Iraqi-American doctor Rafil Dhafir is sentenced to 22 years in prison for violating the Iraqi sanctions through his charity "Help the Needy." We speak with Barrie Gewanter of the NY Civil Liberties Union about the case, who has publicly questioned the fairness of the trial. [includes rush transcript]
While the UN report on the oil-for-food program has been making headlines, there is another story in the news this week involving the Iraqi sanctions that has received little national attention. In Syracuse New York, a prominent Iraqi-American doctor was sentenced to 22 years in prison Thursday for violating the Iraqi sanctions through his charity Help the Needy. Oncologist Rafil Dhafir was arrested 19 months ago in dramatic fashion: more than 85 federal agents descended on his home. He was handcuffed in his driveway and agents hauled out dozens of books and records.
In August 2004, New York Governor George Pataki claimed Dhafir was connected to "money-laundering efforts to help terrorist organizations." But terrorism charges against the doctor never materialized. Instead, supporters of the doctor claim the Justice Department went hunting for possible charges against Doctor Dhafir. Eventually they filed 60 charges against him involving breaking the sanctions, tax evasion and Medicare fraud. Earlier this year a jury convicted him on 59 of the 60 charges.
- Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She has closely monitored the case and has publicly questioned whether Dr. Dhafir received a fair trial.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined, as well, by Barrie Gewanter, Executive Director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has closely monitored the case and has publicly questioned whether Dr. Dhafir received a fair trial. She joins us on the phone from Syracuse. Can you tell us what happened yesterday and about this case of Dr. Dhafir?
BARRIE GEWANTER: Certainly, Amy, good morning. The federal government has repeatedly tried to pitch this as a case with national security implications. But they never actually charged him with anything related to terrorism. Instead, this was really a case of white collar crime. It was full of financial statements and details of financial transactions. But at the end of the trial, when it came to the sentencing phase, the government made allegations that Dr. Dhafir had links to terrorist groups or supported factions in Iraq many years ago that were now fighting against the United States. And we feel that it’s inappropriate to bring in allegations of terrorist links through the back door of sentencing.
AMY GOODMAN: How does this fit into the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s?
BARRIE GEWANTER: Well, Dr. Dhafir created a charity called Help the Needy, whose stated intent was to provide food and medicine and other supports to people suffering from the sanctions. The government’s main core charge against him was that he violated a law called IEEPA, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which is how a president imposes economic sanctions against a sanctioned country. That law says that you cannot send money to a sanctioned country, and in order to send humanitarian aid, you have to be an approved charity and have approved shipments. The testimony in the trial suggested that Dr. Dhafir did not go through those channels, because he was concerned that any material that was sent into Iraq for the Oil for Food program would end up in Saddam’s pockets. And he wanted the aid to get to people who were truly needy, because he was very concerned about the suffering.
AMY GOODMAN: Denis Halliday, do you know this case at all? Have you ever heard of Dr. Dhafir.
DENIS HALLIDAY: No, strangely I have not. I’m absolutely stunned by this information. I mean, it is an outrageous situation, particularly as we have just discussed the State Department breaching its own or the United Nations’ sanctions to the tune of $10 billion, allowing Saddam Hussein to export oil and import at the same time, and now we’re prosecuting an American Iraqi? It’s unbelievable.
AMY GOODMAN: And he is not the only one, is that right, Barrie Gewanter, who has been sentenced in this case?
BARRIE GEWANTER: He is not the only one. There were five other defendants that were involved with the operation of the charity. And to be very clear, there were some problems in the way that the charity was operated. What raises, for us, questions is the idea that the government could have imposed fines for several of the charges and instead went forward with criminal sanctions, and then piled on a total of 60 counts against Dr. Dhafir. Each one of the five defendants was forced to testify against him, including his wife, in exchange for getting probation or a reduced — a recommendation for a reduced sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, including his wife?
BARRIE GEWANTER: Correct. There were additional charges against him, including the — besides the IEEPA violations. There was charges of money laundering, tax evasion, mail and wire fraud, but also Medicare fraud. His wife was the billing manager in his medical office. And in the course of the investigation, they found that he went overseas and started looking at his Medicare billing. And there is about a 15% difference in the Medicare billing that is very confusing, but when the doctor is out of the office, and he is an oncologist, his office provides chemotherapy. They charged 15% less if a nurse practitioner administers the chemotherapy when the doctor is not in the office and 15% more when he is in the office. And his wife was charged with conspiring with him to violate those Medicare rules.
AMY GOODMAN: How does this compare to what Voices in the Wilderness did in defiantly breaching the sanctions, believing that the people of Iraq needed humanitarian aid?
BARRIE GEWANTER: Well, that’s what is really interesting about this. There are American companies that, throughout the sanctions, violated the sanctions, and American C.E.O.’s who made the decision to do so, and activist organizations like Voices in the Wilderness, that is not identified as a Muslim organization, and yet those companies and that organization, the government employees —
AMY GOODMAN: Voices in the Wilderness, of course, a humanitarian group founded by Kathy Kelly, who repeatedly went to Iraq.
BARRIE GEWANTER: Exactly. And we have some people from the Syracuse area that went with Voices in the Wilderness to Iraq. Those individuals and the organization Voices in the Wilderness never got criminal charges filed against them. Instead, the government imposed only fines. Our perception is that the only people that get criminal charges filed against them tend to be Muslims and Arabs. That raises questions about selective enforcement.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Denis Halliday, hearing about this case, the sentencing of Dr. Dhafir to 22 years in jail — he has already served how long, Barrie Gewanter?
BARRIE GEWANTER: [inaudible] years in jail —
AMY GOODMAN: How many years in jail?
BARRIE GEWANTER: Two years in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: Two years on the sentence of 22 years in jail. In this last minute, looking at the final Volcker report, looking at Turkey and Jordan, the U.S. corporations like Volvo and DaimlerChrysler, and putting Dr. Dhafir into this.
DENIS HALLIDAY: Well, the impression one gets is the U.S. government is going after the weak and those who can’t defend themselves, although in this case there seems to be more than perhaps meets the eye. It’s more than sanctions breaking, which as you rightly said, Voices in the Wilderness has done. I think this report we have now, which is supposed to be final report, actually raises questions, some of which may be answered by congressional committees, which are looking into some of the improprieties under the Bremer period and other occupation activities and diversion of monies to Halliburton and Halliburton ripping off the Pentagon, for example. Some of this will continue. Whether Volcker will continue, although he perhaps should, having raised questions and no answers, that remains to be seen.
AMY GOODMAN: Denis Halliday, former Assistant U.N. Secretary General and head of the U.N. humanitarian program of Iraq until he resigned his post in protest of U.S.-led sanctions, and Barrie Gewanter, who heads the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.