From:Syracuse Peace Newsletter September 2005

by Magda Bayoumi

Who is Dr. Dhafir, and why was he on trial?

Dr. Rafil Dhafir was born in Iraq and immigrated to the US in 1972. He has been a US citizen and Central New York resident for almost 30 years. A prominent physician, he was the only oncologist in Rome, NY. Dr. Dhafir served as the spiritual leader (imam) for the Islamic Society of Central New York for about seven years when there was no regular imam. He is very compassionate about his family, work and religion; about children and his patients, who suffered from cancer.

When he learned about the increased number of cancer cases in Iraq after the Gulf War and the number of children dying, he started Help the Needy (HTN), an organization to aid people in his native land. On February 26, 2003 the government arrested Dr. Dhafir and charged him with violating the economic sanctions against Iraq and money laundering. Other charges were added later. He was convicted on February 8 of this year of 59 out of 60 charges. His sentencing has been rescheduled several times and is now set for Wednesday October 19 at 10 am at the Federal Courthouse in Syracuse.

How did government agents treat the Muslim and Arab community in CNY in conjunction with this case?

On February 26th, 2003 the government also arrested five others connected with the charity or its operation, and a couple of Muslim men who were held without charges. Nine different federal and local government agencies, including the FBI and INS, interrogated and harassed over 150 Muslim families, effectively intimidating the Muslim community. They asked personal questions of religion, which were unrelated to the case.

How was Dr. Dhafir treated as he awaited trial?

He was denied bail four times and was treated like a serious criminal, not someone accused of white-collar crimes. Later on, the government piled on charges of Medicare fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. They charged his wife with lying to a federal agent and threatened her with jail time, if she didn’t plead guilty.

How did the US government’s obsession with “terrorism” affect Dr. Dhafir?

On the day of Dr. Dhafir’s arrest, federal prosecutors called a major news conference insinuating that they had broken up a “terrorist” operation. The prosecutor called the arrests a good example of the Patriot Act in action. Attorney General John Ashcroft stated; “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.”

How did the local news media handle the case?

The media jumped at the terrorism bait, since nearly all of the Muslim community was scared to speak out. Some of his patients spoke on behalf of Dr. Dhafir as did some community activists. From the media’s coverage it looked and sounded as if Help the Needy was a terrorist organization. The dramatic drumbeat before any newscast made it sound like we were on the verge of war and the people involved in the organization were our enemies. They also regularly misstated the charges.

On what charges was he convicted? What generally happens to people who are convicted for similar crimes?

Dr. Dhafir was convicted of violating the US sanctions, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud, and conspiracy to do so.

Voices in the Wilderness, another US-based organization doing a similar type of aid work in Iraq, received a $20,000 fine, which they have refused to pay. No one was jailed.

The same imbalance is seen in the Medicare fraud. According to Medicare regulations, doctors who overcharge must pay back the difference, along with a fine in some cases. This has happened in several local cases.

The tax evasion charge was related to the fact that HTN did not have a separate tax-exempt status; rather they worked through another non-profit organization. HTN had submitted a request for its own tax-exempt status to the IRS in August 2002, but the request was put on hold by the FBI. Even if this charge was true, the IRS normally settles such claims with the people involved with monetary fines.

The money laundering charges relate to the doctor’s personal money and donors’ money that was transferred to accounts in Jordan to facilitate the purchase of aid for the Iraqi people. The government said this was done to benefit Dr. Dhafir and that very little aid went to Iraq. They refused to go to the area to check the facts, claiming that this would have cost too much, while they spent millions of dollars investigating and prosecuting the case.

Not hiring an accountant for the organization to document everything in an “American” way also came to haunt him. These are the crimes of which he is guilty. Dr. Dhafir wanted to make sure the money went to help people without overhead charges, but he took it to the extreme and became the organization’s accountant, manager, fundraiser, etc., on top of his medical work. This made him much more vulnerable to government investigation and prosecution.

Wasn’t he convicted of Medicare or Medicaid fraud? Shouldn’t he be punished for that?

Medicare regulations are complicated and burdensome, that is why many doctors do not accept patients with Medicare. It became apparent in the trial that there was confusion about the Medicare regulations related to the charge, even among the Medicare officials themselves.

Some say that doctors are rich and greedy and overcharge Medicare. However when you look at Dr. Dhafir’s history, he was far from greedy. Here is a man who graduated at the top of his class and could’ve been an even more successful doctor in Syracuse, but chose to open an office in Rome because there was no oncologist there to help the people. In addition Dr. Dhafir treated many patients who could not afford the fees. They were treated and told to pay what they could later.

If Dr. Dhafir cared only about the money, he wouldn’t have kept an office 40 miles from his house, but would have established an office closer to Syracuse where doctors like him can make millions of dollars a year. He made half a million dollars a year according to his tax return; however he and his wife lived in the same house for the last twenty years. He does not have children, so whatever he was making, he was turning around and giving it away.

What was it like to attend the trial?

Attending the trial opened my eyes in many ways. It showed me how the government can manipulate and twist the truth. It also showed me how I could be searched and watched anytime without even knowing it. The government taped Dr. Dhafir’s private conversations, and even attempted to plant cameras in his house. They tapped his phone, intercepted his email and faxes, and even searched his trash.

I also got the sense that the prosecutors and the judge were bit players, while the real decision makers were back in Washington DC. Attending the trial made me feel that the people that I should be counting on to keep me safe, are actually the ones trying to hurt me. On the positive side, I met many wonderful people during the trial who came to observe the process and support Dr. Dhafir. These are the people that will keep not just our country but the whole world safe.

What happened to the others who were arrested with Dr. Dhafir?

The others all plea-bargained with the federal attorney. Let’s remember, they all had children they wanted to go home to. They also felt the power of the government, and had no hope Muslims could receive a fair trial in the current climate. None of them were jailed; four were fined and put on probation while one still awaits sentencing.

Postscript on Dr. Dhafir’s Case

Sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday, October 19 at 10 am Federal Court in Syracuse.

After several delays, Dr. Dhafir is now due to be sentenced in mid-October. Prosecutors are trying to link him with “terrorists” or suggest that he poses a threat to our “national security” even when no such link or threat was mentioned in the trial. In fact, the prosecution lobbied hard to keep such information out of the trial. While it may be legal to bring such allegations at the sentencing phase in a federal case, it seems like a back door approach at demonizing Dr. Dhafir in order to increase his sentence. Federal probation authorities recommended a sentence of 14-17 years. However, prosecutors are asking for 24-30 years. Defense attorneys for Dr. Dhafir are expected to argue against the truth of the allegations, and against their application in the judge’s sentencing decision. This may be an uphill battle in that an observer during the trial heard the judge say to the jury that he usually takes the government’s advice in sentencing.

Magda is a Muslim community activist who serves on the Peace Council Advisory Committee along with many other commitments.