New York A New York defense attorney and three other people were charged Tuesday with helping a blind Egyptian sheik direct terrorism from his U.S. prison cell by carrying messages to and from his followers around the world.
In announcing the federal indictment, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft identified the sheik, Omar Abdel-Rahman, as a leader of a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida called the Islamic Group.
Ashcroft said the group spreads "a message of hate that is now tragically familiar to Americans," though he said the case had no apparent connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Abdel-Rahman, 63, is serving a life term in federal prison for his role in a 1993 conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks. He was also a spiritual leader of the men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The indictment accuses his attorney Lynne Stewart of carrying messages from the sheik from 1999 through mid-2001 when he was in prison in Rochester, Minn., despite rules prohibiting him from communicating with his followers.
The indictment charges that the unlawful communications happened during prison visits and attorney telephone calls involving Stewart and Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic translator who also was charged.
Prosecutors said Stewart tried to fool prison guards by inserting extraneous comments in English into Arabic conversations between Abdel-Rahman and Yousry.
The two other defendants are accused of relaying a 2000 edict from Abdel-Rahman urging Muslims everywhere "to fight the Jews and to kill them wherever they are."
Stewart is a 62-year-old civil rights attorney and political firebrand whose clients have ranged from Weather Underground radicals to cop killers and recently, mob killer and turncoat Sammy "the Bull" Gravano.
Stewart pleaded "emphatically not guilty" Tuesday in a courtroom packed with fellow defense attorneys. She was released on $500,000 bond.
Outside court, Stewart said she hoped the indictment becomes a "touchstone case ... something that points out the limits the government can go through in prosecuting people they don't like."
"I know a good fight when I see it, and I think this will be a very good fight," she said.
The others charged are Ahmed Abdel Sattar, 42, a New York postal worker described as a "surrogate" for Abdel-Rahman; and Yassir Al-Sirri, the former head of the London-based Islamic Observation Center.
Al-Sirri, who is in custody in Britain, was charged with "facilitating communications among Islamic Group members and providing financing for their activities."
Stewart represented the sheik in 1995 when he was convicted of seditious conspiracy. She wept when a jury found he conspired to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that he and nine others sought to blow up the United Nations, a federal building, and two tunnels and a bridge linking New Jersey to Manhattan.