By William Fisher
Civil libertarians are wondering if America’s new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, will repeat one of the legacies left by his predecessor, John Ashcroft: razzle-dazzle news conferences announcing the arrests of terrorists, followed by trials in which no one is charged or tried for any terror-related offenses.
The latest chapter in this legacy is the conviction of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an
Iraqi-American oncologist, who was convicted last week on 59 of 60 counts, including violating economic sanctions against Iraq, Medicare fraud and tax evasion.
The government alleged that Dr. Dhafir illegally raised millions of dollars and violated U.S sanctions by sending funds to Iraq through his charity -- "Help the Needy" – and also diverted some of these funds for his personal use.
He is thought to be the only U.S citizen convicted of breaking the Iraq sanctions, though other organizations such as Voices in the Wilderness, Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi USA, the American Friends Service Committee, the Order of St Dominic (Dominican priests), Conscience International, Global Exchange, and the International Action Center, have admitted breaking the sanctions with Iraq since before the U.S. invasion.
When Dhafir was arrested in upstate New York in February 2003, Attorney General Ashcroft trumpeted the arrest as part of President Bush's war on terror. He said, “Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted. As President Bush leads an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein's tyranny and support for terror, the Justice Department will see that individuals within our borders cannot undermine these efforts.”
And New York Governor George Pataki declared, 'It is again troubling to see…that there are clear terrorists living here in New York State among us...who are supporting or aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbors.'
But no terrorism charges were ever bought against Dr. Dhafir. A member of Dhafir’s defense team, Joel Cohen, believes that his client “was clearly targeted, clearly investigated, clearly indicted, tried, and clearly convicted because he is a Muslim, (and) because he is a person of Iraqi ancestry….”
The judge in Dhafir’s case denied a defense motion to allow mention of Dhafir’s religion or refer to terrorism during the trial.
David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an internationally recognized legal authority on civil liberties, believes the Dhafir case is emblematic of a pattern created by the Ashcroft Justice Department.
“Not one person of the more than 5,000 locked up as a foreign national in preventive detention by John Ashcroft was ever convicted of a terrorist crime. The only convictions have been of U.S. citizens. John Ashcroft labeled them as suspected terrorists, but it turned out they had nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever, “ Cole said.
In his end-of-year speech to DOJ employees, Ashcroft said “375 people have been charged in terror-related cases over the past three years and 190 have been convicted or pleaded guilty.”
But, according to Cole, “what Ashcroft doesn't say is that most of those people are not indicted on anything to do with terrorism. What he doesn't say is that a Syracuse University research department looked at Justice Department figures found that the median sentence imposed on persons convicted for crimes in cases that the DOJ labeled as terrorism was 14 days. Now, 14 days is not the kind of sentence you get if you're convicted of terrorism. It's the kind of sentence you get if you're convicted of some completely petty crime.”
The Ashcroft DOJ has brought several other high-profile prosecutions. Among them is the case of “The Lackawanna Six”. Arrested in the Yemeni community of this old steel town in upstate New York, the six young men were charged under the federal anti-terrorism statute with providing material support to al-Quaida which, prior to September 11, 2001, had been designated by the Secretary of State as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
Specifically, the men were charged with providing “material support” in the form of training. The training consisted of paying for a uniform, attending the training camp where they learned to use weapons, and standing guard duty. The charges against them also specified viewing videotapes of the bombing of the USS Cole and speeches by Osama Bin-Laden.
None of the defendants engaged in acts that were, at the time, obviously criminal in nature. It was not until several months after their return from Afghanistan that planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The six young men agree to plead guilty to providing "material support" to al Qaeda. Prosecutors said the defendants belonged to a terrorist "sleeper cell."
"One by one," President Bush declared after the arrests, "we're hunting the killers down." Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson said the arrests showed terrorism was not limited to large cities. "It lurks in small towns and rural areas," he said.
But, according to defense attorneys, the defendants pled guilty because the federal government implicitly threatened to send them to a military prison without trial. Instead, they accepted prison terms of 61/2 to 9 years. But prosecutors never offered evidence that the Lackawanna defendants intended to commit an act of terrorism.
In another high-profile case, known as the "Detroit terror cell prosecution," a US federal judge threw out the June 2003 convictions of three Detroit-area men accused of being members of a terrorist “sleeper operational combat cell.”
The ruling came at the request of the Justice Department itself. The department admitted that prosecutors railroaded the defendants to prison, concealing dozens of pieces of exculpatory evidence that should have been given to defense attorneys during the trial.
Until their dismissal, the Detroit convictions were the only successful post-9/11 terror-related prosecutions, and had been hailed by administration officials and cited as one of the Justice Department’s “notable achievements”.
In his ruling, the judge said that in its “ruthless drive to convict Arab and Islamic suspects”, the DOJ “overcame not only its professional judgment, but its broader obligations to the justice system and the rule of law.”
As White House counsel, Ashcroft’s successor, Alberto Gonzales, was deeply involved in recommending policy options to President Bush for conducting the ‘war on terror’, as well as in the issue of what constitutes torture of prisoners.
First as a U.S. Senator and then as Attorney General, John Ashcroft was always a controversial firebrand. By contrast, Alberto Gonzales is soft-spoken and seemingly more contemplative. But, given his loyalty to the president and the administration’s unrelenting commitment to defeating the terrorists, it may be a stretch to think that there will be any fundamental change in the DOJ.