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Translator's Conviction Raises Legal Concerns

Radical lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted of aiding terrorist activity.
Radical lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted of aiding terrorist activity. (By John-marshall Mantel -- Associated Press)

But Stewart did not realize that a year earlier Justice Department lawyers -- under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- obtained permission to secretly videotape visits to Rahman in his maximum-security prison in Rochester, Minn. They also obtained wiretaps on Yousry and Sattar.

At the core of the government's case were two prison meetings with Rahman in May 2000. On May 19, Yousry read a note to Rahman from his radical followers, asking whether to maintain a cease-fire with the Egyptian government. Rahman dictated a response the next day. Contrary to prosecution claims, government tapes show the cleric did not favor ending the cease-fire.

"The militants," Rahman wrote to his attorney in Egypt, "should not cancel it altogether."

Stewart chattered to distract the guards and joked with Yousry that they could get in trouble. Prosecutors argued this was proof of a "red-handed" conspiracy. Yousry denied involvement, saying Stewart reveled in thumbing her nose at prosecutors.

On June 14, 2000, Stewart -- without Yousry's knowledge -- read a statement about the cease-fire to a Reuters correspondent. Misinterpreting Rahman's intent, she said he had withdrawn his support for it.

If this was a conspiracy, it was a remarkably uncoordinated affair. Four months later, Sattar, the postal clerk, released a fatwa, or religious edict, in Rahman's name urging followers to "kill Jews everywhere." Yousry, government tapes show, learned of the fatwa days later while reading the newspaper to Rahman. He immediately said he had to inform the lawyers.

"Mr. Yousry," Rahman snapped in a rare use of English, "this is none of your business!"

Later government tapes reveal Yousry upbraiding Sattar when he learned the postal clerk spoke to suspected terrorists after militants bombed the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Yousry became worried. "I asked Ramsey what I should do," he recalled. "He told me: 'Listen to the lawyer and you'll be safe.' "

Indictment

A plume of black smoke rose from Ground Zero as four FBI agents knocked on the door of Yousry's home in Queens two days after Sept. 11, 2001. Yousry said little. Two more days passed, and he thought better of his reticence. He called the agents back and talked about Sattar and the USS Cole and Rahman. He met four more times with FBI agents over six months.

In the spring of 2002, a federal prosecutor suggested Yousry testify if the government indicted Stewart and Clark. This was confirmed by a federal law enforcement source. "They wanted me to entrap Lynne and Ramsey," Yousry said. "I said no."

On April 9, 2002, FBI agents and helmeted police officers with high-powered rifles came to arrest Yousry while his friends and neighbors peered behind cruisers and kitchen curtains. Stewart had been arrested that morning.

The FBI ultimately recorded thousands of hours of Yousry's telephone conversations and electronic activity over three years, but prosecutors introduced none of those tapes into evidence. Yousry never spoke to Rahman without the lawyers' permission, even when left alone with him. Nor, transcripts show, did the prosecutors offer evidence to back up assertions that Yousry talked to militants in the Middle East.

Prosecutors argued that Yousry metaphorically closed his eyes to the bad characters around him. They noted that he padded his résumé and suggested that he addressed Rahman as "spiritual master" to show allegiance; in fact, it's a common Arabic honorific. Prosecutors speculated that Yousry betrayed the nation in hopes of gaining a Harvard teaching position.

The jury began deliberations in early 2005 and conversation was not friendly to the defendants. "A woman was in tears she was so scared of terrorism," Juror 39 said. "Another kept asking why it took Yousry so long to finish his dissertation, that it was suspicious."

On Feb. 10, 2005, the jury foreman pronounced the defendants guilty on all counts. Yousry went ashen; his daughter, Leslie, dissolved in tears.

Afterward

Judge Koeltl recently rejected Yousry's legal appeal based on the account of Juror 39. The judge noted that juries are given great leeway. David Stern, Yousry's lawyer, cannot quite accept that. "I'm in the habit of defending bad people, and they've mostly done what they're accused of," he said. "This guy is flat-out innocent, and it's disgraceful he's going to prison."

Michael Gasper, who studied with Yousry and teaches at Yale, often visits the translator. The friends drink wine and laugh, and when Gasper leaves, Yousry presses another favorite history book into his guest's hands. The translator will have no use for them in prison. "The way he has taken it makes me cry, he's so gracious," Gasper said. "I try not to talk about it, but he keeps giving me those . . . books."

Yousry talks of hope. "I awake every morning and think: I will be vindicated," he said. "It just hasn't happened yet." But he passes the days until sentencing in his book-lined study. He figures it is the size of a prison cell and he wants to get used to it.


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