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 fines.
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 camp.
"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 stories.
In the meantime, Khater, who visits Dhafir each week, said the doctor is "in good spirits" and remains certain that he will be vindicated.