|"First we kill the lawyers ..."|
On Stand, Terrorist's Lawyer Denies Aiding Violent Cause
By JULIA PRESTON
Published: October 26, 2004
After sitting silently for four months while federal prosecutors portrayed her as an eager accomplice of her terrorist clients, Lynne F. Stewart spoke at her trial yesterday for the first time, saying she was a "very, very adversarial" lawyer but had never crossed the line to aid violence.
Ms. Stewart, a tenacious, unorthodox lawyer who has represented a long list of unpopular clients over her 30-year career, sought from the first words of her testimony in Federal District Court in Manhattan to show that everything she had done to help one particular terrorist client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, had been part of a full-tilt defense inspired by her "anti-authoritarian view of the world."
But she insisted that she had never abetted or even endorsed the Islamic holy war preached by Mr. Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks.
"I'm not in the habit of fundamentalism," Ms. Stewart said.
Ms. Stewart's testimony had been long awaited in a case that accuses her of aiding terrorism by relaying the sheik's messages of war to his followers. The government says she violated a fundamental oath to obey the law and crossed over to become a terrorist conspirator herself. She and her lawyers say the case against her is a clear example of overreaching by prosecutors in a post-9/11 world, and violates the sacrosanct relationship between lawyer and client.
Her testimony, on the first day of the defense presentation of its case, brought new electricity to a long trial that is examining the limits of what lawyers can do to represent terrorists, in one of the most ambitious terror cases brought by the Justice Department of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
On the stand, Ms. Stewart, 65, looked much like the public school librarian she once was, wearing her gray hair in a proper bowl cut and dressed in a conservative black and brown dress and orthopedic lace-up shoes. But, in a presentation full of contrasts, she described an approach to the law that had led her to the no-holds-barred defense of unpopular, unsavory and dangerously violent clients.
"We are bound to accept the cases of even those people who are hated by the public," Ms. Stewart said. "We are adjured by the ethical system to fight as hard and as vigorously and as zealously as we possibly can for our clients."
Ms. Stewart was clearly unaccustomed to sitting in the courtroom dock. She had to be reminded by the court clerk to swear an oath to tell the truth at the start of her testimony, and at first her face looked flushed and she struggled to steady her hands. When her lawyer, Michael E. Tigar, asked her to describe her defense strategy for one client, she instinctively bridled, hesitating to reveal trade secrets.
"I'm still a tenderfoot here," she said.
The first day of her testimony was intended to humanize her for the jury, which has been listening since June 22 to a case consisting mainly of thousands of pages of transcripts of secretly recorded phone calls and of meetings between Ms. Stewart and Mr. Abdel Rahman in federal prison.
In just under two hours of questioning by Mr. Tigar, Ms. Stewart spoke of how her career had grown from the days when she commuted by motorcycle to Rutgers University law school in New Jersey. She said she built a low-budget community law practice in Lower Manhattan, defending "any case that came through the door."
She said she agreed to represent Mr. Abdel Rahman in his 1995 terror trial, against the advice of many colleagues and friends, because she thought "it was the right thing for me to do."
Ms. Stewart's presence on the witness stand radically changed the atmosphere of the trial. She and her two co-defendants have been heard until now only on scratchy recordings made by the F.B.I. over several years up to 2001, when Ms. Stewart continued to represent Mr. Abdel Rahman, who is blind, after he was sentenced to life in prison for the thwarted bombing plot. The federal authorities imposed severe restrictions on the sheik to silence him in prison, restrictions she had agreed to in writing.
Ms. Stewart said she had agreed to represent the sheik despite his furious sermons calling for violence against the United States and Egypt because she saw that he was "a blind man, he came from a very different culture." She said she viewed him as a major Islamic scholar and believed that he had been railroaded by prosecutors with little evidence that he had actively participated in the bomb plot.
"I believe government is best when government is little," said Ms. Stewart, touching on a rare point of agreement between her leftist outlook and the Republican administration that is prosecuting her. "A government can overreach. A government is very, very powerful."
But Ms. Stewart insisted that she had always kept her distance from the sheik's politics. "I'm my own person, I have my own beliefs," she said. She said she had grown skeptical of religious fanaticism when she attended an evangelical Christian college.
"You have to take a step to the side," she said of her strategy with politically controversial clients. "You can't be too close to the client or too close to the cause, whatever that may be."
Ms. Stewart said she had never made much money in her practice, and her defense of the sheik was no exception. She received a total of $47,000 in federal payments during the sheik's 10-month trial.
Ms. Stewart is facing five counts of lying to the government and conspiring with Mr. Abdel Rahman to convey a call for terrorist war in Egypt to his militant followers. Her lawyers said she faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on all charges.
Her two co-defendants are Mohamed Yousry, an Arabic translator who worked with Ms. Stewart, and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a postal worker and paralegal aide in the sheik's trial who is facing the most serious terror charges. Mr. Tigar has said Ms. Stewart's defense will last about seven days.