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Ruling: Judge Improperly Blocked Torture Testimony At Palestinian American Activist’s Trial

A federal appeals court ruled a judge improperly denied testimony from an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the trial against Palestinian American activist Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted of immigration fraud in November 2014.

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 U.S. and was allowed into the country without any problem. Her defense asserted that the State Department knew about Odeh’s background when she applied for citizenship.

Odeh’s defense planned to have Dr. Mary Fabri testify that she did not know statements she made on her immigration documents were false because she suffers from PTSD, which occurred as a result of torture. Judge Gershwin Drain barred Fabri from offering such testimony during the trial.

“Because this type of testimony is not categorically inadmissible to negate a defendant’s knowledge of the falsity of a statement, the district court must reconsider the admissibility of the testimony,” the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled [PDF] on February 25.

However, Odeh’s objections to other “evidentiary rulings and the reasonableness of her sentence” were determined to be “without merit.”

The district court revoked Odeh’s citizenship. She was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Once she completes her sentence, she faces deportation.

Odeh was convicted of terrorism-related offenses by an Israeli military tribunal. She maintains the Israelis sexually abused and tortured her to obtain a confession. When she indicated that she had not committed a crime anywhere in the world during her application for U.S. citizenship, she insists she was blocking out a traumatic experience in her life.

The Sixth Appeals Court argued in its decision that “Fabri’s proffered testimony is relevant to whether Odeh knew that her statements were false. The district court accordingly erred in categorically excluding this testimony.”

“It’s a victory. It’s a substantial step toward getting a new trial. The district judge still has the opportunity to preclude the expert testimony for some other reason, but I don’t see a reasonable reason now for him to preclude the expert testimony,” Michael Deutsch, one of Odeh’s attorneys, told Shadowproof.

Deutsch suggested it will make it possible to get testimony about Odeh’s torture before a jury and increase her chances of obtaining a not guilty verdict.

Nesreen Hasan of the Rasmea Defense Committee, which is headquartered in Chicago, reacted, “This isn’t a full victory yet, of course, but it really is what we were hoping for and anticipating at this stage. The conviction wasn’t overturned altogether, but at least Judge Drain will be forced to rethink his decision on the torture evidence.”

 

Although Odeh lost on other parts of her appeal, Deutsch said, “This was the issue that was the main issue in the appeal because it really gutted her defense.”

“We did raise some other issues, particularly the use of the Israeli indictment, which was filled with prejudicial information,” Deutsch added. “And one of the judges agreed with us and said she should have a new trial just based on that. Another judge thought it shouldn’t have been allowed in, but it was what is called harmless error.”

What happens next is there will be a hearing. “The government will try to say there are other reasons why she shouldn’t be allowed to call her expert witness,” according to Deutsch. “If the judge says no, she has the right to call her expert witness then she will get a new trial.”

Why did the Justice Department pursue the prosecution of a prominent Palestinian American activist who was once tortured by Israeli authorities?

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 Deutsch recounted in a previous interview, the U.S. 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 U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan indicted her there.

If Odeh obtains a new trial, her defense plans to push for a limit to what the government can use from Israeli documents.

Odeh is currently out on bond and continues to do the work she has been doing for AAAN. Deutsch indicated this ruling “extends her ability to continue to do her community service work.”

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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."