Taking liberties: 22 years behind bars for a 'crime of compassion'

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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" begun 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 co-ordinators 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 website.

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 (a.k.a., "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 history.

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 under-served 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 U.S. was legendary.

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 www.dhafirtrial.net, Dhafir is now preparing to head to court in early February seeking a re-sentencing 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 inmates.

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 U.S., Canada, U.K., 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, B.C., who wrote that 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," Taffs 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 re-sentencing 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

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

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