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2004-06-24

Gov’t Accuses Lawyer Lynne Stewart Of Role in International Terrorist Conspiracy

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The Justice Department accuses the New York attorney and her two co-defendants of an unusual 'jail break' involving Stewart’s client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. The government doesn’t accuse them of trying to free the sheik but of freeing his message out of jail by helping him to communicate with his followers in Egypt.[includes transcript]

"Demon Beasts Behead Again"

That was the banner headline stretching across two pages of the New York Post yesterday.

Underneath there were three photos:

  • suspected Al Qaeda leader Abu Zarqawi
  • masked Iraqi gunmen preparing to behead Kim Sun-Il of South Korea
  • and New York civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart. Next to Stewart’s photo read another headline: "Evil Sheik’s jihad lawyer poses threat worldwide, feds charge"

Besides these pages of the New York Post, Lynne Stewart has never been connected to the Iraqi resistance but she is at the center of one of the country’s most-watched trials connected to the so-called war on terror.

On Tuesday, the government’s trial against Stewart began in the same New York federal courthouse where the Rosenbergs were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage more than a half century ago.

The government is accusing Stewart of being part of an international conspiracy to provide support to terrorists, to conspiring to defraud the United States and making false statements.

Stewart is being tried with two co-defendants, the Arabic translator Mohammed Yousry and a Staten Island resident Ahmed Abdel Sattar. But so far the focus of the trial has been less on any of the defendants but a man already in jail, the Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the blind sheikh who is serving a life sentence on terror-related charges.

While he is still in jail, the government is accusing the sheikh’s attorney Stewart and her two co-defendants of essentially carrying out a jail break–not by freeing the sheikh, but by freeing his messages out of his jail cell.

Federal prosecutor Christopher Morvillo told jurors on Tuesday "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 the three conspired to sneak messages into the sheikh and then to sneak his words out. Most notably the government claims the three conspired to release a press release announcing that the sheik no longer supported a cease fire in 2000 between the militant Islamic Group and the Egyptian government.

Morvillo told jurors on Tuesday, "His words and speeches were as dangerous as weapons."

The government’s case appears to be largely built on audio and video tapes secretly recorded of meetings between Stewart and her client as well as the home phone of Ahmed Abdel Sattar.

The government is also charging Stewart with making false statements because she reneged on her agreement to abide to what is known as SAMS–special administrative measures–that were put in place by the government to keep the blind sheikh in isolation. Under the terms of the SAMS, Stewart was prohibited from passing on messages of the blind sheik.

Stewart is being defended by the acclaimed attorney Michael Tigar who is best known for representing Terry Nichols during the Oklahoma City bombing case.

Tigar told jurors on Tuesday, "Lynne Stewart did not, would not, issue anything that the she thought was a terrorist message or a call to arms. Lynne Stewart is a compassionate, skilled and brave lawyer."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lynn Stewart joins us in the studio now on the way to the courthouse. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LYNN STEWART: Thanks, Amy. Glad to be here as always.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s quite something to see these pictures arrayed in the "New York Post," from the masked men behind the young South Korean man who was beheaded, and then the picture of you.

LYNN STEWART: It really is so over the top that even those persons who would otherwise be moderate, I mean, people like the courtroom sketchers and people who are basically there out of curiosity said, did you see the "Post?" Isn’t that awful. But it’s part of the media press also to characterize this case in the way that the government wants to characterize it, and that is that the t-word, first and foremost, as I am fond of saying, the Rosenbergs, in that very courtroom were smeared by the c-word, many, many years ago, the communists who gave the secret of the atomic bomb. Now they’re trying to smear us with the t word: The terrorist lawyer who aided the Middle East insurgencies.

AMY GOODMAN: The federal prosecutor, Christopher Morillo said in his opening —.

LYNN STEWART: It’s actually Morvillo —

AMY GOODMAN: Morvillo. Said in his opening, "What is this case about?" Quite simply, he said this is a case about a jailbreak. Not your typical jailbreak where a prisoner is freed to once again walk the streets. It’s a different type of jailbreak, but one that the evidence will show was equally as dangerous. The idea that you took the Sheikh’s message out, despite having signed these special administration measures saying that you would not do that.

LYNN STEWART: Well, I think that what you have to start with is at the very beginning, and that is the question of who decides what is dangerous and what is not dangerous. And who makes the decisions to completely …, they, he also said in that opening, "We locked him up and threw away the key." Well, I’m sorry, in America, we don’t throw away the key. The key is always the lawyer. The lawyer who defends someone who is locked away in jail. I was not about, nor was Ramsey Clark about to allow the government to substitute their assessment of our client for our own. Once we allow the government to define the people we’re defending, it’s a slippery slope downward to the government will just no longer need lawyers, no longer need defenses, no longer need any kind of court proceeding, because they will decide in advance who is guilty and who is not.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the recordings that they say they have, for example, you saying that you are a good actor, that you should win an award for acting?

LYNN STEWART: You know, I don’t know how many people have had jail visits but in jail, it is always a problem that the guards like to listen in. They’re sitting there. They’re bored out of their minds so they listen to what the lawyer is saying to the defendant. Sometimes, it’s innocuous. Sometimes they’re doing it for real. We are always making efforts to make sure they’re not overhearing us. Why? Not because anything’s going on that’s secret or clandestine, but because we have a right to a private conversation, whether we’re discussing the Sheikh’s daughter and her prospects for marriage, or whether we’re discussing whether we should bring a conditions lawsuit, whether we’re discussing what the guards did to him a week ago, whatever it is we had a right to privacy. So, I always like to say, yes, I was distracting the guards from listening in to what they weren’t supposed to be listening in to in the first place. So, first things first. The real problem there was they were listening in. They don’t have a right to listen in.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, the scene in the courtroom — can you describe it? Our producer, Mike Burke was there. The courtroom was packed. The overflow room was packed where you could look at what was happening inside.

LYNN STEWART: It’s interesting. A young disabled fellow, who I met in Brooklyn when I was speaking there, wrote a poem saying: "The courtroom’s packed with the most diverse group. It looked like the U.N. had emptied out and come down to Foley Square." And he said, "If Jews and Muslims can get together to back Lynn Stewart, maybe we should send her out to make some world peace because she must have the right message." It really was a tremendous outpouring. We hope we can keep it up. This is going to be a six-month trial. We have a wonderful jury, we think, of independent, mostly Manhattanites who can stand up, can withstand the government’s onslaught here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to file this, and we invite you back into our studio, Lynn Stewart. Thanks for joining us on her way to the courthouse today. The case against her. The trial has opened.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for the program.

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