NEW YORK — A firebrand civil rights lawyer who has defended Black Panthers and anti-war radicals was sentenced Monday to nearly 2 1/2 years in prison _ far less than the 30 years prosecutors wanted _ for helping an imprisoned terrorist sheik communicate with his followers on the outside.
Lynne Stewart, 67, smiled, cried and hugged supporters after U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl pronounced the sentence of 28 months.
The judge said Stewart was guilty of smuggling messages between her client and his followers that could have “potentially lethal consequences.” He called the crimes “extraordinarily severe criminal conduct.”
But in departing from federal guidelines that called for 30 years behind bars, he cited Stewart’s more than three decades of dedication to poor, disadvantaged and unpopular clients.
“Ms. Stewart performed a public service, not only to her clients, but to the nation,” Koeltl said.
The judge said Stewart could remain free while she appeals, a process that could take more than a year.
Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and her lawyer Elizabeth Fink had warned in a plea to the judge: “If you send her to prison, she’s going to die. It’s as simple as that.”
Outside court, Stewart said she thought the sentence was “a victory for doing good work all one’s life.” She added: “You get time off for good behavior usually at the end of your prison term. I got it at the beginning.”
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia had no immediate comment.
Stewart has represented Black Panthers, leaders of the 1960s student activist group Weather Underground, a former mob hit man and a man accused of trying to kill nine police officers.
Stewart was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to terrorists. She had released a statement issused by one of her clients, Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind sheik sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up five New York landmarks and assassinate Egypt’s president.
Prosecutors have called the case a major victory in the war on terrorism. They said Stewart and other defendants carried messages between the sheik and top members of an Egypt-based terrorist organization, helping spread Abdel-Rahman’s call to kill those who did not subscribe to his extremist interpretation of Islamic law.
Stewart was arrested six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, along with Mohamed Yousry, an Arabic interpreter, and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a U.S. postal worker.
Yousry was sentenced to one year and eight months behind bars, while Sattar received 24 years in prison Monday.
Convicted of conspiracy to kill and kidnap people in a foreign country, Sattar could have gotten a life sentence. But the judge said no one was killed or injured, and he cited Sattar’s lack of previous crimes and his restrictive prison conditions.
In a letter to the judge, Stewart proclaimed: “I am not a traitor.” She said she did not intentionally enter into any conspiracy to help a terrorist organization.
“The end of my career truly is like a sword in my side,” Stewart said at her sentencing. “Permit me to live out the rest of my life productively, lovingly, righteously.”
In court papers, prosecutors said Stewart’s “egregious, flagrant abuse of her profession, abuse that amounted to material support to a terrorist group, deserves to be severely punished.”
Earlier, about 150 Stewart supporters who could not get inside the filled-to-capacity courtroom stood outside the courthouse, chanting “Free Lynne, Free Lynne.”
“It’s not just Lynne Stewart who is a victim; it’s the Bill of Rights that’s the victim,” said Al Dorfman, 72, a retired lawyer.
About 200 more supporters jammed the halls outside the courtroom.