It is a case of a librarian-turned-defense attorney, a New York University graduate student and a Staten Island postal worker who the government claims led a secret life as an Islamic jihadist. It involves a blind spiritual leader jailed in the United States and a fight in Egypt between the government and Islamicist groups who want Egypt to become an Islamic state. Osama Bin Laden even makes a guest appearance in the narrative. The latest chapter of the story is playing out now just six blocks from Ground Zero, in courtroom 110 of the old federal courthouse. Welcome to the case of the United States of America v. Ahmed Abdel Sattar, Lynne Stewart and Mohammed Yousry.
The three defendants face a total of seven counts in criminal conspiracy to illegally help jailed spiritual leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman communicate to his followers in the Egyptian based Islamic Group.
On the morning of June 22 Judge John G. Koeltl opened the proceedings to one of the most-watched terrorism cases since September 11. The courtroom, where Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg were sentenced to die 53 years ago, was packed.
Federal prosecutors began by showing jurors a photograph of a man who was not on trial but already behind bars: Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman aka the blind sheik. Over the next hour the “T” word (some variation of terrorist/terrorism) was uttered 73 times. Osama bin Laden was mentioned, too. Jurors will soon be shown a video of bin Laden in which he announced his intent of breaking the blind sheik out of jail.
The government won’t allege any direct connections between bin Laden and attorney Lynne Stewart and her co-defendants, translator and NYU student Mohammed Yousry and postal worker Ahmed Abdel Sattar. But they are essentially accusing the three of committing the very crime bin Laden hoped to accomplish: freeing the blind Sheik.
In the words of prosecutor Christopher Morvillo: “This is a case about a jail break. Not your typical jail break where a prisoner is freed to once again walk the streets. It is a different type of jail break but one that the evidence will show was equally as dangerous.”
The government claims that Stewart abused her authority as the sheik’s attorney and violated orders from the Bureau of Prisons, known as special administrative measures (or SAMs), by helping to illegally pass messages to and from her client who was being held in virtual isolation in a federal prison.
The government charges that in June 2000 Stewart knowingly broke her commitment and issued a press release announcing that the sheikh no longer supported a ceasefire in Egypt between the Islamic Group and government of Hosni
While the government has never alleged that any act of violence occurred because of the press release, prosecutor Morvillo told jurors on Tuesday the blind sheik’s “words and speeches were as dangerous as weapons.”
Stewart has never denied issuing the press release but she and her attorney, the famed Michael Tigar, argue her actions did not encourage violence and were not illegal. In fact, Tigar argued that Stewart’s acted in the interest of her client and to help protect the safety of the country.
During opening arguments, Tigar revealed that Stewart and her co-attorney, the former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, had begun quietly negotiating with the U.S. and Egyptian governments in 1998 to find a way to transfer the blind sheik to an Egyptian jail.
Tigar told jurors, “Ramsey Clark and Lynne Stewart knew that the sheik’s continued presence in the United States in an American prison would draw unwanted attention to the United States. His presence would be a lightning rod for radical Islamists and they thought it would be better and safer that the United States in its own interest get him to a prison in another country. The added fact that he was in poor health and was going to die in somebody’s custody made that more urgent.”
Clark discussed the idea of a prison transfer with the sheik in 1998 and the sheik agreed it should be pursued. From 1998 and 2001, Tigar argues, that Stewart acted in her client’s interest in an attempt to make the prison transfer happen.
“This was not a pipe dream. But the lawyers knew that if their client was involved in a conspiracy to commit lawless violence that would be the end,” Tigar said. Tigar went on to say it would have been not in Stewart’s interest or her clients interest to issue messages endorsing terrorism, as the government alleges.
Tigar told the jury, “Lynne Stewart did not send out, distribute or communicate any messages that called on arms or that called on people to take violent acts. She didn’t lie. She did her lawful job as a lawyer. And, yes, as the evidence will show, members of the jury, Lynne Stewart was trying to make America a safer and more just place.”
In addition to questions about Stewart’s intent in issuing messages from the blind sheik, the jury will be asked to consider several key legal questions. One is the legality of the government imposing restrictions on what lawyers can and can not publicly discuss. The Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department were given the power to impose special administrative measures in 1996 following the Oklahoma City bombing but they have seldom been challenged in such a high-profile case.
Another key issue is attorney-client privilege. Much of the government’s case is based on video and audio recordings of meetings between Stewart and her client. The government had obtained a court order to listen and record private conversations in the federal jail, breaking a longheld tradition of attorney-client privacy. The government claims the recordings show that Stewart attempted to deceive the guards by pretending to discuss legal issues with the sheik, while the sheik passed messages in Arabic on to Yousry, the court-appointed translator.
Did Stewart try to prevent guards listening to conversations? Yes, according to her attorney. But Tigar says it was for a far less sinister purpose – preserving her client’s confidentiality.