Judge dismisses two top counts in New York terror indictment

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- A judge dismissed the two main terror counts against a civil rights lawyer and her co-defendants Tuesday, saying charges they conspired to support a terrorism organization were unconstitutionally vague.

U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl left intact charges that attorney Lynne Stewart and the others conspired to defraud the United States and that Stewart made false statements.

"It certainly is a great relief," Stewart said of the ruling. "It's also wonderful to know that the case maybe has opened a way for the use of this law to be circumscribed, curtailed a little bit."

U.S. Attorney James B. Comey said in a statement that he still believes the 1996 law prohibiting material support for terrorism is constitutional, and that an appeal is possible.

Stewart, who has not been jailed, was charged last year with helping deliver messages from her client, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Prosecutors say she and co-defendants Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic translator, and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a U.S. postal worker, helped relay messages from the blind Egyptian cleric to the Islamic Group, a radical terrorist group based in Egypt.

According to an indictment, they conspired to provide communications equipment, personnel, currency, financial securities and financial services to the Islamic Group.

All three pleaded innocent.

The judge did not attempt to strike down the 1996 anti-terrorism law, but said the defendants were correct to argue against a prosecution based on the mere use of telephones and other means of communication.

The law was passed after a series of terrorist attacks worldwide against U.S. interests, and includes a provision making it illegal to provide material support to terrorist organizations.

The defendants had argued that the statute does not outlaw "simply making a phone call or similarly communicating one's thoughts," the judge noted.

The charges came after the federal government imposed special administrative measures restricting the sheik's access to mail, the telephone and visitors and prohibiting him from speaking with the media. The fraud charge remaining against the three accuses them of trying to circumvent those measures.

In the false statement charge remaining against Stewart, she is accused of lying when she promised the government that she would not use her meetings with the sheik to pass messages between him and third parties.

Prosecutors accused Stewart of letting Yousry read letters from Sattar and others regarding Islamic Group matters to the sheik and to discuss during a May 2000 meeting whether the organization should continue to comply with a cease-fire.

They said Stewart tried to conceal the discussions from prison guards and violated the law when she announced to the media that the sheik had withdrawn his support for the cease-fire, which had been in effect since 1998.

Kenneth Paul, a lawyer for Sattar, said he planned to seek bail for his client, who has been jailed since his arrest last year. Paul said Sattar, who has four children, was "ecstatic" about Tuesday's ruling.

Ron Kuby, a lawyer who once represented the sheik, called the decision "a landmark ruling."

"There was this ever-shifting and expanding definition of aid to a terrorist organization that had no stopping point until today," he said.

He said he was shocked when Stewart was charged, realizing that zealous defense of a client could land a lawyer in handcuffs.

"Lynne does not support Islamic fundamentalism," he said. "Lynne doesn't wear a burqa. She wears a Mets cap. Lynne believes that our own government can destroy our civil rights and freedom much faster than al-Qaida ever could, and I believe that she's correct."

Stewart said she expects prosecutors to appeal. "I can't imagine they're just going to let it slide away."

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