In an unusual judicial irony, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a Syracuse oncologist and U.S. citizen, was convicted two years ago of breaking the Iraqi sanctions by sending aid to starving children. He is serving a 22-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana.
As a direct response to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Gulf War and the sanctions on Iraq, Dhafir founded the charity Help The Needy (HTN). For 13 years he worked tirelessly to help publicize the plight of the Iraqi people and to raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dhafir donated $1.25 million of his own money over the years. As an oncologist, he was also concerned about the effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi population, which was experiencing skyrocketing cancer rates.
Texas oil billionaire Oscar Wyatt, on the other hand, received one year of imprisonment for violating U.S. laws governing dealings with Iraq during the Oil for Food program. The Oil for Food program was set up to counter the effect of the harsh (U.S. and UK sponsored) UN sanctions on Iraq during which 1.5 million Iraqis died from starvation, dehydration, and disease, caused in part by the U.S. bombing of water and sewage treatment facilities. Wyatt pleaded guilty to paying $200,000 in kickbacks to officials in the regime. He was accused of funneling millions of dollars of kickbacks through front companies to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Prosecutors said Wyatt imposed on a close relationship with Saddam Hussein to obtain the first contract under the Oil for Food program and to continue getting lucrative oil deals after other U.S. companies were shut out prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In addition to the disparity in sentencing, the comparison is rife with inconsistencies. Dhafir is incarcerated in a medium level facility in a special Communications Management Unit (CMU) where visitation, unlike the usual weekly or biweekly all-day contact visits, is reduced to two hours, twice a month, and is non-contact only, including family. Wyatt will get to see his business partners on the weekends—Dhafir is 720 miles from home; Wyatt will be 87 miles from home. Instead of 300 minutes of phone time a month, CMU prisoners receive one 15-minute call a week, which the warden has the power to reduce to just 3 minutes a month. All letters are opened and read.
Dhafir will have to serve his entire sentence and was not granted bail during the 31 months he awaited the outcome of his trial. Judge Chin, however, ordered Wyatt to serve 6 months less than the low end of a sentencing range of 18 to 24 months that both defense and government representatives had agreed to because the judge was moved by an avalanche of support from Wyatt admirers. Wyatt also can have 47 days taken off for good behavior and can spend the last 30 days in a halfway house.
The disparate sentencing seems to violate the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which, in essence, eliminates indeterminate sentencing at the federal level. It also seems to violate its replacement, the Supreme Court ruling of January 12, 2005 that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury requires that the current federal sentencing guidelines be advisory, rather than mandatory.
Bob Elmendorf is secretary of the Dr. Dhafir Support Committee (www.dhafir trial.net).