NEW YORK, Feb. 10 -- Radical lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted Thursday of smuggling messages from her jailed client -- a blind Muslim cleric convicted of terrorism -- to his Islamic fundamentalist followers in Egypt, actions that a jury found amounted to material support for terrorism.
The jury deliberated for 13 days in Manhattan federal court before delivering guilty verdicts against Stewart and two men. U.S. postal worker Ahmed Abdel Sattar was convicted of conspiracy for "plotting to kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country" by publishing a paper urging the killing of Jews. The third defendant, Arabic interpreter Mohammed Yousry, was found guilty of providing material support to terrorism.
Lynne Stewart, with husband Ralph Pointer, represented Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is jailed.
(David Karp - AP)
The verdict -- which could carry a sentence of at least 26 years -- staggered the activist lawyer. As the jury foreman spoke, Stewart, 65, turned pale, slumped back into her chair and began to cry. But half an hour later she was again the leftist lawyer who has stood at the center of so many high-profile cases in the same courthouse, offering no apologies.
"I would do it again -- it's the way a lawyer is supposed to behave," Stewart told a scrum of reporters, television cameramen and dozens of chanting supporters. "When you put Osama bin Laden in a courtroom and ask the jury to ignore it, you're asking a lot," she said, noting that prosecutors had played a tape of the terrorist leader vowing to "spill blood" unless Stewart's jailed client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was released.
"I know I committed no crime," she said.
Stewart's case became a litmus test for how far a defense attorney could go in aggressively representing a terrorist client without crossing the line into criminal behavior. Many defense and civil liberties lawyers spoke of drawing a chilling lesson from her conviction, saying the government had criminalized behavior that would have drawn merely administrative punishment in the past.
But prosecutors said Stewart did not simply push the envelope -- she consciously broke the law by informing Islamic guerrillas in Egypt five years ago that Rahman no longer favored a cease-fire with the Egyptian government.
The Bush administration hailed the verdict as a victory in the fight against terrorism. "The convictions handed down by a federal jury in New York today send a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement.
Rahman is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up the United Nations, two Hudson River tunnels and the FBI building in Manhattan. He also wanted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Stewart and her co-defendants were accused of scheming to obtain Rahman's release. She was found guilty of trying to cover up secret conversations between Rahman and his followers and violating federal regulations by publicly announcing in 2000 that the cleric had withdrawn his support for a cease-fire between the Egyptian government and the Islamic Group -- a fundamentalist organization that carried out terrorist attacks on tourists and police officers.
Essentially, Stewart was accused of conspiring to provide personnel to the terrorists by making Rahman and his words available. Rahman, imprisoned in a maximum-security facility in Colorado, is prohibited from contacting his followers.
Rahman -- or Sattar acting in his name -- later issued a fatwa urging his followers to kill Jews everywhere. But Stewart's attorney pointed out that no one was killed or kidnapped as a result of Stewart's actions in this case.
It was the first time that the federal government has prosecuted a defense attorney in a terrorism case. Many defense and civil liberties lawyers spoke of damage being done Thursday.
"This will have a chilling effect on lawyers who might represent an unpopular client," said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism." "The prosecution showed videotapes of Osama bin Laden, of terrorist attacks . . . it was all very inflammatory."