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Lawyer Stewart Claims Terror Sentence Punishes Free Speech

Lynne F. Stewart, the lawyer imprisoned for helping an incarcerated Egyptian cleric pass messages to his terrorist followers, told a U.S. appeals court her 10-year sentence is punishment for exercising her free-speech rights.

The attorney was found guilty by a jury in 2005 of helping her former client, the blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, smuggle messages out of a high-security prison after he was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up the United Nations, an FBI building, two tunnels and a bridge in New York.

Prosecutors complained that Stewart’s initial sentence of 28 months in prison was too lenient. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ordered U.S. District Judge John Koeltl to reconsider the term, questioning whether it “was appropriate given the magnitude of the offense.” Koeltl later resentenced Stewart to 10 years.

Herald Price Fahringer, Stewart’s lawyer, told the appeals court today that the original term was appropriate. Stewart is being punished for statements she made after she was first sentenced which are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, he said.

‘Do It Again’

Upon leaving the courtroom after she was initially sentenced in 2006, Stewart told supporters outside the Manhattan Federal Courthouse that she could serve her 28-month sentence “standing on my head.” She also said in interviews with the media that she would “do it again” and “not do anything differently.”

Fahringer told the appeals court today that Koeltl punished Stewart for the comments to her supporters. Upholding Koeltl’s amended sentence would result in a “chilling effect” upon free speech uttered outside the courthouse “for fear that the same thing could happen to them that happened to Lynne Stewart,” Fahringer said.

Judge Robert Sack, one of the three judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals who have heard both challenges of the case, said he was concerned that Stewart’s comments reflected a lack of remorse.

Fahringer countered that Stewart’s statements were ambiguous.

“And if it is ambiguous, under the First Amendment, you have to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

‘Absolute Immunity’

“I’m not sure that freedom of speech means absolute immunity for the consequences of what you say,” Sack said.

Stewart, 72, who is currently in the federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, was convicted after a nine-month trial that ended in 2005.

The U.S. presented evidence that included videotapes made during four prison visits Stewart had with Rahman from 1997 to 2001 in which she smuggled messages after the U.S. had imposed restrictions on the cleric’s outside communications. The messages were passed on to a follower who forged an alliance with al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, prosecutors said.

Rahman, who was the spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, an Egyptian militant organization, also relied on Stewart and co-defendants to send a message withdrawing his support for the group’s cease-fire with the Egyptian government, U.S. authorities contended.

The release of Rahman’s statements to his followers also violated special U.S. Bureau of Prisons restrictions placed upon the cleric and his lawyer, prosecutors said. The cleric, 73, is serving a life sentence in a federal prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina.

When Koeltl first sentenced Stewart in 2006, he cited her “extraordinary personal characteristics,” including her decades of service as a defense lawyer and her poor health after a bout with breast cancer. She was allowed to remain free pending appeal.

Prosecutors Appeal

After prosecutors appealed the 28-month sentence, the appeals court agreed in 2010, saying Stewart’s first sentence didn’t reflect the seriousness of her actions or take into account that her crimes involved a scheme to provide support to terrorists.

Koeltl later resentenced Stewart, saying he had failed to consider the fact that she perjured herself when she testified in her own defense and hadn’t taken into account that her crimes were terrorism-related.

The case is U.S. v. Stewart, 10-3185, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Manhattan).

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