A federal prosecutor laced into prominent defense lawyer Lynne Stewart and two co-defendants as their trial opened Tuesday, arguing that they had supported a terrorist conspiracy aimed at kidnapping and killing innocent people.
Stewart and the other defendants are accused of helping Omar Abdel Rahman, the imprisoned blind cleric convicted of terrorism charges in 1995, to send orders to followers in Egypt. In one such message in 2000, Rahman withdrew his support for a cease-fire with the Egyptian government.
"His words and speeches were as dangerous as weapons," prosecutor Christopher Morvillo told a Manhattan jury at the opening of a trial that is expected to stretch into the autumn. "The defendants pulled off a jail break" by going into the prison and disseminating Rahman's words.
Stewart is the first defense lawyer in a terrorism case to face federal charges of conspiring to support terrorism. Specifically, she is accused of conspiring to provide "personnel" to the Islamic Group in Egypt. Rahman himself -- via his statements -- was the person she provided, according to the government's indictment.
In his opening statement, Stewart's attorney, Michael Tigar, quickly tried to poke holes in the government's case. A large man with a courtly trial manner, he told the jury that Stewart did nothing more than defend the sheik with all the energy she could muster.
Tigar noted that the Rahman allegedly smuggled out some of his most objectionable messages -- including a fatwa ordering the killing of Jews everywhere -- during a period when Stewart was prohibited from talking to her client.
"So the fact that someone issued a horrible, terrible statement, well, Lynne Stewart had nothing to do with it," Tigar said. "She was a courageous and honorable lawyer, and as provided for by our Constitution, she defended an accused terrorist."
Tigar acknowledged that Stewart released the cease-fire statement, a move that the government contends violated special measures prohibiting Rahman from contacting his followers. But he and Stewart, who spoke to reporters later, contended there is no basis to accuse her of supporting terrorism.
Tigar added that Stewart is a lifelong New Yorker, possessed of leftist politics, whose grandchildren were in the courtroom. She therefore was unlikely to embrace fundamentalist terrorism, he said.
Rahman, convicted of conspiring to blow up two Hudson River tunnels, the New York FBI building and the United Nations, is serving a life sentence.
Tigar also took aim at one of the government's more damaging accusations: that during a prison meeting with Rahman, Stewart had applauded a Filipino terrorist organization for kidnapping people with an eye toward demanding Rahman's release.
On a government tape recording, Stewart allegedly said that the kidnapping was "a good thing." But according to Tigar, Stewart in fact said that it was a good thing the kidnapping was reported, and moments later she can be heard saying of those kidnapped: "That's so sad, that's so sad."
Mohammed Yousry, a translator, and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a friend of Rahman's, also face charges of terrorist conspiracy. Yousry's attorney offered a wide-ranging rebuttal of the government's case yesterday, noting that his client translated no message or newspaper article for the sheik without the expressed direction of the defense lawyers.
As proof of his client's dislike for Rahman's fundamentalist politics, attorney David Ruhnke quoted a section of Yousry's doctoral thesis, which analyzes Rahman's opposition to the Egyptian government. The cleric, Yousry wrote, wants to "exchange one form of totalitarianism for another."