William Fisher NEW YORK, Feb 22, 2005 (IPS)

Civil libertarians are wondering if the new U.S. attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales, will continue one of the trademarks of his predecessor, John Ashcroft: razzle-dazzle news conferences announcing the arrests of terrorists, followed by trials in which no one is charged or tried for any terror-related offences.

They point to the recent case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an Iraqi-American oncologist who was convicted on Feb. 10 of violating economic sanctions against Iraq, Medicare fraud and tax evasion.

But when Dhafir was detained in northern New York State in February 2003, Ashcroft trumpeted the arrest as part of Pres. George W. Bush’s war on terror.

”Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted,” he said.

”As Pres. 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.”

New York’s governor, George Pataki, declared, ”It is again troubling to see.that there are clear terrorists living here in New York State among us…who are supporting or aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbours.”

No terrorism charges were ever bought against Dhafir. A member of his defence team, Joel Cohen, believes that his client ”was clearly targeted, clearly investigated, clearly indicted, tried, and clearly convicted because he is a Muslim, (and) because he is a person of Iraqi ancestry.”

The government alleged that Dhafir illegally raised millions of dollars and violated U.S sanctions by sending funds to Iraq through his charity, Help the Needy, and that he also diverted some of these funds for his personal use.

He is thought to be the only U.S citizen convicted of breaking the Iraq sanctions, though groups such as Voices in the Wilderness, Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi USA, the American Friends Service Committee, the Order of St Dominic (Dominican priests), Conscience International, Global Exchange, and the International Action Centre have admitted breaking the sanctions with Iraq since before the U.S. invasion.

The judge in Dhafir’s case denied a defence motion to allow mention of Dhafir’s religion or refer to terrorism during the trial.

David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Centre and an internationally recognised legal authority on civil liberties, believes the Dhafir case is emblematic of a pattern created by the Ashcroft Justice Department.

”Not one person of the more than 5,000 locked up as a foreign national in preventive detention by John Ashcroft was ever convicted of a terrorist crime,” Cole told IPS. ”The only convictions have been of U.S. citizens. John Ashcroft labeled them as suspected terrorists, but it turned out they had nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever.”

In his end-of-year speech to Justice Department (DOJ) employees, Ashcroft said ”375 people have been charged in terror-related cases over the past three years and 190 have been convicted or pleaded guilty.”

But according to Cole, ”what Ashcroft doesn’t say is that most of those people are not indicted on anything to do with terrorism. What he doesn’t say is that a Syracuse University research department looked at Justice Department figures and found that the median sentence imposed on persons convicted for crimes in cases that the DOJ labeled as terrorism was 14 days.”

”Now, 14 days is not the kind of sentence you get if you’re convicted of terrorism. It’s the kind of sentence you get if you’re convicted of some completely petty crime.”

For complete article:Inter Press Service