Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir, The ‘Communications Management Unit” and the War on Muslim Charities
By Katherine Hughes
At precisely 7 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 11, 2006, 17 federal prisoners across the country were taken out of their cells, held in isolation for two days, then bused to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Here the government quietly began implementing the first stages of a secret new program, the Communications Management Unit (CMU). A completely self-contained unit housing almost exclusively Arab and/or Muslim inmates, it eventually will hold approximately 85 prisoners.
Special new rules set out in a “CMU Institutional Supplement” dated Nov. 30, 2006 include severe restrictions on prisoner communication. Contact with family and friends is limited; outgoing and incoming mail is monitored and copied, with a one- to two- week delivery delay; and no contact visits are allowed. Instead of 300 minutes of phone time a month, prisoners may receive only one 15-minute call a week, which the warden has the power to reduce to just three minutes a month. Unlike the usual weekly or biweekly all-day contact visits, visits in the CMU are for two hours, just twice a month, and are restricted to non-contact only. Calls and visits must be conducted in English unless prior arrangement is made.
According to Jennifer Van Bergen, the journalist who broke the CMU story, there are only three government offices—all within the Justice Department—that have authority to issue changes to federal prison operations: the Office of the Director of the Prisons Bureau, the Office of Legal Counsel, and the Office of the U.S. Attorney General. Van Bergen was unable to get confirmation of where the authorization originated. The Bureau of Prisons Web site (
) does not list CMU among its facility abbreviations, and a search of the site for “CMU” or “Communications Management Unit” yields no result.
In a Dec. 18, 2006 letter, however, CMU inmate Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir wrote:
“No one seems to know about this top-secret operation until now. It is still not fully understood. The order came from the Attorney General himself. The staff here is struggling to make sense of the whole situation. There are 16 of us, all Muslims but two, with one non-Arab Muslim. We are housed in what we are told was the holding area for those on death row!!!!! We are told this is an experiment, so the whole concept is evolving on a daily basis.” [emphasis added] According to Howard Keiffer, executive director of Federal Defense Associates, an Institution Supplement cannot exist without the authorization of a National Program Statement, and the CMU has no such authorization. The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) requires that all prison regulations be promulgated under the law, yet there was no public notice of any changes to prison programs and no opportunity for opposition to be heard. Civil libertarians are concerned that the CMU operates by racial and religious profiling and that the severe restrictions placed on inmates’ communication inhibit their ability to mount an appeal. Keiffer says the CMU “violates not only the Constitution, but [also federal] statute[s and] regulation[s], and its implementation almost certainly is also violative of the APA.”
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said that although the CMU’s present population consists of inmates convicted of terrorism-related cases, the unit will not be limited to prisoners who fit that definition. Many of those currently held there, however, are not considered high-risk prisoners, meaning the government definition of a terrorism-related case needs to be examined closely.
CMU Prisoner Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir and The War on Muslim Charities
Some of the major casualties in the government’s “war on terror” have been Muslim charities and their principals. Two CMU inmates, Enaam Arnaout of Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) and Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir of Help the Needy (HTN), were defendants in Islamic charity cases. Neither has been convicted of charges that have anything to do with terrorism: Arnaout accepted a plea agreement by pleading guilty to one charge of “racketeering conspiracy,” and after a long trial Dhafir was convicted of violating the International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA) and white-collar crime.
The government justifies its targeting of Islamic charities by saying it is going after the money funding terrorism. Just three months after 9/11, in December 2001, the government raided and closed down the country’s three largest Islamic charities: the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), the Global Relief Foundation (GRF), and the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), accusing them of supporting terrorism. In each case, alleged “guilt by association” meant that the charities’ assets were frozen and their principals imprisoned without bail. Since then the government has shut down several additional smaller Islamic charities. However, “Muslim Charities and the War on Terror,” a 2005 report by OMB Watch—which describes itself as “a nonprofit research and advocacy organization…formed in 1983 to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)”—concluded that despite their new investigative powers, government authorities have failed to produe evidence of terror financing by Muslim charities.
Dhafir and other HTN associates were arrested in the early morning of Feb. 26, 2003, just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m. that day, law enforcement agents interrogated 150 Muslim families who had donated to the charity. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that a number of “funders of terrorism” had been arrested.
A founding member of the mosque in Syracuse, New York, Dhafir is a leader among the local Muslim community. An Iraqi-born oncologist, he has been a U.S. citizen for almost 30 years. Before his arrest, he and his wife, Priscilla, were very active in Syracuse civic affairs, and Dhafir often spoke at events and on local TV and radio about health and cancer care. In the early 1990s, in direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the brutal embargo on Iraq, he founded Help the Needy. For 13 years it sent food and aid to civilians suffering under U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq at the insistence of the U.S. and Britain. Dhafir devoted much of his life to prayer and charity, and government records showed that he donated half his income to charity every year. In his oncology practice he treated those without medical insurance for free, paying for their chemotherapy out of his own pocket.
Confident in his innocence and the American system of justice, Dhafir refused to accept a plea bargain, and the government piled on charges. When his case finally came to trial 19 months after his arrest, he faced a 60-count indictment of white-collar crime.
The government employed many tools to inhibit Dhafir’s ability to mount a defense. Despite the facts that Syracuse’s Muslim community put up $2.3 million in bond money and that Dhafir offered to wear an electronic tag, he never was granted bail; his assets were frozen, making it more difficult to hire defense counsel; and he was denied access to both his records and his counsel. The government’s unlimited resources, moreover, allowed it to present its case in minutiae—seven government agencies had investigated Dr. Dhafir for five years before the case came to trial. The limited resources of the defense counsel, on the other hand, enabled it to call but a single witness, who testified for a mere 15 minutes.
Although state and national officials smeared Dhafir in the press and New York Gov. George Pataki described Dhafir’s case as “money laundering…to help terrorist organizations,” local prosecutors successfully petitioned Judge Norman Mordue, the presiding judge who had denied Dhafir bail on four occasions, to prevent the charge of terrorism from being part of the trial. This ruling made his defense a nightmare: throughout the trial the prosecution hinted at more serious charges, but the defense was prohibited from addressing these inflammatory innuendos.
As a direct result of the lack of terrorism charges, only the local Syracuse newspaper, The Post Standard, covered the proceedings. The paper proved to be little more than a mouthpiece for the government, however. On the rare occasion that it did provide coverage of a cross-examination, it immediately followed with a restatement of the charges in the indictment. Convicted on 59 counts of white-collar crime and held without bail for 31 months, Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a crime that he was never charged with in a court of law—money laundering to help terrorist organizations.
The government continues to hound Dhafir. In January of 2007 it successfully overturned an appeals court order to release his transcripts to him at the court’s expense. The three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals gave no reasons and did not address the points in opposition.
Nor are Islamic charities free from government harassment. The Holy Land Foundation (HLF) case will come to trial this July—six and a half years after its assets were seized and its principals arrested. It is imperative that members of the public attend this trial to monitor its proceedings.
For more information visit http://www.dhafirtrial.net . Non-tax-deductible contributions in any amount may be sent to the Dr. Dhafir Appeal Fund, c/o Peter Goldberger, Esq., Attorney at Law, 50 Rittenhouse Place, Ardmore, PA 19003. Checks should be made payable to “Dr. Dhafir Appeal Fund.”
Katherine Hughes attended nearly every day of the 17-week Dhafir trial, and for the last two and a half years has tried to educate people about Dhafir’s case and the plight of Islamic charities in the U.S.