NEW YORK – A defense attorney with a reputation as a zealous advocate has become a defendant herself, accused of crossing the line by conspiring to help an imprisoned client relay messages to his radical Islamic followers.
U.S. Attorney James B. Comey accused attorney Lynne Stewart and three men of aiding terrorism by assisting blind cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, a leader of a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda.
Abdel-Rahman, 63, is serving a life term in federal prison for his role in a 1993 conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks. He was considered the spiritual leader of the men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Stewart pleaded ``emphatically not guilty'' Tuesday in a courtroom packed with fellow defense attorneys who labeled the case a political prosecution designed to discourage the vigorous defense of terrorist defendants.
``I'm going to continue to be a lawyer, hopefully, until they carry me out,'' Stewart said after being released on $500,000 bond. ``I'm sincerely hoping it won't be the U.S. government doing the carrying.''
The indictment accuses Stewart of carrying messages from the sheik from 1999 through mid-2001 when he was in prison in Rochester, Minn., despite rules prohibiting him from communicating with his followers.
Attorney General John Ashcroft singled out Stewart, saying she ``repeatedly and willfully'' violated a court-order prohibiting the sheik from communicating with his followers.
Stewart, 62, has a reputation for defending unpopular clients, from Weather Underground radicals to cop killers and recently, mob killer and turncoat Salvatore ``Sammy the Bull'' Gravano.
Stewart said she hoped the indictment becomes a ``touchstone case ... something that points out the limits the government can go through in prosecuting people they don't like.''
Named as co-conspirators were Ahmed Abdel Sattar, 42, a U.S. Postal Service employee described as a ``surrogate'' for Abdel-Rahman; Yassir Al-Sirri, former head of the London-based Islamic Observation Center; and Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic translator.
Sattar and Yousry pleaded innocent. Al-Sirri was arrested in Britain last fall and was charged with conspiring in the assassination of a Northern Alliance commander in Afghanistan. Federal prosecutors said they will seek his extradition to the United States.
All four defendants were charged with conspiring to provide material support and resources to the terrorist organization called the Islamic Group. Each count carries a prison term of five to 20 years.
The indictment accused Sattar and Al-Sirri of relaying an October 2000 edict from Abdel-Rahman urging Muslims everywhere ``to fight the Jews and to kill them wherever they are.''
It also alleged Stewart concealed a prison conversation between Yousry and Abdel-Rahman from prison guards, in part by making extraneous comments in English to mask the Arabic conversation between the two men.
Ashcroft said the government will now monitor conversations between the sheik and his lawyers — the first use of an anti-terrorism tactic permitted under the Patriot Act, a law passed after Sept. 11.
Defense attorney Michael Warren — one of dozens of attorneys who attended Stewart's arraignment in a show of support — called her arrest ``the beginning of an attempt to create a dangerous precedent flowing out of the Patriot Act.''
Another Stewart supporter, Bill Goodman, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said attorney-client privilege was threatened by the indictment.
``There's clearly an attempt to infringe upon communications between attorneys and clients,'' he said. ``It's a full-scale attack on the Bill of Rights.''
Lawyer Ron Kuby, who represented the sheik before Stewart took over, called the charges ``an attempt to intimidate the attorneys who are willing to stand up and challenge what John Ashcroft is doing to the Constitution.''