Rasmea Odeh: Community Leader Prosecuted

Credit: Christine geovanis

Credit: Christine geovanis

Pillar of Chicago Palestinian Community Unjustly Prosecuted 

In October 2013, the Department of Homeland Security arrested Rasmea Odeh, a pillar of the Palestinian community in Chicago, and charged her with ‘unlawful procurement of naturalization’ for omitting mention of her arrest and conviction by an Israeli military court on her citizenship application. Many commentators observed that the prosecution was designed to intimidate and silence Palestine activists in the U.S.

Odeh was arrested, tortured, sexually assaulted, convicted and imprisoned by Israel in 1969 for a terrorist act she maintains she did not commit. After ten years in Israeli prison, she was released in a prisoner exchange. She has lived in the United States since 1994, and became a citizen in 2004. Odeh has gained widespread respect and recognition for her work as a civil liberties advocate and an organizer in the Arab American community.

Communities across the country mobilized for Rasmea’s defense. Palestine Legal issued a statement with over sixty other rights groups opposing Odeh’s indictment, and is a member of the Rasmea Defense Committee.

In August, 2014, the federal district court judge appointed to Rasmea’s case recused himself after defense counsel argued that the judge had strong ties to Israel, and the judge revealed that his family’s business interests in Israel might taint his impartiality in the case. 

The court subsequently denied Odeh’s motion to dismiss the charges on the basis that the indictment was the fruit of an illegal investigation targeting 23 Midwest activists in 2010 including Odeh’s colleague and her organization, the Arab American Action Network. Prosecutors also attempted to empanel an anonymous jury, a rare move that would have seriously prejudiced Odeh’s defense if it had been granted.

The week before Odeh’s trial was scheduled to begin, the court ruled that Odeh and her attorneys were forbidden from testifying or presenting evidence of the torture she endured while in Israeli custody, a move which, according to her counsel, “gutted the heart of Rasmea’s defense and makes a fair trial impossible.” The torture expert who would have testified on Odeh’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was also prohibited from taking the stand. At the same time, the prosecution was permitted to present dozens of documents from the Israeli military court. 

In November 2014, Odeh was found guilty after a four-day trial and immediately taken into custody. Palestine Legal, along with other civil rights and social justice organizations urged the judge to reconsider his decision to deny Odeh bond pending her sentencing hearing. In December, the Court granted a defense motion to reconsider its decision, recognizing that Odeh’s ties to her Chicago community meant she was not a flight risk.

In March 2015, Odeh was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a $1,000 fine, immediate revocation of her citizenship, and deportation to Jordan after serving her sentence. Odeh was released on bond pending appeal. The judge acknowledged that the outpouring of community support influenced his sentencing decision, but denied that the prosecution was political.

In June 2015, Odeh appealed her conviction to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio. The appeal urged the court to reverse the conviction, arguing that Odeh was denied her right to present her complete defense.

In February 2016, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the district judge erred in denying Odeh and the torture expert the opportunity to testify about her PTSD. The court overturned Odeh’s conviction and returned her case to a district judge for retrial.

Odeh’s new trial was set for May 2017. However, in December 2016, prosecutors issued a new indictment against Odeh with additional charges that Odeh was engaged in “terrorist activity” and that she was associated with a “designated terrorist organization.” Odeh’s attorney noted that the new charges attempted to bypass Odeh’s PTSD defense since the allegations occurred before her torture by Israeli interrogators.

In March 2017, Odeh pled guilty to the charge of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization, recognizing that she had little chance of receiving a fair trial. As her attorney, Michael Deutsch explained, “the government took a run of the mill immigration violation case and they made it into a terrorism case…We knew that given the climate and given all the things the government was prepared to do, she was not going to get a fair trial around these charges…[and] if we won this case, the government could still deport her.” Odeh accepted a deal that would strip her of her U.S. citizenship and require her deportation, but that allowed her to stay free until her departure.

On August 17, 2017, Odeh and her supporters attended her final court hearing, the formal sentencing, in Detroit. She was sentenced, as agreed, to time served, fined $1,000, and ordered to be stripped of her citizenship and deported from the country. In a statement to supporters, Odeh said she would continue to fight for Palestinian freedom.

Immigration authorities will now decide when Odeh is obligated to leave the U.S.

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