In the eighteen months since central New York
oncologist Rafil Dhafir was arrested and charged with violating the U.S. embargo
against Iraq, he has been sitting in a Syracuse jail, ignored by most of the
national media, as prosecutors continue to add charges threatening him with
a maximum sentence of almost 300 years in prison.
Having been denied bail for a fifth time on Aug. 16, it appears Dhafir will
remain behind bars until his Sept. 27 trial date.
Now that a new motion for dismissal has attracted some attention, Dhafir's
supporters are hoping the case which some say is the most complicated
and questionable prosecution of a Muslim charity in the post-Sept. 11 era
may be the last chance to see the case thrown out before it reaches trial.
Federal investigators arrested Dhafir, a 56 year-old U.S. citizen born in Iraq,
in February 2003, after what they boasted was a three-year investigation into
his charity, Help the Needy. Dhafir, the organization's founder and president,
says Help the Needy sent humanitarian aid to Iraq, which was under severe sanctions
supported by the U.S. government at the time. The flow of food and medical supplies
was severely restricted.
Prosecutors allege that Dhafir passed at least $160,000 of the money raised
by his charity to friends and relatives in his home country, in violation of
an act prohibiting Americans from sending money to Iraq. Humanitarian aid in
other forms could be legally distributed with a license from the U.S. government.
Help the Needy, like many other Iraq charities, had no such license.
However, prosecutors have not claimed that any of the Help the Needy donations
funded either the Iraqi government or terrorist groups. In fact, evidence uncovered
in a government investigation appears to indicate that money went toward food
and other supplies for needy families.
As the investigation continued, links to terrorism never materialized, but
prosecutors added additional charges, including allegations that Dhafir filed
a false nonprofit request with the IRS, billed Medicare for chemotherapy sessions
at his clinic when he was not present, and made false statements to a medical
auditor. In April, prosecutors charged Dhafir with using a portion of Help the
Needy money to purchase real estate in Syracuse.
Judges have now denied Dhafir bail on five occasions, stating that the doctor,
who has strong ties to central New York, is a "flight risk." Dhafir
has not been able to have private access to a lawyer because, he says, his Muslim
faith prohibits him from consenting to the requisite strip search. If he continues
to refuse the search, he may not be able to attend his own trial. Dhafir says
he is not guilty of any of the charges.
Since his arrest 18 months ago, Dhafir's case has been an enigma. Unlike others
who have violated the embargo against Iraq, including members of the peace group
Voices in the Wilderness, Dhafir is facing
serious prison time. And, unlike other Muslims denied bail and facing potentially
even more serious charges, like Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, Dhafir has attracted
little widespread attention or support.
Motion for Dismissal
In a motion filed July 29, Dhafir's lawyer, Deveraux
Cannick, requested that all charges against Dhafir be dismissed, based on claims
that the federal government targeted Dhafir for "selective prosecution."
The defense alleges that other concerned American citizens who have also violated
the embargo against Iraq have not been criminally prosecuted, and have instead
received small civil penalties.
In fact, the best-known organization providing aid to needy Iraqis, Voices
in the Wilderness, has never been criminally charged, and has only received
fines for its numerous and very public violations of the embargo.
"Other people did the same thing and they were treated differently, to
say the least," said Dhafir friend and supporter Mohamed Khater. "Did
any one of them spend a day in jail? No."
The motion also notes that 57 corporations have violated sanctions imposed
on various countries but also received only small fines, even though some companies
worked directly with the governments of the countries being punished. The motion
mentions a number of corporate fines, including $50,000 for ExxonMobil's exports
to Sudan and about $14,000 for ChevronTexaco's deals with Cuban and Iraqi officials.
Such fines are common. In 1995, for example, Halliburton paid $1.2 million
to the U.S. government and $2.61 million in civil penalties for shipping oilfield
equipment to Libya in violation of a U.S. trade embargo. Rather than receiving
prison sentences, corporate officials convicted of violating international sanctions
even on a relatively massive scale typically receive monetary
The defense argues in the request for dismissal that "the government singled
[Dhafir] out for prosecution because of his race, religion and cultural background."
In a February interview with The NewStandard, Dhafir expressed similar
sentiments. "People should realize that this is a trumped up charge,"
he said. "This is part of a campaign against Muslims and Arabs."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Olmsted said the motion lacked merit, and noted
that members of Voices in the Wilderness did not live in the same district,
and therefore would not be subject to prosecution by the prosecutors handling
the Dhafir case. He added that most activists tend to send supplies, not money,
and that he considers sending money to be a more serious offense. "The
attempt to restrain money going into Iraq is more urgent," he said. "You
can't convert a pallet of penicillin into anything else."
Dhafir maintains that he only sent material aid to Iraq, never money.
Insinuations of Terror Continue
David Weissbrodt, former member of the United Nations
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, believes the
case could fit into a larger pattern of increased prosecutions for embargo violations
under the Bush administration.
Weissbrodt cited recent crackdowns on Muslim charities and on U.S. citizens
charged with violating the Cuba embargo as examples. "[The government]
is using to the hilt every single tool," he said, "and ignoring any
protections of the Constitution or international law except when they are compelled
to do so."
Although Dhafir has not been charged with any terrorism-related crimes, politicians
have continually linked his case to the government's so-called "war on
terror." Earlier this month, in fact, New York Governor George Pataki grouped
Dhafir with two Muslims in Albany charged with trying to purchase shoulder-fired
missiles, and a group of Muslim men convicted for attending an al-Qaeda training
"We saw with the arrest in Syracuse of money-laundering efforts to help
terrorist organizations, and today we see here, again," Pataki said, "those
among us who seek to help terrorists to conduct horrible acts against the people
of America and against our freedom." Pataki concluded with a forward-looking
public reassurance, "And we'll continue to be aggressive and proactive
in going after those who would look to do us harm."
In a statement emailed to Syracuse area activists, Cannick, Dhafir's attorney,
said he was "extremely disappointed" with Gov. Pataki's comments,
and added, "You would think that he or his staff would check the facts
before making statements that suggest that Dr. Dhafir's case, or Dr. Dhafir
himself, has any involvement with terrorism. But if trying to feed hungry people
and provide aid to dying children makes him a terrorist, then so be it."
As the trial date nears, activists in Syracuse
say they hope to attract greater public attention, arguing that, without national
outcry, Dhafir will likely be convicted and spend the rest of his life in prison
for charges that normally result in fines.
"If we can raise the specter of what's going on with Dr. Dhafir to a national
level, I think the government will balk," said local activist Madis Senner,
who runs a Web site
devoted to freeing Dhafir. However, he added, echoing the thoughts of many
local activists, "That's a big wish."
Some local activists say they have been hampered in their efforts in part because
of actions by the defense. Several activists said Cannick, Dhafir's attorney,
told them to call off a protest supporting Dhafir late last fall. Senner said
Cannick told local activists, "Don't do any rallies, letter writing, nothing."
Senner commented, "I think everybody questioned that."
Until this past week, Cannick also did not allow reporters to interview Dhafir.
Back in February, after Cannick failed to return numerous phone calls, Dhafir's
friends arranged for this reporter to interview him. At the time, Dhafir appeared
eager to tell his story and, until this month, it was the only media interview
he had participated in since his arrest.
For nearly a year and a half there did not appear to be any campaign by the
defense to publicize the case. Since February, Cannick has not returned repeated
calls for interviews with The NewStandard.
However, Dhafir's supporters say the strategy appears to be changing as the
trial date approaches. "I think [Cannick's] gotten friendlier to the media,"
Senner said. "We'll get people out there raising noise and making commotion."
Khater added that Cannick may have decided to change his strategy once he realized
how many false allegations the government has spread about the case.
Local activists are planning rallies in support of Dhafir. Senner has enlisted
people who have violated the embargo against Iraq but never been jailed for
it to contact U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue and the local media with their
In the meantime, Khater, who visits Dhafir each week, said the doctor is "in
good spirits" and remains certain that he will be vindicated.