NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court upheld on Tuesday a disbarred New York lawyer’s conviction on charges of supporting terrorism by helping an imprisoned blind Egyptian cleric smuggle messages to militant followers, ordered her to prison and told a judge to consider a longer sentence.
The three-judge panel described the 28-month prison sentence given by the trial judge to civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, 70, following her 2005 conviction as “strikingly low” and not matching “the seriousness of her criminal conduct.”
The appeals court ordered the trial judge to think about lengthening the sentence, noting that the judge had declined to consider whether Stewart committed perjury when she testified at her trial.
Stewart was sentenced to prison in October 2006 for helping her client, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, contact the Islamic Group, which the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization. Stewart had been free on bail while appealing her conviction.
Abdel-Rahman was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to attack the United Nations and other New York City landmarks, following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were later toppled in the 2001 attacks on the United States carried out by the group al Qaeda.
“I will go on fighting,” a smiling Stewart told reporters after the appeals court’s decision. “This is a case that is bigger than just me, personally. I am no criminal.”
During her trial, prosecutors said messages Stewart passed on behalf of Abdel-Rahman could have incited violence in Egypt, while Stewart said she was zealously representing her client and had been targeted because of her political beliefs.
Prosecutors had complained to the appeals court that her sentence was too lenient.
Stewart’s sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge John Koeltl, who cited her long service as a defense attorney for the poor and unpopular, her age and that she had suffered from cancer as reasons for her relatively short sentence.
The appeals court said Koeltl should have considered whether Stewart was telling the truth when she testified during the trial she was unaware of all of the special restrictions placed on her in communicating messages from her client.
“We think that whether Stewart lied under oath at her trial is directly relevant to whether her sentence was appropriate,” the panel of judges said in the written opinion.
Evidence in the case against Stewart included a call the lawyer made to a Reuters correspondent in Egypt in which she read a statement issued by the cleric saying he had withdrawn his support for the Islamic Group’s ceasefire in Egypt.
In its nearly 200-page ruling, the U.S. second circuit appeals court ordered Stewart to begin serving her sentence.
Stewart could have been sentenced to more than 15 years in prison after being convicted on charges of supporting terrorism. Prosecutors had sought up to 30 years.
Stewart was tried along with Mohamed Yousry, an Arabic language translator working for her, and New York postal worker Ahmed Sattar.
Sattar was sentenced to 24 years in prison and Yousry to 20 months. The appeals court also said the trial judge could reconsider the sentences of those two men as well.
Stewart said she was not sure when she would have to report to prison but hoped to delay her incarceration until after upcoming surgery. “Visit me in jail,” she urged her supporters before stepping away.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Will Dunham