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Locked up in the Bush administration's "war on terror"
His "crime" was to help desperate Iraqis

January 9, 2004 | Page 2

KEITH ROSENTHAL reports on the case of an Iraqi American victim of John Ashcroft's "war on terror."

WHILE SADDAM Hussein remains locked up at an undisclosed location in Iraq, another Iraqi man is behind bars in Jamesville Penitentiary in New York state. The jailer in both cases is the U.S. government.

Dr. Rafil Dhafir has spent over nine months in various prisons in the area around Syracuse, N.Y. He was arrested on February 26, 2003, by federal officials for violating the International Economic Powers Act. This law prohibits individuals from providing material aid to the Iraqi people.

Dhafir has been targeted because of his work with the U.S.-based charity organization Help the Needy. Help the Needy was founded in 1994 with the intention of soliciting money for the starving and oppressed people of Iraq. Since then, the organization has sent close to $4 million to banks in Jordan, where the money was used to buy food and other materials that were then shipped into Iraq.

Dhafir and other contributors to the foundation were particularly concerned about the effect that U.S.-backed United Nations (UN) sanctions--in place from 1990 to 2003--were having on Iraqi children. Denis Halliday, the former head of UN humanitarian programs in Iraq, estimated that approximately 5,000 Iraqi children were killed each month because of sanctions.

Dhafir has been an American citizen since 1972, but he was born and educated in Iraq. He is also a prominent member of the Muslim community in Syracuse, N.Y., and a much-respected doctor specializing in the care of cancer patients.

The Justice Department admits that Dhafir was spied on by a wide array of federal agents during the three years prior to his arrest. But they claim it is pure coincidence that federal agents pounced precisely as George Bush was preparing for a war on Iraq that was widely unpopular.

After Dhafir's arrest last winter, federal agents conducted interrogations of close to 150 predominantly Muslim families that had donated to Help the Needy. These interrogations were part of a federal operation called Imminent Horizon--intended to "disrupt and rattle" potential terrorist operations in advance of the war on Iraq.

"As President Bush leads an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein's tyranny and support for terror, the Justice Department will see that individuals within our borders cannot undermine these efforts," declared Attorney General Ashcroft. "Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted."

But according to information gathered by U.S. Attorney Glenn Suddaby--who is in charge of prosecuting Dhafir--there is no evidence that any money from Help the Needy went to al-Qaeda or the Iraqi government. Despite this, Dhafir faces up to 265 years in prison and $14 million in fines.

He has been refused bail multiple times and was recently denied access to members of his legal team. Royce Hawkins, of the Center for Community Alternatives and a member of Dhafir's legal team, was barred from visiting his client in a prison in downtown Syracuse.

Hawkins feels that the whole case is a sham. "Nothing has been fair about this whole process," Hawkins said. "Before this, my ideal of the justice system was that the government would at least allow someone to fight on their own behalf. But they've isolated Dhafir from his legal team; they've removed any notion of fairness. [The judge and prosecution] have taken a posture that says, 'We'll do what we want, and we don't care what you think about it.'"

Dhafir's arrest begs several questions: Was he just one more casualty in the government's ruthless drive to war? Was this arrest and the intimidation tactics used against thousands of Arab-Americans and Muslims in this country simply a way to "shock and awe" potential antiwar activists into submission? Was Dhafir targeted to deflect attention away from Bush's obsession with overthrowing Saddam Hussein?

Dhafir's only "crime" was caring too much about starving and oppressed Iraqis. Unlike Bush, Dhafir backed up his concerns with actions designed to provide real aid to the victims of the Iraqi government--rather than further victimize them with bombs, a colonial-style occupation and the theft of the country's resources.

For anyone who has seen the pictures of Iraqi children suffering from easily curable diseases because of U.S.-backed sanctions, it is easy to understand why Dhafir decided that the worst crime of all was to do nothing to help the suffering. Compare Dhafir's actions with the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has yet to be tried for war crimes for her much publicized statement on CBS's 60 Minutes that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children because of sanctions was a price worth paying to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

In the final analysis, Dr. Rafil Dhafir is no criminal. Rather, he is a hero for his compassion, bravery and dedication to humanitarian causes. His victimization by the U.S. government should serve as a clarion call to alert us to a government and justice system that has turned the world of heroes and criminals upside down.

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