Charley Hannagan Post Standard 2/26/10

Syracuse, NY — As Clinton Street traffic splashed around them, 50 people this afternoon stood silently in front of the James M. Hanley Federal Building in Syracuse to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the arrest of Dr. Rafil Dhafir.

The Manlius oncologist was arrested Feb. 26, 2003, and accused of using his children’s charity, Help the Needy, to violate U.S. sanctions against Iraq.

In 2005, a federal jury convicted Dhafir of 59 felonies, including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering for mishandling nearly $2 million from his charity. Prosecutors said he used the charity as a personal slush fund.

Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

People gathered at 2:15 p.m. at Clinton and Washington streets. Some coming directly from Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Central New York.

Some pinned on plain black and white buttons saying “Never Give In” on their coats. Others carried signs saying “Free Dhafir Charity is not a Crime.”

Coatless in the winter chill, Emad Abdel, of Syracuse, owner of First Class Auto on North Salina Street, greeted friends while he waited for the vigil to start.

Abdel said he respected and admired Dhafir as much as his own father. You can tell pretty quickly who are the bad people, and who are good, he said. Dhafir was good and cared only for helping others, Abdel said.

“There was a sanction, but you have to get it through,” to help others, he said.

The vigil began with Katherine Hughes, of Syracuse, who is making a documentary about the case, offering a short explanation of the case before asking people to pray.

“We ask our Lord in his wisdom to instill justice in the heart of those who judge,” prayed Mohamed Khater, of Syracuse. He asked also that Dhafir be provided with patience, strength, perserverance and wisdom to endure his imprisonment.

Hughes then asked that the group remain silent for 10 minutes to remember Dhafir and other imprisoned Muslims across the country.

People stood silently, many with eyes closed or downcast on the sidewalk as the city moved around them.

The day Dhafir was arrested 150 local Muslim families were questioned by the government, said Hughes, who was a member of a group of people who maintained a vigil during Dhafir’s 14-week trial.

Her documentary, “A Court Watcher’s Story,” will tell Dhafir’s story, she said. The film will be shown on the Internet and in neighborhood theaters.

“I just want to make sure this is a story that is told,” she said. “He is in jail for sending aid to starving Iraqi civilians.”

Dhafir appealed his sentence and in August the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court upheld his conviction.

See also commentary on Dr. Dhafir’s case here, and an email about the photo caption.