BACKGROUND TO THE CASE
In direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the brutal sanctions against Iraq Dr. Dhafir started a charity called Help the Needy (HTN). For 13 years it sent aid via Jordan to sick and starving Iraqi civilians. As an oncologist Dhafir was particularly concerned about the effects of depleted uranium and the exploding cancer rates among Iraqis. Because of this humanitarian work seven government agencies investigated Dhafir for five years. They intercepted mail, email and faxes, bugged his office and hotel rooms, and conducted physical surveillance.
At 5.50 a.m. on February 26, 2003, Dr. Dhafir was arrested on his way to work and he has been imprisoned ever since. At the same time as his arrest other agents went to the Dhafir family home, broke down the door and held guns to Mrs. Dhafir’s head. She was not arrested but approximately 85 agents spent the day searching and gathering information. Additional arrests were made in Syracuse, New York; Boise, Idaho; and Amman, Jordan; and government agents interrogated 150 families, most of them Muslim, who had donated to HTN. This all took place from six to ten a.m. on the morning of February 26, 2003.
Talking about the day of his arrest in his sentencing statement Dhafir says:
What was the result of Feb 26, 2003 besides imprisoning of innocent people? Scores of innocent elderly American cancer patients died needlessly, innumerable tens of thousands of Iraqi needy (children, women and men) died, and more than that suffered malnutrition and the humiliation of poverty. An entire segment of our society here was treated as criminals, intimidated, interrogated and threatened. Never in the history of the Islamic Society of Central New York had we had so many cases of depression and suicide that the mosque had to engage the services of a psychiatrist to help out. The dream of this Republic being a sanctuary for the oppressed was shattered on that day and a new sad reality was erected in it’s place. P.36
From the beginning the arrests were framed as an anti-terrorism move. On the day of the arrests Attorney General Ashcroft said that “supporters of terrorism” had been apprehended and just before the start of the trial, Governor Pataki reiterated this charge, yet no charges of terrorism were ever brought. However, the specter of terrorism hung over the trail proceedings making them surreal at times because the prosecution had successfully petitioned the judge (who had denied Dhafir bail on four occassions) to prevent any reference to terrorism at trial.
After the trial, the government brought the terrorism “charge” to sentencing and Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a crime that he was not charged with in a court of law–money laundering to help terrorist organizations. He and the other HTN defendants, along with many other Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism, are currently listed by the government as “successful terrorist prosecutions.”
Dr. Dhafir was charged with 60 counts involving breaking the sanctions against Iraq, conspiracy to break the sanctions, money laundering, mail and wire fraud, and Medicare fraud. All the charges except the last 25 counts of Medicare fraud relate to breaking the sanctions. The whole of the Medicare case revolved around a single rule called “incident to,” meaning any treatment performed by someone other than the doctor. The government claimed that Dr. Dhafir had filled out the forms incorrectly and was therefore not entitled to any Medicare reimbursement, despite the fact that patients had received treatment and chemotherapy drugs. Medicare fraud usually involves fictitious patients and made-up illnesses; Dr. Dhafir’s case had none of this.
HELD WITHOUT BAIL
It is unheard of for a first offender charged with a white-collar crime to be denied bail, yet Dr. Dhafir was denied bail four times. This was despite the Muslim community’s offer of $2.3 million and Dr. Dhafir’s offer to wear an electronic tag, in other words, to place himself under constant surveillance. Being held without bail affected Dr. Dhafir’s ability to prepare his defense, for strict restrictions were put on his meetings with attorneys and he was denied access to his own records.
Although a vociferous critic of the sanctions, it was shown in court that Dhafir could not believe the US government could be against innocent children receiving humanitarian aid: A 1990 New York Times article suggested humanitarian aid was exempt from the sanctions, an email to a friend said that he could not believe the U.S. government would be against innocent children receiving humanitarian aid; and a government agent from OFAC testified that she gave talks to international banks and oil companies about the sanctions, but OFAC did not target Mosques and Iraqis for education about the sanction.
Paradoxically, those who willfully broke the law in the hope of bringing the plight of Iraqi children into a US courtroom were not prosecuted. Nor were any of the big banks and oil companies that the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) targeted for education about the sanctions.
In a Medicare fraud case in Syracuse several years ago, doctors were convicted of stealing $4 million from Medicare. None of these doctors went to prison and they continue in their medical practice today.
All the other defendants in the Help the Needy case took immunity or a plea bargain in exchange for their testimony at Dhafir’s trial. When testifying, despite the fact that their own fates hung in the balance, they all spoke very highly of Dr. Dhafir, of his kindness and compassion. Each said that they trusted him then and that they still trust him now.
Only Ayman Jarwan was given prison time of 15 months for pleading guilty to breaking the sanctions. (See a 15-minute interview of Jim McGraw, Jarwan’s lawyer.)
Dr. Dhafir was convicted of 59 of the 60 counts against him and was sentenced to 22 years in jail. His case is currently being appealed.
See this excellent article summarizing the case one year after Dr. Dhafir’s arrest: The New Standard
See: “Who is Dr. Dhafir, and why was he on trial?” by Magda Bayoumi.
See also: Case Not Proven by someone who attended the 14-week trial.