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Terror Connections

April 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the terrorism indictments in New York. Four people were indicted for helping a blind imprisoned Muslim cleric direct the activities of a radical Islamic group in Egypt.

Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman is currently serving a life sentence for planning to blow up targets in New York, including the World Trade Center, in the early 1990s. Today’s indictment says the four — including his lawyer, Lynne Stewart — had unlawful communications with the Sheik during prison visits and through telephone calls.

We get more on this from Ben Weiser of The New York Times.

Ben, that phrase "unlawful communications" kind of jumps out at me. What does the government say that the four indicted did?

BEN WEISER: The most striking part of the indictment, of course, is the allegations that the lawyer for the sheik, Lynne Stewart, a long-time member of the bar here, facilitated communications between Rahman and other leaders of the Islamic terrorist group, which the government says he ran and is still trying to run.

RAY SUAREZ: Are….

BEN WEISER: In doing so she– according to the government she brought messages to him, allowed him to communicate messages out through her all using a translator who also accompanied her, an Arabic interpreter who was integral to the scheme according to prosecutors.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are there limits on what Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman is allowed to say, is allowed to talk about that makes these kinds of communications possibly a crime?

BEN WEISER: Yeah. That’s a great question. He is one of a very small number of people — roughly 15 or 16 — who are being held in the country under what are called special administrative measures. And the government has imposed these measures on inmates –mostly post-conviction — when they believe they continue to be a threat of violence and terrorism. Under those rules, which both the inmates and the lawyers have to agree to, the inmates are banned from… the prisoners are banned from communicating with virtually all outsiders. I believe they can talk occasionally in monitored conversations with families and also, of course, with their lawyers.

RAY SUAREZ: How was this accomplished in the government’s charges? How did these conversations happen and how were instructions in the government’s indictment sent from the sheik to these four?

BEN WEISER: The government says that in different cases in meetings in his cell, for example, in one case in, I believe, May of 2000, that Lynne Stewart and the translator met with the sheik and that while the translator took instructions from Rahman, Stewart engaged the prison guards, distracted them with English conversation to sort of mask the activity of the translator.

Later, that information was, according to the government again, communicated overseas and got into the hands of the Islamic Jihad members and leaders. In this particular case, the government charged the information was very important and led to the possible reactivation, the ending of a cease-fire by the group, a cease-fire that had been put in place after the 1997 attacks on about 50 or 60 people who were killed at Luxor, a famous site in Egypt.

RAY SUAREZ: But is the government in its indictment attempting to attach these four to the commission of those acts in Egypt?

BEN WEISER: Not those acts because they predated the communications, which the government has included in the charges, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence at least in the indictment or — pardon me- in the Attorney General’s announcement today that direct information from Stewart led to subsequent terrorist attacks. And the Attorney General also said that no information that she and the others allegedly communicated out concerned 9/11 as well. But obviously what the government is saying by charging her with providing material support to terrorism, a charge that carries a heavy sentence and is close to terrorism, is that she was, in effect, trying to facilitate future terrorist acts for the sheik.

RAY SUAREZ: Now it’s been widely reported that these conversations were monitored under the new set of laws put in place after the September 11 terrorist attacks, but some of the conversations that are being discussed predate the passage of that new law. How does that mesh?

BEN WEISER: That’s right. The Attorney General said today that with this case, they would begin now for the first time to implement the new rule that was passed last October that allows the government to monitor conversations between defense lawyers and these select group of prisoners. And at least he suggested that that had not been done before between the fall and this current case. He said it would be put in place in the sheik’s case.

It’s clear from the indictment that they were listening to conversations among the co-conspirators beforehand and they were likely doing that under traditional procedures, through which they would go to a judge, get a warrant that would allow for such surveillance.

What’s interesting about this case, of course, is that the defense– and she was just arraigned in court today, has pleaded not guilty as have two of the others, the fourth man is not here– and the defense is likely to argue that what she was doing is very much a part of lawyer-client privilege, that she was acting as a lawyer. Her defense lawyer made some comments to this effect in the courthouse. And it will be a really interesting question to see what happens. Lawyers down there showed out in support of her and have suggested this kind of case could really chill their advocacy of all cases but particularly the terrorist cases.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Weiser, thanks a lot for joining us.