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Accused lawyer for terrorist talks

By Judith Scherr Special to the Daily Planet
Monday November 18, 2002

Lynne Stewart’s attorney tells Stewart she’s a client from hell. 

Stewart, 63, doesn’t disagree. An attorney herself, she knows that speaking out about her own case counters the advice she would give most people she defends – but public opinion may make all the difference in her case, she says. In April, the government charged Stewart with conspiring with a client to help a terrorist organization.  

It’s not only the accusation that moved Stewart to speak publicly about her case. Even more critical, she says, is that the government used wiretaps to collect evidence of the alleged crime, a violation of attorney-client confidentiality, protected by the Sixth Amendment. 

“All the telephone conversations were listened to and the attorney-client room was bugged,” Stewart said Saturday, speaking at the National Conference on Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights and the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal on the UC Berkeley campus.  

Charges against the New York-based attorney stem from her role as lead counsel representing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, an exiled Egyptian cleric, now serving a life sentence in connection with a conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks, including the World Trade Center. 

After the Sheikh’s conviction and exhaustion of appeals, Stewart said she continued to represent her client in matters such as complaints about prison conditions, his will and new information relating to his conviction. She visited him in the federal medical facility in Rochester, Minn. to which he was confined. Rahman has diabetes, a heart condition and is blind.  

Rahman opposes the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak. Stewart calls him the “spiritual leader” of the Egypt-based Gama’a Al Islamiya, which the U.S. government deems a terrorist organization. 

In jail, Rahman’s interaction with the outside world was limited by the imposition of special administrative measures, or SAMs, by the Department of Justice because he was considered a terrorist, Stewart explained. The measures limited Rahman to calls to his wife in Egypt once a month and to his lawyer once a week. Family visits were restricted to immediate family members, but they live in Egypt and have been denied visas, Stewart said. 

Because her client had little communication with the outside world, Stewart said she agreed in May 2000 to write a press release for Rahman relating to the situation in Egypt. This was in violation of the SAMs. 

Two months later the U.S. Attorney’s office called Stewart and castigated her for her part in writing the release. Her visits to Rahman were suspended until she agreed to the imposition of even stricter SAMs. Stewart, who said she believes the restrictions on her client and on her interactions with him were unconstitutional, also found out later that when visits were resumed, wiretaps were put in place under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Conversations between Stewart and her client as well as the work of the translator and two paralegals were recorded. The three other individuals have also been charged with aiding a terrorist organization. 

It wasn’t until April 2002 that Stewart was arrested on four counts of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization under the 1996 Antiterrorism Act. The indictment alleges that Stewart committed illegal acts, including writing the press release, in order to help Rahman maintain his influence over the terrorist activities of the Islamic Group. 

Like Stewart, her attorney Michael Tigar, a Boalt Law School graduate, often defends controversial clients. Stewart says Tiger said of the case against her, “I just can’t find a crime.” 

Free on $500,000 bail, Stewart faces a 40-year jail sentence. Her trial has been set for October 2003. 

Her fate, Stewart argues, could have a chilling effect on attorneys. 

“Lawyers will shy away (from representing) so-called terrorists,” she said. “There will be nobody to call.”