[This article is also available on Information Clearing House.]

Are we a society that now calls this justice? Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison on Thursday, October 27th, 2005 for sending humanitarian aid to starving Iraqi civilians through his charity Help the Needy. Dr. Dhafir is an esteemed member of the Muslim community here in Syracuse, New York, and he is respected nationally and internationally. His sentencing follows 31 months of detention without bail and a 14-week trial. The government presented its case in minutia — 7 government agencies investigated Rafil Dhafir for 5 years; the defense called one witness for 15 minutes. One of Dr. Dhafir’s lawyers commented in summation that the only government agency not represented was the Fish and Wildlife Service. The 60-count indictment included International Emergency Economic Powers Act, IEEPA, violation, money laundering, wire fraud and Medicare fraud, and the government won conviction on every count except one where they had listed the wrong bank.

I believe it is impossible to overstate the message that has been sent to the Muslim community via this detention, prosecution, and sentencing. It says, in no uncertain terms: “If we can get Rafil Dhafir, we can get anyone”. It also lets them know that a pillar of their society can be felled without so much as a call for equal justice from the non-Muslim community. Even as a person who is not Arab or Muslim, these messages frighten me. I have spent my entire life secure in the knowledge that my civil rights would be respected, as a consequence of attending this trial I no longer believe that to be true.

Attorney General Ashcroft announced on the day of Dr. Dhafir’s arrest, February 26, 2003, that supporters of terrorism had been apprehended. And in August 2004, just before the trial started, New York Governor Pataki reiterated this charge. Local prosecutors successfully lobbied the judge to deny Dr. Dhafir the right to defend himself against this charge at trial, but they then brought the charge back for his sentencing.

I attended virtually all of the 14-week trial and took notes for 5 hours each day. I am extremely troubled by Dr. Dhafir’s detention, the presentation of the government’s case during the trial, and the fact that a jury gave the government a unanimous verdict on what I perceived as an extremely weak case. I believe other people should have grave concern for what is happening, not only in this case but also in similar cases across this country. I am presently going through the 60-Count indictment to show why I do not believe the government proved its case.

I did not know Dr. Dhafir before attending his trial. Everything I know about this man comes directly from the proceedings. I thought my sharply different experience of the proceedings would be cause for discussion in the press, at least, if not concern. The trial struck me as similar to the show trials of the former Soviet Union in the 1930s that I have seen on film. There were days when I literally cringed because the evidence of the government was so weak. One small example of this weakness was a bar chart that the government had made about Dr. Dhafir’s billing practices to Medicare, as compared to some other physicians. The bar graph showed Dr. Dhafir’s bar as being about 7 inches tall and the other 6 or 7 physicians as having bars of between approximately 1 and 3 inches (people should check the transcript for exact details of the bar graph). The woman who presented the bar chart as evidence,  did not know the area that the bar graph covered, or what types of physicians the other physicians were. Given that Dr. Dhafir was an oncologist in Rome, New York, an underserved area, it’s unlikely that many of these other physicians were Oncologists using expensive chemotherapy drugs.

My concern for civil liberties and equal justice originates from my upbringing, and from a British documentary series “World at War” that I watched as a 14 years old. I usually watched this with my family, but I was alone on a night the Allies were shown entering the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. Footage in the documentary showed bulldozers pushing heaps of skeletal bodies into pits and people who were walking cadavers. This left an indelible impression on me and spurred a lifelong search for understanding of how ordinary people could let something like this happen.

I have read, for 30 years, hundreds of first hand accounts of what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The similarities I see in this country at the present time are alarming. I could not understand how it had happened in Germany until this last year of trying to tell people about Dr. Dhafir’s case. I took a year out from my studies because I believe passionately in the need to preserve civil liberties for all. I also wanted to alert others to the danger I perceived and worked at this like a full time job. I put in many 60-hour weeks, contacting individuals, religious groups, local institutions of higher education and media outlets about Dr. Dhafir’s detention and trial, as well as keeping up my website about the case.  I believed that if I alerted people they would want to find out more, but this belief proved to be totally naïve. Knowledge is a terrible thing: it throws you out of the Garden of Eden, most people did not want to know.

Three of the defendants in the Help the Needy case have graduated from Syracuse University with advanced degrees, and many of the 150 mainly Muslim families interrogated between 6am and 10am on the morning of Dr. Dhafir’s arrest, have ties to Syracuse University. I was present when one man told how the government agents had gone back 20 years in his bank records because he had donated $150 to Help the Needy. And because he pays principal on his mortgage as well as interest each month, one agent asked him if his children had enough to eat. In a year of trying, I found a total lack of willingness to move anyone in the university community to even have forums on what was happening in front of our noses.

Dr. Dhafir’s case is one that sets legal precedents. And it also raises questions about selective prosecution and freedom of speech – Dr. Dhafir was a vociferous critic of the US policy in Iraq, as I witnessed in a fundraising video during the court proceedings. I believe this extreme outspokenness was a major contributing factor to Dr. Dhafir’s present situation. Barrie Gewanter, Director of the ACLU-CNY, has stated that her organization has concerns about selective prosecution because comparable violations have been addressed with civil fines. This case is a remarkable teaching tool to have for law students, students of journalism, or any students. However, the faculty that I contacted at Syracuse University’s Law School, Maxwell School of Citizenship and the Newhouse School of Journalism, had no interest in finding out anything about this case, or in making their students aware of the case.

Dr. Dhafir wrote a 46-page pamphlet that was handed out to the media after he was sentenced. In one paragraph toward the end of the piece Dr. Dhafir says:

“What was the result of Feb 26, 2003 besides imprisoning of innocent people? Scores of innocent elderly American cancer patients died needlessly, innumerable tens of thousands of Iraqi needy (children, women and men) died, and more than that suffered malnutrition and the humiliation of poverty. An entire segment of our society here was treated as criminals, intimidated, interrogated and threatened. Never in the history of the Islamic Society of Central New York had we had so many cases of depression and suicide that the mosque had to engage the services of a psychiatrist to help out. The dream of this Republic being a sanctuary for the oppressed was shattered on that day and a new sad reality was erected in it’s place.” P.36

Last year, in France, two novels from a Jewish writer who was killed in Auschwitz were posthumously published to wide acclaim. Talking about the second book, one reviewer says: “The second, Dolce, is a more studied and literary portrait of a small village, Bussy, at the very beginning of the occupation, and of the first tentative complicities of collaboration.” The words, “first tentative complicities of collaboration” have stayed powerfully with me since I read them. Unfortunately over the last year, I have seen these complicities all around me.

We express concern about journalists being embedded in war zones like Iraq, but we should be every bit as concerned about journalists being embedded in local Federal Buildings. My experience of the newspaper articles was that the prosecutors could not have written the articles better themselves. The media has also been unwilling to address any of the burning questions raised by the government’s duplicitous approach to this case. I now believe I know exactly how the Holocaust likely happened in Germany. A complicit media and a willfully ignorant public are all that is needed and we have both.

If you care about freedom of speech and civil liberties and would like to find out more about this case, please visit: www.dhafirtrial.net


[This article was modified 7/13/09.  When published it said that Katherine had attended the 17-week trial.  It was in fact 14 weeks long, it just felt like 17!]