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'Terror Trial' Could Turn on Three Defendants' Risky Move to Testify

'Terror Trial' Could Turn on Three Defendants' Risky Move to Testify

Larry Neumeister, Associated Press

NEW YORK — In a calculated risk rarely seen in a federal courtroom, three defendants accused of helping a convicted terrorist communicate deadly messages to overseas followers spent several weeks on the witness stand testifying in their own defense.

Their gambit will now be put to the test.

After nearly six months of testimony, closing arguments were set to begin Wednesday in the trial of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart and her two co-defendants, all of whom were members of a legal team that represented imprisoned Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman in the 1990s.The defendants' testimony is likely to figure prominently in the closing arguments and could influence the eventual verdict in the first major terrorism trial in Manhattan since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Stewart and her co-defendants, U.S. postal worker Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Arabic translator Mohamed Yousry, testified they obeyed the law in the work they did for Abdel-Rahman.

But prosecutors say the trio broke special prison rules imposed on the blind cleric to cut him off from terrorist followers after his 1995 conviction for conspiring to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and blow up New York landmarks.

Prosecutors also say Sattar brazenly used his telephone and fax machine to conspire with members of an Egyptian terrorist group to kidnap and kill people overseas. They say Stewart and Yousry conspired to provide material support to terrorists.

The government declined to comment for this article.

Kenneth A. Paul, a lawyer for Sattar, agreed it was very rare for all defendants in one case to testify. But it was necessary, he said, because prosecutors tried to infer guilt through evidence showing communications between Sattar and suspected terrorists in other countries.

"I think that's unfair for any jury to base a decision on," he said. "I think he had to testify. He wanted to testify. The evidence lent himself to testify. Hopefully, the jury will evaluate it fairly."

But lawyers not involved in the case said the defendants skirted a dangerous line: They were able to tell their stories directly and shape the narrative of the testimony, but they also exposed themselves to withering cross-examination by prosecutors that could leave jurors questioning their credibility.

"It's risky because you're changing the quotient from testing the government's case to the defendant," said one lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt. "It becomes the defendant's credibility instead of the quality of the government's evidence."

Sometimes, he said, it is worth the risk.

"It's very important to get the jurors to really understand a human being is at stake here and the decision is a profound one," he said.

Avi Moskowitz, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, called it "very dangerous" for a defendant to testify in federal court because a conviction often leads the judge to lengthen the prison sentence after deciding the jury concluded the defendant lied.

"It is often done, in my experience, either when you don't think you have anything to lose or when it's your only shot at acquittal," Moskowitz said.

At stake in the terrorist trial are potentially long prison sentences — up to life in prison for Sattar and up to 20 years in prison for Stewart and Yousry.

In their testimony, the defendants each maintained they wanted no part in terrorism and stayed within legal boundaries.

Stewart said she felt an ethical obligation as a lawyer to keep the sheik's name and views relevant worldwide so he might someday be transferred to Egyptian prisons, where he would be watched by prison officers who know his language and traditions.

Yousry conceded on the stand that he was not immediately forthcoming with FBI agents who interviewed him after the 2001 terrorist attacks, but said he was worried about the "climate in the country" and how he would be viewed for his work for the sheik.

He said he had regular conversations with the FBI, beginning two days after the attacks until shortly before his arrest in 2002.

During his testimony, Sattar explained that in October 2000, he wrote an Islamic edict with an Egyptian militant "to mandate the killing of Jews wherever they are found" because he was outraged at the shooting of a Palestinian boy by Israeli troops.

Sattar, an Egyptian who moved to the United States in 1982 and became a U.S. citizen in 1989, said he honored his pledge to defend the U.S. Constitution by convincing the militant not to call for the killing of Americans.

The case was expected to go to the jury next week.