Feb. 11, 2005 – A jury yesterday found Syracuse, NY area physician and former charity operator Rafil Dhafir guilty on 59 out of 60 federal charges against him, ending a 15-week trial capped off by 6 days of deliberations. Dhafir, who was held without bail for two years before and during his trial, stood accused of an array of charges ranging from Medicare fraud to conspiracy to violate US sanctions against pre-invasion Iraq.
The politically charged case against Dhafir began in February 2003, when federal and state agents arrested Dhafir and raided his home and the offices of his oncology practice and charity. Five others, including Dhafirâ€™s wife, Priscilla, have pleaded guilty to related charges. Dhafir was the only person charged in the case to go to trial.
All charges stemmed from an investigation into Dhafirâ€™s charity, which apparently sent money indirectly to contacts in Iraq to be spent on food and other aid for children and needy families suffering under harsh UN sanctions. Some funds were also used to construct mosques and pay for religious services.
None of the charges was related to terrorism, since the prosecution failed to build the terror case it suggested it would at the time of Dhafirâ€™s arrest.
The charity, known as Help the Needy, provided aid to the people of Iraq. But the prosecution, which did not prove that funds sent to Iraq were used for nefarious purposes in Iraq, nevertheless successfully argued that Dhafir embezzled over half a million dollars from the organization for his own purposes. The Justice Department also maintains that little of the more than $4 million raised by Help the Needy over nine years went to serve the suffering people of Iraq.
Dhafir insisted he was innocent of all the charges against him.
The defense argued that Dhafirâ€™s poor business practices -- which included failure to register the charity or file for a license to send aid to Iraq, as well as inappropriate billing of Medicare -- were in many ways misrepresented by the prosecution but in any case were hardly grounds for criminal convictions.
Supporters of Dhafir expressed grief and surprise after the verdict was read. Many who had attended the trial since it began on October 18, 2004 said they had been confident that the jury would decide the prosecution had failed to make its case, and that the defense had deftly countered each charge.
Many suggest that Dhafirâ€™s arrest less than a month before the US invasion of Iraq was politically motivated. On the day of his arrest, then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested the case might lead to terrorism charges. Last August, New York Governor George Pataki called the arrest of Dhafir and his associates a success in the so-called "war on terrorism."
The defense was forbidden during the trial to tell the jury that the governmentâ€™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.
Despite the fact that no one has come forth claiming to have been victimized by Dhafirâ€™s actions, Judge Norman Mordue could send the 56-year-old doctor to prison for up to 20 years during the sentencing phase scheduled for June 2005, according to the prosecution.
For two years, Mordue refused to permit Dhafir out on bail -- a prohibition the defense argues hurt its case. Prosecutors insisted that Dhafir was a "flight risk," but supporters in the local community begged to differ, collecting more than $1.2 million in cash and assets to offer as collateral.
Lead defense attorney Devereaux Cannick expressed "shock" at the verdict and told reporters the team had not yet considered an appeal, as they had been certain of an acquittal.