During brief remarks to the court, Dr Rafil Dhafir on Thursday said prosecutors used “lies and misrepresentations” to build a fraud and tax evasion case against him when it could not link him to terrorism.
“It is my belief that my incarceration was, is and will always be political,” said the Iraqi-born Dhafir, who has maintained all along that he was innocent and that the charges against him are politically motivated.
Prosecutors painted Dhafir, an oncologist, as a liar. While then-US attorney general John Ashcroft had described him as a terrorist, no terrorism charges were ever filed against him. The court had barred both sides from mentioning terrorism during the trial.
But the authorities, in pushing for a sentence of between 24 and 30 years, used a federal sentencing provision that allows for more stringent prison terms if a defendant is deemed a security risk.
“Dr Dhafir was not prosecuted because of who he is. He was prosecuted because of what he has done,” said Assistant US Attorney Michael Olmsted. “He lied to donors. He lied to the government… He lied to banks. He lied to his friends.”
Defence lawyer Deveraux Cannick said he will appeal Dhafir’s case, arguing that “the sentence is totally inconsistent with the conduct alleged”.
More than 100 of Dhafir’s supporters packed the small 12th-floor courtroom, many sporting white “Justice for Dhafir” buttons. The sentencing, originally scheduled for June, was delayed a half-dozen times as prosecutors and defence lawyers exchanged legal papers.
“We don’t see any kind of justice here. This is shocking,” said Mohamed Khater, president of the Islamic Society of Central New York.
“The feeling in the Muslim community is that Dr Dhafir has been singled out because he is Muslim,” Khater said, comparing Dhafir’s sentence to those given in recent years to prominent Wall Street executives convicted of stealing billions of dollars.
Dhafir, 58, was convicted in February of 59 criminal counts, including money-laundering and conspiracy to violate the sanctions against Iraq. A jury found him guilty of misusing $2 million that donors gave to his unlicensed charity, Help the Needy, and spending $544,000 for his own purposes.
Prosecutors said Dhafir’s Syracuse-based charity solicited more than $5 million over the internet and by mail between 1995 and February 2002, claiming it would help starving Iraqi orphans and poor children.
The government said it initially was able to trace only about $160,000 into Iraq. But US Attorney Glenn Suddaby said on Thursday that the authorities identified more money that made it to Iraq, although he declined to give an amount.
“It is my belief that my incarceration was, is and will always be political”
Dr Rafil Dhafir
Suddaby said the investigation is ongoing.
Dhafir had prepared a 46-page statement to read to US District Judge Norman Mordue, but instead gave an abbreviated 10-minute rendering because he said “the court’s mind has already been set”.
Five people, including Dhafir’s wife, have pleaded guilty to charges related to the case. Ayman Jarwan, the charity’s former executive director, is serving an 18-month prison term.
Born in Baghdad, Dhafir has been a US citizen for the past 25 years. In 1993, he set up his charity to help children in Iraq suffering under sanctions imposed by the US and the UN. By independent estimates, 5 million Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions.
His supporters say Dhafir had been singled out by the authorities for daring to violate US sanctions, though the intentions of his charity were noble.
Dhafir was arrested by federal agents in February 2003 and has been held in jail since. He requested bail four separate times, but his requests were turned down each time as the judge bought the prosecution claim that Dhafir could flee.