Friday, February 11, 2005

Defending Terrorists:

Bad news for defense attorneys representing alleged terrorists:

Radical lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted Thursday of smuggling messages from her jailed client -- a blind Muslim cleric convicted of terrorism -- to his Islamic fundamentalist followers in Egypt, actions that a jury found amounted to material support for terrorism.

The jury deliberated for 13 days in Manhattan federal court before delivering guilty verdicts against Stewart and two men. U.S. postal worker Ahmed Abdel Sattar was convicted of conspiracy for "plotting to kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country" by publishing a paper urging the killing of Jews. The third defendant, Arabic interpreter Mohammed Yousry, was found guilty of providing material support to terrorism.

The verdict -- which could carry a sentence of at least 26 years -- staggered the activist lawyer. As the jury foreman spoke, Stewart, 65, turned pale, slumped back into her chair and began to cry. But half an hour later she was again the leftist lawyer who has stood at the center of so many high-profile cases in the same courthouse, offering no apologies.

We read an earlier decision in this case for my international criminal law course my first year of law school. I have to say that, while I happen to be a strong supporter of the war on terror, this strikes me as deeply disturbing news. Most of the "evidence" in the case amounted to little more than a determination on the part of Stewart to offer her client the best possible defense and a willingness to push the edge in doing so.

Was she willfully blind to the fact that her client was passing along messages to the interpreter? Perhaps. But at the same time, it is doubtful that her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was a danger to anyone at the time the alleged "conspiracy" took place. Stewart and her co-defendants were accused of scheming to obtain Rahman's release. She was found guilty of trying to cover up secret conversations between Rahman and his followers--even though she does not speak Arabic--and violating federal regulations by publicly announcing in 2000 that the cleric had withdrawn his support for a cease-fire between the Egyptian government and the Islamic Group, a fundamentalist organization that carried out terrorist attacks on tourists and police officers.

But these charges seem petty compared to the role of zealous advocate which defense attorneys are supposed to play in our adversarial system. As David Cole, one of my professors at Georgetown, has said:
"This will have a chilling effect on lawyers who might represent an unpopular client. The prosecution showed videotapes of Osama bin Laden, of terrorist attacks . . . it was all very inflammatory."

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