On Thursday, Palestinian community leader Rasmea Odeh heard that she will return with her attorneys and supporters to the Detroit federal court for a status conference on Monday, June 13. Odeh had been convicted in 2014 of naturalization fraud and sentenced last year to 18 months in prison, removal of her US citizenship, and deportation. In February, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to District Court Judge Drain, saying he had wrongfully barred the testimony of a torture expert that was critical to Rasmea’s defense. At her trial, Rasmea was not allowed to tell the full story of her conviction of bombings in Israel in 1969 that was the result of a coerced confession made after she was tortured and raped by Israeli military authorities. Odeh was originally arrested in 2012 for a twenty year old “naturalization fraud” charge that was “discovered” while Justice Department investigators were frustrated in their failure to charge or indict 23 Palestine activists in 2010 for “material support for terrorism.” Muhammad Salah, also a Chicago area Palestinian victim of torture by the Israelis and the target of a politically-motivated prosecution by the Justice Department in 1993, died after a long fight with cancer on Saturday. The death of Muhammad Salah is a reminder that the campaign to deport Odeh is part of a much longer assault on Palestine activism that continues to the present day.
In February, the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals “vacated” or canceled the District Court’s judgement on the admission of expert testimony in Odeh’s case. The appeals court ruling stated that the judge had misinterpreted existing case law when he excluded expert testimony that Odeh suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when she applied for naturalization in 2004 and denied having been convicted of a serious crime or served time in jail. As a result of that torture, Odeh was diagnosed with chronic PTSD by world-renowned psychologist and torture expert, Dr. Mary Fabri, which in the words of the appeal “blocked [Odeh] from understanding the time frame in the questions that were answered falsely.” The defense team argued she was not given the opportunity for a fair trial when the expert witness testimony was denied. Odeh and her defense team will return to the original Judge Drain for a new evidentiary hearing. If Judge Drain cannot determine new legal avenues to exclude the expert testimony, Rasmea will be granted a new trial.
The death of Muhammad Salah, another Palestinian American activist who was also persecuted by the U.S. justice authorities, is a reminder that it is important to place this latest step in Odeh’s case is part of a long campaign of intimidation and suppression of a wide range of Palestine activists.
In 1997, Muhammad Salah was accused of alleged racketeering activity in support of Hamas after initial material support for terrorism charges were dropped. Evidence for the charges were a confession Salah made after he was tortured for 80 days in an Israeli prison and the prosecution’s main witnesses were Israeli intelligence agents. Salah was acquitted of all conspiracy and terrorism-related charges, but convicted of obstruction of justice for filing false answers to interrogatories in a civil case and served 21 months. Even after serving his time, Salah continued to be listed as a “specially designated terrorist” by the U.S. government and all his assets were frozen for 17 years until the designation was dropped in 2012. His name was quietly removed on Nov. 6, 2012, following his lawsuit against the federal government, which the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee joined as co-plaintiffs. As in Odeh’s case, Salah was originally targeted for nothing more than being a Palestine activist. When that was not proved, he was sent to jail on a charge unrelated to his activism.
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 had 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 six 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.
Over the last four years, there has been an ongoing campaign targeting Palestine activists at the college level, especially those in the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who have organized increasingly successful student government resolutions supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against investments that profit from Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
Palestine Legal, an independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom, has reported on their efforts to combat the escalated intimidation against members of Students for Justice in Palestine on California campuses; the lawsuit announced last week against the American Studies Association (ASA) for adopting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; as well as the ongoing anti-BDS legislation in California, Ohio, and Georgia.
Odeh was first targeted six years ago, indicted for an act that occurred twenty years ago, and she and her supporters are still trying to prevent her from losing her citizenship and being deported. Like Muhammad Salah, the story of a prejudicial military justice system and officials with a history of torturing detainees is given precedence in a U.S. court over someone who is fighting for Palestinian self-determination. SJP activists practicing American freedom of speech by promoting a non-violent method of pressuring Israel to live up to international law and human rights obligations is attacked by Israeli-government funded groups and U.S. state legislators for being anti-Semitic. The leading Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, stated in a speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
“Many of the young people here today are on the front lines of the battle to oppose the alarming Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement known as BDS. Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate, and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.”
Clinton’s speech demonstrates the new trend in attacks on Palestine activism. When direct accusations of “material support for terrorism” in Palestine activist cases like that of Muhammad Salah are no longer effective, the focus has shifted to trying to criminalize legal protest methods such as BDS; smearing activists with accusations of being “anti-Semitic”; and defining Israeli human rights violators as the real victims.
Odeh’s return to court in June to fight being deported is just one sign that the ongoing attack on Palestine activism in the U.S. continues unabated. But also remember that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Detroit court’s attempt to privilege the prejudiced story of the Israeli military over due process any defendant deserves in U.S. courts. Mohammad Salah fought for over 20 years against U.S. government persecution and died with the respect and admiration of the entire Palestinian community. Just as the rights of SJP activists are under siege by pro-Israel groups and presidential candidates, the student government BDS resolution victories continue. In Chicago alone, SJP has been successful at DePaul, Loyola, University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago.
Once again, hundreds of Odeh’s supporters will be inside and outside the court when she and her defense attorneys return to Detroit on June 13. Jess Sundin of the National Rasmea Defense Committee said
“The conviction of Rasmea Odeh was a travesty of justice. Rasmea is a hero, who has dedicated her life to organizing for Palestinian liberation, and to building a society with dignity and justice for all. We will stand with Rasmea in Detroit on June 13, as we have been many times before, and call for a new trial, where she can finally tell her story.”
Members of the defense committee were in DC last week pressing Odeh’s case to legislators, including Congressmen Danny Davis and Luis Gutierrez, respectively.
The committee is asking supporters to make plans to be in Detroit on the morning of June 13, and to support the legal and community-based organizing work ahead. For more information, visit justice4rasmea.org and follow #Justice4Rasmea.