Paying The Price: Feeding The Children Of Iraq
February 26th, 2011 marks the eighth anniversary of the imprisonment of Dr. Rafil Dhafir as he continues to pay the price for feeding the children of Iraq during the U.S.- and U.K.-sponsored UN sanctions against that country. His charity, Help the Needy (HTN), openly sent food and medicines to starving civilians in Iraq during the brutal embargo.
I did not know Dr. Dhafir before attending virtually all of his 14-week trial. The demonization of Muslims in the U.S. in the post-9/11 period, and the fact that the government was hinting at terrorism connections without bringing any charges, made it imperative for me to attend. I have had a passion for the preservation for civil liberties since watching a documentary, at the age of 14, of the Allies going into Bergen-Belsen, and for 38 years I have been a voracious reader of first-hand accounts of what happened in Germany in the 1930s. I knew that should anything like this happen in my lifetime, I wanted no part of it.
Dr. Dhafir was born in Iraq in 1948. He completed medical school before immigrating to the U.S. in 1972, and has been a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. An oncologist in an underserved community, he treated many people for free, paying for expensive chemotherapy out of his own pocket. He is a pillar of the central New York Muslim community and a well-known national and international figure. Although charged with only white-collar crime, Dr. Dhafir was held without bail for 19 months before trial, which greatly impeded his ability to prepare his defense.
The proceedings showed him to be a devout man of compassion who was highly esteemed by all his associates, and the message his conviction sent to the Muslim community cannot be overstated. Dr. Dhafir was convicted on 59 counts of white-collar crime (the government had made a mistake in one of the counts, and the jury was not allowed to deliberate on it) and is currently serving 22 years—for a crime he was never convicted of in a court of law, money laundering to help terrorist organizations—in a special Communication Management Unit that houses almost exclusively Muslim and/or Arab prisoners.
Before attending this trial, I spent my entire life secure in the knowledge that my civil rights would always be respected. I no longer believe this to be true.
Iraq under sanctions and Dr. Dhafir’s humanitarian response
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990, and on August 2 U.S. sanctions against Iraq were put in place. On January 17, 1991, the first bombs of the Gulf War were dropped on Baghdad. Before this war, the people of Iraq had a standard of living comparable to many Western countries. Although a brutal dictatorship, the government provided universal healthcare and education, including college, for all its citizens. There was virtually no illiteracy, and the education and health systems were the best in the region.
During Dr. Dhafir’s trial, the government did its utmost to prevent any discussion of the conditions in Iraq under the sanctions from being part of it. Government employees, including Susan Hutner of the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), testified to having no knowledge of the effects of the sanctions, although as the government attorney addressing the situation in Iraq, Hutner, helped draft the initial legal documentation to implement the sanctions and then worked on them for 12 years. When the defense attempted to question Hutner about the Oil for Food program, the court ruled the line of questioning irrelevant. Several government witnesses of Iraqi descent broke down on the stand when they began to talk about the effects of the sanctions on their families. Each time this happened, the prosecution immediately interrupted the testimony.
The result of the war was total devastation: more bombs were dropped on Iraq in a six-week period than were dropped by all parties during World War II. In total, these were at least six times more powerful than two atomic bombs. Many types of bombs were used, including ones containing depleted uranium (DU), the waste matter from nuclear plants; hundreds of tons of DU ammunition now lie scattered throughout Iraq. The DU dust has entered the food chain through the soil and the water, and as a result many formerly unknown diseases are prevalent in Iraq. Many pregnant women delivered babies as early as six months, and many babies were born with terrible deformities. Cancer rates increased dramatically. (These effects have been compounded by the current war in Iraq.)
All major bridges and communication systems were bombed, making communications both inside and outside the country extremely difficult. The water purification system was bombed and the UN never allowed it to be repaired; as a result, 15 years’ worth of raw sewage piled up in the streets and resulted in much disease and death, particularly among the young and very old. Hospitals and schools were not spared, and as a result of the bombing and the sanctions, the health and education systems in Iraq went from being the best in the region to being the worst.
According to the United Nations’ own statistics, every month throughout the 1990s 6,000 children under the age of five in Iraq were dying from lack of food and access to simple medicines. Three senior U.N. officials resigned because of what they considered a “genocidal” policy against Iraq. The United States led the effort to place restrictive sanctions on Iraq, and when Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked in a CBS interview if the deaths of half-a-million children were a price worth paying to punish Saddam Hussein, she infamously replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” When the deaths of children over the age of five and adults are added, the number killed as a direct result of the sanctions rises to between 1.5 and 2 million dead civilians.
It was in direct response to this humanitarian catastrophe that Dr. Dhafir founded the Help the Needy (HTN) charity, and 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, Dr. 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.
From the outset of the case, the government was duplicitous. Using unfair tactics and innuendo, and aided by a compliant media, the government transformed Dr. Dhafir’s community image from a compassionate humanitarian into that of a crook and supporter of terrorism.
Seven government agencies investigated Dr. Dhafir and Help the Needy for many years. They intercepted his mail, e-mail, 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 Dr. Dhafir. Yet he 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 6:00 and 10:00 A.M., law enforcement agents interrogated 150 predominantly Muslim families because they had donated to HTN. On that day, former Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that “funders of terrorism have been arrested.”
The first indictment against Dr. Dhafir contained 14 charges related only to the Iraq sanctions. Later, when Dr. Dhafir refused to accept a plea agreement, the government piled on more charges, and he eventually faced a 60-count indictment that included 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; Dr. Dhafir’s case had none of this. The government never contested that patients received care and chemotherapy. Its argument for all 25 counts was that because Dr. Dhafir was sometimes not present in his office when patients were treated, the Medicare claim forms were filled out incorrectly, and he was thus not due any reimbursement for treatment or for the expensive chemotherapy his office had administered.
Just before the start of Dr. Dhafir’s trial in October 2004, Michael Powell of the Washington Post wrote, “There is a shadow-boxing quality to the terror allegations lodged against Dhafir. In August , Governor George E. Pataki (R) described Dhafir’s as a ‘money laundering case to help terrorist organizations . . . conduct horrible acts.’ Prosecutors hinted at national security reasons for holding Dhafir without bail. But no evidence was offered to support the allegations.”
Pataki’s announcement was perfectly timed to reach potential jurors. And while national and state figures tarred Dr. Dhafir with the terrorist brush, then-District Attorney Glenn Suddaby (now a federal judge) and local prosecutors maintained that Dr. Dhafir was nothing more than a common thief. The prosecution even successfully petitioned the presiding judge to exclude any mention of terrorism from the proceedings. This meant that throughout the trial, the prosecution could hint at more serious (terrorism) charges, but the defense was prohibited from addressing these inflammatory innuendos head-on. The government’s “shadow-boxing” gave a surreal feel to the proceedings; what was happening in the courtroom was not what the trial was really about.
An example of this can be seen in Mrs. Dhafir’s cross-examination by the defense. Mrs. Dhafir was Dr. Dhafir’s bookkeeper and took a plea deal by pleading guilty to one count of lying to a government agent: she had told a government agent that her husband had been present in his medical office on a day that he had not been. On the stand, she answered questions about the intricacies of Medicare reimbursement and identified office staff signatures on Medicare reimbursement forms. While she testified, a large screen opposite the jury featured an excerpt from the Medicare Handbook, which said that in the event of a billing error, “a refund would be requested.” This was the backdrop as Mrs. Dhafir described the mayhem at her house on the day of her husband’s arrest (she was not arrested on that day and did not face any charge until later). Her husband left for work at his usual time of 6.30 A.M., and after he left, the doorbell rang. Before she could answer it, five FBI agents battered down the door. Finding Mrs. Dhafir on the other side, they held guns to her head. Helicopters and local media hovered over the house as 85 government agents visited the house throughout the day. Mrs. Dhafir spent the day in her nightclothes and was not allowed to shut the door when she went to the bathroom.
Inconsistencies in the government’s position were a startling feature of this case from its inception and suggested two possibilities: either one hand of the government didn’t know what the other was doing, or the government was deliberately aiming to deceive. The fact that once conviction was successfully achieved, the district attorney and local prosecutors claimed it as a successful prosecution in the “war on terror” suggests that the government’s duplicity was a strategy from the outset. Mrs. Dhafir is now listed on the government’s list of successful terrorism prosecutions along with her husband and other HTN associates, including Dr. Dhafir’s personal accountant, a distinguished older man from a small town in upstate New York who was also subject to a high-profile arrest.
Jennifer Van Bergen, author of The Twilight of Democracy, wrote a two-part article on Dr. Dhafir’s case entitled “New American Law: The Case of Dr. Dhafir” and “New American Law: Legal Strategies and Precedents in the Dhafir Case.” In this article and in other writings, Van Bergen warns about the danger of civil liberties being undermined when the government uses parallel legal tracks that were never intended to be mixed. She notes that, as happened in Dr. Dhafir’s case, conspiracy laws and money-laundering laws used “creatively” with the Patriot Act and International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) can be used to construct a vastly distorted picture. Dr. Dhafir’s case sets a legal precedent, and means that others who provide humanitarian and medical assistance to those in need could end up like him: put away for the rest of their lives.
Katherine has a website dedicated to the preservation of civil liberties: www.dhafirtrial.net
—ZNet, February 22, 2011