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Palestinian Organizer Rasmea Odeh Jailed After Being Convicted of Immigration Fraud

Graphic of Rasmea Odeh from flyer produced by US Palestine Community Network (USPCN)

Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian American organizer who immigrated to the United States twenty years ago, was convicted of immigration fraud by a jury in Detroit. The judge held an afternoon hearing and decided to revoke her bond. She was taken into custody and will be in jail until her sentencing hearing on March 10.

Odeh could potentially serve up to ten years in prison before she is deported from the US.

Supporters of Rasmea Odeh put out a statement after the verdict calling the result a “travesty of justice,” and adding, “Although there is real anger and disappointment in the jury’s verdict, it was known as early as October 27th that she would not get a full and fair trial.”

According to journalist Charlotte Silver, who covered the trial for The Electronic Intifada, Judge Gershwin Drain took the unusual step of “endorsing” the jury verdict.

“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.”

One of Odeh’s attorneys, Michael Deutsch, reacted, “That’s not his job,” to say whether he approves of the verdict or not. In his career, he had never heard a judge do that before.

Her defense attorneys announced immediately after the verdict that they were planning on appealing the case after she is sentenced. They also were upset that the jurors were willing to meet with government attorneys “for a half-hour after the verdict” but were not interested in meeting with defense attorneys.

Odeh is a 67-year-old associate director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago. She has a reputation as an award-winning advocate for women’s rights.

Forty-five years ago, she was arrested and subjected to torture by Israeli security forces. Odeh was brought before an Israeli military tribunal and accused of being involved in terrorism attacks. She maintained her innocence, but Israel convicted her and she was sentenced to prison.

In 1994, Odeh immigrated to the US and was allowed into the country without any problem. Her defense asserts that the State Department knew about Odeh’s background when she applied for citizenship.

Plus, when she 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, according to Deutsch.

Odeh’s father was released because the State Department intervened. He then testified to the State Department and before a United Nations 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 in an interview for Firedoglake.

In 1979, Odeh testified about her torture at the United Nations. “It was well known that she was convicted, and traded [in a prisoner exchange]. The US Embassy knew it, the State Department knew it, and Immigration should have known it,” Deutsch added.

Despite the State Department’s role in Odeh’s immigration and knowledge of her past, on October 22, 2013, the Department of Homeland Security arrested Odeh. She was accused of lying on her naturalization forms by not disclosing that she had been convicted of terrorism-related offenses by an Israeli military tribunal.

“An individual convicted of a terrorist bombing would not be admitted to the United States if that information was known at the time of arrival,” US Attorney Barbara McQuade said after her arrest. McQuade indicated upon discovery that “someone convicted of a terrorist attack” is in the US “illegally” the US would use the “criminal justice system to remove that individual.”

William Hayes, acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations, also declared, “The United States will never be a safe haven for individuals seeking to distance themselves from their pasts.”

“When individuals lie on immigration documents, the system is severely undermined and the security of our nation is put at risk.”

Prosecutors during the trial cast Odeh as “a terrorist who used deception to enter the US.” A guilty verdict would “send a message that terrorists can’t seek to hide in the US,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Yet, if Odeh is truly a terrorist who hid in the US, the prosecutors should be clamoring for answers from the State Department on why she was allowed in twenty years ago and whether they were involved in a coverup to allow her to remain in the country?

Odeh insisted that when she filled out the questions she thought the questions about whether she committed a crime applied to whether she committed crimes inside the US.

The Associated Press reported Odeh testified “she would have disclosed the information if she understood the questions and sought legal help to deal with any fallout while seeking citizenship.”

This was not the defense Odeh initially planned. The defense had a doctor lined up to testify about how Odeh suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from being tortured and that had an effect on how she filled out the forms because she blocked out her past. However, Drain ruled Odeh could not argue she suffered from PTSD and other inhumane treatment she experienced when she filled out the forms.

Drain also accepted the government’s argument that the validity of her Israeli conviction was not an issue that should be brought up during trial. It was, however, acceptable for the government to talk about the crime Israel convicted her of committing after coercing a confession from her through sexual abuse and torture.

As Deutsch declared on WBEZ radio before the trial, “Our defense has been cut out at the knees basically and gutted if you will.” 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.”

Hundreds of supporters from Chicago had traveled up to witness the trial. They held demonstrations outside the courthouse before and after proceedings each day. They urged the Justice Department to drop the charges and government attorneys even accused the supporters of being a protesting mob that was seeking to engage in jury tampering.

That wild accusation fueled the government’s request to partially sequester the jury and transport them to the courthouse from an off-site location in a bus with tinted windows each day, which Drain granted. But the judge denied a request for an anonymous jury, where the identities of the jurors would be given extra protection.

The government was able to fuel a climate of fear during the trial by seating a number of US Marshals and DHS agents nearby friends and family of Odeh. So, while she was not accused of terrorism, it was clear that the prosecutors wanted the jury to consider this charge like another crime committed by a terrorist.

But how did the government even discover that her application had been filled out incorrectly?

The FBI opened an investigation in 2010 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.

Ever since she was charged, it has had all the markings of a political prosecution. Odeh’s supporters argue she “came under attack by the US government because she is Palestinian, and because for decades, she has organized for Palestinian liberation and self-determination, the right of return, and an end to US funding of Israeli occupation.”

The government has now effectively accomplished its goal of incarcerating a prominent Palestinian American activist, who was once tortured by Israeli authorities.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."