An Iraqi-American doctor faces life in prison for violating economic sanctions against Iraq. He has spent the last year and a half in prison awaiting trial and has been denied bail six times. He is believed to the only U.S. citizen ever to be held in prison for violating the sanctions. We speak with his friend and a community activist as well as Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly. [includes rush transcript]
On Feb. 26, 2003, three weeks before the U.S. invaded Iraq, an Iraqi-American in Syracuse was pulled over. He was arrested. And he has spent the last 18 months in jail after being denied bail six times. He faces nearly 300 years in prison plus millions in fines.
On the day of his arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft connected the forthcoming military attack on Iraq with the fight at home against those who back Saddam Hussein by sending money to Iraq.
The press soon connected this arrested Iraqi-American to Saddam Hussein and terrorist organizations. The man faces nearly 300 years in prison and a $14 million fine for illegally sending money to Iraq after the first Gulf War and for multiple counts of money laundering.
The case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir case centers on a charity he founded called Help the Needy. The government alleges Dhafir illegally raised millions of dollars for the charity and violated U.S. sanctions by sending at least $160,000 to Iraq as well as aid. UNICEF estimates 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of the U.S.-backed sanctions.
Dr. Dhafir is believed to the only U.S. citizen ever to be held in prison for violating the sanctions on Iraq. He has yet to be convicted of a crime.
Three weeks ago, his attorney filed a motion to dismiss as he accused the U.S. government of selective prosecuting Dhafir by singling him out because of his race, religion and cultural background.
In one of his few interview from prison Dhafir told the New Standard website, "This is part of a campaign against Muslims and Arabs."
In Syracuse, community activists have begun a Free Rafil Dhafir campaign. And they are considering bringing their protest to the streets of New York later this month during the Republican National Convention.
- Mohamed Khater, friend and supporter of Dr. Rafil Dhafir
- Madis Senner, Syracuse community activist who has launched the campaign Operation Free Dhafir.
- Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness.
- "The Terrorism Case that Wasn’t" (The New Standard)
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re a joined on the phone by Mohamed Khater, friend and supporter of Dr. Dhafir. Welcome to Democracy Now!.
MOHAMED KHATER: Thank you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You can tell us about the case and who Dr. Dhafir is in the community there?
MOHAMED KHATER: Dr. Dhafir came to the United States about 30 years ago. He was a medical student, and he studied here. Then he studied in Michigan. He moved to Syracuse towards the end of the 1980’s. The end of the 1970’s, I’m sorry. He was one of the people who started the Islamic Society of Central New York, which is the local mosque in Syracuse. He was the president for about ten years then he left the mosque. The — specifically the case was related to the work of Dr. Dhafir that he did after the sanctions that started after the first Gulf War, and he saw the people suffering in his native country, and he started to say that he has to do something about it, he started to send humanitarian aid, food supplies to his own people in Iraq, and that continued on for a number of years.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you meet with him regularly while he’s incarcerated. What is his response to these charges?
MOHAMED KHATER: His response is that he’s completely innocent of all of the charges that he’s been charged. Of course, the government charged him of violating the sanctions. He was charged with Medicare fraud. After that — after the initial charge, he later on was charged with tax evasion, and all of these charges, he maintained his complete innocence of it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, I understand that after his arrest in Syracuse that there was questioning of various people in the Muslim community there. Could you talk about that and the impact on the overall community in Syracuse?
MOHAMED KHATER: On the day of the arrest, on February 26, many people in the community — a lot of people who mostly donated to the charity were questioned. They got visits from the FBI between — anytime between 6 and 9 in the morning in their homes to question them about what they know about the charity. Supposedly, the questioning is related to the charity. Some of the Muslims and non-Muslims were asked also about the charity and whether they know personally the people or whether they know where their money is going. The questioning, the line of questioning was very intrusive. They started to get into more than what do you know about the charity. It got into your relation — are you a Muslim, how long have you been a Muslim? How many times do you go to the mosque? It started to get into personal things that no one should be subjected to. We estimate that around 150 people — 150 families were visited by various agencies, by the FBI, the INS, the IRS, the local police, many organizations, many law enforcement agencies were in on this, and it’s not just in Syracuse. It’s in different places also around the country in Oklahoma, in Virginia, in Michigan, in different places that many people who donated to the charity got questioned.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined on the phone by Madis Senner, a Syracuse community activist, who has launched a campaign to free Dr. Dhafir. Welcome to Democracy Now!.
MADIS SENNER: Thank you for having me on the show.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us about your campaign, how it developed, and again the importance of Dr. Dhafir in the community there in Syracuse?
MADIS SENNER: Well, I — it’s interesting is that on February 26th, when Dr. Dhafir was arrested, the war with Iraq was about to begin. There was a lot fear within the Muslim community in the post 9/11 period, and when he was arrested, it was mass hysteria. The imam at the mosque said it was one of the worst days to be a Muslim. It was non-stop TV coverage of Dr. Dhafir’s home: he in handcuffs being led away , tickertapes and newsbreak announcements. It was unbelievable. And there was such a climate of fear. And there was no mention of the fact that 150 families had been interrogated. That following Thursday, the next day, there was the Inter-Religious Council that met and thanks to the efforts of one reporter of our local paper, Renee Gattowa, and the testimony that we heard from religious folks that happened, she posted it in our paper and we got word out about what began to happen. That weekend in my meditation, I just felt called to help Dr. Dhafir. I had been going to the mosque on and off for the last year or two. I attend various services for various religions, and try to get an effort together to help Dr. Dhafir, but in those early days, there was such fear that it was virtually impossible to get people to support him and it was very difficult. In May, we had a witness that at one of the churches, and we did it for the Muslim community and we had great attendance. Someone from CARE, the council on American-Islamic Relations came up. We had a successful event. That began our efforts on his behalf.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you when — at the time of the arrest, and Dr. Dhafir along with a handful of other people connected to charities in the country were indicted, the Attorney General, John Ashcroft himself, said as President Bush leads into a national coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and support for terror, those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted. So, Attorney General Ashcroft was clearly referring to Dr. Dhafir and others who were arrested at the time. Yet, the government at this point is alleging no real connection at all to terrorism.
MADIS SENNER: Yeah, there’s no connection to terrorism, but that terrorism card is always been there. The specter of terrorism is always there. It’s either implied in some back door article to some paper or something, and it’s what — you know, many in the media would like to talk about. It’s newsworthy, so the government is always trying to taint him as a terrorist. In fact, you know, we didn’t really change that till February, a year later, when we began to get people it change their mind about them. But just as recently as I guess early August, two weeks, three weeks ago, Governor George Pataki commented about the arrest of two Albany men — two Albany Muslims and said that, you know, this was part of the terrorist connection that includes Lackawanna, the Lackawanna Six and the money laundering operation in Syracuse. Again, smearing Dr. Dhafir as a terrorist.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, if we can, we’d like to go to a clip of that Pataki press conference right now.
MADIS SENNER: Okay.
GEORGE PATAKI: We have seen in Lackawanna with the arrest of the Lackawanna six terrorists supporters living among us. We saw with the arrest in Syracuse of money laundering efforts to help terrorist organizations, and today we see here again in the capitol region those among us who seek to help terrorists to conduct horrible acts against the people of America and against our freedom. So —
JUAN GONZALEZ: So what impact do statements like that of Governor Pataki and of Attorney General Ashcroft have in the Syracuse community in terms of being able to get the facts of what guilt, if any, Dr. Dhafir has.
MADIS SENNER: It smears him. I mean it just creates within the potential jury pool this innuendo that there’s something wrong with this man, that he’s guilty of terrorism, that we don’t know all the cases — you know, don’t know all the circumstances, I should say — behind him. And it’s a terrible blow to him. We did get some positive press out of that and that was that our editorial — our Syracuse paper in the lead editorial on Sunday, August 8th in an article called "Fear and Dhafir" just slammed Pataki and just said what only confirms what his supporters have been saying along. That it’s selective prosecution. That — and he’s a political victim. He is a political victim. And because of Pataki’s’ comments, as you mentioned, we are looking at potential actions to raise awareness about Dr. Dhafir and to chide Governor Pataki. We don’t know if we’ll do that at the State Fair here or possible do some sort of poll actions when Pataki — on Thursday. September 2nd when Pataki — Governor Pataki introduces President Bush at the Republican National Convention. So, that’s what we’re at right now with that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re speaking with Madis Senner, a community activist in Syracuse, who has launched a campaign to free Dr. Dhafir, and with Mohamed Kharter, friend and supporter of Dr. Rafil Dhafir. We want to take a break. When we come back, we’ll be talking also with Kathy Kelly, a founder of Voices in the Wilderness about this case. Welcome back to Democracy Now!. I’m Juan Gonzalez sitting in for Amy Goodman and we’re talking about the case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir. A Syracuse doctor who has spent the last 18 months in prison. The government initially connected him to terrorism but charged him with money laundering and violating sanctions in relationship to a charity that he was operating in Syracuse. We are joined now by Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kathy.
KATHY KELLY: Good morning, Juan. Thank you and good morning to Madis Senner and Mohamed.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, your group also has violated — openly violated the sanctions against Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein, as have many companies in the United States as well. But could you talk about how often people are prosecuted on this?
KATHY KELLY: Well, it certainly seems that both Madis and Mohamed are showing us not to be guided by fear, but rather by principle in regard to this issue. Voices in the Wilderness wanted to dramatize a challenge to the economic sanctions. Yes, we carried medicines and medical relief supplies to Iraq, but more importantly, every time we came back, we came back with the stories about families that were undergoing grinding, crushing poverty. They didn’t have enough to feed their families, because they were jobless. The sanctions created situation of terrible suffering and misery in hospitals and clinics and amongst homes all across Iraq. Now, can you imagine the families calling the wealthy loved ones in the United States, communicating they were desperate and the loved ones saying to them, well, there’s really not too much that we can do from our end over here. Dr. Dhafir started a foundation called help the needy. It was clear that the Iraqi government didn’t care about the poorest of the poor there. It was clear that the American government didn’t care, and so he took personal responsibility, I would imagine, to practice a special tenet of many religions, the works of mercy toward his own family. And so, who gets prosecuted? Voices in the Wilderness couldn’t have been more demonstrative of our intent to break those sanctions. We go down to the U.S. Attorneys in our own cities in Chicago and Seattle and say, we just want you to know, we broke the law again. It’s my 23rd trip, my 24th trip. Why was Dr. Dhafir selected out? Why has so much intimidation and fear be imposed on the Muslim community? You know just yesterday, Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in which she said that the Bush administration wants to reach out to Muslims as a crucial part of the fight against terrorism. Well, I think it’d be great if they would reach out to the Muslims in Syracuse, New York, and say, "We’re sorry, we’re sorry that you’ve been intimidated and that one of your community leaders has been jailed for 18 months, and we — we better want to understand why he formed a foundation called Help The Needy. Who were those needy people?" And you know, I think Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, when it’s not their own relatives, and sometimes it’s their corporate executive friends get into trouble, they want to extend a hand of friendship and help them out. And often I think they find ways to do that. Maybe that’s not always legitimate either. So, there’s plenty of room for more empathy and understanding.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Mohamed Khater, a friend and supporter of Dr. Dhafir, in terms of — he wasn’t even been granted bail. They’ve refused — government has refused requests for bail or — your response to that, and to the impact that that has on the community, on the Muslim community in Syracuse?
MOHAMED KHATER: The bail was denied many times, and the premise of the government is that we are close to the Canadian border, and he can just take a car and go across the border, because there is a lax on the borders. Nobody will know that he left the country. Or he can take a boat across the lake, and — or walk when it’s snowing. It was mentioned ridiculously as it is, when the lake is frozen, then he might walk across the lake. And all of these accusations, they never said that he is a risk to the community. But he said that he is a flight risk, because he knows lots of people in different countries that we have no extradition treaties with, and he can just flee the country, and a man of his stature and he would never do that, and for us as a Muslim community, we know Dr. Dhafir, he has been in the community for more than 20 years. He’s an oncologist. He saves life. That’s his job. His job is to save life here in this country. And he helps a lot of people in the community here. He gave students loans. He gave loans to people for interest-free. He never charged a penny, according to the Muslim law, you cannot charge interest. He helps people with many — many people that could not find houses to live in. He helped them with that. The — not just the Muslims, the non-Muslims, not just happening to the Muslim, and anyone is in need. He would go to him, and he would help him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And — and if I can ask for those who might be listening or viewing this program, who would like to lend their support to your campaign, where can they go for more information?
MADIS SENNER: I set up a web page for him on my web center —
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is Madis Senner.
MADIS SENNER: — called Jubilee Initiative. But if they go to Google and punch up free Dhafir, they can — they’ll find all of the information and stuff that we’re up to. One of the things we just — free Dhafir, you know free and then d-h-a-f-i-r — and the other thing we’ve started is an operation called, "Operation Free Dhafir" that Kathy Kelly is helping us with. And that is, if you gave money to Iraq or sent money to Iraq and you traveled to Iraq and defied the sanction, we are asking that you please send a letter to Judge Mordue, highlighting that. Judge Mordue is the one overseeing the case. And CC a copy to me and your local paper as a letter to the editor and one here in Syracuse. So we are hoping that we — that will help raise more awareness about Dr. Dhafir’s plight.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank all of your guests who joined us: Mohamed Khater, friend and supporter of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, Madis Senner, Syracuse community organizer, who launched a campaign to free him, and Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness. We will be continuing to follow up and keep tabs on this case.