On Thursday, four days after International Women’s Day, Rasmea Odeh will be sentenced in a Detroit court. This will be one of the final stages of a year and a half government vendetta against an award winning and loved leader of the Arab, Palestinian, and immigrant community in Chicago. Like Dr. Sami Al-Arian, the Palestinian professor and activist recently deported to Turkey, Odeh’s effectiveness in organizing for Palestinian civil rights brought her to the attention of a vindictive Justice Department.
Odeh’s sentencing hearing will be on Thursday, March 12th, in Detroit. She was convicted of immigration fraud in November of last year, and the prosecution is now asking for an extreme sentence of 5-7 years in prison before she is deported. The vast majority of those convicted of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization are sentenced to no more than 21 months. The U.S. Justice Department continues to persecute Odeh even after winning a conviction and being able to deport her at some point in the future. Prosecutors Jonathan Tukel and Mark Jebson have consistently portrayed Odeh as a terrorist during her arraignment, jury selection, and throughout the trial. Even in filing for their harsh recommendation for sentencing, they not only play the “terrorist card” but up the ante to connect Odeh’s case with ISIS.
A light sentence in this case would be a signal to anyone who has fought overseas for ISIS or a similar organization that there is not much risk in coming to the United States, hiding one’s past and seeking citizenship.
Odeh’s defense attorneys argue that she should not be imprisoned at all. Over 70 leaders of unions and community-based, faith-based, human rights, civil rights, and student organizations, as well as prominent academics and activists, have written letters of leniency to the judge in the case, Judge Gershwin Drain. In one sentencing letter, retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit praised Odeh, saying:
I am asking for compassion in her sentencing. Rasmea has much to offer her community … keeping her out of prison would allow her to continue as a contributing and productive person, doing the work that is so critical to hundreds of refugee women.
The defense attorneys have indicated they will be appealing the conviction regardless of the outcome of the sentencing hearing.
It’s important to look back at the prosecution of this case to see the pattern of persecution. The mainstream media articles about the case have served to propagate the prosecution’s contention, i.e. Odeh is a terrorist convicted in Israel who has now been convicted of lying on her application for citizenship. Odeh’s conviction in a military court by a confession coerced through torture and sexual assault is rarely mentioned. But another important fact is never reported – why was she arrested now for immigration fraud after living in this country for over 20 years – 10 of those as a citizen? Was she profiled by police, stopped for a minor traffic violation, her papers checked, and arrested as happens to so many undocumented immigrants? No – she was not stopped for any crime or even suspected of a crime.
Agents of the Department of Homeland Security arrested Odeh in October of 2013 at her Chicago-area home. The indictment claimed she did not disclose on her immigration application that she was arrested and convicted by an Israeli military court 45 years ago and then held in Israeli jails from 1969 until 1979. But how did this arrest in Israel 45 years ago become relevant to indict Odeh all these years later?
The Rasmea Odeh defense team confirmed early on a direct relationship between an investigation targeting 23 anti-war and Palestine activists in 2010 and the records that led to the indictment of Odeh in 2013. Odeh’s defense team had filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that it was “the product of an illegal investigation into the First Amendment activities of the Arab-American Action Network (AAAN) and intended to suppress the work of the defendant in support of the Arab community of Chicago.” In January of 2010 the Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox “initiated a request through the office of International Affairs Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from the State of Israel for records of the defendant.” In July 2011, the Israelis sent a set of documents to Assistant U.S. Attorney Fox, supporting the claim that Odeh “had been arrested, convicted and imprisoned by the military legal system imposed by Israeli in the West Bank…Over two years later, with nothing to show for its raids in 2010, Ms. Odeh was indicted for falsely answering questions in 2004 in her naturalization application.” It was also not without reason that the defense attorneys speculated that “the United States Attorney in Illinois, which was the office that initiated the request for the Israeli documents and was carrying out the investigation, apparently passed the case to the office in Michigan, to divert attention from its failed efforts to criminalize the work of the AAAN in Chicago.” The request for dismissal was denied.
None of the 23 activists subpoenaed under the grand jury investigation for possible material support for terrorism have ever been charged after four years. But that investigation that disrupted the lives of the 23 activists led to the Justice Department targeting Odeh. Just like for the great majority of the 23 activists, the only reason Odeh was being investigated was for the non-crime of being a proponent of Palestinian rights.
So what is the story behind Odeh’s arrest by Israeli authorities 45 years ago?
In 1969, the Israeli military arrested Odeh in Ramallah and taken to an Israeli detention center for extensive interrogation. Odeh was charged for her alleged association with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, and for suspected involvement in two bombings in Jerusalem, one of which killed two civilians. Odeh has consistently maintained that the 1969 convictions were the result of a false confession obtained through weeks of torture and sexual assault by Israeli interrogators.
Odeh was processed by an Israeli military court system that routinely bypasses due process holding Palestinians without charge or trial for months and years. Odeh was convicted, like the vast majority of Palestinians in the military court system, and sentenced to life in prison. Her home was destroyed by the Israeli military after the verdict. Odeh spent ten years in prison before receiving a pardon and being released by Israel as part of a prisoner exchange. She went to Jordan, became a lawyer and continued to be an activist for Palestinian rights.
In 1994, she traveled to Detroit, obtaining her U.S. citizenship in 2005. From Detroit, she came to Chicago and joined the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), a social services organization, as its Associate Director and Community Adult Women Organizer. The AAAN utilized her broad experience with women’s and workers’ unions, family and domestic violence groups, human right centers and the Red Cross. She is founder of the organization’s Arab Women’s Committee which includes over 600 members and in 2014 received the “Outstanding Community Leader Award” from the Chicago Cultural Alliance in recognition of her devotion of “over 40 years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women.” Odeh has devoted her time to working with Arab immigrant women, establishing projects related to civil and human rights, social justice and community economic development. She has promoted literacy and political education and organized workshops on domestic violence and anti-Arab expression.
Throughout the hearings and the trial, the government prosecutors tried to erase all of Odeh’s organizing work and portray Odeh as a convicted terrorist who lied to obtain citizenship and twenty years later is still a danger and needs to be deported. For this story to lead to a conviction, the government and the Judge had to deny all evidence to the contrary during the trial.
All of the biased Israeli government documents describing Odeh’s conviction in a military court by confession were admitted, while all testimony about the unjust military court system, the confession coerced through torture, and Odeh’s suffering from PTSD was denied. The jury that convicted Odeh was not only shielded from all of the evidence concerning Odeh’s case, but they were also “shielded” from Odeh’s supporters (or the “protesting mob” as prosecution documents called them) by being partially sequestered and having armed marshals in the courtroom.
“Odeh doesn’t have ties to the Chicago community. She has apparently done good work at the Arab American Action Network, but that work is not a substantial tie to the community. She could do this in another country.” At the end of the trial with those words, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain wiped away Odeh’s 20 years of work in Chicago being an advocate for Arab and Muslim women’s rights. The twenty Arab and Muslim women sitting in the front rows who had come to court as representatives of Odeh’s 600 member women’s group were erased as if they did not exist. This statement was only one of many that demonstrated Judge Drain’s disdain for Odeh’s position as a well-loved Palestinian community leader and organizer in Chicago.
With a blatant ignoring of the facts, Judge Drain agreed with the government that Odeh was a flight risk and deserved to be incarcerated in a remote county jail for four months. During her time in jail, she was placed in solitary confinement for twelve consecutive days. Eventually after a sustained campaign by her supporters, Judge Drain eventually ruled in favor of a defense motion to release Odeh on $50,000 bond.
Defendant’s dedication to her community work and the people that such work assists, as well as the presence of relatives in Chicago, demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that she is not as significant a flight risk as originally believed.
During the sentencing hearing, it will be important to remember these words of Judge Drain – “Defendant’s dedication to her community work and the people that such work assists” – as the prosecutors work hard to portray Odeh as a terrorist, drawing inflammatory references to ISIS in arguing for a punitive jail term.
Both Dr. Sami Al-Arian and Rasmea Odeh have been victims of a Justice Department that has targeted Palestinian activists, accusing them of being terrorists, and then used the judicial process to disrupt not only their lives but also their ability to organize for Palestinian rights. During the last ten years that have included the prosecutions of Al-Arian and Odeh, U.S. foreign policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an abysmal failure. There has been no progress in any of the peace talks and this period has resulted in the addition of even greater control over the Occupied Territories by Israel. There are now 600,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, increasing 40% in 2014. The Obama Administration’s six years of failure to bring about a peace plan was capped by the humiliation of Netanyuhu giving a speech to Congress and doing his best to undermine U.S. foreign policy not only toward Iran, but also toward the Middle East as a whole.
But the Justice Department has also been a failure in their attempt to curtail Palestine activism. The Boycott Divestment Movement (BDS), especially on college campuses, has increased ten fold. Over a dozen student governments since 2012 have passed resolutions to divest from corporations that support the occupation. Organizations like the Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace have grown significantly, as has the Palestine rights movement generally, since the attack on Gaza in 2014.
The attempt to derail Rasmea Odeh’s organizing has also failed as the Rasmea Defense Committee, made up of over 40 civil rights, human rights, and faith-based organizations have continued to organize on her behalf and used her persecution as a rallying point for further work on Palestinian rights.
The Rasmea Defense Committee is organizing supporters to fill the courtroom as well as picket outside the sentencing hearing on Thursday March 12th at 231 W. Lafayette Blvd. in Detroit. For further information on the case, visit the Rasmea Defense Committee’s website at www.justice4rasmea.org
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.