Rasmea Odeh, a 67-year-old Palestinian-American, has been convicted of the “unlawful procurement of naturalization” in a trial that wasn’t supposed to — but sometimes did — touch on her disputed conviction by an Israeli military court.
DETROIT — In the trial of the United States v. Rasmea Odeh, a much broader issue was played out: the complicity of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan with the over-reaching national security state and expanding American empire, in partnership with its client state, Israel, against Palestine and Palestinians’ right to be free.
During the jury selection process on Nov. 4, the courtroom heard about so many bombings in Israel in 1969 that one potential juror told the judge that he was confused about what crime 67-year-old Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh allegedly committed.
The juror’s confusion stemmed from a question asked by Judge Gershwin Drain, which was among the questions the defense and the prosecutor developed for a pool of prospective jurors in their attempts to eliminate as many jurors as possible with biases that would adversely affect their ability to argue the case. The question: “Would this affect your ability to be fair?” was preceded by a stunning statement: “Ms. Odeh was convicted of a bombing 45 years ago.” When repeated again for jurors, the question was rephrased as: “A couple of people died in this bombing. Would this prejudice you?”
Yet the U.S. federal government’s case against Odeh (“Rasmiah” on court documents) was not about a bombing. The case being tried centered on allegations of the defendant’s “unlawful procurement of naturalization” when she applied for U.S. citizenship in Detroit in 2004. Judge Drain instructed the court that the trial would be confined to evidence of whether the defendant had lied in order to obtain her citizenship.
The jury was informed that in a criminal trial the accused begins with a clean slate and is considered innocent until proven guilty. However, throughout the trial and even before it began, an environment was created to suggest that Odeh was dangerous and had connections to terrorism, even though she had lived as a law-abiding citizen in the United States for 20 years — including the past 10 years, which she’s spent as a beloved member of her Chicago community.
So why did the Justice Department decide to target her now, after all these years? According to Hatem Abudayyeh, Odeh’s colleague at the Arab American Action Network and a member of her defense committee, “The government’s case, an immigration charge, is nothing but a pretext. Rasmea is under attack because she is Palestinian, Arab and Muslim, because U.S. law enforcement is going after our successful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid, and because she embodies the proud and steadfast Palestinian struggle for self-determination, liberation, and the right of return.”
One month before the trial, it was discovered that the case against Odeh was part of a DOJ sweep of 23 nonviolent anti-war activists involved in Palestinian and Colombian issues, which began in 2010.
A concerted effort to have the charges dropped preceded Odeh’s trial: Over 400 organizations and more than 5,000 individuals signed a petition. Roughly 125 feminist academics wrote to President Obama and the DOJ. Nearly half a million messages were sent to elected officials.
Angela Davis wrote a commentary that appeared in The Detroit News:
“As a person with first-hand knowledge of the devastation wrought by politically motivated prosecutions — during the era of COINTELPRO, I was falsely charged with three capital offenses — I see Rasmea Odeh’s case as a continuation of the embarrassing history of decades of suppression of social justice activists in the U.S.”
The case brought against Odeh, a naturalized American citizen, who had been brutally tortured 45 years ago into making what she says is a false confession about placing a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket, reverberated among Palestinians throughout the U.S. and around the world. The case also drew the indignation of a wide cross-section of people concerned about a range of issues. Among Odeh’s supporters are Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs; Christian and Jewish activists; labor, law, civil liberties, racial, social justice, and human rights advocates; anti-apartheid, anti-racism and anti-war activists; feminists opposed to sexual violence; students and academics; Chicano and black civil rights advocates; Puerto Rican and Palestinian liberation advocates; and many people of conscience, cutting across all ages and backgrounds.
A bus filled with women from among the 600-strong Arab Women’s Committee that Odeh founded — some accompanied by equally supportive adult daughters — rolled in from Chicago for the trial. Others came from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, D.C., even as far away as Utah and Florida.
An ambiance of intimidation surrounded the trial. Homeland Security officers were stationed both inside and outside of the courthouse. In the courtroom, large men sat square shoulder to square shoulder in the front row of benches between the court proceedings and the defendant’s supporters.
Odeh’s supporters held signs and banners and waved Palestinian flags. Along the sidewalk in front of the courthouse they chanted: “DHS go get lost, out of communities, out of our mosques,” and “DOJ, let’s be clear: Rasmea is welcome here,” before and after attending the trial each day. They speculated that the security measures were designed to shield the jury from knowledge of the extent of support for Odeh and to create the impression that the supporters — whether of Palestinian origin or in solidarity — constituted a dangerous element. The jurors were partially sequestered, transported in a van with tinted windows to and from the courthouse to an undisclosed parking location.
The prosecutor in the case, Jonathan Tukel, is with the Criminal Division, National Security Unit, of the Eastern District of Michigan District Attorney’s office that investigates and prosecutes cases involving international and domestic terrorism. In 2012, he received the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Furthering the Interests of U.S. National Security for his work related to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, commonly known as “the Underwear Bomber.”
Odeh’s defense team included attorneys from the People’s Law Office, a Chicago firm renowned for arguing against government abuse and constitutional rights violations. The firm’s history includes significant cases in defense of activists who have been targeted as a result of their political beliefs or organizing efforts on behalf of movements in the struggle for social justice and liberation.
Lead defense attorney Michael Deutsch protested that he and his client were not being allowed to establish her credibility because the judge forbid him to challenge her arrest and conviction in an Israeli military court 45 years earlier — a conviction Odeh says was derived from a confession extracted through torture. Judge Drain insisted that the defense be kept narrow, stating: “I’ve made a ruling: you cannot talk about the rape and torture.”
Drain refused to allow an expert psychologist with decades of experience working with torture survivors to act as a witness and testify that the way Odeh responded in her application for citizenship was the result of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet Odeh’s arrest, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment were allowed to be introduced by the prosecution as evidence against her.
Deutsch went as far as he could in offering a strong defense before he was cut off by the judge or Tukel’s sustained objections. While Tukel attempted to paint Odeh as a terrorist, her defense team presented a different picture:
Odeh had been living legally with a visa for several years in Detroit, where her father and brother lived, when she applied for and became a naturalized citizen in 2004. After her father died in Detroit, she moved to Chicago, where her sister lived. Here, she found her calling, devoting her life to community service by assisting Palestinian immigrant women and their families with the many adjustments needed for living in the U.S. She founded the Arab Women’s Committee, which is part of the Arab American Action Network, where she serves as assistant director. The courtroom and overflow courtroom were both filled with some of the women she’s worked with, who had come to Detroit to support her during the trial. She received the Outstanding Community Leader Award in 2013 by the Chicago Cultural Alliance in recognition of her work.
The trial consisted of hours of detailed testimony, examinations and cross-examinations about her citizenship application forms and interpretations of an interview with an immigration official. A key point was determining whether Odeh knew whether questions she answered — both on naturalization forms and in an interview — related to her criminal or conviction history applied to only the U.S. or also to a foreign country (i.e., Israel). She testified that she had assumed that these questions referred only to crimes or convictions in the U.S.
She also insisted that she wanted to address the jury to tell her own story. Her command of English is fair, but lacks fluency, thus an interpreter was needed to help with certain words. She appeared strong and spirited under aggressive questioning by Tukel, even sparring with him, asking what reason she would have to lie. She explained that her conviction in an Israeli court had been well known. Her father, who had also been arrested by the Israelis in 1969, was an American citizen. The U.S. government had been involved in his release. The house they had been living in had been destroyed. She had no reason to try to hide what was known. (It did not come out in the trial, but when she was released in a prisoner exchange in 1979, it was also known that she had testified before a U.N. special committee in Geneva about being tortured.)
She asserted that she needed to tell the jury her own story. “It’s my life, it’s my story,” she insisted with great energy. She was from the village of Lifta, near Jerusalem. The Palestinian family typically consists of extended family, and hers was a family of 19. In 1947, the year she was born, her family was driven out of their village by an Israeli military invasion. Having lost everything, they arrived in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, which was under the jurisdiction of Jordan. There they lived for five years as refugees in a tent, until they were able to find a two-room apartment that all of them crammed into.
Odeh’s father was the most able member of the family and the extended family sent him to Detroit, where he found employment in an auto factory. While there, he injured his leg in an accident, which left him unable to work. In 1964, he returned to Ramallah.
In 1967, Israeli soldiers attacked Palestine with tanks and planes when they invaded the West Bank, where the family was living at the time. Odeh saw dead bodies. A tank hit a section of their residence. Her father said that the family all needed to go to Jericho, where they might find safety — or if not, if they had to die, they would die together.
Odeh was eventually sent from Jericho to Beirut to attend college, and after one year, she reunited with her family.
In 1969, Israel conducted a sweep in which 500 random Palestinians were arrested. Soldiers entered their rooms in the night. Odeh began to choke up when she explained that in this sweep, her sister fell down and eventually died as a result. Odeh was taken to an Israeli interrogation center for 45 days.
Though the court would not allow her to say that she had been tortured during those 45 days, Odeh did assert emphatically: “I was falsely convicted.” Judge Drain pounced on her immediately for speaking about it.
Deutsch, of Odeh’s defense team, asked her whether she had had a lawyer in the military trial in Israel. Judge Drain stopped him, as he had throughout the trial: “Don’t get into it. We’re not retrying this [the Israeli] case.”
Deutsch then asked jurors to think about what is “beneath the surface,” alluding, as best he could under the restrictions set by the Michigan court, to how it would be not to have a lawyer, what she might have experienced at the hands of the Israeli military as a young woman those many years ago. He reminded the jury that the documents [used as evidence] came from an Israeli military court, which was not like a civil court.
He complained that Tukel had repeated about 50 times during the course of the trial that Odeh had been involved in a bombing in Israel. Under the parameters set by the court, Tukel should only have been able to refer to the evidence in the Israeli documents that showed she was arrested, convicted and sentenced. Yet Tukel spoke repeatedly of the bombing, as though it were proven fact. Deutsch told the jury that it was not their job to decide whether Odeh had been involved in that incident.
Tukel managed to weave the word “terrorism” into his closing argument. He asked the jury to consider whether the U.S. government wouldn’t be interested in knowing that someone applying for U.S. citizenship advocated for the use of force or violence against a foreign government. In this way, he again implied that Odeh, having been convicted in Israel, represents a threat to the U.S.
On Monday, after deliberating for less than two hours, the jury reached a unanimous verdict of “guilty.” Rasmea Odeh was denied bail. She was handcuffed, taken into immediate custody, and led away.
National Security Prosecutor Jonathan Tukel was successful in convincing Judge Gershwin Drain that Odeh is a flight risk — this, despite the fact that Odeh chose to let her case go to trial rather than reach a plea bargain, in an effort to stay in the U.S. to continue her work assisting immigrant Arab women in the diaspora, which includes, as she said in her trial, explaining to them what their rights are and how to follow the law.
For now, the federal justice system in the Eastern District of Michigan has another casualty that it likely considers a victory in the “War on Terror.” Simultaneously, it has affirmed that whatever the Israeli military does to and says about Palestinians under its control is A-ok with the U.S.A. (in spite of Obama’s under-the-breath grumbling about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).
However, this case serves to expose the outrageousness of an especially egregious injustice. In this Orwellian nightmare scenario, one grossly unfair trial and conviction that took place 45 years ago was used as evidence to convict a 67-year old woman in a second unfair trial and conviction in the present day, thereby re-victimizing her.
Sentencing is scheduled for March 10, 2015. Odeh’s defense team is planning an appeal. Her supporters are distressed by the result, but Odeh told them not to cry. She said, “If not in this court, justice will be found somewhere.”
In a show of solidarity, her supporters chained themselves to the doors of the federal courthouse in Oakland, California, on Wednesday. A protest also took place at the federal courthouse in Chicago and on a public square in Minneapolis. Protests are scheduled for Friday in New York and Milwaukee, and more are expected in other cities. “Free Rasmea Odeh now!” has become a rallying cry nationwide for people demanding justice.
Mary Beaudoin writes about antiwar, political and social justice issues. She is a member of Women Against Military Madness.