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High-Profile N.Y. Suspect Goes on Trial

Who Is He?

The doctor walked into the interview cell dressed in a pale blue jail jumpsuit. His black beard was broad and streaked with white, and he smiled and put his palm flat against the glass as a sort of prison handshake. Dhafir has tried five times to win release on bond, and each time has been denied.

He says the time in prison has not been lost. "I've been able to counsel a number of youths here and I believe I've touched some," he said through a prison phone. "That gives me pleasure."

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)

This is the Dhafir who his supporters talk of, a man who gives tens of thousands of dollars to charity and who often allows poor or working-class patients of all faiths to pay but a portion of their chemotherapy expenses. He has lent employees money to pay off mortgages and to hire lawyers to represent wayward children, and he never asks for repayment, they said.

"He gives you hope," said Peggy Tosti, who has fought three types of cancer and lives in a small home in Upstate New York. "He would laugh and talk, and he never, ever, pressed me to pay him. His faith is inspirational."

Dhafir is a Salafist, a believer in a fundamentalist strain of Islam that regards most Muslim practice as polluted by idolatry. Salafis strive to return to the religion's austere roots. It is a variant of Wahhabism, the strict brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is an adherent, though by no means do all Salafis support terrorism. FBI agents and prosecutors have repeatedly raised Dhafir's Salafism as a matter of concern.

"It's enormously difficult to sort out," said Michael Doran, a professor in Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies. "It's quite possible that he has only honorable intentions. Or it's possible that it's not so innocent."

Dhafir founded Help the Needy in 1996 to send money to Iraqi children. Under economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, 1 million Iraqi children became chronically malnourished by 1997, according to the United Nations. "This may sound naive, but . . . children were dying," Dhafir said. "I had to do something."

Dhafir proved to be a prodigious fundraiser. But he was, at the least, sloppy with records. He used a tax-exempt number assigned to a different charity, the Somali Relief Network. Some Help the Needy funds paid for animals for slaughter at religious festivals, after which meat was given to the poor. Other money paid for the construction of mosques and the hiring of preachers, costs that Dhafir did not mention in his fundraising appeals in the United States.

The federal investigation of Dhafir began in 1999, when Fleet Bank notified federal prosecutors that an associate of Help the Needy had deposited 100 checks. Each was for just under $10,000, raising suspicions of money laundering.

Prosecutors apparently asked Medicare officials to examine Dhafir's billing records as part of a potential terrorism investigation. Medicare officials say that he charged the top rate for chemotherapy sessions, which requires the doctor's presence in the office. But Dhafir often was overseas at the time.

After Dhafir's arrest, his wife, Priscilla, pleaded guilty to a count of making a false statement to a Medicare investigator. FBI agents asked Dhafir's employees if they were allowed to celebrate Christmas (they were). And they questioned more than 100 local Muslims, asking about Dhafir but also how often they prayed and whether they attended mosques, according to a dozen friends and former employees of Dhafir's.

"It was all about the T-word," Dhafir said. "I don't recognize myself in their accounts."

Terror Accusations

There is a shadow-boxing quality to the terror allegations lodged against Dhafir. In August, Gov. George E. Pataki (R) described Dhafir's as a "money laundering case to help terrorist organizations . . . conduct horrible acts." Prosecutors hinted at national security reasons for holding Dhafir without bail. But no evidence was offered to support the allegations.

"The government plays the fear card to keep people locked up," said Barry Boss, a defense lawyer in the District and former federal public defender who is writing a book on criminal procedure. "It's unusual for a professional charged in a white-collar case with no history of flight to be held without bond."

Last week, U.S. District Judge Norman A. Mordue prohibited Dhafir's attorneys from raising the question of selective prosecution because he is a Muslim. Nor can his attorneys mention that authorities have offered no evidence of a terrorism tie. Mordue said that such issues have nothing to do with the charges lodged against Dhafir.

Back at the county lockup, Dhafir shrugged when asked about the prospect of decades behind bars. "Religion is what keeps me going. I know that nothing happens without a reason." He offered a slight smile. "But sometimes you won't know what it is until the end."

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