Rasmea Odeh: Community Leader Prosecuted

Last Updated: February 15, 2018

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.

Credit: Christine Geovanis

Credit: Christine Geovanis

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 Odeh’s defense through the Rasmea Defense Committee. Palestine Legal issued a statement with over sixty other rights groups opposing her  indictment, and calling it an attempt to intimidate and silence Palestine activists in the U.S. 

Judge Recuses Himself

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, which argued 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. 

Guilty Verdict

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.

Appeal Granted, New Indictment Issued

In June 2015, Odeh appealed her conviction to the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Fair Trial Impossible

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. The judge prevented her from reading her full statement in court, threatening her with a jail sentence for contempt of court. In a statement to supporters, Odeh said she would continue to fight for Palestinian freedom.

Odeh was deported to Jordan on September 19, 2017 after a four year legal battle and 23 years in the U.S., where her closest family remains. A crowd of family and supporters joined her at the airport to say goodbye. She has since written a letter of gratitude to her supporters from Jordan.

Odeh received wide-spread support throughout the U.S. and internationally. Supporters, however, have themselves been attacked for publicly backing her, leading to a number of incidents of suppression. For example:

David Horowitz, through his “Freedom Center,” plastered posters on numerous campuses with Odeh’s caricature, claiming that those who support her are “campus terrorists.” This was one of many poster campaigns directed at individual students and faculty who publicly support Palestinian rights.

A Palestinian-American restaurateur who put up a mural of Odeh in her Oakland restaurant, Reem’s, came under severe attack by Israel advocates, including a sustained campaign to undermine her business and a wave of hate mail and threats against her personally.

Israel advocacy groups attacked students at DePaul who organized a fundraiser for Odeh’s legal defense, claiming that their fundraiser constituted “material support for terrorism.” Because of the threats and opposition, the university levied a prohibitive security fee on the organizers.

Helpful Links

  • For more information, click here.
  • Palestine Legal and other rights groups’ statement.
  • Palestine Legal Director Dima Khalidi writes in the Huffington Post and the Hill on the political prosecution of Rasmea Odeh.
  • For full press coverage, click here