By William Fisher
A small but increasingly vocal group of protesters is charging that a United States Attorney in northern New York has pursued a series of terror-related “political prosecutions” to enhance his reputation as “a loyal Bushie” and thus avoid the fate of eight of his colleagues recently fired by Alberto Gonzales’ Department of Justice.
A spokesman for the group, Madis Senner, claims that US Attorney Glenn Suddaby prosecuted Dr. Rafil Dhafir, Yassin Muhiddin Aref and his
co-defendant, Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, and the so-called St. Patrick’s Four, to win “political trophies” in the Global War on Terror.
The group has been holding a series of “witnesses” in Syracuse, NY, and other upstate communities to register their opposition to what they label “terror trophy” prosecutions by Suddaby.
“We are hoping to get (Sen. Charles) Schumer (D-NY) and (Rep. John) Conyers (D-MI) to look beyond the firing of those that would not play ball with the Bush administration, and to focus on those such as Suddaby who were all too willing to do whatever their master asked. If we can do that, it will help free Dhafir, Aref, Hossain and a lot of other Muslim and Arab Americans that have been unjustly punished since 9/11, “ Senner told Truthout.
Suddaby has repeatedly denied that any of the prosecutions were politically motivated. He was not immediately available for comment.
The prosecution of Dr. Dhafir, an oncologist from Manlius, NY, a community near Syracuse, was arguably the most high-profile of these prosecutions. Dhafir was arrested in February 2003 in a raid that drew nationwide media coverage. Long before his trial began, he was labeled “a terrorist” by then Attorney General John Ashcroft and New York Gov. George Pataki. But reference to terrorism or to Dhafir’s Muslim faith was not permitted in court, and no terrorism charges were ever brought against him. His supporters claim he was “selectively prosecuted.”
Dhafir was convicted in February 2005 of 59 criminal counts, including money laundering, conspiracy to violate US sanctions against Iraq, misusing $2 million that donors contributed to his unlicensed charity, Help the Needy, spending $544,000 for his own purposes, defrauding Medicare out of $316,000, and evading $400,000 in federal income tax payments by writing off the illegal charity donations.
Prosecutors said Dhafir's Syracuse-based charity solicited more than $5 million over the Internet and by mail between 1995 and February 2002, claiming it would help starving Iraqi orphans and poor children. The government was able to trace only about $160,000 in Iraq.
But according to Dhafir’s attorney, Deveraux L. Cannick, “When the government failed to link him to any terrorists or terrorist groups, it charged him with fraud to save face. Other individuals and corporations that sent money to Iraq received only civil penalties, not criminal charges,” he said.
Dhafir was denied bail four times -- he was deemed a flight risk -- and held for nearly two years while awaiting trial. Cannick said Dhafir's detention hindered his defense and violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union protested Dhafir’s conviction and sentence. He is currently appealing. His supporters have set up several websites, including www.loyalbushie.com, and www.jubileeinitiative.org/FreeDhafir.htm.
Now 60, Dhafir is serving his 22-year prison sentence in the recently created Communications Management Unit, or CMU, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Most of the unit's initial group of inmates are Arab Muslims, including five members of the so-called Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni nationals who pleaded guilty in 2003 to attending an al-Qaeda training camp.
The CMU closely monitors all telephone calls and mail and limits the number of phone calls and visits. Inmate conversations must be conducted in English unless otherwise negotiated.
"The government targeted Dr. Dhafir to be a trophy in the war on terror," said protester Madis Senner.
"They called him a terrorist. They denied him bail. They made it so he couldn't even defend himself properly. This was all done on Mr. Ashcroft's watch. We want to hear his explanation," Senner said.
"We have to wonder whether the Bush administration selected, orchestrated and directed Dr. Dhafir's prosecution," Senner told the Associated Press.
Ashcroft recently spoke at Syracuse University's Goldstein Auditorium at the invitation of the school's College Republicans organization. The former US Senator was Attorney General from 2001 to 2005, orchestrated the round-ups and detention of hundreds of Muslims and South Asians following the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, and played a leading role in passage of the USA Patriot Act.
Suddaby also prosecuted a group that came to be known as the St. Patrick’s Four, because their arrest took place on St. Patrick’s Day of 2003. The four peace activists from Ithaca, New York, poured their own blood on the walls, posters, windows, and a US flag at a military recruiting center in order to try to stop the imminent invasion of Iraq.
The group admitted their actions, which claimed they were based on international law, then knelt in prayer and waited to be arrested.
Charged in state court, they convinced nine jurors that their actions were consistent with international law. Daniel Burns, 43, Clare Grady, 45, Teresa Grady 38, and Peter DeMott, 57, are all members of the Magnificat Catholic Worker community in Ithaca, NY.
They testified that they risked arrest in order to protect members of the US military and civilians in Iraq.
Following their acquittal, the local District Attorney announced he would not re-prosecute them. But the US Attorney, Glenn Suddaby, stepped into the case and pressed four federal charges arising from the same incident: Federal conspiracy "by force, intimidation, and threat" to impede an officer of the United States - a felony charge punishable by up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine – and criminal damage to property and two counts of trespass, charges punishable by up to an additional two years in prison.
A jury acquitted the four of the felony charges but convicted them of the lesser misdemeanor charges. They served prison sentences ranging from four to eight months. All have since been released.
According to Senner, the St. Patrick's Four (www.stpatricksfour.org) “were also selectively prosecuted.” After a local jury could not convict them, “Suddaby's office brought federal conspiracy charges against them. Bill Quigley, the defense lawyer for the four, said he could find no similar case of federal conspiracy charges, going back to the Nixon era. He called it an attempt to ‘hyper-criminalize dissent’."
In nearby Albany, NY, the state’s capital, US Attorney Suddaby also led the prosecution of Yassin Muhiddin Aref, 36, of Albany, and Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, 51, both of Albany. Aref was a local part-time ambulette driver and the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Central Avenue mosque. Hossain was an Albany pizzeria owner who also owned rental properties in the community.
The men were charged with promoting terrorism and conspiring to launder money with an FBI informant who baited both men with a phony scheme to purchase a surface-to-air rocket launcher for a fictitious plot to assassinate a Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations.
They were denied bail as flight risks, despite a declaration by the judge in the case that there was "less than overwhelming evidence" against them.
The judge said that the question of whether or not entrapment comes into play in the case is a matter for a jury to decide. However, he said, the "weight of evidence" against both defendants on their willingness to "associate themselves" with the rocket purchase and terrorist plot is another story entirely.”
Hossain's attorney, Kevin Luibrand, said the government’s entire case was based on entrapment and that his client had been a hard-working American citizen for 10 years and had no criminal past over the 20 year he's spent in this country.
"Entrapment is the central issue here. ... They (FBI) didn't go to a church or synagogue, they went to Muslims," said Luibrand. "This guy is an American citizen who works like a dog and could give a damn about terrorism."
"The Albany Muslim community finds the allegations against Yasin Aref and Mohammed Hossain deeply troubling," said Faisal Ahmed, a teacher at Masjid-As-Salam. "The idea that such (men) could be deliberately involved in violent activity is unbelievable."
After a month-long trial that ended in October 2006, both were found guilty of conspiracy to engage in money laundering, money laundering, conspiracy to provide material support in connection with an attack with a weapon of mass destruction, two substantive acts of material support in connection with an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction, conspiracy to provide material support to a known terrorist organization, two acts of material support to a designated terrorist organization, and one count of lying to the FBI.
Each was sentenced to a to a 15-year prison term.
US Attorney Suddaby contended there was “ample justification to initiate a sting operation.” He added, “The FBI has an obligation to use all available investigative tools, including a sting operation, to remove those ready and willing to help terrorists from our streets. The jury’s verdict – representing the jury’s thoughtful consideration of testimony and evidence presented during the month-long trial – makes clear that both Aref and Hossain fall into this category.”
Suddaby denies he ever felt any pressure from the Justice Department to bring, or to decline to bring, any prosecution. But he readily acknowledges that counter-terrorism has been the number one DOJ priority.
In a recent interview, Syracuse Post-Standard reporter Hart Seely asked Suddaby how the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected the priorities and track record of his office.
Suddaby responded, “It changed everything. The FBI, the major federal investigative agency, all of a sudden, became a terrorism prevention agency... A majority of their investigative resources have been focused on terrorism, and that includes a lot of times doing 'intel.' They don't generate cases, but they're out there, pounding the pavement, trying to develop sources, talking to people, trying to get the information flow of what's going on in the community of the Northern District. If there is a threat, they want to feel confident that they're going to hear about it, that they're going to get tipped off in some way.”
But some legal authorities point out that there have been very few terrorism convictions since 9/11.
Independent activist Katherine Hughes, one of the leaders of the “Free Dhafir” movement, (http://www.dhafirtrial.net/) told Truthout, “When (Attorney General John) Ashcroft announced his resignation in November of 2004, he gave as evidence of success in the war on terror 211 criminal prosecutions, 478 deportations, and $124 million in frozen assets. But what he neglected to mention was that virtually none of these cases were actual terrorism convictions. Like Dhafir, other charity associates were convicted of white-collar crime and sanctions violation. Indeed, at the time of Ashcroft’s resignation there was only one bona fide terrorism conviction, that of the shoe-bomber Richard Reid.”
A former prosecutor who declined to be identified but who is familiar with the inner workings of Justice Department told Truthout, “US Attorneys are well aware of their bosses’ priorities. Since 9/11, all of them have been under pressure to bring terrorism prosecutions. In many cases, that has led them, and their superiors as well as prominent politicians, to call high-profile press conferences where they announce terrorism charges against people, but when they show up in court, there are no actual terrorism charges.”
US Attorneys “are instead prosecuting cases against people for providing material support for terrorists or terrorist organizations. There’s nothing illegal about that – it’s authorized by the Patriot Act. The question is always whether they’re stretching the evidence, or intentionally exploiting people’s fears of another 9/11, or being over-zealous to the point of committing prosecutorial misconduct. Just look at Jose Padilla – he was accused of being ‘the dirty bomber’ who was going to blow up an American city. But, after years in custody without charges, by the time he appeared in an actual courtroom, the dirty bomb charge had vanished.”
Citizen pushback against over-zealous prosecutors appears to be on the rise, and comes at a time when the controversy over the firings of US Attorneys has become a contentious political issue that threatens to trigger the early departure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The DOJ’s credibility has been further damaged by accounts of increasing departures of DOJ lawyers. The National Law Journal reported this week, “The number of attorneys defecting from the US Department of Justice to private practice is mounting as the head of the agency continues to fend off calls for his ouster over the firing of eight US Attorneys. In the last month alone, several attorneys in key posts at the DOJ have taken jobs at prominent law firms.”