Lynne Stewart, a New York attorney well known for her feisty defense of controversial criminal suspects, was indicted by the federal government on April 9, along with three other individuals.

The indictment charges that the four violated the law by passing along information from imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for planning the assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and attacks on New York City public places. The four are officially charged with providing material support to terrorists.

Also indicted were Mohammed Yousry, who was the translator for Stewart’s conversations with her client, and two people said to be associates of Abdel-Rahman.

The arrest of a prominent attorney under these circumstances is unusual enough, but what makes this case particularly unsettling is the fact that the indictment was based on years of secret monitoring of attorney-client conversations.

Normally, such conversations are privileged, i.e., police and prosecutors can not eavesdrop on them.

There have been cases of such monitoring in the past, but the eavesdropping was seldom, if ever, used to indict the attorney. But after Sept. 11, and in the context of the passage of the controversial USA/PATRIOT act, Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced a policy of listening in on attorney-client conversations as part of the fight against terrorism.

Civil and constitutional rights attorneys reacted indignantly to the news of the indictments. The prestigious National Lawyers’ Guild issued a statement denouncing the act as a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a fair trial and access to counsel.

Bruce Nestor, president of the Guild, said “Stewart is a veteran criminal defense attorney who often represents both controversial causes and unpopular clients. The government seems to be singling her out as poster child for its campaign to justify the unconstitutional monitoring of conversations between lawyers and inmates. This is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on lawyers zealously representing their clients.”

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