Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine march. (Photo: John W. Iwanski)
On November 10, leading Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, 67, was jailed after being found “guilty” of immigration fraud.
The US government claims Odeh lied on an immigration application when she said she had never been arrested, convicted or imprisoned.
Odeh is accused of concealing that she was charged by the Israeli military with bombing a supermarket when she was 22.
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The charge is based on a “confession” obtained by rape and torture at the hands of members of the Israeli military (IDF) more than 40 years ago. Odeh, who moved to the United States in 1995 and serves as the associate director of the Chicago Arab American Action Network (AAAN), was alleged to have “confessed” to the bombing charges imposed by the Israeli military court.
“It was clearly not a fair trial,” Odeh’s lawyer Michael Deutsch, with the People’s Law Office, in Chicago, told Truthout. “The entire defense was gutted by the court’s rulings.
He [Judge Gershwin Drain] refused to allow her PTSD defense, would not let her expert testify, nor even allow the defendant in her own testimony to mention torture, or her innocence, or the lack of fairness of the Israeli military courts.”
Truthout previously reported how Odeh, along with 500 other Palestinians, was arrested at the age of 22 by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during a massive security sweep following the 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank.
At the time, as now, many Palestinians who were detained by the IDF were later charged with crimes they did not commit to justify their detention. Odeh was charged with bombing a supermarket. While in prison, she was tortured with electrical shock and raped with batons.
Odeh’s father was tortured in front of her. IDF personnel even attempted to make her father rape her.
She was beaten regularly with metal rods, kicked, threatened, humiliated, denied medical care and access to a bathroom, and – almost needless to say – was denied access to legal resources. She was made to watch a Palestinian man literally tortured to death. She eventually signed a confession to stop IDF personnel from continuing to torture her father.
Deutsch believes that all of this, in addition to other information like the strength of the Israel lobby in the United States and the fact that Odeh is a prominent supporter of Palestinian liberation, was more than enough to make the case that the charges against Odeh were politically motivated.
Given what the Israeli military did to his client, Deutsch drew a stark analogy for Odeh’s case.
“From 1969 to the present, the IDF tortures people, and we have plenty of evidence of this systematic torture,” he said. “If you have Nazi courts, would they put in a conviction from a Nazi court in a US court?”
The defense filed a motion less than a week after the verdict and has asked the court to reconsider its ruling.
“Ms. Odeh is now languishing in a county jail hours away from her lawyers and her community,” Deutsch said.
The trial and verdict represent a dangerous precedent being set for those working for justice for Palestine in the United States.
Covering for Israel
Deutsch was blunt about what he believes is happening with regards to the US judicial system.
“She is facing a US judicial system that seems committed to cover up the crimes of Israel and prevent the truth from being aired in a public trial,” he said.
When asked what a just verdict might have looked like in Odeh’s trial, Deutsch noted, “True justice would not have resulted in an indictment of a woman who has lived a peaceful and productive life for almost 20 years in the US who is doing extraordinary work with immigrant women in her community.”
Deutsch told Truthout he believes Odeh’s indictment is an attempt to “criminalize her.” He noted that the organization that Odeh works for was targeted prior to the charges. “In 2010, the AAAN was investigated by the FBI, and the FBI wanted more information on Rasmea’s background and sent a request to the Israeli government to pull her file.”
Later that same year, the FBI raided the homes of various activists, including Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of AAAN. Following the raids, activists were called upon to testify during a grand jury.
“Everyone refused to testify at the grand jury, no indictments were made, and possessions seized during the home raids were returned to people,” Deutsch said. “But it was during this that they learned of her history in the occupied territories.”
Deutsch is well versed in cases like Odeh’s, given that he was one of the lawyers for the Attica prisoners following the 1971 prison uprising and state massacre. He was also the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and has been with the People’s Law Office since 1970.
Truthout was provided with a court affidavit for Odeh’s US case, within which Mary Fabri, a licensed clinical psychologist who also worked as the senior director of Torture Treatment Services and International Training for the Kovler Center in Chicago, provided the details of Odeh’s treatment at the hands of the IDF.
Fabri has diagnosed Odeh with PTSD and has provided expert opinion that Odeh has suppressed some of the memories of what happened to her at the hands of the IDF.
Deutsch also sees a legal problem with the US government’s attempt to frame Odeh’s conviction and persecution by an occupying force as evidence of illegal activity.
“That doesn’t hold up to due process or the fundamentals of international law,” he said. “These military courts the Israelis set up are illegal under international law; hence, no evidence from them should be used in this case.”
Deutsch and others on Odeh’s defense team say her indictment is part of a governmental effort to criminalize those working to educate people about what is really happening in the occupied territories.
“I’ve seen, in other cases I’ve worked on, a close collaboration between the US and Israeli Justice Departments, and I think the Israelis are more than happy to cooperate with that and condemn her and have her thrown out of the country,” Deutsch said.
If Odeh’s conviction stands, she automatically loses her citizenship and would be subject to deportation.
Given that the IDF just killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the vast majority of whom were civilians, the possible ramifications of deportation are, indeed, dire.
Pro-Israel Judge Steps Down, Replaced by Another?
The original judge for Odeh’s case, US District Judge Paul Borman, was forced torecuse himself from her trial after Deutsch and other attorneys accused him of having lifelong ties to the Israeli government.
Borman had angrily refused to recuse himself after initial objections to his participation revealed his close ties to Israel, but then it was also discovered that his family had financial ties to the supermarket Odeh was accused of bombing. Borman had also been honored with a civic award in part for his support of Israel, and his family had raised more than $3 million for a pro-Israel charity.
“She’s maintained she was not involved,” Deutsch said of the bombing. “Even though she and all the other Palestinians she was detained with said they’d been tortured and recused their confessions. So she’s saying whatever she said [at the time of her detention] was a result of torture, and she was not involved [in the bombing].”
Abudayyeh, AAAN’s executive director, told Truthout he felt vindicated by Borman’s decision to recuse himself.
“It was all about his relationship to Israel,” he said. “So for him to have said that he was offended for being attacked [for his pro-Israel bias] was absolutely disingenuous.”
But with Judge Drain presiding over Odeh’s case, the pro-Israel bias of the court did not appear to be alleviated.
Immediately after the verdict was read, Judge Drain said, “I don’t normally comment on verdicts, but in this case I will: I think it’s a fair and reasonable one based on the evidence that came in.”
Of the judge’s statement, Deutsch said he had never heard of a judge commenting on the verdict from a jury before, called it “gratuitous,” and added, “That is not his job to do so, but it provides us a window into his whole thinking into this trial.”
In addition to prohibiting major components of Odeh’s defense, Judge Drain mandated that she be detained for five months while awaiting sentencing. He cited a supposed lack of ties to her community (despite the groundswell of support that has rallied behind her) and therefore a “risk of flight.”
“This was in the face of tens of people from Chicago, who she has mentored and who love her, attending the trial in Detroit,” Deutsch said. “Also, her whole struggle is to stay in Chicago and not to flee.”
Abudayyeh sees the indictment against Odeh as part of a broader attack against the Palestinian community in general.
“There is Islamaphobia, and it’s moved from being a personal tool of oppression to structural and institutional,” he explained. “Even non-prominent Muslims are being caught up in law enforcement entrapment on both coasts now. The majority of the prominent Muslims caught up in that net have in common that they are Palestinian organizers and are challenging US foreign policy as it relates to Palestine specifically.”
Abudayyeh, the AAAN and other groups supporting Odeh believe her trial was in no way fair.
The AAAN released a statement immediately after her conviction, and Abudayyeh told Truthout: “It wasn’t fair because Rasmea was not able to offer the essence of her defense, that she was never guilty of the bombings in Jerusalem in 1969, and that she was tortured and raped into a forced confession by the Israelis at that time. If she was not guilty of the bombings, and if she did not accept the ‘conviction,’ then there was nothing false in her answers to the questions on the citizenship application.”
Motions have been filed to reconsider Odeh’s bond, as well as to set aside her conviction and allow for a new trial.
“In addition, it is highly prejudicial for the government to be allowed to enter into evidence that she was ‘convicted’ by Israel, without giving her the opportunity to enter into evidence that the ‘conviction’ was in an Israeli military court that does not offer even a modicum of due process to Palestinians and that it was based on a forced confession,” Abudayyeh added. “The judge did not allow these aspects into her defense.”
Similar to Deutsch, Abudayyeh believes another of the biggest impediments to Odeh getting a fair trial is that the government has been allowed to describe her as someone who was “convicted of multiple bombings in Israel that killed two people and injured many more.”
“It is almost impossible to get a fair trial in this country if you are a Palestinian who is branded a ‘terrorist,’ and that is what happened here,” Abudayyeh said. “We are hopeful that we will be able to talk about the torture, rape and forced confession in our appeal, because that is the only way that she can get a fair trial, if all the evidence about 1969 is allowed, and not just the Israeli/US prosecutors’ version of it.”
Odeh’s trial could set a disconcerting and troublesome precedent if evidence from a military court in a foreign country is allowed to stand in a US court.
In the wake of the verdict, activists in Chicago and Oakland held rallies and conducted direct protest actions, demanding Odeh’s immediate release.
Nora Barrows-Friedman, writing for Electronic Intifada, reported at the time: “In downtown Oakland today, activists chained themselves to the federal courthouse, condemning the trial as one that was politically motivated in an attempt by the US government to silence Palestine solidarity activism around the country. The five activists were arrested by local police just hours after their protest began.”
Abudayyeh maintains that Odeh’s trial is critically important and says the case must be won.
“We know historically in this country that every social justice movement that has been effective has come under attack by law enforcement, and we believe very strongly that this is what is happening to Palestinians here now,” Abudayyeh said. “We are winning some battles now, and Palestinians around the world are winning this battle against Israel for the hearts and minds of the world, with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. So, this is how the US and Israel are reacting . . . they are attacking us by trying to criminalize us. So if they can take down a community icon like Rasmea, then they think they can criminalize the movement as a whole.”
Odeh faces up to 10 years of imprisonment before being subject to deportation proceedings.
Deutsch told reporters just after the trial that he believes there are very strong points for appealing the conviction, which Odeh’s attorneys will file after sentencing is concluded.
Abudayyeh believes that for justice to be truly served in Odeh’s case, she would be released immediately pending sentencing, since she is neither a flight risk (her entire case was predicated on her demanding to be allowed to stay in the United States) nor a danger to society.
“Justice for Rasmea in the long term would be an acquittal on appeal, which is what we believe will happen if all the evidence of her torture, forced confession, PTSD, etc., comes before the court,” he concluded. “Rasmea is a Palestinian icon who has dedicated 50 years of her life to social justice, and who has, in the past 10 years in Chicago, selflessly supported the empowerment of Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and other oppressed communities here. She is the epitome of an immigrant who is serving the US and its residents, and must be acquitted of this unjust charge and conviction.”