Accused of Aiding Terror Plot, Lawyer Braces for Fight of Her Life
Attorney for Militant Sheik Plans Lengthy Testimony in Own Defense
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page A03
NEW YORK -- She's the New York Mets fan with a belief in armed struggle, the pink-faced grandmother who stands accused of helping a jailed terrorist sheik order followers to kill and kidnap in his name.
Lynne Stewart, a proudly radical lawyer, could face 40 years in federal prison if she's convicted. But she's in no mood to curl up in a fetal position.
"How could I be happier? I feel like I've waited my whole life for this fight," she told a crowd of supporters at a pretrial fundraiser in a Manhattan Quaker church a few weeks back.
"I say this to John Ashcroft: Bring it on!"
The very public trial of the 64-year-old Stewart -- she plans to testify at length and write a Web log throughout -- commences this week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and likely will stretch until autumn. A left-leaning pillar of this city's boisterous defense bar, Stewart has worked these courtrooms for two decades, representing leftists and mobsters, antiwar demonstrators and dope smugglers. She's been ranked among the city's 10 best trial lawyers.
"I love helping a jury cut through the crap," she said in an interview in her Manhattan law office a few blocks northeast of Ground Zero. "But I can't be sanguine about having the T-word hung around my neck."
The federal indictment accuses Stewart and two men -- an Arabic translator and a former U.S. postal worker -- of aiding a plot to kidnap and perhaps kill people to obtain the release of the imprisoned blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up the United Nations, two Hudson River tunnels and Manhattan's FBI building.
The indictment alleges that while visiting her client in prison, Stewart spoke gibberish in English as a cover while the sheik gave instructions in Arabic to a follower posing as a translator. She then allegedly violated federal regulations by publicly announcing in 2000 that Rahman had withdrawn his support for a cease-fire with the Egyptian government.
Rahman is held in a maximum-security prison in Colorado and is prohibited from contacting his followers.
The federal government's indictment of Stewart in April 2002 marked the first time that it had brought charges of conspiring to provide material support for terrorist activity against a defense attorney in a terrorism case.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft framed the prosecution as another battle in the nation's war on terror. "We will not look the other way when our institutions of justice are subverted," Ashcroft said at the time.
In August 2003, however, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl cut the heart out of the government's case. "The government's evolving definition" of material support, Koeltl wrote, "reveals a lack of prosecutorial standards" and would allow "policemen, prosecutors and juries to pursue their personal predilections."
In November 2003, federal prosecutors returned to court, bringing new charges based on the same actions by Stewart. This time, prosecutors -- who had secretly taped her talks with her client -- accused Stewart of conspiring to provide "personnel" to the Islamic Group. The sheik, in this formulation, was the "personnel."
The government argued that Stewart was effectively aiding terrorist violence to obtain her client's release. Koeltl allowed the new indictment to stand, but cautioned prosecutors that they would face a far higher standard of proof. Now they had to prove that Stewart knew her actions would aid a terrorist conspiracy.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company