March 5, 2004

C.U. Students React to Doctor Imprisonment

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On Feb. 26, 2003 Dr. Rafil Dhafir was arrested in Syracuse for illegally sending money to Iraq through an unlicensed charity called Help the Needy. One year and four denied bail requests later, he still sits in jail awaiting trail. Before his arrest, Dhafir was an active member of the central New York community; an oncologist in Rome, N.Y. assisting patients with cancer, the president of the Islamic Society of Central New York and a resident of Manlius, N.Y.

Dhafir, along with three other men in the Syracuse area, were arrested for conspiring to transfer possibly millions in funds to Iraq — in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The Act has placed an embargo on sending funds to Iraq since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Directly following the arrest of Dhafir, the government questioned 150 families about their ties with Help the Needy.

Dhafir, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Baghdad, told the New Standard that he started Help the Needy in 1993 to raise money for people suffering in Iraq under sanctions. “A group of us sat down and said, ‘Something needs to be done,'” he told the paper.

Around 180 people came out for a rally held Feb. 28 to protest Dhafir’s incarceration. According to an article in the Daily Orange, protesters marched from Grace Episcopal Church through the Syracuse University’s Hall of Languages to Hendricks Chapel. Marchers held placards that read, “Being a Muslim is not a Crime” and “Stop Ashcroft’s War on Civil Liberties.”

Dhafir’s former cancer patients and staff workers also provided testimonies celebrating his work as a doctor and humanitarian.

“Of the many groups who provided aid to Iraq, [Dhafir] is being singled out. Lots of Christian groups sent lots of money [to Iraq] but they’re not in jail,” said Madis Senner, an organizer of the rally. “We want all the charges to be dropped with relation to Help the Needy.”

The three other men arrested with Dhafir have pleaded guilty to the various charges of conspiring to violate IEEPA and transfer funds into Iraq. They were granted bail and as of Feb. 29 are awaiting sentencing. “[Dhafir’s] facing 265 years in jail. The feds consider him to be a ringleader so he doesn’t have the ability to take a couple years probation,” Senner said.

In response, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft stated in Justice Department press release, “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. Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted.”

Cornell students and campus groups have had varying opinions on Dhafir’s arrest.

“I do not believe the Bush Administration is discriminating against Muslims. The fact is that there are radical Islamic terror cells and terrorist-funding ‘charities’ in the United States. The administration is rightly targeting people believed to be associated with these groups.” said Mike Lepage ’05, president of the Cornell College Republicans.

“He was a doctor and well-respected. He helped a lot of the people in his community, so it came as a shock that he was arrested, to everyone, not just Arabs. He deserves fair treatment in this area,” said Shada El-Sharif ’05, president of the Cornell Arab Association.

“There is always a possibility of innocent civilians being mistakenly targeted, but that is a risk that must be taken to protect the country. Similarly, innocent people are sometimes arrested for many crimes, but no one argues that the police should be disbanded, because there is a need for public safety,” said Darren Rumack ’04 president of the Republicans of Cornell Coalition and a columnist for The Sun.

“We are upset about the broader problem that has affected the life of Dr. Dhafir as well as countless other Muslims discriminated against in the United States. The current administration’s intrusive post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism laws have given the government unprecedented and unchecked powers to interfere with our privacy, all for the sake of national security.” said Josh Goldstein ’05, co-president of the Cornell Civil Liberties Union.

“The good doctor is being charged with starting up an organization with a nice, caring name in order to launder money to outlawed terrorist ‘charities’,” said Ellis M. Oster, law ’06, chair of the Cornell Law Republicans. “If an Enron executive, no matter how friendly he might be, had started up the “Human Fund” and laundered the money for his own benefit or disguised his efforts for an evil cause, there would be no doubt in my mind that most Americans, regardless of race, color, or creed, would rightfully want our government to go for his jugular.”

Dhafir was charged with 12 counts of money laundering, counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering, falsely writing off his contributions to Help the Needy as tax-exempt, filing a false non-profit request with the IRS, billing Medicare for chemotherapy sessions at his clinic when he was not present and making a false statement to a medical auditor. Dhafir has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and his trial has been pushed back until Sept. 27, 2004.

“If a trial were to start then a lot of activities will begin,” said Jessica Maxwell, a staff person at Syracuse Peace Council.

Archived article by Casey Holmes