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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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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.