Volume 17 • Issue 18 | SEPTEMBER 24 - 30, 2004

A worried Lynne Stewart plans to testify

By Mary Reinholz

Embattled Downtown lawyer Lynne Stewart, the first American attorney to face charges for materially aiding international terrorism, wore a black velvet jacket and smiled serenely from a front row pew in an Uptown church on Sunday.

She was listening to several like-minded folk singers strumming guitars and passionately advocating causes for social justice during a benefit thrown by the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee and the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The benefit came as the government prepares to rest its case against her in her trial with two co-defendants in the U.S. District Courthouse at 40 Foley Square. The defense is expected to begin Oct. 4.  

Stewart’s apparent cool belied some heavy hits she took in recent weeks when federal prosecutors played a 2000 videotape of Osama bin Laden calling on followers to kill in order to free Stewart’s client, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The sheikh was convicted of inspiring the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and participating in other plots.

Prosecutors also showed tapes of Stewart appearing to distract a prison guard by speaking in English while Abdel Rahman spoke to another visitor in Arabic; and they brought in a reluctant reporter from Cairo to testify against her for issuing a 2000 statement on behalf of her client, whose words and speeches lead prosecutor Christopher Morvillo has said are “as dangerous as weapons.” 

The blind, diabetic sheikh is in a federal prison hospital for conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks with members of the Islamic Group, which had claimed responsibility for the 1997 murders of 59 tourists in Luxor, Egypt.

Shortly before the benefit began at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrews on W. 86th St., Stewart, 64, said it was hard knowing how the anonymous jurors were reacting to the bin Laden tape “because you can’t look into the minds of jurors. But we all know that people have tremendous feelings about bin Laden and terrorism. We just believe I can overcome it when I get up there to testify.”

The silver-haired Stewart faces a 45-year sentence if convicted of aiding a terrorist conspiracy and she admitted to being worried. “Anybody but a fool would be,” she said. “I too wake up at three in the morning and think: ‘oh my goodness. What’s going to happen here?’ ”  But she said she has “tremendous” support from family and lawyers like lead defense attorney Michael Tigar and especially from her husband Ralph Poynter “who is the greatest cheerleader of all.”

While the government has not linked Stewart to bin Laden, she said the tape showed a man who knew bin Laden “in conversation” with one of her two co-defendants, paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who also worked on the sheikh’s defense. “And if there is any link, this judge lets it in,” she said of federal Judge John Koeltl. He had dismissed as constitutionally vague two of the most serious charges against Stewart in her 2002 indictment but let stand all five counts in a subsequent indictment fashioned last year from different anti-terrorism statutes by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, Southern District.                  

The centerpiece of the government’s case came live on Sept. 13 from a visibly nervous Esmat Salaheddin, a Reuters News Service reporter, who testified he had tape recorded from his home in Egypt Stewart’s statement in New York from Abdel Rahman calling on the Islamic Group to reconsider ending its cease fire with the Egyptian government, an act which Morvillo has said was comparable to a “call to arms.” Salaheddin’s story ran over the wire on June 14, 2000 and was published in Arabic language newspapers, provoking intense debate in political circles over such issues as the diminished militancy of the I.G. — which by then had been non-violent for three years — and the legitimacy of the sheikh as the group’s “spiritual leader.”

In issuing the sheikh’s statement to Salaheddin, Stewart broke a sworn agreement she had made with the U.S. Justice Department to restrict his contacts with the outside world and particularly the I.G., which the government believes had hatched a plot to kidnap and kill innocent people to win the release of Abdel Rahman.

Stewart seemed less concerned about Salaheddin’s role in the prosecution’s case because she said her press statement to him “was never hidden. It was never done secretly. I guess they had to prove that little piece” of their evidence. Salaheddin appeared in court after Reuters unsuccessfully attempted to quash a subpoena by prosecutors compelling him to testify as means of verifying the accuracy of Stewart’s quotes.

“Lynne Stewart is the first person in history of America whose crime essentially was to communicate information to the news media,” said Ron Kuby, a prominent criminal defense lawyer and radio talk show host who with his late partner, William Kunstler, represented Abdel Rahman after the first World Trade Center attack.  Kuby said that there was a “world of difference” between saying that “ ‘the sheikh believes the cease fire is over’ and the sheikh saying, ‘it’s time to blow things up.’ Conveying your client’s view about the most important issues of the day falls within an attorney’s duty of zealous advocacy.”

Kuby, in a telephone interview, said the major issues in Stewart’s case remain the same: “Did she intend to aid terrorist acts or did she intend to advocate vigorously for her client? Her history, her prior statements, the causes to which she has dedicated her entire life, show it’s the latter— not the former. Ultimately Lynne Stewart is going to look that jury in the eye and explain the meaning of her actions.”

Stewart has often said that “nothing violent” ever occurred as a result of her press statement and she has noted one of her goals was to provide the blind sheikh a forum so he wouldn’t feel “buried alive” in prison. She has also acknowledged that it may have been a “mistake” to break jailhouse rules she regards as unconstitutional, but doesn’t consider the offense as criminal.

Poynter, Stewart’s husband, speaking to a reporter while hugging one of the couple’s ten grandchildren, claimed: “This prosecution doesn’t have a damn thing to do with terrorism; it has to do with politics and putting Lynne Stewart away.” But Poynter claimed he was “not too worried” about his wife winning an acquittal because he said, “We have a sophisticated jury. They’re New Yorkers and can see through” the prosecution’s case.

The court as well as Stewart’s office is a short walk from the W.T.C. site and Poynter said the defense team originally believed that if Osama bin Laden was brought into the case that it would be “too great a smear for New Yorkers to overcome. When they were picking the jury, the judge said Osama bin Laden has nothing to do with the case. Some of the people had said that if Osama bin Laden was involved, ‘I don’t know if I can be fair.’ Lynne doesn’t know Osama. Lynne doesn’t know anybody associated with Osama.” Poynter added, “I saw some of the jury laughing” when the bin Laden tape was played, “so let’s hope.”

Others who attended the benefit to support Stewart were more guarded in their assessments of her chances. “You think people will do the right thing and see through things. I thought they would see through [President Bush] but they didn’t” and he was elected, said Dave McLaughlin, a customs broker at J.F.K. Airport who worked in 5 World Trade Center on 9/11 and fled from the 8th floor immediately after the first tower was struck by a hijacked jet. He said he didn’t want to have “misguided optimism.”

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