Trial in the Political Prosecution of Palestinian Activist Rasmea Odeh Starts with Jury Selection
Jury selection in the trial of Rasmea Odeh, who is accused by the United States government of committing immigration fraud on a naturalization form, took place today in Detroit, Michigan. The trial is expected to take place over the next three days.
Odeh is a 67-year-old associate director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago. She is an award-winning advocate for women’s rights.
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—also without any issue. Yet, on October 22, 2013, the Department of Homeland Security suddenly had her arrested.
The federal government has accused Odeh of neglecting to disclose on naturalization forms that she was 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.
This case is a political case. She is a longtime organizer for social justice around Palestine and various Arab-American issues. She is well-respected in her community and has been in the US for twenty years without committing any criminal conduct. To go back in time and allege that she lied on forms and expect citizens to not regard this as a blatant attempt to silence a leader and intimidate an entire community is nonsense.
In fact, the government would likely never have investigated and charged her with this crime if the FBI had not been engaged in a kind of dragnet investigation into the activism of AAAN’s Executive Director Hatem Abudayyeh and others in his social circle back in 2010.
As Michael Deutsch, one of her attorneys, has 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.
What is particularly egregious about this political case, however, is that Odeh was tortured by Israeli security forces. The government convinced Judge Gershwin Drain that Odeh’s defense should not be allowed to argue she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from torture and other inhumane treatment she experienced when she filled out the forms [PDF].
Drain also accepted the government’s argument that the validity of her Israeli conviction is not an issue that should be brought up during trial. It is, however, acceptable for the government to talk about the crime Israel convicted her of committing after coercing a confession out of her through torture.
…Contrary to Defendant’s arguments, the specific crimes for which she was convicted in 1969 are directly relevant to the materiality element of unlawful procurement of naturalization. At the hearing, Defendant offered to stipulate that she was convicted of a “serious” crime. However, [t]he government is not required to accept the defendant’s stipulation, and the defendant has no right to selectively stipulate to particular elements of the offense.” … Moreover, Defendant’s contention that if the Government is permitted to introduce the specifics of her 1969 conviction, then the door will be opened allowing her to attack the legitimacy of her conviction is erroneous. Again, the validity of Defendant’s conviction by the Israeli military court is not an issue the jury has to decide in order to determine whether she lied on her Visa and Naturalization Applications…
The judge has asserted that the court “accepts as credible defendant’s claims of torture and is not unaffected by the inhumane circumstances of her detention in the West Bank.” However, she does not get to make any arguments related to her unjust imprisonment.
Now, Deutsch thinks this happened because he “did not want any evidence of Israeli torture to be in a US courtroom.” He did not want this trial to be about exposing Israeli policies and practices.
“This is one of the first cases that directly challenges the use of military tribunal evidence in a federal court. And there’s some law which basically says that we shouldn’t allow foreign convictions or foregin evidence which is based on acts that are inconsistent with human rights and inconsistent with US concepts of justice. But there’s a treaty that we have with Israel and other countries that says if they certify their evidence then we have to accept that,” Deutsch said during an interview on WBEZ.
What Deutsch was referring to is the Treaty with Israel on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. The US government issued a request for documents related to Odeh in 2011 – “trial transcripts, police reports, identity documents, fingerprint cards and other law enforcement documents.” It establishes that all Israel has to do is certify the evidence shared with the US government and no further authentication is required.
“Our defense has been cut out at the knees basically and gutted if you will,” Deutsch also said during the WBEZ interview. Odeh’s testimony was critical. Her state of mind at the time she filled out the forms is the key issue in the case. “But the judge told us she can’t talk about what happened to her in Israel. She can’t say she’s innocent. So she’s going to be very hamstrung in terms of being able to put on her own testimony in her own behalf.”
A trial that could have potentially lasted multiple weeks will now only take a few days because the judge took the step of severely limiting what Odeh could present in her defense in this political prosecution.