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Paying the Price: Feeding the Children of Iraq

July 25, 2011


February 26, 2011 marked the eighth anniversary of the imprisonment of Dr. Rafil Dhafir as he continues to pay the price for feeding the children of Iraq during the U.S.- and U.K.-sponsored UN sanctions against that country. His charity, Help the Needy (HTN), openly sent food and medicines to starving civilians in Iraq during the brutal embargo.

I did not know Dr. Dhafir before attending virtually all of his 14-week trial. The demonization of Muslims in the U.S. in the post-9/11 period, and the fact that the government was hinting at terrorism connections without bringing any charges, made it imperative for me to attend. I have had a passion for the preservation of civil liberties since watching a documentary, at the age of 14, of the Allies going into Bergen-Belsen, and for 38 years I have been a voracious reader of first-hand accounts of what happened in Germany in the 1930s. I knew that should anything like this happen in my lifetime, I wanted no part of it.

Dr. Dhafir was born in Iraq in 1948. He completed medical school before immigrating to the U.S. in 1972, and has been a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. An oncologist in an underserved community, he treated many people for free, paying for expensive chemotherapy out of his own pocket. He is a pillar of the central New York Muslim community and a well-known national and international figure. Although charged with only white-collar crime, Dr. Dhafir was held without bail for 19 months before trial, which greatly impeded his ability to prepare his defense.

The proceedings showed him to be a devout man of compassion who was highly esteemed by all his associates, and the message his conviction sent to the Muslim community cannot be overstated. Dr. Dhafir was convicted of 59 counts of white-collar crime (the government had made a mistake in one of the counts, and the jury was not allowed to deliberate on it) and is currently serving 22 years – for a crime he was never convicted of in a court of law, money laundering to help terrorist organizations – in a special Communication Management Unit that houses almost exclusively Muslim and/or Arab prisoners.

Before attending this trial, I spent my entire life secure in the knowledge that my civil rights would always be respected. I no longer believe this to be true…

Iraq under sanctions and Dr. Dhafir’s humanitarian response

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 and health systems were the best in the region…

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 during World War II. In total, these were 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 are prevalent in Iraq. Many pregnant women deliver babies as early as six months, and many babies are born with terrible deformities. Cancer rates increased dramatically. (These effects have been compounded by the current war in Iraq.)

All major bridges and communication systems were bombed, making communication both inside and outside the country extremely difficult. The water purification system was bombed and the UN never allowed it to be repaired; as a result, 15 years’ worth of raw sewage piled up in the streets and resulted in 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.

According to the United Nations’ own statistics, every month throughout the 1990s 6,000 children under the age of five in Iraq were dying from lack of food and access to simple medicines. Three senior U.N. officials resigned because of what they considered a “genocidal” policy against Iraq. The United States led the effort to place restrictive sanctions on Iraq, and when Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked in a CBS interview if the deaths of half a million children were a price worth paying to punish Saddam Hussein, she infamously replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” When the deaths of children over the age of five and adults are added, the number killed as a direct result of the sanctions rises to between 1.5 and 2 million dead civilians.

It was in direct response to this humanitarian catastrophe that Dr. Dhafir founded the Help the Needy (HTN) charity, and for 13 years he worked tirelessly to help publicize the plight of the Iraqi people and to raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dr. Dhafir donated $1.4 million of his own money over the years.

Government Duplicity

From the outset of the case, the government was duplicitous. Using unfair tactics and innuendo, and aided by a compliant media, the government transformed Dr. Dhafir’s community image from a compassionate humanitarian into that of a crook and supporter of terrorism.

Seven government agencies investigated Dr. Dhafir and Help the Needy for many years. They intercepted his mail, e-mail, faxes, and telephone calls; bugged his office and hotel rooms; went through his trash; and conducted physical surveillance. They were unable to find any evidence of links to terrorism, and no charges of terrorism were ever brought against Dr. Dhafir. Yet he and other HTN associates were subjected to high-profile arrests in the early morning of February 26, 2003, just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The first indictment against Dr. Dhafir contained 14 charges related only to the Iraq sanctions. Later, when Dr. Dhafir refused to accept a plea agreement, the government piled on more charges, and he eventually faced a 60-count indictment that included violating federal regulations related to economic sanctions imposed against Iraq, money laundering, mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, visa fraud – all related to running the charity – and Medicare fraud.

Medicare charges usually involve fictitious patients and made-up illnesses; Dr. Dhafir’s case had none of this. The government never contested that patients received care and chemotherapy. Its argument for all 25 counts was that because Dr. Dhafir was sometimes not present in his office when patients were treated, the Medicare claim forms were filled out incorrectly, and he was thus not due any reimbursement for treatment or for the expensive chemotherapy his office had administered…

Inconsistencies in the government’s position were a startling feature of this case from its inception and suggested two possibilities: either one hand of the government didn’t know what the other was doing, or the government was deliberately aiming to deceive. The fact that, once conviction was successfully achieved, the district attorney and local prosecutors claimed it as a successful prosecution in the “war on terror” suggests that the government’s duplicity was a strategy from the outset.

What you can do

Write to Dr. Dhafir and let him know that he is not forgotten and that his humanitarian work is appreciated:

Rafil Dhafir #11921-052
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, IN
47808 USA

Dr. Dhafir’s case will soon be coming back to court for resentencing: write to the judge asking for leniency (letters should be submitted to Dr. Dhafir’s lawyer and not directly to the judge):

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