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John Pilger: The political trial of Dr Rafil Dhafir signals the end of American justice

The trial and 22-year sentence of Dr Rafil Dhafir, an Iraqi-born doctor and humanitarian, makes a mockery of the notion that all are equal in the eyes of US law.

In 1999, I travelled to Iraq with Denis Halliday who had resigned as assistant secretary general of the United Nations rather than enforce a punitive UN embargo on Iraq. Devised and policed by the United States and Britain, these “sanctions” caused extreme suffering, including, according to Unicef, the deaths of half a million Iraqi infants under the age of five.

Ten years later, in New York, I met the senior British official responsible for the imposition of sanctions. He is Carne Ross, once known at the UN as “Mr Iraq”. I read to him a statement he made to a UK parliamentary select committee in 2007:

The weight of evidence clearly indicates that sanctions caused massive . . . suffering among ordinary Iraqis, in particular children. We – the US and UK governments who were the primary engineers and defenders of sanctions – were well aware of this evidence at the time but we largely ignored it or blamed [it] on the Saddam government. [We] effectively [denied] the entire population the means to live . . .

I said, “That’s a shocking admission.”

“Yes, I agree,” he replied. “I feel very ashamed about it. . . Before I went to New York, I went to the Foreign Office expecting a briefing on the vast piles of weapons that we still thought Iraq possessed, and the desk officer sort of looked at me slightly sheepishly and said, ‘Well actually, we don’t think there is anything in Iraq.’”

“Our way of life”

That was 1997, more than five years before George W Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq for reasons they knew were fabricated. The bloodshed they caused, according to recent studies, is greater than that of the Rwandan genocide. On 26 February 2003, one month before the invasion, Dr Rafil Dhafir, a prominent cancer specialist in Syracuse, New York, was arrested by federal agents and interrogated about the charity he had founded, Help the Needy. Dr Dhafir was one of many Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims, who for 13 years had raised money for food and medicines for sick and starving Iraqis who were the victims of sanctions. He had asked US officials if this humanitarian aid was legal and had been assured it was – until one early morning when he was hauled out of his car by federal agents as he left for his surgery. His front door was smashed down and his wife had guns pointed at her head. Today, he is serving 22 years in prison.

On the day of the arrest, Bush’s attorney general John Ashcroft announced that some “funders of terrorism” had been caught. This “terrorist” was a man who had devoted himself to caring for others, including cancer sufferers in his own New York community. More than $2m was raised for his surety and several people pledged their homes; yet he was refused bail six times.

Dr Dhafir was charged under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. His crime had been to send food and medicine to the stricken country of his birth. He was “offered” the prospect of a lesser sentence if he pleaded guilty but he refused on principle. Plea bargaining is the iniquity of the US judicial system, giving prosecutors the powers of judge, jury and executioner. For refusing, he was punished with additional charges, including defrauding the Medicare system, a “crime” based on not having filled out claim forms correctly, and money laundering and tax evasion, inflated technicalities related to the charitable status of Help the Needy.

The then governor of New York, George Pata­ki, called this “money laundering to help terrorist organisations . . . conduct horrible acts”. He described Dr Dhafir and the supporters of Help the Needy as “terrorists living here in New York State among us . . . who are supporting and aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbours”. For jurors, the message was powerfully manipulative. This was America in the hysterical wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The trial in late 2004 and 2005 was out of Kafka. It began with the prosecution successfully petitioning the judge to prohibit the defence from examining any links with “terrorism”. “This ruling turned into a brick wall for the defence,” says Katherine Hughes, who was an observer in court. “Prosecutors could hint at more serious charges, but the defence was never allowed to follow that line of questioning and demolish it. Consequently, the trial was not, in fact, what it was really about.”

It was a political show trial of Stalinist dimensions, an anti-Muslim sideshow to the “war on terror”. The jury was told darkly that Dr Dhafir was a Salafi Muslim, as if this was sinister. Osama Bin Laden was mentioned, with no relevance. That Help the Needy had openly advertised its humanitarian aims and there were invoices and receipts for the purchase of emergency food aid was of no interest. In February this year, the same judge, Norman Mordue, “resentenced” Dr Dhafir to 22 years – a cruelty worthy of the Gulag.

Stunning conviction

With their “terrorist” case “won”, the prosecutors held a dinner to celebrate, “partying”, as a Syracuse lawyer wrote to the local news­paper, “as if they had won the Super Bowl”, having “perpetuated a monstrous lie [against a man] who had helped thousands in Iraq suffering unjustly”.

No executive of the oil companies that did billions of dollars of illegal business with Saddam Hussein during the embargo has been prosecuted. “I am stunned by the conviction of this humanitarian,” said Denis Halliday, “especially as the US state department breached its own sanctions to the tune of $10bn.”

During this year’s US presidential campaign, both candidates agreed on sanctions against Iran, which, they claimed, posed a nuclear threat to the Middle East. Repeated over and over again, this assertion evoked the lies told about Iraq and the extreme suffering of that country. Sanctions have already devastated Iran’s sick and disabled. As imported drugs become impossibly expensive, leukaemia and other cancer sufferers are the first victims. The Pentagon calls this “full-spectrum dominance”.


John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

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Why are right wing parties thriving across Europe?

The resilience of the right in Europe and the Anglosphere.

On 15 September 2008, Wall Street’s oldest investment bank filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves through the world’s financial markets. Leh­man Brothers was not “too big to fail” ­after all. Its collapse heralded the main, most perilous phase of the global financial crisis – and it seemed to have exposed the limits of right-wing orthodoxy and unbridled free-market capitalism. Indeed, Ed Miliband was spurred to run for the Labour leadership by a belief that politics had shifted to the left after the crash.

Yet, seven years on from Lehman’s implosion, right-wing parties are thriving. In the UK the Conservative Party won a majority in May for the first time in 23 years. Across 39 countries in Europe that we analysed parties of the right are in government in 26 of them. Add in the Anglosphere – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – and right-wing parties control the legislature in 30 of the 43 countries. This is four more than before the crash.

Why is this? One big factor is that the centre left has not been able to answer the question of what it exists for when there is no money left. As management of the economy has become a much more important issue, right-wing parties have benefited because they “are often labelled better economic managers”, says Andrew Little, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political consultant, says: “In times of crises, conservatives might be trusted more, as they are seen to keep an eye on a balanced budget. When there’s growth, social democrats are – or were – trusted to spread the wealth.”

Relentlessly, and often misleadingly, parties of the right, including the Tories, have drummed home this message of superior economic competency. “The PR of the centre right is unbeatable,” says André Krouwel, a lecturer in political science at VU University Amsterdam, even though “empirical evidence shows that left-wing governments or coalitions actually perform better and cause much less deep crises”.

The crash has also damaged the left by making voters more insular and defensive, especially towards immigration. Parties of the centre right, meanwhile, “have always been more associated with a rather tougher line on immigration” and so “are likely to do better at elections where it’s up in the mix”, says the Conservative Party historian Tim Bale. The populist right has been the biggest beneficiary of this shift, attracting working-class people who once voted for left-wing parties but now fear immigration is threatening their livelihoods. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, told the NS last year: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe.”

Ukip has been stymied by the British voting system, but parties of the radical right elsewhere in Europe often benefit from proportional representation. Ultimately this helps the mainstream right, too: as voters shift from parties of the left to the radical right, “It makes right-wing majorities and coalition formation easier,” Krouwel says.

In some countries leaders of populist-right parties have portrayed themselves as the protectors of a welfare state under attack from liberal immigration policies. The Danish People’s Party, for instance, has branded itself as “representing classical social-democratic values combined with a tough line on immigration”, says Klaus Petersen, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark. He believes that the failure of centre-left parties to acknowledge and help those people negatively affected by the forces of globalisation and immigration has been a big mistake. The consequences are clear in the Nordic countries, historically the fiefdom of social democracy. Right-wing parties today control Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, leaving only Sweden in the hands of the centre left.

Only southern Europe provides much solace for the left. Syriza holds power in Greece but it is only in Italy, largely as a result of Silvio Berlusconi’s self-destruction, that the left displays any great sense of vibrancy (see above). In the west, the Parti Socialiste holds power in France, though François Hollande’s time in office has been tumultuous.

The left is also battling against trends that pre-date 2008. The growth of “individualisation” since the 1970s is the most important structural factor in the success of the right, Krouwel says. “The idea of free and individual choice undermined the traditional drivers of left-wing thought: solidarity and state interventionism.” Right-wing parties have also been helped by the collapse of manufacturing, the decline in trade union membership and the rise in self-employment.

The best could be yet to come for the right. Across Europe and the Anglosphere populations are ageing. “[This] benefits the right, because voters shift right as they get older,” says Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College in London. The “old vote” counts even more because so few young people vote: across Europe last year, only 28 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the European parliamentary elections, compared to 51 per cent of those 55 and over. In addition, there is an apparent rightward shift in young people’s attitudes. In the UK research shows that the “millennial generation” has moved to the right of its parents in its attitudes to the economy and the state and its confidence in the welfare state.

So much, then, for the idea of the economic crash heralding another dawn of ­social democracy. Instead, it ushered in an age of the right.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide