SYRACUSE, N.Y., Oct. 18 -- Federal prosecutors heralded the arrest 19 months ago as another blow in the Justice Department's war on terrorism. More than 85 federal agents descended on the home of a prominent local doctor, Rafil Dhafir, handcuffing him in his driveway and hauling away dozens of boxes of books and records .
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft spoke of a terrorism supporter apprehended. A federal prosecutor suggested that an Arab engineer who was a friend of Dhafir's might be proficient in fashioning "dirty bombs." And a federal magistrate denied bail to the oncologist, saying he might escape to Canada over the ice on the St. Lawrence River.
Syracuse oncologist Rafil Dhafir was arrested 19 months ago by the Justice Department and was described by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft as a terrorism supporter. But no terrorism-related charges were filed against him.
(Operation Free Dhafir)
But federal prosecutors never filed a terrorism-related charge against Dhafir, 56, who emigrated from Iraq to the United States 32 years ago and became an American citizen. Instead, Dhafir, whose trial starts this week, faces charges that he defrauded a charity he ran and violated U.S. sanctions by sending millions of dollars to feed children and build mosques in pre-invasion Iraq.
Dhafir has also been charged with Medicare fraud and tax evasion, accusations that grew out of the federal terrorism investigation. If convicted, he faces at least 10 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
In a prison interview and a letter to a newspaper, Dhafir has attributed his troubles to anti-Arab bias and fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Humanitarian groups and prominent American corporations have violated U.S. sanctions against Iraq without facing criminal charges, his lawyer contends.
"We believe the government targeted him because he's an Arab American," said Deveraux L. Cannick, Dhafir's attorney. "They rushed to the conclusion that this man was sponsoring terrorism. They colored him as the devil incarnate."
Dhafir's trial begins at a sensitive time for the Justice Department. In early September, a federal judge in Detroit threw out the convictions of three Arab American men accused of belonging to a terrorist "sleeper operational combat cell." A government review has blamed an overzealous prosecutor for withholding evidence from the defense and misrepresenting other evidence in the case.
In June, Sami Omar Hussayen, a Saudi graduate student at the University of Idaho, was acquitted of charges he provided material support to terrorism by running an Internet network that sought to raise money and recruit fighters for holy war abroad. The FBI arrested Hussayen and Dhafir on the same day.
Federal law enforcement sources had suggested a link between the men, who shared membership in the Islamic Assembly of North America, a charity with Web sites that extol radical struggles in Chechnya, Kosovo and the Palestinian territories. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the case, referring reporters to the voluminous document file.
Still, many questions remain unanswered about Dhafir. He allegedly neither filed for a required tax exemption for his charity, Help the Needy, nor obtained a license to send donations to Iraq. He is accused of using false Social Security numbers obtained in the names of several associates to open charity bank accounts, and of siphoning money from the charity to buy real estate in the United States.
Dhafir aroused suspicions by sometimes writing apparent coded e-mails to associates in the Middle East, according to government papers. An affidavit filed by U.S. Attorney Glenn T. Suddaby cites a particularly mysterious example. In December 2002, Dhafir sent an e-mail to a friend in England, inviting him to attend his daughter's wedding in Drumlin Hall in England. Dhafir signed the e-mail "Uncle Ralph."
Dhafir does not have a daughter, and no wedding was scheduled that day in Drumlin Hall.
Cannick, Dhafir's attorney, said much of the government's case will fall apart. Confusion inevitably arises, he said, when key evidence is written in Arabic. Others argue that Dhafir was taking precautions to avoid Saddam Hussein's secret police in Iraq.
Dhafir risked missing his own trial by refusing as a matter of religious faith to consent to strip searches before leaving the county lockup. On Monday, a judge waived that requirement.