Shared Causes

A Palestinian activist’s fight against immigration fraud charges unites civil-rights groups in Cincinnati

click to enlarge Rasmea Odeh spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit.
Rasmea Odeh spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit.

On the chilly morning of Oct. 14, nearly 100 activists gathered outside of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals downtown from as far as Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis to support Rasmea Odeh, a 68-year-old Palestinian-American activist who was scheduled to appeal her conviction on immigration fraud charges from a federal court in Detroit in November 2014.

U.S. authorities have convicted Odeh of failing to disclose on both her 1994 application for a green card and her 2004 application for naturalization that she spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for the bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket and then failed to correct authorities during her naturalization interview.

Her supporters insist the situation is a politically charged attempt to punish Odeh for her activism in the Palestinian liberation movement.

“For us, it’s a political case. It’s a political arrest. It’s an attempt to criminalize Palestine,” says Hatem Abudayyeh, national spokesman for the Rasmea Odeh Defense Committee and also the executive director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago.Odeh came to the U.S. in 1994 to live with her father and brother in Detroit. She moved to Chicago in 2004, the same year she became a U.S. citizen, where she became a prominent Palestinian activist in the Chicago community. She works alongside Abudayyeh as the associate director of the Arab American Action Network and won an award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance in 2013 for her community leadership just months before she was arrested in October.

She maintains she was wrongly convicted and imprisoned in Israel. In 1969, when she was a 21-year-old university student in Ramallah, she says she was arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers who raped and tortured her for 45 days, at times in front of her father, into confessing.

After her release in 1979, she testified about her experience in front of the United Nations. According to Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, the Israeli military court that convicted her finds more than 99 percent of Palestinians guilty.

In Detroit, Odeh was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison for failing to disclose the conviction. She will be stripped of her U.S. citizenship and deported to Jordan once she is released, if her appeal is rejected.

“There’s a political component to this thing,” Abudayyeh says. “It’s what we would call a political show trail — come and try to criminalize this woman and say that she’s a terrorist for something that she didn’t even do 45 years ago.”

Abudayyeh believes Odeh’s arrest was part of a larger attack on the Palestinian community going back several years.

In September 2010, the FBI raided the homes and offices of 23 activists in Chicago and Minneapolis and then, a few months later, subpoenaed them to testify before a grand jury for their activism. All refused, and to date no charges have been filed. Abudayyeh says the FBI started extending its search to their friends, family and colleagues because the activists refused to testify, which is how they found Odeh’s immigration application.

Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a bitter, bloody battle over the land in Israel since it was created as a new homeland for Jews following the Nazi holocaust of World War II in 1948. The conflict has resulted in decades of violence as the land is considered holy to Jews, Arabs and Christians. The U.S. has heavily sided with Israel, as it considers it to be its more important ally in the Middle East, and has strongly supported its government financially.

In Cincinnati Oct. 14, Odeh’s defense lawyer, Michael Deutsch, argued that Odeh did not receive a fair trial in Detroit on account that she was unable to present a full defense when Federal Judge Paul D. Borman refused to allow Chicago clinical psychologist Mary Fabri and Odeh testify about the torture she endured or her PTSD, but allowed documents from the Israeli court to be presented.

The question comes down to whether Odeh knowingly lied to the U.S. government to obtain her citizenship, not whether she committed the crime in Israel.

Deutsch argued before a panel of three appellate judges that Odeh has such severe post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in an Israeli prison that she blocked it out when filling out the paperwork, which caused her to interpret the question as pertaining to any violations with the law during her time in the U.S.

Federal prosecutor Jonathan Tuckel argued that presenting a psychological defense for Odeh’s mental state was not allowed unless she was pleading insanity, which is not the defense’s argument.

“She’s not saying that she didn’t know the truth,” Tuckel said. “She’s saying ‘I knew the truth, but I didn’t answer the truth.’ ”

Deutsch maintained Odeh was not insane at the time, but that her PTSD caused an unconscious mental block that caused her to filter out the question and that the insanity statute cited by Tuckel doesn’t specifically limit a psychologist’s testimony to cases of insanity.

“This is not an insanity case,” Deutsch said. “She has a mental disorder — post-traumatic stress.”

Judge Alice Batchelder offered skepticism that Odeh — who has spoken publically about her imprisonment several times in the U.S. and even admitted her imprisonment to a Homeland Security Officer at the border — could have unconsciously filtered the information out when filling out the forms.

“She’s obviously pretty selective in how she filters,” Batchelder said.

Immediately after the hearing, Deutsch told the crowd of activists standing outside the courthouse waving Palestinian flags and carrying “Free Rasmea” signs that he believed they had a good chance of getting her case back to district court.

“I think it went much better than we expected,” Deutsch said. “It doesn’t mean she’s going to win. I think it’s a good sign that the judges were engaged and interested, and all of them asked questions that I thought were favorable to our position.”

Deutsch also thanked the crowd for filling the courtroom.

“It makes a big impact on (the judges),” he said. “It’s very important that you came today and filled the courtroom.”

Odeh’s crowd of supporters included more than just Palestinian liberation

activists. It also drew other civil rights organizations like the Puerto Rican Independence movement, the Jewish Voice for Peace and several African-American groups who all spoke out in defense of Odeh and stressed the need to support each other.

“The Palestinians showed up in Ferguson as an act of solidarity, and nobody sent them a telegram,” said Frank Chapman, field organizer and educational director for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “They came there because the spirit moved them, and ever since that ever happened, I’ve been saying as a member of the black liberation movement that we have a future together because we fight a common enemy — it’s called U.S. imperialism.”

Brian Taylor of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati says the group found out about Odeh’s case just a few days earlier and made a decision to show its support. For them, it’s also about building solidarity among different civil-rights groups and seeing the similarities between their causes.

“The way that she is being basically persecuted, made to pay a price for her political activities, sounded very similar to what activists throughout history in the United States have faced,” Taylor says. “And the fight of the Palestinian people and the heavy militarization of the occupied areas, the way that innocent kids — kids in the streets — get brutalized by Israeli defense forces, it just dovetails with our experience in the United States.” 

Odeh thanked supporters and acknowledged the diversity of the crowd in front of her.

“I’m lucky to have all of your support,” she said. “I see different people came from different cities here and different ethnicities, but all of us stand together to stand for justice, to stand for freedom.”

The court is expected to release its verdict in one to five months. If Odeh wins her appeal, she will be granted a new trial in federal court in Detroit. ©