NEW YORK – Over three decades, radical civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart (search) has defended revolutionaries, terrorists and mobsters.
But in her most important case yet, the combative native New Yorker finds herself in a new and precarious role: defendant.
Prosecutors have accused Stewart of conspiring with two associates to let a blind Egyptian sheik communicate dangerous messages to his overseas followers. Opening statements in her trial could begin as early as Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan.
Stewart could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted. But she says she would never stop declaring her innocence.
"I have to hope that I'll be brave and carry the fight on from the prison if I have to," she said in a recent interview. "They want to make me into a traitor and I'll just fight forever. I'll fight forever." Stewart added she looks forward to testifying on her own behalf.
"I don't have any skeletons in my closet," she said.
Stewart, 64, defended Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (search) when he was convicted in federal court in Manhattan in 1995 of plotting to bomb the United Nations, FBI headquarters in New York and two tunnels and a bridge linking New Jersey to New York City.
While serving a life prison term, Abdel-Rahman allegedly used Stewart to funnel messages to followers, in violation of special administrative rules in place to prevent him from communicating with the outside world.
The case is the first major terrorism trial in Manhattan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks demolished the World Trade Center complex located a few blocks from the U.S. District Court where Stewart's trial will be held.
For the last two years, Stewart has crisscrossed the country, declaring her innocence and defending her actions on the sheik's behalf as her sworn duty as a lawyer. She will stand trial alongside Abdel-Rahman's Arabic translator, Mohammed Yousry, as well as Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a U.S. postal worker and translator.
Although Judge John G. Koeltl has told potential jurors the case has nothing to do with Sept. 11, he will allow prosecutors to introduce statements by Usama bin Laden threatening to kill Americans. Stewart said she worries that fears of terrorism will sidetrack jurors, particularly if prosecutors "wrap themselves up in the flag and say, 'Come with us and we'll save you."'
Stewart — born in Queens and raised in Brooklyn — graduated from Rutgers University School of Law. She became a political activist in 1962, shaken by injustices she saw working as a teacher in Harlem. As a lawyer, she has represented controversial clients, ranging from the Black Panthers (search) to Mafia figures to Abdel-Rahman.
At trial, she said she'll concede two points prosecutors allege: that she helped the sheik say publicly what he thought about a cease-fire in the Middle East, and that she distracted guards who tried to overhear conversations with the sheik.
She said lawyers commonly try to prevent busybody jail guards from listening to private conversations. She added that she felt a special obligation to let the blind sheik know when others were eavesdropping.
"I think what will come out at the trial is that what we were talking about was completely innocuous," Stewart said.
Prosecutors say in court papers that Abdel-Rahman, after his 1993 arrest, had urged followers in the Islamic Group, an international terrorist organization based in Egypt, to rescue him and, as for Americans, to "kill them wherever you find them."
On Nov. 17, 1997, six assassins killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians, including police officers, at an archaeological site in Luxor, Egypt. The terrorists left behind leaflets supporting the Islamic Group and calling for Abdel-Rahman's release.
Prosecutors say certain Islamic Group leaders and factions in 1997 called for a cease-fire in Egypt to gain the release of the group's leaders, members and jailed associates.
The indictment alleges that on June 14, 2000, Stewart released a statement to the press quoting Abdel-Rahman as saying he was withdrawing his support for the cease-fire. The government alleges such a statement could trigger violence.
Stewart says the sheik believed the cease-fire needed to be debated in public, hoping for demonstrations that would lead to a peaceful solution.
Possible character witnesses for Stewart include a man who lost his mother in the Sept. 11 attacks and relied upon Stewart before and afterward for legal representation.
Support from fellow lawyers has been mixed. Some enthusiastic young lawyers she doesn't know give her the thumbs up outside courthouses, while what she calls the "white shoe bar" largely keeps its distance.
At trial, Stewart is represented by Michael E. Tigar, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., known for his infamous clients, including Oklahoma City bombing coconspirator Terry Nichols (search) and John Demjanjuk (search), a retired autoworker accused of being the infamous Nazi concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible.
Stewart said she has tried to calm her six grown children by telling them that a lifetime of crusading against what she finds wrong in society has culminated in this trial.
"I spoke to each of them and said, 'Listen, I'm going to be 65 years old in October,"' Stewart said. "I said, 'You just have to understand at this point in my life, where would I rather be than fighting this kind of a fight against this government?"'