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A Miscarriage of Justice: the Dhafir Trial

An Oncologist who tried to aid victims of the US sanctions against iraq is sentenced to 22 years in prison, in what is clearly a punitive action by the Us Injustice dept

a good analysis here:

The Case of Dr. Dhafir

[Part One of a two-part series. The first part discusses the trial and conviction of Dr. Rafil Dhafir of Syracuse, NY, for having provided aide to Iraqis in violation of the Iraqi Sanctions. The second part places his case in a larger context, discussing DOJ tactics under Bush and illustrating why these tactics should concern us.]

"We now live in a society where the law of the land asserts that delivering aspirin and antibiotics to a pediatrics ward where children are dying from diarrhea is a criminal offense. Likewise handing a plastic harmonica to a child suffering from leukemia. And there are federal judges who will bring the gavel down and sign on the dotted line."[1]

Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an American citizen of Muslim faith and Iraqi descent, had a charity that gave money to help the children in Iraq. Now he faces a twenty plus year sentence for it. Prosecutors say this is justice. The defense says it was a deliberate attempt to intimidate and shut down a tight-knit Muslim community that was not dependent upon American money systems.

The case raises troubling questions about Department of Justice tactics under Bush. Such tactics have long been the subject of concern for civics-minded citizens, although prosecutors will tell you that their work is rather mundane. But since 9/11, the DOJ has adopted new and disturbing variations of prosecutorial overzealousness, targeting disfavored individuals and groups for engaging in First Amendment protected activities.

Although Dhafir was tried only for ordinary white collar crimes, not for terrorism, both Attorney General Ashcroft and Governor Pataki publicly referred to Dhafir as a terrorist. At the outset of the trial, the prosecution requested the judge to rule that attorneys for both sides be prohibited from raising the issue of terrorism.

Now, however, the prosecution has asked that Dhafir's sentence be based on post-trial judicial recognition that Dhafir is a national security threat. According to the prosecution, asking the judge to consider this factor is simply a logical extension of the charges upon which Dhafir's conviction was won. The defense is crying foul, however, claiming that the prosecution is trying to get the judge to sentence Dhafir on charges the DOJ was unable to bring at trial.

Dr. Dhafir was once a practicing oncologist in Syracuse, New York who was known for the kind assistance he gave to his patients--and the many occasions he forgave debts for those who were unable to pay. In the mid-1990's, Dhafir started a charity called Help the Needy to provide funds for medical relief to children in Iraq. His good deeds raised the ire of Saddam Hussein, who, reports go, had him on a "hit list."

One would think that such deeds would make him doubly a hero in the eyes of the American government. Not only did he do good deeds, which formerly was a hallmark of American identity, but he was an enemy of an enemy of ours--so great an enemy purportedly that we waged pre-emptive war against him.

Instead, the DOJ states that they always viewed Dhafir as a common criminal and prosecuted him as such. The monies Dhafir obtained from donors, prosecutors state, went to proselytizing a strict form of Islam in Iraq and towards supporting those who opposed U.S. intervention, not to providing help to the needy.

Is Dr. Dhafir a common white collar criminal or a new type of casualty in the war on terror?

The prosecution's tactics, along with others in this and other recent indictments and trials, raises deep constitutional issues that should concern Americans.

The Charges: How did Dhafir get from being tried as an ordinary white collar criminal to being called a national security threat?

Dhafir was arrested in February 2003 and charged with a veritable laundry list of crimes: tax fraud, violating the sanctions against Iraq, money laundering, providing false information to immigration, health care and medicare fraud, mail and wire fraud, as well as separate charges of conspiracy to commit some of these acts. He has been held without bail ever since his arrest. The trial began in Syracuse on October 17, 2004 and lasted 17 weeks, ending on February 10, 2005 with a conviction on 59 out of 60 counts. Dhafir's sentencing hearing is scheduled for October 18, 2005.

According to lead prosecutor Michael Olmsted, the investigation of Dhafir was triggered when a local New York bank noticed suspicious activity in one of his accounts: several hundred checks deposited for just under $10,000. Under federal banking laws, deposits for over $10,000 must be reported to the government, so some people try to avoid the intrusive requirement by moving amounts just under $10,000. But repeated transactions just under $10,000 can also create suspicion.

To the DOJ, the deposits initially suggested money laundering, but further investigation pointed to what they believed was a mail and/or wire fraud scheme. The DOJ believed that Dhafir was using donations he received for medical relief to instead promote a political and religious agenda in Iraq. Not only was this fraud and money laundering, in the DOJ's opinion, but it violated the Iraqi Sanctions.

Olmsted says that although the Iraqi Sanctions violations constitute the first count, they were the last to be added.

However, according to Katherine Hughes, who sat in court as a New York Civil Liberties Union Court Watcher throughout the better part of 17 weeks of trial, "Dr. Dhafir did not use any of the money in ways other than he had told people how it would be used. The defense went to great lengths to show that money collected in this country was only used in the way that people were told it would be used, for food, medicine etc. (This was done mainly by showing emails, and receipts for food, rice, oil, flour, by the ton.) Some Muslims in this country gave money specifically for things like buying Korans or building mosques and their money would be used for that purpose."

Another Court Watcher, Madis Senner, a CPA and former Wall Street businessman, declares: "The fraud claim is bogus." According to Senner, over 150 Muslims in the Syracuse area were questioned about Dhafir. Senner elaborates: "If [the government] wanted to question the donors about Fraud, then why did they ask questions about the mosque, religious practices, family in the middle east, etc.....Because they were shaking the tree in search of information."

In a move that supports Senner's suspicions, federal authorities added new terrorism-related counts last week in a separate case against two members of an Albany mosque, apparently attempting to bolster their case by alleging ties to Dhafir.[2]

In any case, in order to prove a fraud case, the DOJ would have to interview donors, which would alert Dhafir to the investigation. Prosecutors felt that once Dhafir found out he was being investigated, he would flee, so they had him arrested on the Iraqi Sanctions violations first and requested that he not be released on bail. The violations of the sanctions against Iraq, according to Olmsted, were merely incidental to the money laundering and it was the mail and wire fraud crimes that the DOJ felt were the core of their case.

The Iraqi Sanctions violations, however, make up the first count of the indictment and it is because of these violations that the prosecution says it is now asking the sentencing court to consider Dhafir as a national security threat, which could be used to increase his overall sentence.