The Government v. Dr. Rafil
by Katherine Hughes
I have been attending the trial of Dr. Rafil Dhafir here in Syracuse since
it began in October. I knew very little about the case beforehand. I did know
that there was some controversy surrounding the case and that some people were
concerned about whether Dr. Dhafir, a US citizen of Arab descent and a practicing
Muslim, would receive a fair trial in the current climate in this country.
I was moved to attend the trial because I feel passionately about the defense of civil liberties. This passion was ignited when, as a 14-year-old, I watched a documentary program showing the Allies entering Auschwitz in 1945. The words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, a victim of the Nazis, have stayed with me throughout my life:
In Germany first they came for the Communists and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didnt speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up.
I had no intention of writing anything about the trial when I started attending it. However, I became so distressed by the Post-Standard coverage, that I felt impelled to speak out and offer another view of what was happening in the courtroom.
This case, as many know, started out as a terrorist investigation, and the media and government made much of this fact. After years of investigation, the government was unable to come up with any credible evidence linking Dr. Dhafir to terrorism. As a result, Dr. Dhafir is now being tried as a white-collar criminal. The charges against him include money laundering, tax evasion, and Medicare fraud. He is also charged with breaking the US-imposed sanctions. Despite being prosecuted on only these lesser charges, Dr. Dhafir has been denied bail and held in prison since his arrest almost two years ago.
Because Judge Mordue has ruled that the defense cannot mention how the investigation began, the proceedings sometimes are surreal. On January 13, week twelve of a trial that took the resources of seven government agencies over a five-year period, the prosecutions direct examination concerned three days that Dr. Dhafir was not in his office but had billed Medicare for his services.
The prosecution laboriously reviewed three sets of forms, one set for each
day that Dr. Dhafir was absent. This was all done so that the witness, the office
nurse practitioner, could verify her signature on each of the forms subsequently
submitted to Medicare under Dr. Dhafirs Medicare ID number. That patients
did receive possibly life-saving services from this nurse with 30 years experience
was irrelevant. What mattered was that Dr. Dhafir was not physically present
in the office and that the Medicare forms had not been filled in correctly.
It seems obvious to me that, under normal circumstances, this situation would have been dealt with long before it came to any trial, never mind a trial of the magnitude that we are witnessing. Knowing that the case started as a terrorist investigation gives me a frame of reference; I can only wonder what the jurors, who are deprived of this frame of reference, are thinking.
At times I have been struck by the similarity of court proceedings to theatre. If the prosecution and defense were theatre companies, I would liken the prosecution to The Royal Shakespeare Company. They have the ability to draw on vast seemingly unlimited resources. I would liken the defense to a company that performs improvised theatre. Their resources are extremely limited. The defenses lack of access to helpful resources is compounded by the fact that, since his arrest, Dr. Dhafirs assets have been frozen.
Because of the limited funds, one of the defense lawyers types all the proceedings
on his laptop. The $5.75 per page charge for court transcripts, unless absolutely
vital to the defense, is beyond their means. I believe the defense is gladly
accepting donations. (Checks payable to Aiello & Cannick [captioned Dr.
Dhafir Legal Defense Fund] can be sent to Aiello & Cannick, Attorneys
at Law, 69-06 Grand Ave., Maspeth, NY 11378)
At present, I am attending the trial every day and I plan to do so until it ends. Court is in session from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm Monday through Thursday. It is held on the 12th floor of the Federal Building; a picture ID is required to enter the building. It is possible to come and go quietly during the proceedings and I encourage others to attend. Because of my frustration with the Post-Standard I have started a website: [www.dhafirtrial.net].