Fri 28 Oct 2005
On October 27th, Dr. Rafil Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. In February 2005, a jury drawn from the Central NY Region found him guilty on 59 of 60 federal charges. These charges included violating federal regulations related to economic sanctions imposed against Iraq, as well as money laundering, mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, visa fraud, and Medicare fraud. All but the last category of charges were related to his operation of a charity called Help the Needy.
The NYCLU has already expressed deep concern about what appeared to be a selective prosecution of Dr. Dhafir. The pursuit of criminal charges related to violations of sanctions against Iraq raise serious questions about religious and ethnic discrimination against a Muslim of Arab descent. For instance, it is our understanding that the Justice Department has addressed comparable violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) mainly through civil fines instead of launching a criminal prosecution as in this case.
The NYCLU also has serious concerns about impediments placed on his legal defense by his incarceration from the time of his arrest through the end of the trial. Dr. Dhafir was totally denied bail and remained incarcerated for 2 years awaiting trial. Reasonable bail with detailed monitoring arrangements should have been made available, especially for someone charged with a first time non-violent white collar crime. Stringent rules for jail visitation also prevented him from meeting directly with his attorneys privately or through contact visits. Such severe impediments would have affected Dhafir’s ability to assist his attorneys and effectively participate in the preparation of his defense.
The federal government has repeatedly tried to pitch this as a case with national security implications. Both the US Attorney General and the NY State Governor referred publicly to this case in the context of a terrorism prosecution. However federal prosecutors never filed any charges related to terrorism nor did they prove any link to terrorists. Instead, this turned out to be a case of white collar crime; the trial process was filled with descriptions of financial statements and details of financial transactions. The government should not have engaged in inflammatory publicity before the trial, nor introduced highly prejudicial allegations of terrorist links through the back door of sentencing.
Every person charged with a crime in the US deserves and is entitled to fair and equal treatment under the law. In many ways, Dr. Dhafir was presumed guilty long before the trial began, and of much more than indicated by the charges filed against him. For the NYCLU, this case raises serious questions as to whether Muslims accused or charged with crimes in the US can truly receive a fair trial. Our government should not tout the conviction of Dr. Dhafir or the harsh sentence imposed by the court as a “win,” or as any kind of advancement in national security. When ‘justice” is pursued with religious and ethnic prejudice, and through actions that intimidate and isolate an entire community, there is no victory – there can be no advancement in national security, or faith in the promise of equal treatment under law.