Muslims like Dr. Rafil Dhafir should be celebrated as the outstanding humanitarians they are, not turned into convenient props in the War on Terror.

On October 27, 2005, after being detained 31 months and being denied access to his own records, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an oncologist from Upstate New York, was sentenced to 22 years in Federal prison.[1] A man of Iraqi descent and Muslim faith, he lived in the U.S. since 1974 and has been an American citizen for almost 30 years. As a direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Gulf War and U.S. sanctions Dhafir founded the charity Help the Needy (HTN). Despite many difficulties, including the U.S. embargo and a brutal dictatorship in Iraq, HTN got food and medicines to millions of starving Iraqis for 13 years.[2] Without HTN aid the UN statistic of 5,200 preventable deaths per month of children under the age of five would undoubtedly have been much higher.

On February 26, 2003, the day that Dhafir was arrested, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that “supporters of terrorism had been apprehended.” Since that day senior government officials have continued to paint Dhafir as a terrorist, and Judge Norman Mordue denied Dhafir bail on four occasions. Yet local prosecutors successfully lobbied Mordue to prevent the charge of terrorism from being part of the trial. This ruling turned into a brick wall that the defense kept hitting during the proceedings: prosecutors could hint at more serious charges, but the defense was never allowed to follow this line of questioning. Despite denying Dhafir the right to address the charge in court, Mordue allowed prosecutors to bring the charge to his sentencing.

Although the government continues to characterize Dhafir as a criminal supporting terrorism, the only context in which this case makes any sense is the overwhelming humanitarian crisis created by the brutal U.S. sanctions on the country of Iraq.[3]

Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), speaking about mainstream U.S media coverage before the Iraq War had begun, said, “I try to point out to the mainstream journalists that they have succeeded enormously in informing the U.S. public about the horrors committed by the current regime in Iraq while for the most part neglecting the horrors the United States has committed. That the regime here has used chemical weapons, engaged in torture, and violated the political and civil rights of Iraqi civilians is repugnant to all who cherish human rights. And yet, what the U.S. public doesn’t understand and will possibly never comprehend is that the greatest violations of human rights in Iraq since the Gulf War have happened as a result of U.S.-led UN economic sanctions against Iraq.”[4] Indeed, three senior UN officials living and working in Iraq resigned because they considered the sanctions to be a “genocidal” policy.[5]

Talking about her return to the U.S. after a 1998 visit to Iraq, Kelly said, “Upon our return to the U.S., customs agents turned my passport over to the State Department, perhaps as evidence that, according to U.S. law, I’ve committed a criminal act by traveling to Iraq. I know that our efforts to be voices in the wilderness aren’t criminal. We’re governed by compassion, not by the laws that pitilessly murder innocent children. What’s more, Iraqi children might benefit if we could bring their story into a courtroom, before a jury of our peers.”[6]


During the course of the proceedings the government did its utmost to prevent any discussion of the conditions in Iraq under the sanctions from being part of the trial. Government employees, including Susan Hutner, of the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), testified to having no knowledge of the effects of the sanctions. As the government attorney addressing the situation in Iraq, she helped draft the initial legal documentation to implement the sanctions and then worked on the sanctions for 12 years. When the defense attempted to question Hutner about the Oil for Food program, the court ruled the line of questioning irrelevant.[7]

Several government witnesses of Iraqi descent broke down on the stand when they began to talk of the effects of the sanctions on their families.[8] Each time this happened the prosecution immediately interrupted the testimony.[9] The only newspaper reporting on the proceedings, the local Syracuse Post-Standard, failed to address the sanctions as they pertained to the case.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990, and on August 2, U.S. sanctions against Iraq were put in place. On January 17, 1991, the first bombs of the Gulf War were dropped on Baghdad. Before this war the people of Iraq had a standard of living comparable to many Western countries. Although a brutal dictatorship, the government provided universal healthcare and education including college for all its citizens. There was virtually no illiteracy and the education system and health system were the best in the region.

The result of the war was total devastation: more bombs were dropped on Iraq in a six-week period than were dropped by all parties together in the whole of World War II. Taken together, these bombs are at least six times more powerful than two atomic bombs. Many types of bombs were used including ones containing depleted uranium (DU), the waste matter from nuclear plants; hundreds of tons of DU ammunition now lie scattered throughout Iraq. The DU dust has entered the food chain through the soil and the water, and as a result many formerly unknown diseases have become prevalent in Iraq. Many pregnant women are delivering their babies as early as six months, and many babies are born with terrible deformities. Cancer rates have skyrocketed, and if current trends continue 44% of the population could develop cancer within the next ten years. [10]

All major bridges and communication systems were bombed, making any communications both inside and outside the country extremely difficult. The water purification system was bombed and the UN has never allowed it to be repaired; as a result 15 years of raw sewage has piled up in the streets. This has been the cause of much disease and death, particularly among the young and very old. Hospitals and schools were not spared and, as a result of the bombing and the sanctions, the health and education systems in Iraq went from being the best in the region to being the worst. [11]

Robert Fisk in his new book about the Middle East says, “There was one final scourge to be visited upon the Iraqi people, a foul cocktail in which both our gunfire and our sanctions played an intimate, horrific role, one that would contaminate Iraqis for years to come, perhaps for generations. In historical terms, it may be identified as our most callous crime against the Middle East, against Arabs, against children. It manifested itself in abscesses, in massive tumours, in gangrene, internal bleeding and child mastectomies and shrunken heads and deformities and thousands of tiny graves.”[12]

In 1998 Denis Halliday, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations resigned from the UN after thirty-four years of distinguished service. At the time he was serving as the humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, and his resignation was a direct result of the conditions he witnessed. He said, “I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults. We all know that the regime, Saddam Hussein, is not paying the price of economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of treated water. What is clear is that the Security Council is now out of control, for its actions here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. History will slaughter those responsible.”[13]

Hans Von Sponeck succeeded Denis Halliday as humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad and, in early 2000, he too resigned from that position. Von Sponeck, talking about the Oil for Food program, said that it was impossible for each person to live on the $100 per year that was being allocated, especially because of the conditions prevalent in Iraq at the time. He said, “Set that pittance against the lack of clean water, the fact that electricity fails for up to 22 hours a day, and the majority of sick people cannot afford treatment, the sheer trauma of trying to get from day to day, and you have a glimpse of the nightmare. And make no mistake, this is deliberate. I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable.”[14]

And in a report to the UN Secretary General, Professor Marc Bossuyt, an authority on international law, stated that the “…sanctions regime against Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing human right law and could raise questions under the Genocide Convention.”[15]


Over the course of 13 years, from 1990 until 2003, HTN sent food and medicines that reached millions of starving Iraqi civilians. The aid was first sent to Maher Zagha in Jordan. Zagha is a former Onondaga Community College and Utica College student who lived in the Upstate New York area for several years before returning to Jordan.[16] He is listed as a co-conspirator with Dhafir on the indictment.

On the day of Dhafir’s arrest, Zagha was arrested in Jordan and then held in solitary for 21 days. The Jordanians interrogated him and released him and since then he has gone about his normal life, including traveling internationally. After Dhafir’s conviction in February 2005 the remaining HTN money in Jordan, $138,564.53 was confiscated along with $25,000 of Dhafir’s personal money.

Throughout the period of the sanctions container loads of food were shipped by HTN from Jordan to Iraq. Receipts from the purchase of food were shown in court. For example, an invoice from January 29th, 1997, showed the purchase of 25 tons of Thailand rice, 35 tons of flour and 2000 cans of cooking oil. Invoices from other days and years list tons of; American rice, Turkish sugar, Iranian flour, chickpeas and Iraqi lentils. Tea and tomato paste was also shipped.[17] Zagha sent the aid into Iraq using the correct official channels required by the Jordanian authorities. When he was unable to comply, he gave the aid over to the authorities. In 1990 when Dhafir sent 900 kilograms of medicine to Zagha without the correct paper work, Zagha had to give the medicine to the Iraqi embassy in Jordan. It was the only way to get the medicine into Iraq and he could only hope that it would reach the people for whom it was intended.

From 1996 through 2003 Zagha sent money to Iraq and local exchangers were used because there were no banks operating at that time. The money was sent to Dhafir’s brother Najim in Baghdad (also a physician) and two other men, Mustapha and Ammar. By getting money into Iraq from Jordan HTN was able to provide starving civilians with meat protein. The three men in Baghdad bought animals at the open markets surrounding the city, and these purchases usually coincided with the major holidays of the Muslim faith. For example, in January 2003, for one of the most holy of Muslim holidays, Eid, Zagha sent four lots of money totaling $285,000. This money bought about 4,000 lambs and cows which were sacrificed, and the food was distributed to the needy.[18] Looking at the quantities of aid provided to Iraqi civilians by HTN, it is easy to believe that they were indeed feeding more people in Iraq than all the other aid agencies put together.[19]

An email read in court showed that Dhafir believed that the U.S. government was not opposed to Iraqi civilians receiving humanitarian aid of the form that HTN was supplying. HTN and other groups, like VITW, openly advertised that they were sending aid to civilians. They did this through leaflets, websites and fundraising events. For 13 years the government took little action against people who sent aid to Iraqi civilians, and this tacit approval must have helped confirm Dhafir’s belief.[20]

Since the day of his arrest, using unfair tactics and innuendo, the government has managed to transform Dhafir from a compassionate humanitarian into a crook and supporter of terrorists. They have done this with the aid of a complicit press and a willfully ignorant public.


From the outset in this case the approach of the government has been one of circumambulation. Michael Powell of the Washington Post said, “There is a shadow-boxing quality to the terror allegations lodged against Dhafir. In August [2004], Gov. George E. Pataki (R) described Dhafir’s as a ‘money laundering case to help terrorist organizations . . . conduct horrible acts.’ Prosecutors hinted at national security reasons for holding Dhafir without bail. But no evidence was offered to support the allegations.”[21]

In April 2004 the U.S. government brought new charges against Zagha to Interpol, and Zagha had to give up his passport. It was returned so that he could make a business trip to Syria, but on December 20, 2005, the authorities again took his passport.

To this day no evidence has been offered to link Dhafir to terrorists. And yet, on November 15, 2005, the government presented a lecture at Syracuse University’s law school entitled, “A Law Enforcement Approach to Terrorist Financing,” in which Dhafir’s case was highlighted. [22] The three prosecutors from the case, Michael Olmsted, Greg West and Steve Green were present along with Jeff Breinholt, Deputy Chief, Counterterrorism Section United States Department of Justice who was the main speaker.

Breinholt asserted that the Dhafir case had been “under prosecuted,” this despite the fact that the government brought 60 counts against Dhafir and gained conviction on 59. He cited HTN’s use of tax exemption numbers other than its own as an example of how charities functioned in their criminal activity. Many of Dhafir’s convictions on tax evasion and fraud charges are based on the assumption that people who gave money to HTN used the tax exemption number of another charity and therefore did not pay tax. The government is holding Dhafir responsible for this lost tax revenue.

One of the two numbers Dhafir used was from a charity that is the Saudi Arabian equivalent of the American charity United Way.[23] The use of another charity’s number is not an uncommon practice. What is uncommon is the fact that it resulted in a criminal prosecution. Barrie Gewanter, Director of the Central New York ACLU, has explained the normal procedure for this type of situation in numerous interviews about the HTN case. Ordinarily the state government intervenes and shuts the charity down until the situation is sorted out to their satisfaction. When and if this is achieved, the charity continues its work.[24]

The government’s philosophy in prosecuting this case was made clear in the course of the lecture. Olmsted, the head prosecutor of the Dhafir case, cited the philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s imperative, “To obey the law because it is the law.” He added that “if you break the law, you must pay the price,” apparently regardless of the unfairness of the law and the humanitarian nature of the act. Compassion comes with a very high price.

Dhafir is undoubtedly paying the price of breaking the genocidal policy of U.S. sanctions against Iraq. However, the government was unwilling to prosecute him for this without the attendant obfuscation and cover provided by the laundry list of charges that he faced. A clear message is being sent that humanitarian acts like this will not be tolerated and will be punished accordingly.

By hosting this lecture on terrorist financing, Syracuse University Law School provided the government with a platform that gives credence to an accusation that is wholly lacking in evidence. They have become the most recent government accomplice. The “shadow boxing” continues with the media, public and the local law school as willing participants in the charade.

The journalist John Pilger writes, “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it”[25] It is also not enough for citizens in a democracy to see themselves as mere receptors of information. As citizens in a democracy we have an obligation to seek justice for each other. In this case it means actively going beyond the government’s obfuscation and seeking hard facts and other sources of information. If this can be achieved, Dhafir and the other HTN defendants will be vindicated; but it is no easy task.


Many people are reassured by the fact that Dhafir can appeal against his conviction and sentencing. But most have no idea what this means in terms of practicalities. Under the best possible circumstances the chances of a successful appeal are slim.

Seven government agencies investigated this case for five years. The prosecutors presented the case in minutia over the course of the seventeen weeks of proceedings. What was expected to be a 6-week trial turned into a 14-week trial and the three defense lawyers have received a fraction of their fee. Due to this lack of finances a request for transcripts was made at the beginning of the trial.[26] Judge Mordue denied this request and so one of the three defense lawyers typed the proceedings on his laptop.

But official transcripts are essential to an appeal and even if ordered today, it would take two years to get the transcript in full. The cost would be around $60,000. before any lawyer fees or other costs are taken into account.

Dhafir has been bankrupted by this course of justice and has no money for an appeals lawyer. His only hope is that people who care about compassion and justice will be able to raise enough money for him to have a viable chance of a successful appeal.

Update 1/29/09: Information to donate to fund for producing a documentary about Dr. Dhafir’s case is available here, and for Dr. Dhafir’s legal fees here.

UPDATE DECEMBER 2008: The government won on appeal and that decision was too costly for us to fight, so money was borrowed and the Dr. Dhafir’s appeal went ahead. We are currently awaiting the decision from the appeal. More information is available here. Donations can be sent to: Dr. Dhafir Support Committee, c/o Bob Elmendorf, Secretary, P.O. Box 76, Malden Bridge, NY 12115. Make checks payable to “Dr. Dhafir Support Committee.” Please note that donations are not tax deductible.

[As of 6/20/06 donations can be sent to: Dhafir Appeal Fund, c/o Peter Goldberger, Esq., Attorney at Law, 50 Rittenhouse Place, Ardmore, PA 19003. Checks should be payable to Peter Goldberger, Esq., with Dhafir Appeal Fund in memo line. Please note that donations are not tax dedictible. More than a year after Dr. Dhafir was sentenced the appeal team do not have transcripts. The appeal court granted Dhafir transcripts at the expense of the court in August, 2006, the prosecution are currently appealing this decision.]

Katherine Hughes is a potter and a voracious reader of history and current events. She responded to a request from the ACLU for court watchers and attended virtually all of the Dhafir trial. To find out more about this case, please visit her website:
[1] Write to Dr. Dhafir: Rafil Dhafir, 11921-052, FCI-Fairton, PO Box 420, Fairton, NJ 08320. *In December 2006, Dr. Dhafir was moved, his new address is available here.

[2] We learned in the proceedings that a HTN volunteer was killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

[3] The first 15 counts of Dr. Dhafir’s 60-count indictment involve violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), commonly known as the sanctions. The full indictment is available on my website:

[4] Kathy Kelly, “Other Lands Have Dreams” (Oakland: Counterpunch and AK Press, 2005), p.51.

[5] John Pilger, “The New Rulers of the World” (London: Verso 2002), p.54.

[6] Ibid, Kelly. P.37.

[7] From my witness of the proceedings and official transcript of Susan Hutner’s cross examination by the defense, November 10, 2004.

[8] One witness broke down on the stand when testifying that his mother had died because she did not have access to necessary blood pressure medicine.

[9] A video of an HTN fundraising event was shown early in the proceedings. The government intended to play only the first few minutes, but the defense insisted that the whole video be shown.

[10] John Pilger, “The Impact of the Sanctions,” found at See also John Pilger’s documentary Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq.

[11] Information about Iraq under the sanctions can be found on the Voices in the Wilderness website. A video of a fundraising event in which Dr. Dhafir describes conditions of Iraq using the Pentagon and UNICEF as his sources is available at the address below.
The file is 120 MB:
QuickTime version:

Flash version:

[12] Robert Fisk, “The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2005) p.727.

[13] John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (London: Verso 2002), p.53.

[14] Ibid, Pilger, p.59

[15] Ibid, Pilger, p.95.

[16] In Syracuse, New York, and Rome, New York, respectively.

[17] From my witness of the proceedings

[18] Maher Zagha sent me pictures of the animals being slaughtered. A sign in each photograph shows that the animals were purchased by HTN.

[19] From my witness of the proceedings, correspondence with Maher Zagha and Dr. Dhafrir’s sentencing statement to the media.

[20] The government’s tacit approval in this case reminds me of the way that people are granted dual-citizenship: this is achieved by taking the Oath of Allegiance (and swearing away their original citizenship) and keeping the country of origin passport. This is the “accepted” practice and the media write freely about “dual-citizens.” But what if the government decides to prosecute this action in years to come?

[21] Michael Powell, “High-Profile N.Y. Suspect Goes on Trial: Arrest Was Called Part of War on Terrorism, but Doctor Faces Other Charges,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2004.

[22] The lecture was advertised by the “Institute For National Security and Counterterrorism”, INSCT, which is hosted by Syracuse University Law School:
A photograph of Greg West can be seen at this site. It was taken during the lecture and IEEPA violations are written on the board behind him.

[23] Elaine Cassel, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Have Dismantled the Bill of Rights (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004). See the chapter, “Guilt by Association: The Islamic Charities,” pp 87 – 105

[24] See WCNY Public Television, “Access” with George Kilpatrick. This program aired on Wednesday, 26th October at 11pm, the night before Dr.Dhafir’s sentencing. I was part of a three-person panel with Barrie Gewanter (ACLU) and Julienne Oldfield, another of the Dhafir trial court watchers.

[25] John Pilger’s Homepage:

[26] Pages that need to be transcribed cost $5.75 each, and already transcribed pages cost 50c a page.