July 28, 2004 – The trial of Lynne Stewart, a defense attorney charged with providing aid and material support to a terrorist group, began June 22 in New York City. Stewart, who was first indicted in April 2002, allegedly violated the law when she assisted her client, Islamic Group spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, in passing messages to the group in defiance of prison regulations imposed on him and in violation of Stewartâ€™s own promises to abide by those restrictions. Sheikh Rahman was previously convicted for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The 64 year-old Stewart, who has defended members of the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army and other radical groups, has taken the position that the best legal defense in her case is to mount an aggressive offense. She has energetically promoted her cause through interviews with the media, public speaking appearances and personal reports on her Internet trial weblog.
"I need to have a big mouth for this trial," Stewart explained in an interview from her home. "Itâ€™s important that the public learn whatâ€™s going on in the trial from me and not through the prosecutorsâ€™ statements in the press, which portray me as a messenger of terrorism." Stewart faces and maximum of forty years in jail if convicted.
The FBI made Stewartâ€™s arrest on April 12, 2002, a high profile event. Agents invaded her office and searched it for several hours. The media was filled with images of agents carrying off boxes and records. Attorney General John Ashcroft flew to New York City to announce Stewartâ€™s indictment in a well-publicized news conference.
"The government seems to be singling her out as poster child for its campaign to justify the unconstitutional monitoring of conversations between lawyers and inmates. This is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on lawyers zealously representing their clients." -- Bruce Nestor, President of the National Lawyers Guild
"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," said Ashcroft at the press conference. "Accordingly, today I am announcing that the Department of Justice is invoking for the first time the authority to monitor the communications between Sheikh Abdel Rahman and his attorneys under the new regulations."
Several prominent legal organizations condemned the action. In a news release, Bruce Nestor, President of the National Lawyers Guild, said the federal indictment of New York attorney Lynne Stewart was representative of the governmentâ€™s broader attack on attorney client privilege. "Stewart is a veteran criminal defense attorney who often represents both controversial causes and unpopular clients," Nestor explained. "The government seems to be singling her out as poster child for its campaign to justify the unconstitutional monitoring of conversations between lawyers and inmates. This is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on lawyers zealously representing their clients."
The first entry in Stewartâ€™s weblog refers to the paring down of the 500 potential jurors. "That jury will decide my future and perhaps that of the 1, 4, 5 and sixth amendments,â€™ Stewart wrote. "Iâ€™ll be there for 4 to 6 months. Bring a cushion and bring hope, encouragement and righteousness."
The trialâ€™s anonymous jury consists of eight women and four men. Asked whether she believed her trial would be fair, Stewart answered: "I canâ€™t quite bring to my lips the word â€˜fairâ€™ because the government is introducing evidence thatâ€™s calculated to scare people. You canâ€™t show a portrait of Osama bin Laden to a court room and not have people get emotional. The [US] government also searched my [co-defendant Mohammed Yousryâ€™s] house and found a lot of old newspapers from the early 1990s relating to alleged radical activities. The judge is allowing the clippings to be introduced into evidence. You think the first Amendment would hit in. I might have a copy of Mein Kampf that I bought in my early years because I was curious. But possessing that book doesnâ€™t reflect my outlook on life."
Mohammed Yousry is an Arabic translator who has taught at New York University and in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at the City University of New York (CUNY). Stewartâ€™s other co-defendant is Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a Staten Island postal worker accused of coordinating efforts to keep Rahman in touch with his followers and co-conspirators.
Being on trial with her co-defendants doesnâ€™t complicate her defense, Stewart said. "Our defense is the same," she explained. "We were working as part of a legal team that did what it thought would be best for its client."
Stewart and her co-defendants are charged with conspiracy to help the imprisoned Sheikh Rahman pass messages to his followers in violation of extraordinary restrictions called Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, which the court imposed on the Sheikh in 1997.
According to the superceding indictment of November 19, 2003, Stewart is charged with conspiring to defraud the United States and with providing and concealing material support on behalf of terrorist activity. She also faces two counts of making false statements. There are no specifics in the indictment as to whether Stewartsâ€™ actions led to acts of terrorism.
Stewart emphatically denied the charges and said, "Everything I did was done in the context of being [Sheikh Rahmanâ€™s] lawyer. Nothing I did was by way of being part of a criminal enterprise. Everybody in the US deserves a fair trial."
At the request of the US Justice Department, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons imposed the SAMs against Rahman. The restrictions included denying the prisoner access to mail, telephone and visitors and prohibiting him from speaking with the media. The government feared that Rahman would use his counsel to communicate to others instructions for carrying out violent acts. Stewart signed an attorney affirmation in 2000 and 2001 in which she promised to abide by the restrictions.
The indictment alleges that "over the past several years, Stewart has facilitated and communicated messages between her client and Islamic Group (IG) leaders around the world in violation of the SAMs." For instance, the indictment charges that Stewart allowed Yousry, who acted as the Arabic interpreter between Rahman and his attorneys, to "read letters from defendant Sattar and others regarding IG matters and to discuss with her client whether IG should continue to comply with a cease-fire that had been supported by factions within IG since 1998." Yousry then allegedly passed the message between Rahman and IG representatives regarding IG activities.
Stewart is also accused of talking gibberish to distract the prison guards so they couldnâ€™t hear the conversations between Rahman and Yousry. "We have the right to distract the guards if they are eavesdropping on a conversation between a prisoner and his lawyer," Stewart said. "There is such a thing in America as attorney client privilege." She added, "We really didnâ€™t know the government was taping our conversations."
Stewart and her numerous supporters believe that the outcome of her trial will have momentous consequences for civil liberties in the US "I havenâ€™t met a criminal lawyer today who doesnâ€™t admit that they have altered their practice in some way because of the War on Terrorism," she said. "How can defendants get adequate counsel if their lawyer fears that the government is listening in on their conversations. How can defendants get proper counsel if the government tries to make their counsel its lawyer? My trial is really not about Sheikh Rahman and terrorism. Itâ€™s about the future of America."