Crime of Compassion:
Filed under: Katherine’s Writing, Civil Liberties — k @ 9:30 pm
Muslims like Dr. Rafil Dhafir should be celebrated as the outstanding humanitarians they are, not turned into convenient props in the War on Terror.

On October 27, 2005, after being detained 31 months and being denied access
to his own records, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an oncologist from Upstate New York,
was sentenced to 22 years in Federal prison.[1] A man of Iraqi descent and
Muslim faith, he lived in the U.S. since 1974 and has been an American
citizen for almost 30 years. As a direct response to the humanitarian
catastrophe created by the Gulf War and U.S. sanctions Dhafir founded the
charity Help the Needy (HTN). Despite many difficulties, including the U.S.
embargo and a brutal dictatorship in Iraq, HTN got food and medicines to
millions of starving Iraqis for 13 years.[2] Without HTN aid the UN
statistic of 5,200 preventable deaths per month of children under the age of
five would undoubtedly have been much higher.

On February 26, 2003, the day that Dhafir was arrested, Attorney General
John Ashcroft announced that “supporters of terrorism had been apprehended.”
Since that day senior government officials have continued to paint Dhafir as
a terrorist, and Judge Norman Mordue denied Dhafir bail on four occasions.
Yet local prosecutors successfully lobbied Mordue to prevent the charge of
terrorism from being part of the trial. This ruling turned into a brick
wall that the defense kept hitting during the proceedings: prosecutors could
hint at more serious charges, but the defense was never allowed to follow
this line of questioning. Despite denying Dhafir the right to address the
charge in court, Mordue allowed prosecutors to bring the charge to his

Although the government continues to characterize Dhafir as a criminal
supporting terrorism, the only context in which this case makes any sense is
the overwhelming humanitarian crisis created by the brutal U.S. sanctions on
the country of Iraq.[3]

Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), speaking about mainstream
U.S media coverage before the Iraq War had begun, said, “I try to point out
to the mainstream journalists that they have succeeded enormously in
informing the U.S. public about the horrors committed by the current regime
in Iraq while for the most part neglecting the horrors the United States has
committed. That the regime here has used chemical weapons, engaged in
torture, and violated the political and civil rights of Iraqi civilians is
repugnant to all who cherish human rights. And yet, what the U.S. public
doesn’t understand and will possibly never comprehend is that the greatest
violations of human rights in Iraq since the Gulf War have happened as a
result of U.S.-led UN economic sanctions against Iraq.”[4] Indeed, three
senior UN officials living and working in Iraq resigned because they
considered the sanctions to be a “genocidal” policy.[5]

Talking about her return to the U.S. after a 1998 visit to Iraq, Kelly said,
“Upon our return to the U.S., customs agents turned my passport over to the
State Department, perhaps as evidence that, according to U.S. law, I’ve
committed a criminal act by traveling to Iraq. I know that our efforts to be
voices in the wilderness aren’t criminal. We’re governed by compassion, not
by the laws that pitilessly murder innocent children. What’s more, Iraqi
children might benefit if we could bring their story into a courtroom,
before a jury of our peers.”[6]


During the course of the proceedings the government did its utmost to
prevent any discussion of the state of Iraq under the sanctions from being
part of the trial. Government employees, including Susan Hutner, of the
Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), testified to having no knowledge of
the effects of the sanctions. As the government attorney addressing the
situation in Iraq, she helped draft the initial legal documentation to
implement the sanctions and then worked on the sanctions for 12 years. When
the defense attempted to question Hutner about the Oil for Food program, the
court ruled the line of questioning irrelevant.[7]

Several government witnesses of Iraqi descent broke down on the stand when
they began to talk of the effects of the sanctions on their families.[8]
Each time this happened the prosecution immediately interrupted the
testimony.[9] The only newspaper reporting on the proceedings, the local
Syracuse Post-Standard, failed to address the sanctions as they pertained to
the case.

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 system and health system were the best in the

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 together in the whole
of World War II. Taken together, these bombs are 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 have become prevalent in Iraq. Many
pregnant women are delivering their babies as early as six months, and many
babies are born with terrible deformities. Cancer rates have skyrocketed,
and if current trends continue 44% of the population could develop cancer
within the next ten years. [10]

All major bridges and communication systems were bombed, making any
communications both inside and outside the country extremely difficult. The
water purification system was bombed and the UN has never allowed it to be
repaired; as a result 15 years of raw sewage has piled up in the streets.
This has been the cause of 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. [11]

Robert Fisk in his new book about the Middle East says, “There was one final
scourge to be visited upon the Iraqi people, a foul cocktail in which both
our gunfire and our sanctions played an intimate, horrific role, one that
would contaminate Iraqis for years to come, perhaps for generations. In
historical terms, it may be identified as our most callous crime against the
Middle East, against Arabs, against children. It manifested itself in
abscesses, in massive tumours, in gangrene, internal bleeding and child
mastectomies and shrunken heads and deformities and thousands of tiny

In 1998 Denis Halliday, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations
resigned from the UN after thirty-four years of distinguished service. At
the time he was serving as the humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, and his
resignation was a direct result of the conditions he witnessed. He said, “I
had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of
genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a
million individuals, children and adults. We all know that the regime,
Saddam Hussein, is not paying the price of economic sanctions; on the
contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are
losing their children or their parents for lack of treated water. What is
clear is that the Security Council is now out of control, for its actions
here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration of Human Rights and the
Geneva Convention. History will slaughter those responsible.”[13]

Hans Von Sponeck succeeded Denis Halliday as humanitarian coordinator in
Baghdad and, and in early 2000 he too resigned from that position. Von
Sponeck, talking about the Oil for Food program, said that it was impossible
for each person to live on the $100 per year that was being allocated,
especially because of the conditions prevalent in Iraq at the time. He
said, “Set that pittance against the lack of clean water, the fact that
electricity fails for up to 22 hours a day, and the majority of sick people
cannot afford treatment, the sheer trauma of trying to get from day to day,
and you have a glimpse of the nightmare. And make no mistake, this is
deliberate. I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now
it is unavoidable.”[14]

And in a report to the UN Secretary General, Professor Marc Bossuyt, an
authority on international law, stated that the “…sanctions regime against
Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing human right law and could raise
questions under the Genocide Convention.”[15]


Over the course of 13 years, from 1990 until 2003, HTN sent food and
medicines that reached millions of starving Iraqi civilians. The aid was
first sent to Maher Zagha in Jordan. Zagha is a former Onondaga Community
College and Utica College student who lived in the Upstate New York area for
several years before returning to Jordan.[16] He is listed as a
co-conspirator with Dhafir on the indictment.

On the day of Dhafir’s arrest, Zagha was arrested in Jordan and then held in
solitary for 21 days. The Jordanians interrogated him and released him and
since then he has gone about his normal life, including traveling
internationally. After Dhafir’s conviction in February 2005 the remaining
HTN money in Jordan, $138,564.53 was confiscated along with $25,000 of
Dhafir’s personal money.

Throughout the period of the sanctions container loads of good were shipped
by HTN from Jordan to Iraq. Receipts from the purchase of food were shown
in court. For example, an invoice from January 29th, 1997, showed the
purchase of 25 tons of Thailand rice, 35 tons of flour and 2000 cans of
cooking oil. Invoices from other days and years list tons of; American
rice, Turkish sugar, Iranian flour, chickpeas and Iraqi lentils. Tea and
tomato paste was also shipped. Zagha sent the aid into Iraq using the
correct official channels required by the Jordanian authorities. When he
was unable to comply, he gave the aid over to the authorities. In 1990
when Dhafir sent 900 kilograms of medicine to Zagha without the correct
paper work, Zagha had to give the medicine to the Iraqi embassy in Jordan.
It was the only way to get the medicine into Iraq and he could only hope
that it would reach the people for whom it was intended.[17]

>From 1996 through 2003 Zagha sent money to Iraq and local exchangers were
used because there were no banks operating at that time. The money was sent
to Dhafir’s brother Najim in Baghdad (also a physician) and two other men,
Mustapha and Ammar. By getting money into Iraq from Jordan HTN was able to
provide starving civilians with meat protein. The three men in Baghdad
bought animals at the open markets surrounding the city, and
these purchases usually coincided with the major holidays of the Muslim
faith. For example, in January 2003, for one of the most holy of Muslim
holidays, Eid, Zagha sent four lots of money totaling $285,000. This money
bought about 4,000 lambs and cows which were sacrificed, and the food was
distributed to the needy.[18] Looking at the quantities of aid provided to
Iraqi civilians by HTN, it is easy to believe that they were indeed feeding
more people in Iraq than all the other aid agencies put together.[19]

An email read in court showed that Dhafir believed that the U.S. government
was not opposed to Iraqi civilians receiving humanitarian aid of the form
that HTN was supplying. HTN and other groups, like VITW, openly advertised
that they were sending aid to civilians. They did this through leaflets,
websites and fundraising events. For 13 years the government took little
action against people who sent aid to Iraqi civilians, and this tacit
approval must have helped confirm Dhafir’s belief.[20]

Since the day of his arrest, using unfair tactics and innuendo, the
government has managed to transform Dhafir from a compassionate humanitarian
into a crook and supporter of terrorists. They have done this with the aid
of a complicit press and a willfully ignorant public.


>From the outset in this case the approach of the government has been one of
circumambulation. Michael Powell of the Washington Post said, “There is a
shadow-boxing quality to the terror allegations lodged against Dhafir. In
August [2004], Gov. 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.”[21]

In April 2004 the U.S. government brought new charges against Zagha to
Interpol, and Zagha had to give up his passport. It was returned so that he
could make a business trip to Syria, but on December 20, 2005, the
authorities again took his passport.

To this day no evidence has been offered to link Dhafir to terrorists. And
yet, on November 15, 2005, the government presented a lecture at Syracuse
University’s law school entitled, “A Law Enforcement Approach to Terrorist
Financing,” in which Dhafir’s case was highlighted. [22] The three
prosecutors from the case, Michael Olmstead, Greg West and Steve Green were
present along with Jeff Breinholt, Deputy Chief, Counterterrorism Section
United States Department of Justice who was the main speaker.

Breinholt asserted that the Dhafir case had been “under prosecuted,” this
despite the fact that the government brought 60 counts against Dhafir and
gained conviction on 59. He cited HTN’s use of tax exemption numbers other
than its own as an example of how charities functioned in their criminal
activity. Many of Dhafir’s convictions on tax evasion and fraud charges are
based on the assumption that people who gave money to HTN used the tax
exemption number of another charity and therefore did not pay tax. The
government is holding Dhafir responsible for this lost tax revenue.

One of the two numbers Dhafir used was from a charity that is the Saudi
Arabian equivalent of the American charity United Way.[23] The use of
another charity’s number is not an uncommon practice. What is uncommon is
the fact that it resulted in a criminal prosecution. Barrie Gewanter,
Director of the Central New York ACLU, has explained the normal procedure
for this type of situation in numerous interviews about the HTN case.
Ordinarily the state government intervenes and shuts the charity down until
the situation is sorted out to their satisfaction. When and if this is
achieved, the charity continues its work.[24]

The government’s philosophy in prosecuting this case was made clear in the
course of the lecture. Olmstead, the head prosecutor of the Dhafir case,
cited the philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s imperative, “To obey the law because
it is the law.” He added that “if you break the law, you must pay the
price,” apparently regardless of the unfairness of the law and the
humanitarian nature of the act. Compassion comes with a very high price.

Dhafir is undoubtedly paying the price of breaking the genocidal policy of
U.S. sanctions against Iraq. However, the government was unwilling to
prosecute him for this without the attendant obfuscation and cover provided
by the laundry list of charges that he faced. A clear message is being sent
that humanitarian acts like this will not be tolerated and will be punished

By hosting this lecture on terrorist financing, Syracuse University Law
School provided the government with a platform that gives credence to an
accusation that is wholly lacking in evidence. They have become the most
recent government accomplice. The “shadow boxing” continues with the media,
public and the local law school as willing participants in the charade.

The journalist John Pilger writes, “It is not enough for journalists to see
themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of
the message and the myths that surround it”[25] It is also not enough for
citizens in a democracy to see themselves as mere receptors of information.
As citizens in a democracy we have an obligation to seek justice for each
other. In this case it means actively going beyond the government’s
obfuscation and seeking hard facts and other sources of information. If
this can be achieved, Dhafir and the other HTN defendants will be
vindicated; but it is no easy task.


Many people are reassured by the fact that Dhafir can appeal against his
conviction and sentencing. But most have no idea what this means in terms
of practicalities. Under the best possible circumstances the chances of a
successful appeal are slim.

Seven government agencies investigated this case for five years. The
prosecutors presented the case in minutia over the course of the seventeen
weeks of proceedings. What was expected to be a 6-week trial turned into a
17-week trial and the three defense lawyers have received a fraction of
their fee. Due to this lack of finances a request for transcripts was made
at the beginning of the trial.[26] Judge Mordue denied this request and so
one of the three defense lawyers typed the proceedings on his laptop.

But official transcripts are essential to an appeal and even if ordered
today, it would take two years to get the transcript in full. The cost
would be around $60,000. before any lawyer fees or other costs are taken
into account.

Dhafir has been bankrupted by this course of justice and has no money for an
appeals lawyer. His only hope is that people who care about compassion and
justice will be able to raise enough money for him to have a viable chance
of a successful appeal.

Katherine Hughes is a potter and a voracious reader of history and current
events. She responded to a request from the ACLU for court watchers and
attended virtually all of the Dhafir trial. To find out more about this
case, please visit her website:

[1] Write to Dr. Dhafir: Rafil Dhafir, 11921-052, FCI-Fairton, PO Box 420,
Fairton, NJ 08320.

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