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Lawyer's Terror Trial Opens

The defense attorney is accused of helping a Muslim cleric send messages from his prison cell inciting his followers to attack.

June 23, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Lynne F. Stewart, a prominent defense lawyer, helped an imprisoned Muslim cleric communicate with his followers to incite terrorism, a prosecutor charged Tuesday during opening arguments.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Christopher Morvillo told jurors, whose identities will be kept secret because of safety concerns, that Stewart used attorney-client visits "as a cloak" to further the scheme.

Stewart, 64, is charged with conspiring with two other defendants to help Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York landmarks, to send messages from his prison cell to his followers overseas. Abdel-Rahman is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, an international terrorist organization based in Egypt.

Stewart also is accused of providing and concealing material support to terrorist activity and with making false statements. If convicted on all charges, she could face up to 45 years in prison.

"This is a case about a jailbreak. It is a different type of jailbreak," Morvillo said, labeling the cleric's words and speeches "as dangerous as weapons."

Defense attorney Michael Tigar said his client "is a compassionate and brave lawyer" who embraced law enforcement.

"She enforces the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," Tigar said.

A jury in New York found Abdel-Rahman guilty of engaging in a seditious conspiracy to wage a war of urban terrorism against the United States, including a plot to bomb the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels linking Manhattan with New Jersey and the New York City headquarters of the FBI. In 1996, the cleric was sentenced to life in prison.

Stewart, a left-leaning lawyer known for defending radicals, was one of Abdel-Rahman's lawyers during his trial and continued to represent him after his conviction. In order to visit her client in prison, she was required to sign and obey special administrative measures imposed by the Justice Department to prevent Abdel-Rahman from directing terrorist activity.

As part of the agreement, Stewart and the translator who accompanied her were to discuss only legal matters.

But prosecutors charged that Stewart ignored the agreement.

They said Stewart and her co-defendants Ahmed Abdel Sattar, 44, a postal worker and long-time associate of Abdel-Rahman, and Mohammed Yousry, 48, an Arabic translator, conspired to violate the Justice Department's restrictions.

Sattar, who also served as Abdel-Rahman's paralegal, is charged with conspiring to murder and kidnap people in a foreign country. Yousry is accused of conspiracy and perjury. Stewart and Yousry are free on bail; Sattar is in custody.

Prosecutors said that during a visit by Stewart and Yousry to a maximum-security prison in Minnesota in May 2000, the translator told the cleric that a terrorist group in the Philippines had carried out kidnappings in hopes of pressuring the U.S. to free Abdel-Rahman.

"Good for them," Stewart allegedly responded.

The indictment also charged that during another prison visit in July 2001, Yousry told Abdel-Rahman that the U.S. destroyer Cole had been bombed on the cleric's behalf in Yemen the year before and Stewart concealed the conversation from prison guards by shaking a water jar and tapping on a table. The attack on Oct. 12, 2000, killed 17 sailors on the Cole.

During the trial, the government is expected to present extensive wiretap evidence. Tigar said Stewart would take the witness stand in her own defense.

The Stewart case is the first brought by the Bush administration accusing a defense lawyer of conspiring to support terrorist activity.

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