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In Political Prosecution, Palestinian American Organizer Accepts Plea Deal, Will Be Deported

In the United States government’s political case against Palestinian American organizer Rasmea Odeh, the government achieved a favorable outcome: a plea agreement where Odeh will be stripped of her U.S. citizenship and deported.

The Justice Department under President Barack Obama could have brought a case under immigration law and had her removed. But according to Michael Deutsch, her attorney, it was far more important for the government to find a scapegoat to justify a counterintelligence effort by the FBI aimed at discrediting Palestinian solidarity activism.

Odeh is a 69 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.

Over 45 years ago, Odeh was arrested and subjected to torture by Israeli security forces. She was brought before an Israeli military tribunal and accused of involvement 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. Her defense asserted the State Department knew about Odeh’s background when she applied for citizenship, however, the government charged her with immigration fraud and accused her of lying when she filled out her naturalization application.

Odeh was convicted of immigration fraud in November 2014, but in February 2016, a federal appeals court judge ruled Judge Gershwin Drain improperly blocked torture testimony during her trial. In December 2016, Drain granted Odeh a new trial.

Prosecutors went back to an empaneled grand jury and obtained a superseding indictment against Odeh that intensified the political case, which would have made it possible to openly treat her as a terrorist if she proceeded to trial. It was hard for her defense to imagine they would avoid an outcome, where Odeh was not ultimately deported.

The government “took an immigration case, which was about allegedly lying on your naturalization application, and made it into a case about terrorism,” Deutsch declared. “Even if we were successful in winning that case, which would be difficult, they could still move to de-naturalize her through the immigration law, which has a wholly lesser standard and gain the same result that she would be deported.”

If Odeh was convicted after a second trial, she would be imprisoned for 18 months or more, and then she would be deported.

“The political climate is bad. We had a jury trial one time before, and we didn’t really find a very sympathetic vinere [jury pool],” Deutsch added. “They’re going to be told under any circumstances that she was convicted of a bombing in which two civilians died, even though it’s through an Israeli military court and [she was] subject to torture.”

The U.S. justice system already failed during her first trial, when psychologist Dr. Mary Fabri was wrongly prohibited from testifying that Odeh did not fully recognize statements made on her immigration documents were false because she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During her first trial, Odeh’s defense was not allowed to ask potential jurors anything about Israel and Palestine or raise the fact that Palestinians accused of resistance were systematically tortured. No testimony related to Israeli military occupation was allowed during trial.

Odeh’s attorney, Michael Deutsch, previously told Shadowproof he believed testimony from Odeh and Fabri would “open the door to the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict that was occurring in 1969, which was a high point of resistance and lot of repression that went on. Hundreds of people arrested. Systematic torture.”

“Once you start to get in that she was tortured, I think the government is going to argue that she wasn’t tortured. She’s lying,” Deutsch added. “And then, that opens the door to whether or not she was tortured and people like her were tortured and why were they tortured and what was going on. So it could really open the floodgates to the whole story.”

The U.S. government had an interest in avoiding a trial with testimony not only on Odeh’s torture but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. That is probably why they agreed to offer a plea instead of proceed to a second trial.

As noted by the defense committee for Odeh, she was able to win some victories against injustice. Judge Paul Borman was initially assigned to her case and had a foundation known to have supported pro-Israel groups. He was challenged and forced to recuse himself.

Odeh was taken into custody immediately after she was found guilty in November 2014. Supporters mobilized and won bond so she would not be in prison while she challenged the outcome of her first trial

Why did the U.S. government pursue a prosecution against Odeh over documents she signed more than ten years ago as she sought to start a new life in America? Why not use an immigration process to deport her?

As Deutsch said, the government “carried out all these raids in 2010 of people doing Palestinian solidarity work and particularly the Arab American Action Network. She was a deputy director, and they learned that they couldn’t really make any cases as a result of those raids, but they did learn that she was a naturalized citizen. They got the cooperation of the Israelis, and then they got all these documents about the 1969 case.”

The case was passed on to Detroit, where the Eastern District of Michigan indicted her. But it stemmed from a fishing expedition into activists that hearkened back to the days of COINTELPRO in the 1960s.

“She was a scapegoat. She was the victim of a counterintelligence program effort by the FBI and the government to discredit Palestinian solidarity work in the U.S.,” Deutsch declared. “When they couldn’t make a case against any of those people, she was a convenient target for them and to promote this idea that she was a terrorist and snuck into the country, when in fact it was public knowledge. She was a well-known person.”

An undercover FBI agent known as “Karen Sullivan” tried to entrap activists by convincing them to send $1,000 to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

From an FBI affidavit:

…On March 4, 2010, UC1 [Sullivan] recorded a conversation with [REDACTED]. UC1 told [REDACTED] that UC1’s father had left him/her a package, which included envelopes and a video called “Women in Struggle,” when he recently died. UC1 told [REDACTED] that the video was about women in the PFLP who admitted killing and bombing targets in Israel. UC1 said that his/her father left $1,000 for UC1 to get to the “organization of the women in the video.” [REDACTED] said that they can “get it to our people.” [REDACTED] told UC1 to talk to [REDACTED] at the FRSO Congress meeting in May 2010. [REDACTED] said that “if that’s what you want to do with it, we can get it there” and said that $1,000 “will go far in a place like Palestine.” UC1 said that the $1,000 was for the women “which were the PF.”…

When it appeared activists might give money to Palestinians, who were not in the PFLP, “Sullivan” concocted a scheme to convince activists her father died and it was his last dying wish to get funds to the PFLP because he supported the Palestinian militant resistance profiled in the documentary, “Women in Struggle.” Odeh appears in this 2004 documentary.

Far-right groups and websites, which traffic in conspiracy to “expose” the left, like David Horowitz’s “Discover the Networks,” describe her as a kind of well-respected terrorist, who communists and other radical groups have embraced. With Jeff Sessions as the head of the Justice Department now, Horowitz and the far right’s reactionary and hysterical views about people like Odeh are even more legitimate to government prosecutors.

A cloud of investigation still hangs over the activists who were raided in 2010, which means now that the government is done with Odeh they may return to making political cases out of whole cloth against activists. Certainly, there is a zeal for it with Trump, Sessions, Steve Bannon, and other far-right ideologues in the government.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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