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Iraqi-American Doctor Convicted of Violating Iraq Sanctions

StoryFebruary 11, 2005
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Iraqi-American doctor Rafil Dhafir, was convicted on 59 charges including violating economic sanctions against Iraq, Medicare fraud and tax evasion. He is thought to be the only U.S citizen to be convicted of breaking the Iraq sanctions. We speak with his attorney and his friend of 20 years. [includes rush transcript]

Now, to a case that has received very little attention — Iraqi-American doctor–Rafil Dhafir–was found guilty yesterday of violating economic sanctions against Iraq. The government alleged that Dr. Dhafir illegally raised millions of dollars and violated U.S sanctions by sending funds to Iraq through his charity — “Help the Needy”.

When Dhafir was apprehended in February 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft talked about the arrest as part of President Bush’s war on terror. — But terrorism charges were never bought against Dr. Dhafir–and instead he was indicted on 60 charges including violating economic sanctions, Medicare fraud and tax evasion. Dr. Dhafir has been found guilty on 59 of those charges–and is apparently the only U.S citizen to have ever been convicted of breaking economic sanctions against Iraq.

  • Joel Cohen, Dr. Dhafir’s attorney.
  • Mohamed Khater, 20-year friend of Dr. Dhafir.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Joel Cohen, Dr. Dhafir’s attorney. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mr. Cohen.

JOEL COHEN: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us a little bit about the case and the unusual situation because obviously there have been many folks such as Voices in the Wilderness who have been involved in breaking the sanctions with Iraq before the U.S. invasion and no one yet has been prosecuted there.

JOEL COHEN: Well, that’s accurate. Dr. Dhafir was clearly targeted, clearly investigated, clearly indicted, tried, and clearly convicted because he is a Muslim, because he is a person of Iraqi ancestry and, as you pointed out, he’s the only person who has been criminally charged with violating these sanctions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What’s specifically was he involved in doing with the charity?

JOEL COHEN: Well, he and some other folks in the early 1990’s when the impact of the sanctions really began to devastate the Iraqi infrastructure, when it destroyed the health system, when it increased the infant mortality rate tenfold and the rate of cancer tenfold because not only did the folks in Iraq have to deal with the impact of sanctions, but also of the devastation brought by the Gulf war that depleted uranium that remained behind and so seriously hurt the health system in Iraq. He and some other folks got together and began to raise money and to get funds, humanitarian aid, food, blankets, medicine into Iraq. People at Help the Needy were aware that dealing with anti-government institutions involved in distribution of aid in Iraq, which means any Iraqi government institution meant whatever aid actually reached the country went into the pockets of the regime. So they sought to establish a network of people in the Middle East that could raise funds, purchase things in Jordan and other countries and try to get them into Iraq in such way that they would reach the people who needed them and not the folks of the regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Khater is also on the line with us, a friend of Dr. Dhafir for two decades. The reaction in the Muslim community and also of Dr. Dhafir’s family?

MOHAMED KHATER: Well, the reaction in the Muslim community has been shock and disbelief that something like this can happen. We never expected that the doctor would be convicted on 59 counts. It just goes to say that we, as Muslims, we have to — we are being held to higher standards than any other citizen in this country. We have to prove our innocence beyond any reasonable doubt, not the other way around and for the doctor to be convicted this way, it just goes to say that any — any Muslim is difficult to get a fair trial in this environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Ramsey Clark, your response? You were familiar with this case in Syracuse, New York.

RAMSEY CLARK: Yes, I went up to Syracuse and spoke on the university campus. The defense in this case and — the place was jammed with people from the community, 1,500 people there perhaps, they all wanted to know why are they prosecuting this good doctor? What did he do? He cared about the suffering in Iraq. 1,500,000 people died form those sanctions, more than half were children under the age of 5. What did they need? They needed medicine. What is he — he is a doctor. When the cancer rates started jumping, he’s an on oncologist, because of the depleted uranium which is spread through the country from the U.S. assault on Iraq, it was tearing him up and he was trying help in a humanitarian cause. When a tsunami occurs, when natural disasters occur, you try to help. And the sanctions were more deadly than those by far. So what he was doing was what every human being who cares about life ought to do. And the prosecution of him has threatened not only Arab American and the Muslim American communities which are vast, but it is — it threatens anyone who stands up for doing the right thing in a crisis.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The double standards here, not just the situation of prosecuting him for giving humanitarian aid, but then also the fact that Voices in the Wilderness, other groups in the United States have also done the same thing and you also have a situation in the United Nations under the Oil for Food program where nations were violating the sanctions and the United States was winking, looking the other way while these violations of sanctions were going on.

JOEL COHEN: There’s one thing that you have to understand here. And that is that this case began as a terrorist investigation. The government saw at some point that funds were being sent to Jordan, sent to a bank in Jordan and every document in the case, every government memorandum, they brought the defense department into this investigative theme, they had every single federal law enforcement agency here but the fish and wildlife commission forming a task force to investigate the doctor and all of it was a search for a connection to terrorism. They just couldn’t believe that these folks were simply trying to feed people who were starving and heal people who were sick.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note I want to thank you very much for joining us, Joel Cohen, Mohamed Khater, and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

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