The United States cannot and will not stand by and allow this to happen. Accordingly, today, I am announcing that the Department of Justice is invoking for the first time to monitor the communications between Sheik Abdel-Rahman and his attorneys under the new Justice Department regulations.

Since America was attacked over six months ago, I have sought to reassure the American people that the acts of the Department of Justice are carefully designed to target terrorists and to protect the rights of Americans and their freedom. Today's actions pursue the same objectives with the same protections in mind. We will not look the other way when our institutions of justice are subverted.

We will not ignore those who claim rights for themselves, while they seek to destroy the rights of others. We will in the president's words "defend freedom and justice no matter what the cost."

Thank you. Now we'd be happy to respond to your questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Is there any information pertaining to the September 11 attacks that is not contained in these documents but might be forthcoming later?

ASHCROFT: I don't want to try and discuss all the evidence, but I think it's clear that the indictment does not indicate that there's any information regarding the September 11 attacks, and I think it's safe to assume that there is not any that would be likely to be forthcoming.

QUESTION: Do you know what, if anything, is the consequence of the letters that you allege were read to the Sheik, and if you read letters back in addition to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) which you say was issued under his name in the year 2000? What, if any, are the consequences of these communications?

ASHCROFT: Well, the first consequence is that the agreement and that the rules relating to his incarceration have been broken.

The second is that the communication, in accordance with the items mentioned in the indictment, that he had lifted his approval of the cease-fire is a very important signal to members of the Islamic group.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: How did these people provide financial support (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and other things, including sending money to Sheik Rahman's son in Afghanistan?

ASHCROFT: The indictment alleges that money was transferred, but frankly, for us to go beyond the indictment at this time would be improper.

QUESTION: Can you describe (UNINTELLIGIBLE) listing his son as, I believe, a co-conspirator but not a defendant, can you explain that?

ASHCROFT: Well, we're talking about Rahman...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... Rahman's son.

ASHCROFT: His son?

Let me just call upon Jim (ph) to make a comment on (OFF-MIKE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't comment other than to say the investigation is continuing. The people we've indicted are the people we've indicted. So I'm sorry I can't give you more than that.

QUESTION: All right. Just to be clear, you said that you're announcing for the first time that the attorney -- that Sheik Rahman's conversations will be monitored, his conversations with the attorney. Is this the first instance in which attorney-client conversations will be monitored under the new provisions?

ASHCROFT: Under the new provisions, that's correct.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: We've had about a dozen and a half people who have been subject to special administrative measures. But under the new regulations promulgated last fall, this is the first time we'll be imposing those regulations as a means of monitoring conversations.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Do you have information beyond September 11 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) do you have any information that these particular communications (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ASHCROFT: We're not going to go beyond the information in the indictment at this time.

QUESTION: Can you characterize the relationship between the Islamic group and Al Qaeda? What is the nature of that? How close did they work together (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

ASHCROFT: I don't want to get into the facts that we're likely to develop at one time or another. The indictment alleges a formal relationship, that there's an allied relationship between the two. And at this time, we wouldn't go further.

Yes?

QUESTION: Could you talk about the Luxor attack and the taking of the tourists as hostages? Did the sheik -- the information that got out -- what were the repercussions, that they encouraged these gentlemen to take the hostages?

ASHCROFT: Well, you know that dozens of people died in Luxor.

QUESTION: Right.

ASHCROFT: And the sheik is a person whose leadership is substantial in the community of terrorists. Scattered on the bodies of those who died in Luxor were the pamphlets saying, "Release the sheik from his imprisonment in the United States," just to indicate that his influence in the Islamic group as a terrorist organization was a profound influence, and so that signaling from him would be important.

QUESTION: To encourage other attacks? But this is one instance that you're suggesting occurred, where they actually did kill people...

ASHCROFT: Well, I think that instance occurred prior to the time in which we...

QUESTION: OK.

ASHCROFT: We're not going to go beyond the indictment at this time and provide other information.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what is your concern about what would happen if you didn't take this action that you're announcing today?

ASHCROFT: Well, I've stated on repeated occasions that we will not allow individuals to continue to perpetrate criminal acts or terrorist acts from their prison cells. And we will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that that opportunity, either to direct or otherwise guide or plan or executive acts of terrorism or criminality is restrained.

ASHCROFT: And the regulations which we are now imposing on this particular individual provide for us to be able to monitor his conversations very thoroughly.

QUESTION: And how seriously do you think (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

ASHCROFT: I'm not in a position to comment on those things at this time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: I think that's a good question, yes.

For a number of years, the conversations have been monitored, pursuant to court order, monitor these conversations, and with judicial authority and authorization.

In order to be able to respond aggressively in a timely fashion, I promulgated regulations last fall that allow to do so with a different set of safeguards and a framework that could provide more expeditious opportunities for surveillance. So, for the first time, we are imposing the ability to surveil a conversation under this new framework.

But for several years now, this office of the United States attorney and the office of the Department of Justice, aided by the FBI and law enforcement authorities, has been taking the steps necessary to assemble this case.

And frankly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, its local officials in this office, deserve credit for an investigation which is extending over several years to culminate in the action which is taken today.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the relationship between Sheik Rahman and Lynne Stewart?

ASHCROFT: I think for me to go beyond the indictment today would be inappropriate. We've alleged in the indictment that Sheik's attorney has gone outside the confines of the agreement to which she had come with the officials, and the fact that she has done so has resulted in charges being brought.

QUESTION: When did you start monitoring conversations? Can somebody answer that question?

ASHCROFT: 1998, I believe, is it? December of 1998.

Thank you very much.

PHILLIPS: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- excuse me -- Attorney General John Ashcroft wrapping up the news conference there. Several indictments for supporting terrorism, four indictments to be exact. One of the -- I guess, the big shocker in this, a U.S. citizen, attorney Lynne Stewart. She was one of the four arrested for this relationship with Omar Abdel Rahman, the Muslim cleric now serving a life sentence for conspiring to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and blowing up five New York City landmarks in the 90's. We are going to bring our Deborah Feyerick back in. She was monitoring this news conference. Deborah, I think that was the biggest shocker, the Lynne Stewart part of this.

FEYERICK: Absolutely. Well, according to the attorney general, without her help, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman would not have been able to continue spreading his message, and prosecutors say that that is exactly what she helped him do. She said that basically -- he said that basically, because of the lawyer's efforts, Rahman maintained his influence over an Islamic group, even spreading information which basically withdrew his opposition to a particular cease-fire that was going on inside Egypt, between the Islamic group, and just general operations.

Now, also according to the attorney general, the lawyer helped Rahman by allowing him to spread his -- what he called "message of hate." The lawyer also, according to prosecutors, during one prison visit was trying to speak so loudly in order to cover up conversations that Sheikh Rahman was having with his translator. This way, she hoped to obscure what could have been possible monitoring of the conversation, and in fact that was what was going on.

The attorney general, interestingly, said that it was specifically because of Omar Abdel Rahman that certain guidelines were put into effect after 9/11 which allowed prison officials to begin listening in to attorney-client conversations, specifically, in order to pick up this kind of thing which could be a threat to America.

So, basically, the attorney general today saying that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, even though he is locked away in solitary in very harsh conditions, basically, he continued to run his organization, getting messages out to people on the ground, for them to carry out terror operations -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Deborah, Attorney General Ashcroft didn't want to talk very much about this relationship between Lynne Stewart and her client. I'm just curious to know if you were able to get any kind of background on her, history of her, her relationship with her client, and if not, maybe we can talk a little bit more about specifically what she did.

FEYERICK: Well, Lynne Stewart is known for representing certain controversial clients. As a matter of fact, she has been representing Sammy the Bull Gravano in his drug case, most recently. Again, she was Rahman's attorney, and you know, she represented him as any defense attorney would. She has never shied away from any sort of a controversial client, but this really goes beyond attorney-client privilege. This goes to spreading a message of terrorism, according to the attorney general.

PHILLIPS: And of course the question was asked, any connection here between 9/11 and Rahman. I believe Ashcroft did come out and say absolutely not, he feels confident in that.

FEYERICK: Yes. That is the general feeling. There are a number of Islamic organizations that are running and that have an agenda against the United States and Western interests. This particular group, this Egyptian group, is the one that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is supposed to be, sort of, the spiritual leader of, and, so it is specifically targeted that. It did not have any connection to 9/11.

The interesting thing though, also, Kyra, is that one thing Attorney General John Ashcroft did cite, he said that, you know, Rahman was taking his cues right out of the al Qaeda directory on how to continue terrorism. Specifically, he said that you must take advantage of any outside contact you may have with anyone. So, what he is saying basically is that Sheikh Rahman used his lawyer, used his translator, to maintain contact with a very controversial and alleged leader of the Egyptian group, really based here in the metropolitan area, and he was also arrested and indicted today.

PHILLIPS: Yes, a hand back -- handbook, rather the U.S. is undoubtedly becoming much too familiar with. Deborah Feyerick, with the latest from New York there. Thank you so much.

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