Monday, January 23, 2012

22 years in Prison for a "Crime of Compassion": The Case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir

Taking Liberties: 22 Years Behind Bars For a “Crime of Compassion”

(this article appears in the Taking Liberties column of


By Matthew Behrens


          When former U.S. President George W. Bush descended on the 

Regional Economic Summit in suburban Vancouver last October, there 

was, understandably, no shortage of protesters, pleas for 

indictments, and cries of “war criminal.” Left out of most news 

coverage as well as activist communiqués, however, was any focus on 

another former U.S. President who was tagging along, someone equally 

deserving of such protest but who seems, remarkably, to get off 

fairly lightly these days: Bill Clinton.


          While Clinton’s own contributions to world warfare and 

human misery were many – think the cruise missile attack on a vital 

pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, the murderous bombing of the former 

Yugoslavia and daily bombings of Iraq, cruise missiles lobbed into 

Afghanistan and Pakistan, tightening the sanctions against the Cuban 

people, failure to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide, and 

legislation that doomed millions of Americans to ever deeper levels 

of poverty –  perhaps most infamous was his aw-shucks enforcement of 

the devastating sanctions that resulted in the deaths of over one 

million Iraqis.


          That Clinton has far more Iraqi blood on his hands than 

anyone in the George W. Bush administration is largely forgotten.  

Yet report after report produced through the Clinton years tallied 

the hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in Iraq, and by the 

close of the decade, the word " genocide " began creeping into their 

vocabulary. Enforced in part with $1 billion in Canadian military 

muscle, sanctions that led to the monthly deaths of  5,000 Iraqi 

children under the age of five provoked the high-profile resignations 

of UN humanitarian coordinators Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck. 

When Halliday resigned in 1998, he stated: "I've been using the word 

'genocide' because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people 

of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view."


          What was one to make of a policy that deliberately targeted 

the importation of civilian goods that allegedly had “dual use,” from 

pencils and baby dolls to eyeglasses and shampoo?  The equipment 

needed to fix electrical generating stations and water purification 

systems destroyed during the 1991 U.S. and Canadian bombing runs of 

Desert Storm was not permitted entry, so water-borne diseases ran 

rampant. The medicines needed to treat the spike in cancer (a result 

of tons of depleted uranium munitions dust that wound up in the Iraqi 

soil, air and water) didn't get through either.


          Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, asked on 

the CBS program 60 Minutes if the sanctions-related deaths of a half 

million Iraqi children were worth it, famously replied, "We think the 

price is worth it."


          The people of Iraq were subjected to a Stalingrad-style 

siege, and while the general responsible for that siege was charged 

as a war criminal at Nuremberg, Clinton now struts about the world 

stage as a self-styled “elder statesman” who runs a foundation where 

he paints himself as the second coming of Mother Theresa.  "In my 

life now, I am obsessed with only two things: I don't want anybody to 

die before their time, and I don't want to see good people spend 

their energies without making a difference," Clinton says on his 



          As Clinton rakes in $100,000-plus speaking fees for 

trotting out such tripe, New York oncologist Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who 

also believed no one should die before their time, especially in 

Iraq, remains behind bars in one of the most brutal of U.S. prisons, 

the Communication Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana (aka, 

“Little Guantanamo.”). The CMU has been “home” to dozens of Muslims 

arrested as part of post-9/11 racial profiling paranoia.


          Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years for consciously violating 

the sanctions against the people of Iraq. Many individuals and groups 

who were not Muslim also violated the sanctions – fines were the 

worst punishment directed at a number of groups – yet Dhafir, as the 

driving force behind the Help the Needy Foundation, which provided 

millions in aid, was the only one to suffer such a fate. Needless to 

say, corporations that quietly went around the sanctions not for 

humanitarian goals, but to profit from their relationship with the 

Hussein dictatorship, did not face charges either.


       Dhafir’s imprisonment began on the morning of February 26, 

2003, when hundreds of federal agents swooped down on the community 

of Syracuse, New York. They knocked down his door, pointed a gun at 

his wife’s head, and ransacked his house, taking away any books 

related to Islam while leaving behind the Bible and tomes on American 



          Agents proceeded to terrorize patients at Dhafir’s clinic, 

and interrogated almost 150 primarily Muslim Help the Needy donors 

about how often they prayed, whether they had family in the Middle 

East, and whether they celebrated Christmas.


           Cynically framed as a terrorism-related arrest as the U.S. 

prepared its invasion of Iraq, the first indictment of Dhafir 

contained 14 charges of violating sanctions. But when he refused a 

plea bargain, the government ratcheted up its already hyperbolic 

case, alleging an additional 45 alleged breaches of various financial 

laws related to the running of a charity as well as alleged Medicare 

fraud. The non-sanctions charges were speciously vague, and related 

to things like incorrectly filling out the complicated Medicare forms 

(many doctors refuse to treat Medicare patients as a result of their 

burdensome regulations, and even Medicare officials themselves 

appeared confused about them during the trial). Charges also arose 

from using another organization to issue Help the Needy’s tax 

receipts, a not uncommon practice. In any event, most such “white 

collar” cases, should they actually result in a trial, do not produce 

such serious consequences.


          As community members could testify, Dhafir was a hugely 

generous person, and opened his office not in Syracuse, where he 

could have made more money, but an hour away in Rome, New York, an 

underserved community. His reputation for providing interest-free 

loans, treating low-income patients, donating large chunks of money 

for schools and mosques, and assisting newcomers to the US was 



          But Dhafir’s refusal to be silent in the face of genocide 

resulted in seven government agencies investigating Help the Needy 

and intercepting his mail, email, faxes and telephone calls, bugging 

his office and hotel rooms, combing through his trash, and also 

conducting physical surveillance. They were unable to find any 

evidence of terrorism links, yet the stench of such alleged 

associations infused the trial as a result of headline grabbing 

outbursts from New York Governor George Pataki and Attorney General 

John Ashcroft.


           After a six-week trial, Dhafir was convicted in February, 

2005, though as the Syracuse New Standard pointed out, "The defense 

was forbidden during the trial to tell the jury that the government's 

investigation of Dhafir had apparently begun as a terrorism hunt, nor 

was the defense allowed to argue that Dhafir had been selectively 

prosecuted for alleged crimes that are relatively common and do not 

usually result in criminal charges."


           While further details of this railroad are available on 

the website, Dhafir is now preparing to 

head to court in early February seeking a resentencing that would see 

him released for time served. During his time behind bars, Dhafir has 

developed a range of debilitating conditions, from an untreated 

hernia and diabetes to chronic gout, significant back pain, and 

incipient cataracts. Even though he was originally sentenced to a 

medium security prison within driving distance of his community, he 

was transferred to the notorious CMU, where he could not have contact 

visits, his freedom to worship was severely limited, phone calls were 

rare, and he was harshly treated along with his fellow, isolated 



          His lawyers will argue that median sentences for far more 

serious offences, such as material aid to terrorists, money 

laundering, and “national defence” cases, are all far lower than what 

Dhafir has already served.


           Over 60 letters of support from the USCanada, UK

Germany, and Ireland  have been sent to the judge, including one from 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire. Among those is one from 

Linda Taffs, a 63-year-old grandmother in Victoria, BC, who wrote she 

was one of those who took humanitarian supplies to Iraq in 1999 and 

2003. She says she and fellow delegates “visited hospitals and 

schools in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. There was grief beyond words in 

Iraq: I was heartbroken at what I witnessed there. Children were in 

fact dying before my eyes,” she wrote, noting she could understand 

what motivated Dhafir to undertake his Help the Needy commitment.


          Taffs is proud to be associated with Dr. Dhafir and that 

all-too-small honour roll of those who openly, proudly did what they 

could to end the silent genocide taking place in Iraq in the decade 

before Abu Ghraib and WMDs became the new backdrop for another 

generation of suffering.


          While supporters await the outcome of the resentencing for 

what they call a “crime of compassion,” they ask that letters of 

support be written to  Rafil A. Dhafir, 11921-052, P.O. Box 33, Terre 

Haute, IN 47808, USA.


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