Another famous Stewart is also on trial

By Mary Reinholz

The indictments of two prominent women named Stewart — Martha and Lynne — couldn’t be more dissimilar, especially since the latter is a Downtown leftwing lawyer who doesn’t play with hustling studs on Wall St. like the blonde domestic diva.

“That other Stewart woman — how come she was able to walk demurely into the marshall’s office with her umbrella and a lawyer by her side?” inquired the silver-haired  Lynne Stewart, 63, during a telephone interview from her law office on lower Broadway.

This Stewart, a former school librarian who has been derided in the media for her unfashionable attire, noted that when she was arrested last year on charges of aiding terrorism, F.B.I. agents “cuffed me up, put me in the back of an F.B.I. car and locked me up when the real criminals are people whose crimes are for making millions of dollars with other people’s millions.”

Free on a $500,000 bond, Stewart, who has defended clients ranging from poor blacks and Latinos to mob figures like Sammy “the bull” Gravano, cop shooter Larry Davis and Weather underground militants, is still fighting her five count federal indictment from April 9,2002 and said she should know next month whether it will go to trial. She is accused of providing material support to an “international terrorist organization” known as the Islamic Group by passing on messages to members from her notorious Egyptian client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and breaking jailhouse rules to do so during her visits with him in a Minnesota prison facility.

The blind sheik, who is a Muslim cleric, is currently serving a life sentence plus 65 years for plotting to blow up the World Trade Center and various New York landmarks in 1993. He is severely restricted from contact with the outside world. According to the indictment, Stewart distracted a prison guard in May 2000 by making “extraneous” conversation in English so that an Arabic translator, Mohammed Yousry, who is one of her three co-defendants, could read the sheik letters from I.G. members on whether the group should withdraw its cease fire with the Egyptian government. The indictment states that Abdel Rahman was a spiritual leader for the I.G., but Stewart claims he was merely a “fellow member.”

On May 14, 2000, Stewart  called a Reuters news reporter in Cairo and issued a press statement noting that the sheik believed the I.G. should consider discontinuing the cease fire, an action she now believes is the government’s central allegation against her. So why did she do it?

“I know from representing people who are locked up that it’s important for them to be on the playing field and express their opinions so they don’t feel they’re buried in jail,” she replied. “Also, from a legal point of view, a lawyer wants to keep a person’s case alive. For those reasons, it seemed it was my job as a lawyer to make this press release. I felt the First Amendment trumped those Bureau of Prisons’ regulations.”

Stewart denied claims by a prosecutor that her press statement was a call to terrorist acts, claiming that the sheik had also said in the statement he dictated to Yousry that they should also consider continuing “peaceful means” in their negotiations with the Egyptian government. His statements were printed in Egyptian newspapers, she said, and they stirred debate “within factions of the Islamic Group on whether the cease fire should be honored. Cooler heads prevailed.”

What about the 1997 murders of 58 tourists and four Egyptians at an architectural site in Luxor, Egypt, which the I.G. claimed responsibility, according to court papers? “They’ve been non-violent since 1997,” claimed Stewart.

She said that a federal prosecutor chided her for talking to the media about the sheik’s views and violating the jail regulations of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which are called special administrative measures or SAMS, but to her surprise she was allowed to continue seeing Abdel Rahman —unaware that their visits were now being electronically monitored by the Justice Department. If convicted on all counts in her indictment, she faces 40 years behind bars.

On June 13, Stewart’s Washington, D.C. lawyer Michael E. Tigar, who helped Terry Nichols escape the death penalty in the Oklahoma City bombing case, called for dismissal of the charges during a motions hearing before federal Judge John G. Koeltl in the U.S. District courthouse on Pearl St. Tigar argued that the statutes and regulations underlying her indictment were vague and an attack on free speech and lawyer client privilege. He also challenged the U.S. Secretary of State’s designation of the Islamic Group as a terrorist organization, claiming the State Department had condemned the Egyptian government for “systematic” human rights abuses.

Prosecutor Christopher Morvillo, an assistant U.S. Attorney, contended that “conduct” and not speech was the crucial issue. He said that when Stewart issued her press statement on behalf of the shiek, “she essentially called for a renewal of terrorist activities.” He also charged that Stewart and her co-defendants were part of a “pipeline” of conspirators and facilitators of the Islamic Group, which the government regards as a worldwide “Jihad” organization that has forged alliances with terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda against the United States and other nations it perceives as “infidels.”

Judge Koeltl did not offer an opinion, but set aside the dates of June 27 for the defense and July 3 for the government to present additional details in the case before he decides whether it should proceed to trial.

During the three-hour motions hearing, he sharply questioned Morvillo on his claims that Stewart acted as if she were a member of a foreign terrorist group instead of an “independent counsel.”

“How do you distinguish membership from being an employee?” asked the judge.
“You know it when you see it, your honor,” answered Morvillo, who at times seemed stumped by the judge’s questions and asked to confer with colleagues.

Lynne Stewart’s camp seemed heartened by the exchange, claiming after the hearing that the government appeared unprepared. Marvin Smilon, a spokesperson for U.S. Attorney James Comey, said earlier that the government would decline comment on any case that is “pending.”

If the case goes to trial, Tigar has made it known that he will attempt to separate Stewart from the three other defendants: Mohammed Yousry, the Arabic translator; Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a U.S. postal worker and paralegal; and Yassar al-Sirri in the U.K., whom the U.S. government has been seeking to extradite.

Tigar has said in both legal papers and public statements that he regards the prosecution of Lynne Stewart as politically motivated, noting that Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment in New York “in a blaze of publicity” and showed up at ground zero wearing a hard hat. Ashcroft also discussed the case on the David Letterman late night show.

Stewart  believes “the tenor of times”  led to her indictment, claiming that after 9/ll, “John Ashcroft had the Patriot Act on the books and he had power and money but he didn’t have much to show for it. So I think this was a way for him to gas up the car a little.”


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