In Case of Palestinian American, Prosecutors Criminalize Political Activity and Create ‘Prejudicial Atmosphere’
A lawyer representing Palestinian American Rasmea Odeh, who is accused of immigration fraud, says the United States government’s request for an “anonymous jury” in the case and the partial sequestration of jurors is all a part of prosecutors’ efforts to create a prejudicial and fearful atmosphere.
Odeh is a 67-years-old and the associate director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago. Forty-five years ago, she was arrested and subjected to torture by Israeli security forces. She maintained she was innocent when she was brought before a military tribunal and accused of being involved in terrorism. Israel convicted her and she was sentenced to prison.
She came to the US in 1994 and was allowed into the country without a problem. In 2004, she obtained her citizenship without any issue. Yet, on October 22, 2013, the Department of Homeland Security suddenly had her arrested.
The federal government accused Odeh of neglecting to disclose on naturalization forms that she had been imprisoned by Israelis in Palestine for terrorism-related offenses. She now faces up to ten years in prison if convicted and immediate deportation after her release.
Her prosecution has slowly developed into a high-profile political case.
Recently, the government submitted a motion to the court in Detroit, where she will face trial, that accused Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of AAAN, of engaging in a “concerted effort to improperly influence the criminal proceedings” because he has been trying to build public support for Odeh. It accused the “hoard of supporters” gathering at the courthouse of intending to tamper with the jury and requested that the judge empanel an “anonymous jury.”
“Anonymous juries” are extraordinarily rare and typically occur in cases involving organized crime, mob-style killings or when the government is faced with a defendant, who is dangerous or has a history of attempting to tamper with juries. They also can be empaneled in cases that have had extensive amounts of pretrial publicity. But, as Michael Deutsch, Odeh’s attorney, explained, “We’re dealing with a 67-year-old woman, who is charged with one count, nonviolent act of falsely filling out her application for citizenship. So, it doesn’t fit any of the requirements of case law both in the Sixth Circuit, which is where our case is, or in any case.”
“It is essentially in my view an attempt to intimidate her supporters by claiming their protesting in front of the courthouse peacefully somehow is an attempt to intimidate the jury, which hasn’t even been selected and won’t be for an additional month,” Deutsch argued. “And a way to create a further prejudicial atmosphere by, if not directly, by implication telling the jury there is something threatening to them in this case—that their identity should be kept secret.”
If the government has its way, the US Marshal’s Service would have jurors assemble at an “off-site building” and then the jurors would be bussed to the courthouse during trial. They would be brought over by the US Marshal’s in a bus with blacked out windows.
“It creates this sense that the defendant or her supporters are somehow dangerous and that creates this prejudice in the minds of a juror,” Deutsch added. In particular, if the government is able to say she was a “terrorist” or was involved in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a US-designated terrorist organization, it will create this “prejudicial atmosphere.”
Deutsch acknowledged, “Of course, [prosecutors] always say the reason we’re going to tell the jurors we’re having these procedures is because we don’t want any publicity to affect them and there might be some publicity in this case. My experience is most jurors can see right through that. If they have any experience as jurors or their family has any experience as jurors, they know that jurors are not usually given a number rather than a name.”
The US Marshal’s Service and prosecutors in the case—US Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Tukel and Special Assistant US Attorney Mark J. Jebson, who works for the Homeland Security Department—contend that Odeh’s supporters are violating the law and interfering with the process.
Mostly, it is “elderly women,” Deutsch said, who are there, people from the community who Odeh has worked with over the years who want to show support. These are the people prosecutors are saying are a “mob” or a “hoard.”
“The implication is because they are Palestinian, apparently, they somehow present some kind of danger and therefore there needs to be special procedures,” Deutsch suggested.
Singling out Abudayyeh could potentially be an effort to neutralize him. Odeh’s work is “part of her defense.” It is part of who she happens to be and how her defense could make arguments about here character. “If you now put under attack the person that’s her superior and the director of that organization, it’s a way to discredit the organization and in turn discredit her,” Deutsch stated.
According to Odeh’s defense, the State Department knew all about Odeh’s background and did nothing to disrupt her application for citizenship.
Odeh was arrested in 1969. Her father, a US citizen, along with her two sisters, were arrested at the same time. Her father was released after 20 days, Deutsch said. He was released because the State Department intervened. He then testified to the State Department and to a UN commission, which was investigating Israeli practices toward Palestinians.
“What we’re saying is that they knew all along based on what he told the State Department in the State Department’s own records that who she was and what her background was. When they gave her a green card and let her in the country in the 1994, they knew she had been arrested, tortured and been inside an Israeli prison,” Deutsch further explained.
Why did the government pursue this prosecution nine years after Odeh received citizenship and nearly twenty years after she began her life in America?
Odeh’s defense has documents indicating that the FBI began to investigate AAAN back in January 2010 as part of a wider investigation into Palestinian activists in Chicago and the midwestern United States.
As Deutsch recounted, the US Attorney in Chicago made a request through Washington about her and asked the Israelis to produce any documents they had on her. It took “several years to produce them.” Eventually, the Israelis produced documents from “their military occupation legal system, which showed that she had been arrested and imprisoned and convicted by the Israelis.” Yet, instead of proceeding with this case in Chicago, where an investigation into Palestinian activists was ongoing, the case was passed off to Detroit and the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan indicted her there.
The Justice Department has for the past four years been investigating activists, including Abudayyeh, for allegedly providing “material support” for terrorism through their support for dissident groups in Palestine.
The FBI raided the homes of multiple activists in September 2010. Grand jury subpoenas were issued to twenty-three different activists. They all refused to testify. The investigation has continued, even though the government has nothing against these people. During their fishing expedition, however, they managed to unearth this form where they claim Odeh committed fraud.
The government is brazenly criminalizing standard activity by legal defense organizations, which form to support people being prosecuted for what they happen to believe is political activity.
Prosecutors contend that holding signs that demand prosecutors drop the charges, planning to pack the courtroom with supporters and urging people to overload the phone lines of prosecutors with calls to stop prosecuting Odeh are somehow efforts to intimidate a jury and improperly interfere with a process.
“They somehow want to ignore the fact that people have a right to petition the government, they have a right to protest and they’re just trying to sweep that under the rug,” Deutsch additionally declared.
All of a sudden they put something in a motion claiming people are engaged in criminal activity when, according to Deutsch, the government has not suggested this in court or made any formal complaints to the judge before. It also seems like they are threatening Abudayyeh with a criminal charge. “I think it’s very ominous in my view,” Deutsch concluded.