Since the events of September 11, 2001, the government has raided and closed down six major Muslim charities and many smaller Muslim charities, accusing each of funding terrorism. In each case, alleged “guilt by association” meant that the charities’ assets were frozen and their principals arrested. Yet despite new investigative powers, government authorities have failed to produce evidence of terrorist financing by any of these Muslim charities. Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an Upstate New York oncologist, is the founder of one of these charities.

As a direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Gulf War and U.S. and U.K. sponsored UN sanctions on Iraq, Dhafir founded the charity Help The Needy (HTN). For 13 years he worked tirelessly to help publicize the plight of the Iraqi people and to raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dhafir donated $1.4 million of his own money over the years. As an oncologist, he was also concerned about the effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi population which was experiencing skyrocketing cancer rates.

Born in Iraq in 1948, he completed medical school before immigrating to the U.S. in 1972; he has been a U.S. citizen for 30 years. He was a founding member of the Islamic Society of Central New York (ISCNY) and for about seven years, when there was no regular imam, he served as the ISCNY spiritual leader. He was an oncologist in Rome, NY, an underserved area and, until his arrest, he and his African-American wife, Priscilla, were very active in Syracuse civic affairs. He often spoke at events and on local TV and radio about health and cancer care.

Seven government agencies investigated Dhafir and Help the Needy. They intercepted his mail, email, faxes and telephone calls; bugged his office and hotel rooms; went through his trash; and conducted physical surveillance. They were unable to find any evidence of links to terrorism and no charges of terrorism were ever brought against Dhafir.

Yet Dhafir and other HTN associates were subjected to high-profile arrests in the early morning of February 26, 2003, just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Simultaneous to the arrests, between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m., law enforcement agents interrogated 150 predominantly Muslim families because they had donated to HTN. Dhafir was never released. Held without bail for 19 months before trial, this greatly impeded his ability to prepare his defense.

The first indictment against Dhafir contained 14 charges related only to the Iraq sanctions. Later, when Dhafir refused to accept a plea agreement, the government piled on more charges and, after a lengthy trial, he was found guilty on 59 counts of; violating federal regulations related to economic sanctions imposed against Iraq, money laundering, mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, visa fraud–all related to running the charity*–and Medicare fraud.

Medicare charges usually involve fictitious patients and made-up illnesses; Dhafir’s case had none of this. The government never contested that patients received care and chemotherapy medicine. Its argument for all 25 counts was, because Dhafir was sometimes not present in his office when patients were treated, the Medicare claim forms were filled incorrectly and he was not due any reimbursement for treatment or for the expensive chemotherapy his office had administered.

From the outset of this case the government was duplicitous**. Using unfair tactics and innuendo, and aided by a compliant media, the government transformed Dhafir’s community image from a compassionate humanitarian into a crook and supporter of terrorists.

Unfair tactics: on the day of the arrests then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that “funders of terrorism” had been arrested. And just before Dhafir’s trial began in October 2004, then-New York Governor Pataki described the case as a “money laundering case to help terrorist organizations … conduct horrible acts,” an announcement perfectly timed to reach potential jurors.

Innuendo:  first prosecutors successfully petitioned the presiding judge to exclude any mention of terrorism from the proceedings. Then, throughout the trial, the prosecution hinted at more serious (terrorism) charges, but now the defense was prohibited from addressing these inflammatory innuendos head on.

Dhafir was convicted of violating International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA), white-collar crimes related to his charity, and Medicare fraud.  Yet he is now serving 22 years in prison for a crime he was never charged with in a court of law–money laundering to help terrorist organizations.

Notes

*Help the Needy did not have its own 501c3 (tax-exempt status) number and was using the number of (DBA, doing business as) another charity.   According to Barrie Gewanter of the CNY-ACLU, this is not an uncommon practice, what is unusual is that it resulted in criminal charges.  Ordinarily, in a situation like this, the State closes the charity until things are sorted out and once sorted the charity can begin running again.

This lack of 501c3 status meant that all the transfers made between banks were considered money laundering, and mail and wire fraud. It also meant that Dhafir’s own generous donations, $1.4 million, which he had not paid tax on, were liable for tax. He was also held liable for tax that others may not have paid.

** That the government strategy of trying and convicting Dhafir as a white-collar criminal and then circulating news of  his prosecution as a success in its War on Terror was premiditated can be seen from this 2003 “Terrorist Financing” paper (HTN is listed under “clean-money cases” on p.20).

Updated 04/19/09

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Listen to a 30-minute radio interview that updates the case 4/28/14

Read Katherine’s most recent article on the case, January 2012 (also available at Truthout.org).

See John Pilger’s November 2012 article on the case, The end of justice in America

Katherine’s most recent interview (30 minutes) 10/17/11.

For an in-depth article on the Dr. Dhafir’s case see: Criminalizing Compassion in the War on Terror.

A chronology of articles, letters to the paper, and other writings, about Dr. Dhafir’s case.

See Jennifer Van Bergen’s (author of Twilight of Democracy) articles that address the legal aspects of Dr. Dhafir’s case and of U.S. based Muslim charity cases:

Part One: “New American Law: The Case of Dr. Dhafir.”
Part Two “New American Law: Legal Strategies and Precedents in the Dharfir Case.”

And, “How Government Forfeitures are Shutting Down U.S.-Based Muslim Charities.”

To watch John Pilger’s documetary on the Iraq sanctions: Paying The Price: Killing The Children Of Iraq

See also, “The Iraqi Doctor: Patients revere him; the government wants to put him away,” by Kristen Hinman. Hinman’s grandmother was a patient of Dr. Dhafir.