By Katherine Hughes
Sent to the Post-Standard on November 15th, 2004. (Unpublished.)


I am attending the trial of Dr. Rafil Dhafir as a court watcher at the invitation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I’m writing this editorial to strongly encourage other people to attend the trial and witness the proceedings. This is not a request for people to come to the trial to support Dr. Dhafir’s innocence or guilt, it is a request for people to come to the trial as active citizens in a democracy in order to ensure that another citizen of that same democracy receives due process. The right to be held innocent until proven guilty is a right that is extended to all of us and I believe it is incumbent upon each of us, as citizens of a democracy, to ensure this right for each other.

I personally became involved in attending the trial because I didn’t feel that I had enough information available to me to form an opinion on the likelihood of innocence or guilt of Dr. Dhafir. The reports that I had seen painted Dr. Dhafir either as a saint or as a crook. I also had some concerns about the circumstances of the case. Dr. Dhafir was investigated and arrested as part of the war on terrorism but is now facing charges that have nothing to do with terrorism. (For a good summary of the case to present time see Michael Powell’s article in the Washington Post, “High-Profile N.Y. Suspect Goes on Trial: Arrest Was Called Part of War on Terrorism, but Doctor Faces Other Charges,” October 19, 2004.)

Senior members of the government have openly identified Dr. Dhafir as a “supporter of terrorism”. And the prosecution are content to leave a cloud of unknowing, that insinuates more serious charges, hanging over the court’s decision to refuse Dr. Dhafir bail. Yet Judge Norman Mordue has ruled that the defense cannot bring up the fact that after 5 years of investigation (which included physical surveillance of Dr. Dhafir, intercepting mail, email and faxes and bugging of Help the Needy offices) the FBI and other agencies have no evidence of a tie to terrorism. In his article in the Washington Post about this case, Michael Powell describes the government’s approach to the terror allegations as having a “shadow-boxing quality” to them. I would agree with this description and I believe that it is also a valid description of some of the court proceedings that I have witnessed where, as a direct result of this restriction, the defense has been hampered in it’s ability to cross-examine witnesses.

Also, in my discussions of this case with people, I have become aware of reluctance to get involved in trying to sort out the facts of the case. This surprises me and I believe it is a direct result of how the government has handled dissemination of information about this case.

The government’s open declarations and insinuations of links to terrorism have had a direct effect on my own behavior. Several months ago I declined to make a contribution to a Muslim charity as a show of solidarity with the local Muslim community. I refused because I felt that I did not know enough about the situation to make a personal statement of solidarity that was authentic. But my decision was also influenced by the new U.S. regulations known as the PATRIOT Act, which meant that the consequences of an error of judgment could be considerable. As a non-U.S. citizen (I’m Scottish and have lived here as a permanent resident for 16 years) I believe I may have felt my vulnerability more keenly than a U.S. citizen might have.

My reluctance to stand in solidarity with people from the Muslim community, in what might be their greatest hour of need, left me with an immense obligation to find out, as best I could, the facts of this case. I felt this obligation particularly intensely because of my awareness of the devastating consequences that sanctions, imposed on the Iraqi government, had for Iraqi civilians, particularly the Iraqi children. (I was stunned by the testimony of a government official who had been involved in drafting and implementation of the Iraqi sanctions for 12 years. She testified that she was unaware, in her professional or personal life, of any of the impact of the sanctions on Iraqi civilians, including the children.) I also thought that these circumstances, of Iraq under sanctions, might have some legitimate bearing on the case.

I attend the trial two full days a week and have been doing so since the first day of proceedings. (Court is in session Monday to Thursday, 8.30am until 1.30pm.) The volume of information is immense and complicated. I write for the whole time that I’m observing the trial and try to get down as much of the proceeding as I can. This is not easy because it’s difficult to keep up with the pace of the proceedings in longhand. Court records are available to the public, but the charge of $5.75 per page makes them inaccessible to me.

I have been concerned that the newspaper coverage that I have seen does not adequately reflect the proceedings. On Friday, November 5, you devoted two headlines to the fact that a computer virus nearly exposed the FBI’s investigation. This fact was totally irrelevant to the case before the court. In the same report you describe the FBI’s investigation as a fraud investigation, and I believe, at that time, it was being conducted as an investigation of terrorism.

In today’s paper, Renee Gadoua did not even mention that, under cross-examination, Mark Sweeney, the IRS agent, admitted he had no direct evidence that money went to Canada. And yet, one of the government’s main visual aids is a huge map, with arrows and country flags, showing the money flow. This chart is misleading, to say the least; it shows a big arrow going into Canada and a Canadian flag to mark the country. And yet Renee Gadoua did not think this was important enough to even get a passing mention. I have talked with John O’Brien and Renee Gadoua, the reporters covering the case, about my concern and they believe my concern is unfounded. This difference in perception is a compelling reason why members of the public should attend proceedings.

Although I have been attending the trial as a court watcher at the invitation of the ACLU, the thoughts and opinions that I have expressed here are my own and do not represent ACLU policy. (For more information contact the local ACLU office.)

If you believe that a person’s right to be considered innocent until proven guilty is something worth protecting, I urge you to take some time to attend the trial.