Volume 17 • Issue 25 | Nov. 12 - Nov. 19, 2004

Stewart talks as her defense rests

By Mary Reinholz

The lawyer for radical Downtown attorney Lynne Stewart rested her defense Nov. 10 after she completed 8 1/2 grueling days of testimony in her ongoing trial on charges of materially aiding terrorism.

She’s accused of passing messages from a convicted Islamic terrorist client, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, to members of his fundamentalist Islamic network in Egypt and breaking jail house rules to do so. The lawyer, Michaeål E. Tigar, elicited from the silver-haired Stewart, 65, the same statement she made after her indictment and arrest by federal agents in 2000: “emphatically not guilty.”

After she stepped down from the witness stand, Stewart embraced her husband Ralph Poynter, later joking to a reporter that she had maintained her calm and humor under cross examination “because of all the drugs I’m taking.”

Stewart also greeted former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who appeared as the first witness for one of her two co-defendants, Arabic translator Mohammed Yousry, testifying before anonymous jurors that he, like Stewart, had also issued press statements on behalf of Abdel Rahman despite prison regulations severely limiting the sheikh’s contacts with the outside world. Clark, who remains one of the sheikh’s lawyers, also testified that he strongly urged Stewart to act as the sheikh’s trial attorney in 1994 over the objections of Poynter.

During a break in the trial, Stewart said the government had named Clark, 76, as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” contending prosecutors “wanted to show that he was one of the gang.” In an earlier interview with this newspaper, she claimed bitterly that the government would “never” indict Clark because of his political pedigree as a former U.S. Attorney General in the Johnson administration and because his father, Thomas Campbell Clark, “had been on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Another of Stewart’s co-defendants is Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a now jailed former U.S. postal worker who acted as a paralegal for the sheikh and faces the most serious charges by the government, accused of persuading people to engage in terrorist operations worldwide. Their joint trial is expected to last past Thanksgiving in Room 110 of the U.S. Courthouse at 40 Foley Square, the same building where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found tried as atomic spies for the former Soviet Union.

Earlier in the day, Tigar sought to counter federal prosecutor Andrew Dember’s efforts to picture Stewart as an advocate of violence to achieve political goals not dissimilar to those of the blind and diabetic sheikh, a Muslim cleric who is now serving a life sentence in a prison hospital for inciting the first World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and for conspiracy in a foiled Islamic plot to bomb New York City landmarks.

Stewart had told Dember that she supported unspecified acts of violence to overthrow oppressive governments and institutions that foster sexism, racism and “entrenched ferocious capitalism.” But she disavowed the use of civilian targets and “wanton massacres” like the 1997 murders of more than 50 people visiting an architectural site in Luxor, Egypt for which members of the sheikh’s Islamic Group, a federally designated terrorist organization, claimed responsibility.

Had she ever “incited violence” in political causes over the years? Tigar asked her.

“No, I never have,” Stewart said. She explained that one of her first political goals was to “try and change the Board of Education” in New York back in the 1960s. “But they were entrenched and corrupt and remain that way to this day in my view.”

Tigar also asked Stewart if she felt she had ever “violated any promise” — referring to a press statement she issued on behalf of the sheikh in May of 2000 in which he called for members of the Islamic Group to consider ending a three-year old cease fire with Egyptian government.         

“No,” Stewart replied flatly. She claimed she was operating under “ethical considerations” and believed her representation of the sheikh’s legal issues could be interpreted broadly under attorney client privilege and her right to offer a zealous defense. Both Stewart and Clark testified that they hoped to facilitate the transfer of the ailing sheikh to a prison in his native Egypt.

In her remarks to a reporter, Stewart also referred to President Bush’s controversial Attorney General designate Alberto Gonzales, a White House counsel, as a “death penalty guy” and noted that outgoing Attorney General Attorney John Ashcroft, who had announced her indictment at ground zero and on David Letterman, was not her main enemy in the case.

That title goes, she said, to deputy U.S. Attorney General Patrick J. Fitzgerald, former chief of the organized crime/terrorism unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, Southern District, who stopped Stewart from visiting the sheikh after she issued her press statement for the sheikh to a Reuters reporter in Cairo. Fitzgerald has already appeared in her trial as a government witness.

Stewart testified that she had not rebutted claims by Fitzgerald that she had violated prisons rules “because his tone that day was accusatory at best.”

But why didn’t Stewart, a veteran criminal defense lawyer who has long jousted with government prosecutors, anticipate that her subsequent visits with the sheikh would make her the target of electronic surveillance that led to her first indictment?

“I was surprised” to learn of the surveillance, she replied during the break. Stewart said lawyers “don’t expect to be bugged in prison.” She said that Fitzgerald, who had suggested that she reapply for visits and work out a new attorney’s agreement of affirmation regarding prison rules known as Special Administrative Measures (or SAMS), used her case as “reference” before he left  New York after his promotion as U.S. Attorney in Chicago in 2001.

“He was moving right up,” she said. Fitzgerald was appointed by Ashcroft last year and nominated by President Bush to his current post in Washington, D.C.

Asked why she felt the government waited two years to press for an  indictment against her for conduct in 2000, Stewart said with a steely smile, “I’m in a protracted struggle.”  If convicted on all five counts, she faces the prospect of decades in federal prison.

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