Thursday, February 24, 2005


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.


By William Fisher

The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers further evidence that the Bush Administration continues to delete science and substitute information designed to avoid offending his conservative base.

Every two years, the CDC issues its “Yellow Book”, which contains information for international travelers. It says its “Travelers' Health” section “is one of CDC's most-visited websites and is updated as new information becomes available.”

In its 2001-2002 edition, under the heading “Sexually Transmitted Diseases”, “Travelers Health” offered the following advice to people infected with HIV:

“The importance of safe sex practices should be emphasized to the HIV-infected traveler to prevent other sexually transmitted diseases, avoid transmission of HIV to others, and prevent acquisition of different HIV strains that may limit therapeutic options (e.g., non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors are not active against HIV-2). Bringing a personal supply of condoms may be advisable, as the quality and availability of condoms can be unreliable in parts of the developing world (italics ours).”

But by the time of the 2003-2004 edition, the script had changed. The “C-word” had disappeared.

The 2003-2004 edition advised HIV-infected travelers that “Travel, particularly to developing countries, can carry substantial risks for exposure to opportunistic pathogens…especially those who are severely immunosuppressed. Discussing the itinerary with a health-care provider may identify area- and activity-specific risks that can be addressed. Patients should identify sources of medical care in the planned destination before departure and seek medical attention promptly when ill.”

It continued: “Because antiretroviral medications are not available in many parts of the world, patients should bring an adequate supply of their medications, along with copies of prescriptions. Attention should be given to refrigeration of medications. For extended visits, travelers should consult with their providers in advance regarding a plan for maintaining appropriate medical follow-up and supplies of medications. Avoid changes in the medication regimen shortly before travel, to ensure that no side effects or complications of a new regimen occur while traveling.”

The CDC, part of the Department of Health Human Services, declares the “Yellow Book” is “considered by many to be the gold standard on travel information” and notes it has been expanded to offer new information on scuba diving safety, high altitude travel, travelers with special needs, and traveling with children.

It says the 2003-2004 edition includes “new health topics”, including “New recommendations for preventing malaria; changes in vaccine recommendations for travelers; changes in recommendations for insect repellent use; expanded text motion sickness and travel-related injury, and; improved maps and expanded indexing.”

The change follows a familiar Bush Administration pattern. The CDC website has been changed a number times to reflect conservative ideology.

For example, the President has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach “abstinence only” and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. As a result, a CDC initiative called “Programs That Work” identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its website. All five “Programs That Work” provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were “abstinence-only”. CDC has now ended this initiative and erased information about these proven sex education programs from its website.

Information about condom use and efficacy was also deleted from the CDC website. The CDC replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one emphasizing condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

The President’s “just say no” agenda also extends overseas. He has pledged $15 billion in an “Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief”, designed to provide support to the 15 African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian nations most affected by HIV/aids. But providing condoms is not part of the program. The Bush Administration has also renewed a ban on providing aid funds to overseas groups that help pregnant women, if they so much as discuss abortion.

Democracy Comes Knocking in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine

The article below was written by Rami G. Khouri, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is published here with the permission of the author.

By Rami G. Khouri

Some exciting and important forces are exerting themselves in parts of the Middle East, and some historic occupation-liberation dynamics are taking place in other parts of this region - and it is important not to mix up these two very different things.

A wave of analyses from many parts of Europe and North America is suddenly trumpeting events in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Egypt as part of a common awakening in which Arabs and Muslims are asserting their humanity and dignity by voting in elections or demanding more democratic rights. That is only partly correct. We have three very different historical and political processes at work here, and they may well end up one day at the same final destination of stable, democratic and prospering societies. I hope so, as do the many people in this region who have worked for this goal for many decades, at great personal danger to themselves in most cases.

So the first point to be made from within this region is that it is a refreshing treat to hear foreign governments and analysts now commonly advocating and applauding democratization forces in this region, instead of feeding the tyrants who jailed and killed democrats. I hope that the wave of promoting democracy, freedom and free market economics is not, like its predecessor era of propping up criminals and thugs, merely a transient and self-serving phase that fits the needs of the times as seen from Washington, London, Paris and Moscow.

The second point to be made is that domestic autocracy or tyranny and foreign occupation are equally bad but very different contexts. Iraq and Afghanistan are the easiest of the five situations to decipher. Evil regimes there were removed by the force of foreign armies, and the natives are being given a chance to reshape their societies through Western-style elections.

These are noble and historic endeavors, though still deeply controversial as to their origin, implementation, intent and consequence. Time will tell how they evolve.

The Palestinians are a unique case for they have suffered the longest foreign military occupation of the past three generations of world history.

So they continue to battle the Israeli occupation with all means available to them, from diligent self-improvement and acquiescent complacency, to nonviolent protest and active diplomacy, to armed struggle against Israeli troops and terror against Israeli civilians. Palestinian society for decades has been prevented from enjoying democratic elections primarily because of the Israeli occupation. In the meantime, Palestinian political life has almost always been defined by an impressive component of pluralism and internal checks-and-balances, with some obvious lapses here and there, to be sure.

To applaud the Palestinians for suddenly practicing democracy in their recent elections is hypocritical nonsense and slightly insulting to boot. Those who know and follow the Palestinian people would know that the will to live in decency and dignity has been a defining national and personal characteristic for all the decades that these people have been occupied by Israel, ignored by the Arab states, or duped by Western and Eastern powers.

The impressive Palestinian historical struggle for freedom against Israeli usurpation and occupation, and simultaneously against Western powers' colonial manipulations, towers over the recently held Palestinian presidential election like the Empire State Building towers over a U.S. Postal Service mailbox in central New York.

The conduct of the Lebanese and Egyptians is probably the most noteworthy and truly historic of the five cases mentioned above. For here we have people truly fighting against enormous local odds, at great danger to themselves, to live in freedom, equality, opportunity and dignity.

Egyptians in small numbers are challenging the desire of their president, Hosni Mubarak, to run for a fifth consecutive six-year term. His inclination to be a president-for-life, with a ruling party and security sector that perpetuate their control of all major aspects of political, economic and military life, is an insult to the right of ordinary Egyptians and other Arabs to be treated like adults, rather than children. Egyptians have had enough of executive authority that is not rotated peacefully and regularly, for this results in mediocrity, stagnation, corruption, national deterioration and degradation of the human spirit itself - all of which are clearly visible in contemporary Egypt. The slogan used by those who oppose Mubarak's fifth term is "enough."

Tellingly, that same word "enough" this week also appeared on posters and walls all around Beirut, where ordinary Lebanese and political leaders alike have launched an impressive rebellion against the present Lebanese government and the Syrian regime that is its selector, patron and backer. As has happened in Egypt, a threshold of fear of incumbent government authorities - both Syrian and Lebanese, in this case - has been shattered. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri accelerated to a historic pitch the now widespread, explicit and vocal calls for the Syrians to leave Lebanon and the Lebanese government to resign.

This is a rare genuine grassroots, populist, spontaneous Arab movement to change an existing power structure, and so it is qualitatively significant in terms of modern Arab political history. Perhaps the most significant aspect of it is that it is also the first contemporary instance of Arabs defining their political values, goals and activism, boldly setting out to build a better society, and then seeing Western powers support them in their endeavor. This sure beats U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld giving aid to ensure Saddam Hussein's survival in the 1980s and then sending in the Marines two decades later to remove him from power.

By all means, then: Bring on democracy, support Arab democrats, oppose Arab autocrats, end Israeli occupation, promote Arab self-determination and, above all, please, make a reasonable effort to recognize the differences, and relationships, among all the above.