Controversial Iraqi doctor denied U.S. visa

Despite the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine's efforts, a world-renowned Iraqi epidemiologist will not be speaking from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., to an audience at Kane Hall tomorrow.

Dr. Les Roberts of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, co-author with Dr. Lafta of the Iraq mortality study published in The Lancet in 2006, will be speaking in his place in Kane Hall Room 120 tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Dr. Riyadh Lafta teaches medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University's College of Medicine in Baghdad and is best known for co-authoring an article published in an Oct. 2006 edition of The Lancet, a British peer-reviewed medical journal, that estimated the Iraqi civilian death toll to be 650,000 since the war in Iraq began in 2003. Lafta was to give a speech that would have been part of a collaborative research project to document elevated levels of pediatric cancers in Basra, Iraq.

Lafta was originally scheduled to come to the UW, but after waiting since July 2006 for a visa to enter the U.S., Lafta was recently told his visa was denied. After seeing the series of delays, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jim McDermott became involved.

Mike DeCesare, a McDermott spokesperson, said the visa was denied due to bureaucratic missteps.

"At that point, it was hard to say if this rises from snafu to something larger than that," DeCesare said.

After being denied a U.S. visa, the doctor's colleagues at Simon Fraser approved a plan to host Lafta and set up an interactive video conference to be broadcast this Friday at Kane Hall. Lafta's Canadian visa was issued within one week of application.

Stuck in Amman, Jordan, Lafta learned late Tuesday that the trip to Vancouver would not happen either, because he was denied a transfer visa by the British government. His itinerary required a four-hour layover at London's Heathrow Airport.

"This was clearly meant to deny the free flow of academic freedom and the exchange of ideas and information," DeCesare said. "When that free-flow can't happen, it's a very scary day."

According to Lafta's colleague and Simon Fraser professor Dr. Tim Takaro, the letter Lafta received from the British government cited Iraq's inclusion to the terrorist watch list since 1993 as the primary reason for the transfer visa's denial.

"That's ludicrous, because two years ago he got into the U.K. and gave lectures there," said Takaro.

Some of Dr. Lafta's work has centered on the medical effects of war on Iraqi youths, but his most controversial writing asserts that the Iraqi civilian death toll is far higher than what the Pentagon claims it is.

DeCesare believes the visa denial raises the question of academic freedom in the United States.

"This administration only wants you to know what they want you to know," he said. "They don't want you to know about the kinds of concerns and fears about Iraqi children that this doctor has and that others want to know about."

Takaro is also concerned about the effect this situation has and what it says about the U.S. government's willingness to quiet its detractors.

"It's within the character of this administration to behave that way," Takaro said.

Lafta was believed to be returning to Baghdad and was not available for comment. Takaro spoke with him Tuesday evening and described the doctor as "clearly upset with the situation."

Whether Lafta will be able to speak to the UW in the future is uncertain. Professor Amy Hagopian with the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine said that, despite lack of funding, she will attempt to find a solution that will allow Lafta to visit the UW's sister school on the project, Simon Fraser.

"We're almost out of money on our grant since we've spent a lot of it on canceled plane tickets and denied visas," Hagopian said. "But my goal is to still try and get together with Dr. Lafta."

Simon Fraser is pursuing all available options to bring Lafta to Vancouver, including transfer flights from other countries such as France or Switzerland, Takaro said.

"We're going to keep going," Takaro said.

Reach reporter Shaun Moore at news@thedaily.washington.edu.

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