Keith Rosenthal December 2003

While Saddam Hussein remains locked up in an undisclosed location in Baghdad under the authority of the United States, another Iraqi man remains locked up in Jamesville Penitentiary in New York state under the authority of the U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft.

Dr. Rafil Dhafir has spent over nine months in various prisons in the area around Syracuse, New York, after he was arrested on February 26, 2003 by federal officials for the alleged crime of violating the International Economic Powers Act. This Act, essentially placing US-backed sanctions on Iraq, prohibits individuals from providing any material aid to the Iraqi people.

Dr. Dhafir has been targeted because of his work with the US-based charity organization, Help the Needy. Help the Needy was founded in 1994 with the intention of soliciting money for the starving and oppressed people of Hussein’s Iraq. Dr. Dhafir and other contributors to the foundation were particularly concerned with the effect that United Nations sanctions-in place from 1990 to 2003-were having on the children of Iraq. Dennis Halliday, the former head of the United Nations Oil for Food Program, estimates that approximately 5,000 Iraqi children have been killed per month because of these sanctions.

Dr. Dhafir is an American citizen, and has been one since 1972, but he was born and educated in Iraq. He is also a prominent member of the Muslim community in Syracuse, New York, and a much-respected doctor specializing in the care of cancer patients.

Dr. Dhafir has been working with Help the Needy since 1994. In total, the organization has sent close to $4 million dollars to banks in Jordan, where it was used to buy food and other welfare materials, and then shipped into Iraq to be made available to children and the needy there.

The Justice Department admits that Dr. Dhafir had been spied on by a wide array of federal agents during the three years prior to his arrest (i.e., after the ascension to power of the Bush administration), but intimate that it is pure coincidence that federal agents pounced precisely as Bush was preparing to prosecute a war on Iraq that was largely seen as unpopular, illegal, and unjust.

Since that time, the old adage that “truth is the first casualty of war” has proved incredibly relevant. The world has witnessed the extent to which the Bush administration was willing to go in “stretching” the truth and strong-arming opposition in order to get its war. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. No Saddam-Al Qaeda link has been found. The only things that have been found are a grisly old man in a hole and lucrative, “reconstruction” contracts worth billions of dollars dished out to the likes of US-based Halliburton, Bechtel, and Boeing.

In this light, the arrest last winter of Dr. Dhafir does not come as all that great of a surprise. And neither do the subsequent interrogations conducted by federal agents of close to 150 predominantly Muslim families that had donated to Help the Needy, making it the largest single interrogation of Muslims ever conducted by Federal authorities.

These interrogations were part of the broader federal operation known as “Imminent Horizon,” intended to nationally “disrupt and rattle” potential terrorist operations in advance of the war on Iraq. In defending the arrests and interrogations, Attorney General Ashcroft said, “As President 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. Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted.”

But according to information gathered from U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby-the very man prosecuting the case-there is no evidence that any money from Help the Needy had gone to al-Qaeda, the Iraqi government, or weapons that could have been used against U.S. soldiers. Despite all these ambiguities, Dr. Dhafir potentially faces up to 265 years in prison and $14 million in fines. He has been refused bail multiple times and most recently has been denied access to certain members of his legal team.

Royce Hawkins of the Center for Community Alternatives, and a member of Dhafir’s legal team, was recently barred from visiting his client in a prison in downtown Syracuse. Royce feels that the whole case is a sham. “Nothing has been fair about this whole process,” Royce said. “Before this, my ideal of the justice system was that the government would at least allow someone to fight on their own behalf. But they have isolated Dhafir from his legal team; they have removed any notion of fairness. [The Judge and prosecution] have taken a posture that says, ‘we’ll do what we want and we don’t care what you think about it.”

To many, the arrest of Dr. Dhafir begs certain questions: Could it be that the innocence of Dr. Dhafir is just one more casualty in this government’s ruthless drive to war? Was the arrest of Dr. Dhafir and the round up and intimidation of thousands of Arab-Americans and Muslims in this country simply a way to “shock and awe” any potential anti-war activists into submission? Was Dr. Dhafir targeted out of a necessity to deflect attention away from Bush’s seemingly irrational ‘Iraq psychosis’ and onto those who not only expressed sympathies with the suffering people of Iraq, but actually put their money where their mouth was?

In reality, Dr. Dhafir seems to have been caught up in the crossfire between two much larger forces than himself: one man, in control of the most powerful country in the world, and his adversary, formerly in control of one of the poorest. His only possible “crime” is simply caring too much about starving and oppressed Iraqis. Unlike Bush, Dr. Dhafir backed up his words with actions designed to uplift Saddam’s victims with material aid, rather than further deprecate them with bombs, a colonial-style occupation, and the international expropriation of profits and resources from the Iraqi economy.

Dhafir had family remaining in Iraq so he was not only under threat of harassment from the U.S. government for his philanthropy, but he was also at risk of rendering his family vulnerable to the terror of Hussein. For anyone who has seen the unfortunate myriad of pictures of deformed Iraqi children suffering from easily-curable diseases, it would be easy to understand the feelings that drive one to think that the worst crime of all would be to not help these people.

Just compare Dhafir’s actions with those of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has yet to be tried for war crimes for her much publicized statement on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” in 1996, that the sanctions-induced deaths of upwards of 500,000 Iraqi children was worth the price of U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, once said that a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the value of his actions based upon the punishment they may bring upon him; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong.

In the final analysis, Dr. Rafil Dhafir is no criminal. Rather, he is a hero for his compassion, bravery, and dedication to humanitarian causes. If anything, his victimization should serve as a clarion call, alerting us to the broader ills afflicting a government and a justice system that would turn the world of heroes and criminals upside down.

Keith Rosenthal is an activist in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at