“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.” With those words, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain wiped away Rasmea 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.
On Monday, over 100 supporters from Chicago, Minneapolis, Dearborn, and Detroit waited outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Detroit for jury deliberations in the case of Rasmea Odeh to end. It would prove to be a short wait.
Odeh is a 67 year-old award-winning leader of the Arab and Palestinian immigrant community who became a citizen in 2004 after living in Detroit and Chicago since 1995. She was indicted last October for allegedly “lying” on her citizenship application about being convicted in 1969 by a military court in Israel for her alleged participation in Jerusalem bombings. At the time, 500 Palestinians were rounded up and detained. Odeh has consistently maintained that her conviction was obtained after three weeks of torture and rape. At that time, physical torture was legal within Israeli detention centers. The Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, Addameer,reports:
“The use of physical pressure against prisoners and detainees is less common since the 1999 High Court ruling in The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. Government of Israel, which placed certain restrictions on the use of torture during interrogation. However, under the court’s decision, “moderate physical pressure” was allowed to continue in the “necessity of defence” and in “ticking time-bomb” cases. Despite the landmark court ruling, Israeli interrogators today continue to use forbidden interrogation techniques. As Israel can legally hold detainees incommunicado for up to three months, Israeli Security Agency (ISA) interrogators are able to use methods of torture with impunity.”
After ten years in prison, Odeh was released as part of a prisoner exchange and went to Jordan to do legal and human rights work before coming to the U.S. in 1995.
Odeh’s case has seen a series of defense motions denied from the initial motion to dismiss that described the indictment as “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” to Judge Drain’s determination that the defense would not be allowed to present any evidence about Odeh’s torture and sexual assault that ended with her coerced confession and conviction by the Israeli military court. Odeh’s lead attorney Michael Deutsch’s statement at the time proved to be true in the end. “By precluding from the trial any mention of torture, the court has gutted the heart of Rasmea’s defense and makes a fair trial impossible.” But the judge allowed details of Israeli accusations against Odeh including information about the 1969 Jerusalem bombings she confessed to under torture. As expected, this ruling prejudiced the jury in how they viewed Odeh and how they came to their verdict.
On Monday, the jury took less than two hours to come to their unanimous verdict of guilty. From the time Odeh’s defense team and supporters were called back into the courtroom to hear the verdict to the later hearing that would revoke Odeh’s bail and have her detained, Odeh’s supporters including Chicago Palestinians were either treated like they didn’t exist or treated as potentially dangerous, as evident by the prosecution’s earlier motion characterizing the supporters as a “protesting mob.”
Armed, plain-clothes marshals who earlier had escorted the jury, now stood at the back while Judge Drain warned Odeh’s supporters to make no noise at all upon hearing the verdict. “You will be removed from the courtroom or receive some other sanction. If you can’t control yourself, you can be excused now.” The jury foreman read the verdict of “guilty of unlawful procurement of citizenship” and the poll of jury members confirmed the unanimous decision. In an overly pleased and unprofessional manner, Judge Drain stated “I don’t usually comment on verdicts, but in this case I will. I think it’s a fair and reasonable verdict.”
After the prosecution made a motion for bail to be revoked so Odeh could be jailed until sentencing, Judge Drain called a recess until later that afternoon for both sides to present their case. Speaking to her supporters outside the courthouse after the verdict, Odeh stated
“In spite of everything, we are stronger. We will find justice somewhere, some place…I don’t mind being locked up…Continue to support me, Palestine, and justice.”
Michael Deutsche commented that it was clear “the prosecution wants her locked up. It was very unusual for the judge to comment on the verdict, but it gives a window into his thinking. We will appeal.”
Judge Drain’s prosecution bias became clear during the bail hearing. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Turkel argued that “she was functionally no longer a U.S. citizen because of her conviction and now has to provide evidence that she isn’t a flight risk.” He compared her attempted escape from Israeli prison when she thought “the proceedings were unfair” to the current trial where she made the same comments “in a YouTube video” proving that she is a flight risk now. Michael Deutsche countered there is “no logical argument where there is a risk of flight…she has lived here for 20 years with no even minor arrest. She wants to stay in this country and rejected a plea for voluntary deportation when it was offered.” He further stressed that the “government is being vindictive because she used her right for a jury trial.”
Judge Drain responded with “a number of concerns raised in the Pre-Trial Services Report.” He described “her history of flight” [referring to her attempted escape from Israeli jail forty years ago] that if she felt she was convicted unfairly, she would ignore the conditions of the court. The Judge’s most egregious arguments centered on Odeh having few ties in the U.S. “Most of her family lives outside the U.S…her sister and extended family live in Jordan. She came to the U.S. to help her ill father who I understand is dead now.” He continued to dismiss her twenty years of work with Arab and Muslim women as not demonstrating “a substantial tie to the community in Chicago.” Along with minimizing work on immigrant women rights, he continued with a statement that trivializes political violence against women of color. “The defense wants to relitigate the bombing case…they want to say she was beaten, raped, or whatever making the case one-sided which would not be fair to the government.” Describing Odeh’s three weeks of torture and rape in an Israeli prison as her being “beaten, raped, or whatever” [italics added] ridicules not only the experience of Odeh, but that of hundreds of Palestinians that continue to receive inhumane treatment in Israeli jails.
After indicating he would schedule the sentencing as soon as possible, Judge Drain denied bail and directed Odeh to be jailed until the sentencing hearing on March 10, 2015. The prosecution indicated they would ask for the maximum penalty of ten years in prison, revocation of her U.S. citizenship, and deportation. Odeh was led off in handcuffs, while her supporters were forced to stay in the courtroom for several minutes afterwards by the Department of Homeland Security and armed marshals.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Hatem Abudayyeh, Odeh’s colleague and the Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) and spokesperson for the Rasmea National Defense Committee, described how “U.S. attorneys are now doing the bidding of the Israelis. Jonathan Turkel is a right wing ideologue who has made a career of attacking Palestinians and supporting Israel and now it’s ideologues who are making the decisions on who to prosecute.” Many of those from Odeh’s womens groups described being devastated by the verdict and her rapid imprisonment. One woman commented “They treat us like we aren’t human, like we’re animals.”
The joint portrayal by both the prosecution and judge of Odeh as a convicted terrorist who knowingly lied on her citizenship application; the dismissing of her experiences of torture and rape; and the discounting of her Arab and Muslim community organizing work suggests a racist view that considers the lives of Arab and Muslim women to have no value. Odeh’s trial continues a history of U.S. Justice Department investigations that use a common tactic of tying up minority community leaders in long court cases and jail time so organization funds and resources are drained away in support of their leaders. This tactic was used against the Black Liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s; American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s; Puerto Rican independence movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the Latin American Solidarity movement in the 1980s; and the Palestine solidarity movement in the 1990s up to the present. Most recently, 23 anti-war and Palestine activists from multiple organizations, including the AAAN, were under investigation by a grand jury looking into “material support for terrorism.” Multiple anti-war, human rights, and Palestine support groups focused for three years on fund raising and organizing work to fight back against this attack on freedom of expression. After all 23 people refused to testify and the government failed to find evidence of any wrong doing, Odeh was indicted in 2013 to keep the movement for Palestinian rights focused on fighting the ongoing U.S. Justice Department persecution.
Odeh’s defense team is planning an appeal based on the denial of the expert testimony evidence (i.e. that Odeh was suffering from PTSD at the time of the citizenship application) and the admission of the Israeli military tribunal evidence among other issues. The Rasmea National Defense Committee is planning a week of actions across the country including a protest in Chicago protest in Chicago on Wednesday November 12 at 4:30 pm in Federal Plaza.