Sat 1 Jan 2005
One Year On, ‘Help the Needy’ Case Still Shrouded in Mystery, Innuendo
by Madeleine Baran The NewStandard 2/29/04
A Muslim doctor from Syracuse remains behind bars for sending money to starving Iraqis – a “crime” for which non-Muslims are usually slapped on the wrist.
A year ago, two federal investigators and a New York state trooper followed Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a prominent physician, as he pulled out of his driveway around seven in the morning and headed to work at his medical clinic outside Syracuse. A few blocks later, they ordered Dhafir to pull his tan 2001 Lexus over to the side of the road and arrested him on charges that he had violated the sanctions against Iraq.
In nearby Fayetteville, Osameh Al-Wahaidy, a college math instructor and imam for a local prison, heard a knock at his door. When he opened it, he was face-to-face with federal investigators holding two warrants: one to search his home, the other to arrest him.
That same night, Ayman Jarwan, executive director of the charity Help the Needy, opened the door of his Syracuse apartment and met the same fate.
Meanwhile, federal agents started knocking on the doors of Muslim families throughout the Syracuse area, asking them questions about their donations to Help the Needy and about their religion. In four hours, authorities visited as many as 150 area families. Although the exact number is not known, it is one of the largest federal interrogations of Muslims in the United States.
Although Jarwan and Al-Wahaidy would later be released, Dhafir, the founder and president of Help the Needy, would spend at least the next year of his life in jail, at the center of one of the quietest, most convoluted, and some say most outrageous prosecutions of a Muslim charity.
To the Justice Department, Dhafir is a radical Muslim, suspected of giving money to terrorist organizations and deceiving the U.S. government. To his community, Dhafir is a devoutly religious man who felt called to raise millions of dollars to assist the poor and starving in Iraq, a victim of the hysteria surrounding anything perceived to be related to terrorism.
Either way, Dhafir, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Baghdad, remains at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility in Jamesville, awaiting a trial that was scheduled to start April 19, but recently was pushed back to Sept. 27. He has been denied bail on five occasions.
For the first time, he has agreed to speak to the media to tell his story. “We don’t have anything to hide because we have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says.
Seven federal agencies spent almost four years investigating Help the Needy. They gathered bank, medical, tax and business records and e-mail messages. They collected video and audio transcripts. They went undercover to Help the Needy fundraisers, and infiltrated at least one of the charity’s meetings. Yet the case remains shrouded in mystery, and the public remains generally unaware that any of it ever happened.
The prosecution alleges that Dhafir tried to conceal his activities from the U.S. government. Supporters argue that Dhafir tried to conceal the charity from another government–that of Saddam Hussein. “If Saddam knows the money went to the people, he would kill all of them,” says Haikal Abu-Ghoush, a friend of Dhafir who visits him regularly in jail. Dhafir is said by his friends to have been a harsh and vocal critic of Hussein.
A federal grand jury charged Dhafir and Maher Zagha, a Jordanian citizen living in Jordan outside the reach of prosecutors, with conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, conspiracy to launder money by sending funds to Iraq, and 12 individual counts of money laundering.
The IEEPA gives the president the authority to prohibit the transfer of money into any foreign country; it was illegal to send cash into Iraq from 1990 until 2003. 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 license.
The prosecutors contend that more than $2 million of Help the Needy money was sent to Iraq through bank accounts in Jordan.
If convicted, Dhafir and Zagha would each face up to 265 years in prison and more than $14 million in fines.
The grand jury also charged Dhafir with falsely writing off his contributions to Help the Needy as tax-exempt, filing a false nonprofit request with the IRS, billing Medicare for chemotherapy sessions at his clinic when he was not present, and making a false statement to a medical auditor. Dhafir has pled not guilty to all charges.
Although no terrorism-related charges have been brought against any of the defendants, prosecutors allege that Help the Needy donated $41,548.33 to two charities later linked to terrorism, and the local media, elected officials and prosecutors have repeatedly insinuated that the case is part of the “war on terror.”
After news broke of the arrests and interrogations, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft released a statement saying, “Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted. As President Bush leads an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and support for terror, the Justice Department will see that individuals within our borders cannot undermine these efforts.”
According to the New York Daily News, on the day of Dhafir’s arrest, Gov. George Pataki said, “It is again troubling to see, with the arrests that occurred in Syracuse today, that there are clear terrorists living here in New York state among us . . . who are supporting or aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbors.”
The Syracuse-area media widely reported that agents found an Iraqi military uniform in Dhafir’s basement while executing a search warrant, despite the fact that there have been no charges brought against Dhafir involving aiding the government of Iraq or serving in the Iraqi military.
There is no evidence to suggest that the uniform belonged to Dhafir.
In fact, the uniform bore the name of another man, who does not appear anywhere else in the unsealed court documents. According to Mohamed Khater, a friend of Dhafir’s, a sergeant in the U.S. military who served in the first Gulf War brought the uniform home as a souvenir and later gave it to Dhafir. None of the media outlets that mentioned the uniform has reported this explanation.
The prosecution has continually made references to the “war on terror.” At the bail hearing for Ayman Jarwan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory West made explicit references to terrorism, arguing that the court should consider then-circulating reports that terrorists might explode a “dirty bomb” in the United States. West referred to Jarwan’s degrees in nuclear and radiological engineering, and said, “This man knows how to use and has access to this material,” the Post-Standard reported. He also noted that agents had found excerpts from a published interview with a radical Saudi cleric in Jarwan’s apartment. “Although those are not [Jarwan’s] own words, the fact that he has it and kept it suggests he might subscribe to those views,” West said.
Judge David E. Peebles then objected to West’s statement, saying, “Have we come to the point in this country where we are willing to detain a person based on what they may read? I reject that because he holds advanced degrees or reads radical material, he’s a danger.”
Dhafir’s original attorney, Edward C. Menkin, says, “Now it’s a year later and we still don’t have any reasonable evidence [of a connection to terrorism].”
Many friends and activists say that Dhafir is being unfairly singled out.
“He’s from Iraq. He’s wealthy. He’s Muslim. He travels a lot,” says Abu-Ghoush. “Immediately, people think there’s something wrong.”
Other groups, like Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, also have illegally sent aid to Iraq, but have received only fines.
“We have been targeted but not to that extent,” says John Farrell, organizer for Voices in the Wilderness. “In the case of Muslim-Americans, you have the additional component of the racism and distrust of Muslim-Americans in the United States. I imagine that atmosphere has contributed to the government’s desire to go very strongly after Help the Needy.”
The terrorism hype around the case has upset Dhafir’s supporters, who say that it prevented him from getting bail. “The government and [Dhafir] are entitled to have their day in court; but in the meantime, let’s not treat him as the worst enemy of the United States,” Khater says.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Dhafir entered a small visiting room at the Jamesville facility. From the other side of a large glass panel dividing the room, he smiled widely. Since he refuses to be strip searched for religious reasons, he is not allowed to meet privately with his lawyer or other visitors.
Wearing a green prison-issued T-shirt over a white long-sleeved shirt, with a metal cord dangling an I.D. card around his neck, he looked, oddly enough, like a doctor in scrubs. As he sat down to speak to a reporter for the first time since the arrest, his demeanor was calm and pleasant, but his words expressed outrage.
“People should realize that this is a trumped up charge,” he says. “This is part of a campaign against Muslims and Arabs.”
Dhafir, 55, was born into a middle-class Sunni Muslim family in Baghdad, according to a biography submitted to the court by the defense team. After graduating 10th out of 45,000 seniors in the nation, the document states, he enrolled in Baghdad Medical School, where he received his medical degree.
Dhafir left Iraq in 1972, and has not returned since. He met his wife, Priscilla, while studying for his oncology certification at the University of Michigan. He moved to Syracuse in 1980, opening his own clinic as well as working on the staff of Rome Memorial Hospital. He soon rose to prominence within the community, becoming president of the Islamic Society of Central New York, and helping with efforts to build a local mosque.
Dhafir says he founded the charity Help the Needy in 1993 to raise money to buy food and supplies for Iraqi people suffering under the sanctions. “A group of us sat down and said, ‘Something needs to be done,’ ” he says. Dhafir spoke everywhere from mosques to community centers to Quaker meeting houses about the devastation the sanctions caused.
According to a UNICEF report, at least 500,000 Iraqi children under age 5 who might not have died otherwise have died under the sanctions. As late as 2003, one million children under the age of five were suffering from the long-term effects of malnutrition, the report says.
By 2001, Help the Needy had raised at least $4.7 million, according to prosecutors. The Help the Needy Web site, no longer online, listed numerous activities, including sponsoring orphans and families, “collecting and distributing zakat [an obligatory yearly offering to the needy],” “providing and distributing medicine [through hospitals and doctors]” and “slaughtering and distributing sacrificial meat.”
As the physician at Rome, N.Y.’s only known private oncology practice, Dhafir saw between 50 and 60 patients a week, many of whom he treated for free. “We lost tens of thousands of dollars” in doing so, says Dhafir. “We treated them like family members.”
After Dhafir was arrested, the practice closed, leaving the patients to seek care elsewhere. Some of them, Dhafir says, have died. “To me, this is murder,” he says. “[The prosecutors] have participated in the killing of these people–and the Iraqi people. These people are murderers, anyway you slice it.”
During the interview, Dhafir repeatedly denied all the charges against him, including those related to tax evasion and Medicare fraud. “It’s all false,” he says. “When we refute the original claim [the violation of IEEPA and the sanctions], all these other charges will be meaningless. They’re all dependent on the first claim.”
Dhafir also denies that he knowingly gave Help the Needy money to terrorist organizations, arguing that there was no way he could have known the organizations were not legitimate charities. “Were these [charities] illegal at the time we gave them money?” he says. “And who made them legal? The government is responsible.”
Dhafir’s biggest obstacle may be preparing for trial. Since he refuses to submit to a strip search, he must communicate with his lawyer by writing on pieces of paper and holding them up to the glass. Any conversations they hold over the phone could be easily overheard by guards and other inmates.
In addition, Dhafir says, he has not received new eyeglasses in months, making it difficult for him to read the thousands of court documents. He said he offered to pay for the glasses himself, but prison officials so far have refused.
The prosecution of Help the Needy and the interrogations of its donors have sent shockwaves through Syracuse’s Muslim community. The sheer number of people questioned, and the coordinated nature of the questioning and the arrests, have left most area Muslims afraid to support Dhafir publicly, according to several Muslims who were visited by authorities one year ago.
Magda Bayoumi says two FBI agents visited her that morning. “I opened the door with a question mark on my face,” she recounts.
Bayoumi says the agents asked her how much she donated to Help the Needy, where she thought the money was going, what she knew about a certain strain of Islam, and whether she went to a recent charity banquet. They also asked her if she would be upset to know that the money went to build a mosque, she says.
As the agents were leaving, Bayoumi says she asked them, “Why do you want to keep the Muslim people down all the time, to suffocate them, to prevent them from helping their countries?”
In October 2003, when Bayoumi and her husband returned from the Cayman Islands, they were stopped in the airport, detained by unidentified federal officials and again asked about Help the Needy, she says. They were released three hours later.
Abu-Ghoush, who has known Dhafir for more than 20 years, says he was also questioned last Feb. 26. He says two FBI agents followed him in his car that morning as he drove to the bank. They stopped him, showed their badges, and said, “You know that Dr. Dhafir has been arrested?” Abu-Ghoush says the agents asked him if he knew where the Help the Needy money went, how long he has known Dhafir and how often he goes to the mosque.
Abu-Ghoush and Bayoumi both say they had spoken with dozens of people who were also interrogated that morning. The others, they say, were asked similar questions. Many were queried about their religion. They were asked questions such as, “How long have you been a Muslim?” and, “Have you converted to Islam?”
Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Central New York chapter, says that the interrogations were “unnecessarily aggressive,” and that many of the questions asked were inappropriate.
“If you or I were to give a donation to the Salvation Army, and there was some kind of allegation of misuse of funds in the Salvation Army and they wanted to question us about how our donations would have been solicited, I don’t think they would have been asking questions about our First Amendment activities, free association and religious practices,” Gewanter says.
“[They] treated these family members as if they were suspects when that was not the case,” she adds. “The effect of that was intimidation of the Muslim community.”
Abu-Ghoush agrees. “Our community was shocked,” he says. “The questioning sent a message: ‘If you try to help Dhafir, they are going to arrest you.’”
The case has attracted the attention of activist groups in Syracuse. Most argue that Dhafir’s actions were compassionate and moral, even if they might not have been legal.
“For a nation to question those who help the needy is an attack upon the faith,” says Bill Coop, a retired pastor and long time civil-rights activist. “Linking helping Iraqi children with 9/11 is just ludicrous.” Coop helped organize Dhafir support meetings at South Presbyterian Church.
Madis Senner, a local activist, attended those church meetings and other community events regarding the case. He became inspired to create a Web site (www.jubileeinitiative.org/FreeDhafir.htm) to help defend Dhafir. On the site, he writes about how his mother used to send money back to Estonia, her native country, to help starving relatives. “It’s hard to believe immigrants to our great country would be arrested for a tradition that dates back to the early days of our republic,” Senner wrote.
“If they dig on all of us, they’ll find something,” Senner adds in an interview. “Dhafir is a victim of Mr. Ashcroft.”
Jeanne DeSocio, a local activist and member of the Catholic activist organization Pax Christi, corresponds regularly with Dhafir. “I consider the sanctions the villain,” she says. “If he violated the sanctions, he violated the villain.”
Attorneys for both sides have remained relatively quiet lately, lowering the profile of what many originally expected to be an internationally covered spectacle.
“We’re not speaking to the media right now,” says Royce Hawkins, a member of Dhafir’s legal team. “We’re letting the community talk and we’re keeping quiet.”
All evidence and arguments aside, the outcome of the case may depend more on the prosecution’s zealousness and the level of public outrage at how the case has been handled, than on the evidence itself.
The federal government does not usually prosecute groups that violate the sanctions against Iraq, preferring to either ignore their activities or issue fines. As a result, the case could end up being more about the legality and morality of the sanctions than the technical guilt or innocence of one man.
Meanwhile, Dhafir waits in jail. If he continues to refuse to be strip searched, he might not be allowed to attend his own trial. Many activists say that unless Dhafir’s case attracts national attention, he will likely be brought to trial and found guilty.
Senner says he hopes Dhafir’s case will attract attention as a rallying cry for all the post-Sept. 11, 2001, crackdowns on Muslims. Dhafir’s position as a respected and prominent member of the Muslim community in Syracuse should help his case attract national attention, Senner says.
“In the end, the jury will have to make up its mind,” Abu-Ghoush says. “Even if he sent [money] to his family so they could buy supplies for the poor people there, is that a crime? What kind of humans would we be to say we would never allow that? I don’t think any rational human being would put someone in jail for that.”