On an April day in 2005, just two years after the start of the Iraq War, Radio Al Mahaba debuted as the “voice of women” in Iraq.
More than a decade later, the Baghdad radio station, one of the few forums anywhere for Arab women eager to talk about divorce, careers, religion and other taboo subjects, is still on the air.
Halfway across the world, in a downtown Buffalo courtroom, Al Mahaba is also at the center of a trial accusing two of its founders of stealing United Nations funds intended for the station.
“It was meant for a good cause,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Grisanti told the jury in her opening statement. “It was not given to Steve Jabar personally. And it was not given to Deborah Bowers personally.”
In a case that dates back to 2009, Jabar, an Iraqi refugee turned U.S. citizen, and Bowers, a refugee aid worker and wife of a Clarence minister, are accused of diverting $65,000 in U.N. funds to pay off personal loans, credit cards and property taxes.
Supporters claim the two were simply reimbursing themselves for what they had personally invested in the radio station, and suggest they’re guilty of only one thing – poor bookkeeping.
“There is a radio station up and running,” Michael Bowers, Bowers’ husband, reminded the jury last week.
Radio Al Mahaba, which means “love” in Arabic, may still be broadcasting, but prosecutors say that’s no reason to look the other way.
At the crux of the case being heard by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo is a 14-count indictment accusing Jabar and Bowers of using U.N. funds for their own benefit.
The allegations of fraud and money laundering are rooted in the funds that allegedly went from Opportunities for Kids International (OKI), a group formed by the two defendants, into their private accounts.
Bowers was executive director of OKI, and Jabar was its treasurer.
To hear prosecutors talk, the conspiracy has its roots in Jabar’s personal financial problems and his decision in 2003 to borrow $48,000 from a close friend.
“He was in bad financial straits,” said Bassam Bitar, who had previously borrowed money from Jabar. “He helped me so I helped him. It wasn’t business between us. It was friendship.”
But according to Bitar, who testified for the prosecution, Jabar had trouble paying back the money, and prosecutors say that is when he and Bowers conspired to divert money from the U.N. grant.
Grisanti, in fact, claims the first $20,000 in stolen money was withdrawn the day after the grant arrived in OKI’s accounts.
“This is the very first thing the grant is used for,” she told the jury.
Over the course of several days, Grisanti and prosecutor MaryEllen Kresse took the jury through myriad records documenting the flow of money from the U.N. to OKI to Jabar and Bowers.
The government’s prosecution of Jabar and Bowers has been in the spotlight because of Jabar’s history in Iraq – his father was a freedom fighter who was tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein – and because of his ties to senior U.S. military officials.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, citing Jabar’s contacts and credibility in his homeland, is among those who have written the court on his behalf.
In addition, two retired U.S. Army officers – Lt. Gen. John Gardner and Col. William Ivey – testified Tuesday about Jabar’s work in Iraq and his value to the officers trying to rebuild the nation.
In their defense, which began Friday, Jabar and Bowers claimed the $65,000 that came from OKI’s accounts was reimbursement for money they spent on behalf of the station.
“I know there were expenditures made on this side of the ocean for equipment on that side of the ocean,” Mike Bowers, who served on the OKI board with his wife and Jabar, told the jury.
Jurors also heard from two former Iraqi women who testified about the radio station’s role in Iraqi society and its importance to women there.
The station, which has been the subject of stories in the New York Times and other major newspapers, was viewed early on as an important voice in the development of an open, civil society in Iraq. It was also seen by U.S. officials as an effective means to communicate secular, democratic ideals to a sympathetic Middle East audience.
“I was shocked because there was no Quran,” Hana Korkos, one of the women who testified, said of the station’s programming. “And I was amazed how this radio station could reach every house, every woman.”
Korkos said she and a friend collectively loaned $70,000 to the radio station when it was going through tough financial times from 2005 through 2008. She also testified that the money, which was given to Jabar, was used to pay station employees who had gone without a paycheck.
Both Korkos and her friend said they are confident the money went to the station, not Jabar, and that Jabar will eventually settle the debt.
“He will pay me,” said Nesrin Dickow, the other woman who loaned money to the station. “He gave me his word. And his word is good enough for me.”
The defense also called on Jabar’s ex-wife, Kurdistan Sharriff, who testified that Jabar rarely had money because he spent much of his paycheck as a government consultant on Al Mahaba.
“He told me, ‘I put most of my money into the radio station,’ ” she told the jury.
Born and raised in Iraq, Jabar came to Buffalo as a refugee in the 1990s, became an American citizen and for a time operated the Iraqi House, a center for transplanted Iraqis living in Buffalo.
He met Bowers while helping a local Kurdish family and persuaded her to join him in raising money for an Iraqi radio station for women.
Even now, years after his indictment, Jabar continues to play a major role in its operation. As recently as May of this year, he traveled back and forth to Iraq with the court’s permission.
The trial resumes Wednesday.