A Muslim doctor from Syracuse remains behind bars for sending
money to starving Iraqis - a "crime" for which non-Muslims
are usually slapped on the wrist.
year ago, two federal investigators and a New York state trooper
followed Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a prominent physician, as he pulled
out of his driveway around seven in the morning and headed
to work at his medical clinic outside Syracuse. A few blocks
later, they ordered Dhafir to pull his tan 2001 Lexus over
to the side of the road and arrested him on charges that he
had violated the sanctions against Iraq.
nearby Fayetteville, Osameh Al-Wahaidy, a college math instructor
and imam for a local prison, heard a knock at his door. When
he opened it, he was face-to-face with federal investigators
holding two warrants: one to search his home, the other to
That same night, Ayman Jarwan, executive director of the charity
Help the Needy, opened the door of his Syracuse apartment
and met the same fate.
Meanwhile, federal agents started knocking on the doors of
Muslim families throughout the Syracuse area, asking them
questions about their donations to Help the Needy and about
their religion. In four hours, authorities visited as many
as 150 area families. Although the exact number is not known,
it is one of the largest federal interrogations of Muslims
in the United States.
Although Jarwan and Al-Wahaidy would later be released, Dhafir,
the founder and president of Help the Needy, would spend at
least the next year of his life in jail, at the center of
one of the quietest, most convoluted, and some say most outrageous
prosecutions of a Muslim charity.
To the Justice Department, Dhafir is a radical Muslim, suspected
of giving money to terrorist organizations and deceiving the
U.S. government. To his community, Dhafir is a devoutly religious
man who felt called to raise millions of dollars to assist
the poor and starving in Iraq, a victim of the hysteria surrounding
anything perceived to be related to terrorism.
Either way, Dhafir, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Baghdad,
remains at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility in Jamesville,
awaiting a trial that was scheduled to start April 19, but
recently was pushed back to Sept. 27. He has been denied bail
on five occasions.
For the first time, he has agreed to speak to the media to
tell his story. “We don’t have anything to hide because we
have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says.
Seven federal agencies spent almost four years investigating
Help the Needy. They gathered bank, medical, tax and business
records and e-mail messages. They collected video and audio
transcripts. They went undercover to Help the Needy fundraisers,
and infiltrated at least one of the charity’s meetings. Yet
the case remains shrouded in mystery, and the public remains
generally unaware that any of it ever happened.
The prosecution alleges that Dhafir tried to conceal his activities
from the U.S. government. Supporters argue that Dhafir tried
to conceal the charity from another government—that of Saddam
Hussein. “If Saddam knows the money went to the people, he
would kill all of them,” says Haikal Abu-Ghoush, a friend
of Dhafir who visits him regularly in jail. Dhafir is said
by his friends to have been a harsh and vocal critic of Hussein.
A federal grand jury charged Dhafir and Maher Zagha, a Jordanian
citizen living in Jordan outside the reach of prosecutors,
with conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic
Powers Act, conspiracy to launder money by sending funds to
Iraq, and 12 individual counts of money laundering.
The IEEPA gives the president the authority to prohibit the
transfer of money into any foreign country; it was illegal
to send cash into Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Humanitarian
aid in other forms could be legally distributed with a license
from the U.S. government. Help the Needy, like many other
Iraq charities, had no license.
The prosecutors contend that more than $2 million of Help
the Needy money was sent to Iraq through bank accounts in
If convicted, Dhafir and Zagha would each face up to 265 years
in prison and more than $14 million in fines.
The grand jury also charged Dhafir with falsely writing off
his contributions to Help the Needy as tax-exempt, filing
a false nonprofit 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 pled not guilty to all charges.
Although no terrorism-related charges have been brought against
any of the defendants, prosecutors allege that Help the Needy
donated $41,548.33 to two charities later linked to terrorism,
and the local media, elected officials and prosecutors have
repeatedly insinuated that the case is part of the “war on
After news broke of the arrests and interrogations, U.S. Attorney
General John Ashcroft released a statement saying, “Those
who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise
of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted. 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
According to the New York Daily News, on the day of
Dhafir’s arrest, Gov. George Pataki said, “It is again troubling
to see, with the arrests that occurred in Syracuse today,
that there are clear terrorists living here in New York state
among us . . . who are supporting or aiding and abetting those
who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and
The Syracuse-area media widely reported that agents found
an Iraqi military uniform in Dhafir’s basement while executing
a search warrant, despite the fact that there have been no
charges brought against Dhafir involving aiding the government
of Iraq or serving in the Iraqi military.
There is no evidence to suggest that the uniform belonged
In fact, the uniform bore the name of another man, who does
not appear anywhere else in the unsealed court documents.
According to Mohamed Khater, a friend of Dhafir’s, a sergeant
in the U.S. military who served in the first Gulf War brought
the uniform home as a souvenir and later gave it to Dhafir.
None of the media outlets that mentioned the uniform has reported
The prosecution has continually made references to the “war
on terror.” At the bail hearing for Ayman Jarwan, Assistant
U.S. Attorney Gregory West made explicit references to terrorism,
arguing that the court should consider then-circulating reports
that terrorists might explode a “dirty bomb” in the United
States. West referred to Jarwan’s degrees in nuclear and radiological
engineering, and said, “This man knows how to use and has
access to this material,” the Post-Standard reported.
He also noted that agents had found excerpts from a published
interview with a radical Saudi cleric in Jarwan’s apartment.
“Although those are not [Jarwan’s] own words, the fact that
he has it and kept it suggests he might subscribe to those
views,” West said.
Judge David E. Peebles then objected to West’s statement,
saying, “Have we come to the point in this country where we
are willing to detain a person based on what they may read?
I reject that because he holds advanced degrees or reads radical
material, he’s a danger.”
Dhafir’s original attorney, Edward C. Menkin, says, “Now it’s
a year later and we still don’t have any reasonable evidence
[of a connection to terrorism].”
Many friends and activists say that Dhafir is being unfairly
from Iraq. He’s wealthy. He’s Muslim. He travels a lot,” says
Abu-Ghoush. “Immediately, people think there’s something wrong.”
Other groups, like Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness,
also have illegally sent aid to Iraq, but have received only
have been targeted but not to that extent,” says John Farrell,
organizer for Voices in the Wilderness. “In the case of Muslim-Americans,
you have the additional component of the racism and distrust
of Muslim-Americans in the United States. I imagine that atmosphere
has contributed to the government’s desire to go very strongly
after Help the Needy.”
The terrorism hype around the case has upset Dhafir’s supporters,
who say that it prevented him from getting bail. “The government
and [Dhafir] are entitled to have their day in court; but
in the meantime, let’s not treat him as the worst enemy of
the United States,” Khater says.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Dhafir entered a small visiting
room at the Jamesville facility. From the other side of a
large glass panel dividing the room, he smiled widely. Since
he refuses to be strip searched for religious reasons, he
is not allowed to meet privately with his lawyer or other
Wearing a green prison-issued T-shirt over a white long-sleeved
shirt, with a metal cord dangling an I.D. card around his
neck, he looked, oddly enough, like a doctor in scrubs. As
he sat down to speak to a reporter for the first time since
the arrest, his demeanor was calm and pleasant, but his words
should realize that this is a trumped up charge,” he says.
“This is part of a campaign against Muslims and Arabs.”
Dhafir, 55, was born into a middle-class Sunni Muslim family
in Baghdad, according to a biography submitted to the court
by the defense team. After graduating 10th out of 45,000 seniors
in the nation, the document states, he enrolled in Baghdad
Medical School, where he received his medical degree.
Dhafir left Iraq in 1972, and has not returned since. He met
his wife, Priscilla, while studying for his oncology certification
at the University of Michigan. He moved to Syracuse in 1980,
opening his own clinic as well as working on the staff of
Rome Memorial Hospital. He soon rose to prominence within
the community, becoming president of the Islamic Society of
Central New York, and helping with efforts to build a local
Dhafir says he founded the charity Help the Needy in 1993
to raise money to buy food and supplies for Iraqi people suffering
under the sanctions. “A group of us sat down and said, ‘Something
needs to be done,’ ” he says. Dhafir spoke everywhere from
mosques to community centers to Quaker meeting houses about
the devastation the sanctions caused.
According to a UNICEF report, at least 500,000 Iraqi children
under age 5 who might not have died otherwise have died under
the sanctions. As late as 2003, one million children under
the age of five were suffering from the long-term effects
of malnutrition, the report says.
By 2001, Help the Needy had raised at least $4.7 million,
according to prosecutors. The Help the Needy Web site, no
longer online, listed numerous activities, including sponsoring
orphans and families, “collecting and distributing zakat [an
obligatory yearly offering to the needy],” “providing and
distributing medicine [through hospitals and doctors]” and
“slaughtering and distributing sacrificial meat.”
As the physician at Rome, N.Y.’s only known private oncology
practice, Dhafir saw between 50 and 60 patients a week, many
of whom he treated for free. “We lost tens of thousands of
dollars” in doing so, says Dhafir. “We treated them like family
After Dhafir was arrested, the practice closed, leaving the
patients to seek care elsewhere. Some of them, Dhafir says,
have died. “To me, this is murder,” he says. “[The prosecutors]
have participated in the killing of these people—and the Iraqi
people. These people are murderers, anyway you slice it.”
During the interview, Dhafir repeatedly denied all the charges
against him, including those related to tax evasion and Medicare
fraud. “It’s all false,” he says. “When we refute the original
claim [the violation of IEEPA and the sanctions], all these
other charges will be meaningless. They’re all dependent on
the first claim.”
Dhafir also denies that he knowingly gave Help the Needy money
to terrorist organizations, arguing that there was no way
he could have known the organizations were not legitimate
charities. “Were these [charities] illegal at the time we
gave them money?” he says. “And who made them legal? The government
Dhafir’s biggest obstacle may be preparing for trial. Since
he refuses to submit to a strip search, he must communicate
with his lawyer by writing on pieces of paper and holding
them up to the glass. Any conversations they hold over the
phone could be easily overheard by guards and other inmates.
In addition, Dhafir says, he has not received new eyeglasses
in months, making it difficult for him to read the thousands
of court documents. He said he offered to pay for the glasses
himself, but prison officials so far have refused.
The prosecution of Help the Needy and the interrogations of
its donors have sent shockwaves through Syracuse’s Muslim
community. The sheer number of people questioned, and the
coordinated nature of the questioning and the arrests, have
left most area Muslims afraid to support Dhafir publicly,
according to several Muslims who were visited by authorities
one year ago.
Magda Bayoumi says two FBI agents visited her that morning.
“I opened the door with a question mark on my face,” she recounts.
Bayoumi says the agents asked her how much she donated to
Help the Needy, where she thought the money was going, what
she knew about a certain strain of Islam, and whether she
went to a recent charity banquet. They also asked her if she
would be upset to know that the money went to build a mosque,
As the agents were leaving, Bayoumi says she asked them, “Why
do you want to keep the Muslim people down all the time, to
suffocate them, to prevent them from helping their countries?”
In October 2003, when Bayoumi and her husband returned from
the Cayman Islands, they were stopped in the airport, detained
by unidentified federal officials and again asked about Help
the Needy, she says. They were released three hours later.
Abu-Ghoush, who has known Dhafir for more than 20 years, says
he was also questioned last Feb. 26. He says two FBI agents
followed him in his car that morning as he drove to the bank.
They stopped him, showed their badges, and said, “You know
that Dr. Dhafir has been arrested?” Abu-Ghoush says the agents
asked him if he knew where the Help the Needy money went,
how long he has known Dhafir and how often he goes to the
Abu-Ghoush and Bayoumi both say they had spoken with dozens
of people who were also interrogated that morning. The others,
they say, were asked similar questions. Many were queried
about their religion. They were asked questions such as, “How
long have you been a Muslim?” and, “Have you converted to
Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the New York Civil
Liberties Union’s Central New York chapter, says that the
interrogations were “unnecessarily aggressive,” and that many
of the questions asked were inappropriate.
you or I were to give a donation to the Salvation Army, and
there was some kind of allegation of misuse of funds in the
Salvation Army and they wanted to question us about how our
donations would have been solicited, I don’t think they would
have been asking questions about our First Amendment activities,
free association and religious practices,” Gewanter says.
treated these family members as if they were suspects when
that was not the case,” she adds. “The effect of that was
intimidation of the Muslim community.”
Abu-Ghoush agrees. “Our community was shocked,” he says. “The
questioning sent a message: ‘If you try to help Dhafir, they
are going to arrest you.’”
The case has attracted the attention of activist groups in
Syracuse. Most argue that Dhafir’s actions were compassionate
and moral, even if they might not have been legal.
a nation to question those who help the needy is an attack
upon the faith,” says Bill Coop, a retired pastor and long
time civil-rights activist. “Linking helping Iraqi children
with 9/11 is just ludicrous.” Coop helped organize Dhafir
support meetings at South Presbyterian Church.
Madis Senner, a local activist, attended those church meetings
and other community events regarding the case. He became inspired
to create a Web site (www.jubileeinitiative.org/FreeDhafir.htm)
to help defend Dhafir. On the site, he writes about how his
mother used to send money back to Estonia, her native country,
to help starving relatives. “It’s hard to believe immigrants
to our great country would be arrested for a tradition that
dates back to the early days of our republic,” Senner wrote.
they dig on all of us, they’ll find something,” Senner adds
in an interview. “Dhafir is a victim of Mr. Ashcroft.”
Jeanne DeSocio, a local activist and member of the Catholic
activist organization Pax Christi, corresponds regularly with
Dhafir. “I consider the sanctions the villain,” she says.
“If he violated the sanctions, he violated the villain.”
Attorneys for both sides have remained relatively quiet lately,
lowering the profile of what many originally expected to be
an internationally covered spectacle.
not speaking to the media right now,” says Royce Hawkins,
a member of Dhafir’s legal team. “We’re letting the community
talk and we’re keeping quiet.”
All evidence and arguments aside, the outcome of the case
may depend more on the prosecution’s zealousness and the level
of public outrage at how the case has been handled, than on
the evidence itself.
The federal government does not usually prosecute groups that
violate the sanctions against Iraq, preferring to either ignore
their activities or issue fines. As a result, the case could
end up being more about the legality and morality of the sanctions
than the technical guilt or innocence of one man.
Meanwhile, Dhafir waits in jail. If he continues to refuse
to be strip searched, he might not be allowed to attend his
own trial. Many activists say that unless Dhafir’s case attracts
national attention, he will likely be brought to trial and
Senner says he hopes Dhafir’s case will attract attention
as a rallying cry for all the post-Sept. 11, 2001, crackdowns
on Muslims. Dhafir’s position as a respected and prominent
member of the Muslim community in Syracuse should help his
case attract national attention, Senner says.
the end, the jury will have to make up its mind,” Abu-Ghoush
says. “Even if he sent [money] to his family so they could
buy supplies for the poor people there, is that a crime? What
kind of humans would we be to say we would never allow that?
I don’t think any rational human being would put someone in
jail for that.”
Baran is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about
work and labor issues. Her articles have appeared in The
Brooklyn Rail, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, Maximum Rock N
Roll and a variety of other progressive publications.