by James Mckinnon The Bachelor 9/16/04

Dr. Rafil Dhafir was living the American dream. A naturalized U.S. citizen of Iraqi descent, Dhafir was a prominent oncologist in the Syracuse community as well as a founding member of the charity Help the Needy. His life took a radical turn for the worse in February of 2003 when he was arrested by federal agents for sending approximately $160,000 to Iraq in violation of the trade embargo. Since then he has been sitting in a Syracuse jail cell facing charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. He has repeatedly been denied bail and access to a lawyer.

Given this treatment, one might expect that Dr. Dhafir’s funds had been sent to terrorists or other individuals that posed a threat to the U.S.’ national security. In reality, it was the doctor’s charitable activities that the authorities took issue with. The money had been raised through the charity Help the Needy and following a three year investigation federal officials were unable to uncover any evidence that the money ended up in the hands of terrorists or the Iraqi government. On the contrary, all of the uncovered evidence corroborated the doctor’s claims that the funds were used to purchase food and medical supplies.

Help the Needy has never denied the charges linking it with sending humanitarian aid to Iraq in violation of the embargo. Looking at past cases involving similar violations, they had every reason to believe that going underground would be unnecessary. Voices in the Wilderness, another prominent charity, has frequently and publicly broken the trade embargo without facing criminal charges, receiving only punitive fines. A motion to dismiss the charges against Dhafir lists 57 corporations that have violated similar trade embargos. In each case fines were the only punishment. Despite the fact that many of these companies actually worked directly with the governments of blacklisted countries no individual faced the risk of jail time.

On top of the unprecedented penalties that Dhafir is facing, he has repeatedly been denied bail under claims that he is a flight risk. This has severely hampered his ability to coordinate an effective defense, especially considering that he has been unable to have private consultations with his lawyers due to the fact that he has refused the prerequisite strip search for religious reasons.

Given the fairly innocuous nature of his transgressions, what has incited the Justice Department’s full-scale assault on Dhafir’s future? Perhaps he has simply fallen victim to an overzealous attempt to chalk up a victory in the war on terror. New York Governor George Pataki certainly strengthened the misconception that this is a fight against terrorism while commenting on the arrest of two Muslims attempting to purchase shoulder-fired missiles. “We saw with the arrest in Syracuse of money-laundering efforts to help terrorist organizations, and today we see here, again,” Pataki said, “those among us who seek to help terrorists to conduct horrible acts against the people of America and against our freedom.”

Never mind the fact that this comparison flies in the face of an admission by the lead prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby, that “there’s no evidence that any of the Help the Needy money went to al-Qaida, the Iraqi government, or to buy arms and bullets that could be used against U.S. soldiers.” Thanks to the image perpetuated by Pataki and other officials, the American public will only see a terrorist sympathizer being sent to prison. The Justice Department will have its victory against terrorism while an innocent man suffers thanks to trumped up charges.

[KH: On October 22, 2005 Dr. Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He and other Help the Needy defendants are listed on the FBI list of successful terrorism prosectutions. Dr. Dhafir was never allowed to defend any terrorism charges in a court of law.]