Justice for Rasmea Odeh!

UPDATED REPORTS FROM THE TRIAL: Socialist Action has received the following on-the-scene reports from the Rasmea Defense Committee. We express our solidarity with Rasmea Odeh, who was arrested in October 2013 for allegedly falsifying papers she had filled out for immigration to the United States. Previously, she had been imprisoned by Israel, who accused her of murder and of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She came to this country after being released in a prisoner exchange. We urge our readers to protest the U.S. government’s unjust charges against Rasmea and to attend her trial in Detroit, Nov. 4-7.

Report on Trial Day 4 [Nov. 7] : Rasmea & her defense finish strong on last day of trial!

On the coldest morning all week, supporters gathered early outside the federal courthouse in Detroit on the final day of the trial for Rasmea Odeh. Each day of the trial, security officers have closed the main courtroom before it was full. Today, supporters squeezed into the seats early, ensuring no one would miss the chance to stick by the beloved Palestinian community icon, on trial for allegedly gaining U.S. citizenship unlawfully because of answers she gave on her naturalization documents. In an unnecessary attempt at intimidation, a number of U.S. Marshals and Department of Homeland Security agents were seated in front of friends and family of Rasmea, including close to twenty members of the Arab Women’s Committee that she founded in Chicago.

The morning began with a defense motion for a “directed verdict”—which basically asked the judge to throw out the case against Rasmea because the government failed to prove that Rasmea “knowingly lied” at any point in the immigration process. Judge Gershwin Drain denied the motion, and Rasmea took the stand to continue her testimony.

There was a palpable tension when U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel rose to begin his cross-examination. For more than half an hour, he tried to trip Rasmea up with questions, asking the same ones repeatedly, and often interrupting her, prompting Judge Drain to admonish him at least twice. In spite of this, Rasmea remained calm and clear, frustrating Tukel’s attempt to undermine her credibility or trap her into misspeaking. As a survivor of vicious Israeli physical and sexual torture, her legendary strength was in full effect in the courtroom.

Throughout the trial, Rasmea’s defense has been hindered by countless unjust rulings from Judge Drain, including his refusal to allow evidence about either the torture that forced Rasmea into a confession and a 10-year sentence as a political prisoner, or the chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that caused her to block out that time in her life when she answered the questions on the naturalization form.

Nevertheless, her attorneys put on a strong show, explaining that Rasmea never knowingly gave false information. Her initial immigrant visa application was completed by her brother, because Rasmea could not read or write in English at the time. The naturalization form she filled out 10 years later was unclear and the questions at issue were easily misunderstood. And in Rasmea’s citizenship interview, no one had ever asked her about arrests or convictions in other countries.

While we are hopeful this legal defense is enough to win over the jury, we also know that the government’s case, an immigration charge, is nothing but a pretext. Rasmea is under attack because she is Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim; because U.S. law enforcement is going after our successful Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli apartheid; and because she embodies the proud and steadfast Palestinian struggle for self-determination, liberation, and the Right of Return.

As the jury begins deliberations on Monday, Rasmea’s supporters will be there as well, to hear the verdict and to rally with her. Join us at 8 AM Eastern Standard Time at the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit, 231 W. Lafayette Blvd. Another large delegation of Chicagoans are returning to Rasmea’s side after the weekend, emboldened by her thank you speech after the trial: “I [tried] to be…strong and to [re]present the Palestinians and every one of you here in a strong way. It’s very important Monday [for] all of us here to say ‘yes, we are together, and we are fight[ing] for our rights.”

Stay tuned to uspcn.org and stopfbi.net for more information about transportation from Chicago and other cities.

Report on trial day 3 [Nov. 6]. Rasmea takes the stand!

Rasmea’s supporters packed the courtroom in anticipation of her taking the stand, but the day began first with the continued testimony and cross examination of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Agent Douglas Scott Pierce. Under cross by defense attorney Jim Fennerty, Pierce revealed that in a previous case, he had testified that the questions on the naturalization forms can be “confusing,” especially for those who do not have fluency in the English language, and also acknowledged that older forms previously asked specifically about crimes, arrests, imprisonment, etc., “inside or outside the United States.”

This helped set the stage for Rasmea’s argument that she had always believed that the questions she is accused of answering falsely were asking about her time in the U.S., not Palestine. After additional testimony from Jennifer Williams, the immigration officer who actually interviewed Rasmea back in 2004, and from a fingerprint expert, the prosecution rested its case.

Lead defense attorney Michael Deutsch then called University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) professor Nadine Naber as his first witness. Naber, who is a leading scholar on Arab women and women of color in general, first met Rasmea back in 2006, and testified to their work together, describing how Rasmea’s organizing has changed the lives of hundreds of Arab immigrant women by creating a space for them to face the collective challenges they experience. Her testimony spoke to the character of Rasmea as a truthful person and mentor for her community.

Before Rasmea was called as the next witness, Judge Drain excused the jury to advise her and Deutsch on his previous rulings, reinforcing his restrictions on her testimony. He told them that she would not be able to speak about Israeli torture, stating that he did not want to “retry the case” of 1969. Rasmea responded firmly, “It’s my life, I have a right to talk about the things that happened to me!” Judge Drain refused to accede, restating that testimony referring to torture or her forced confession was inadmissible, and that if she violated his orders there would be consequences.

Nonetheless, Rasmea delivered heartfelt testimony that left the entire courtroom, as well as the overflow courtroom where dozens more were seated, in tears. She recounted her life story, one filled with tragedy and resilience, beginning with the Nakba, the “Catastrophe,” what Palestinians call the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes. Rasmea and her family also lost their land and home in 1948, and were forced to live as refugees in a tent before making their way to Ramallah, where they lived at the time of the 1967 Israeli war and occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Then Rasmea told the jury about the Israeli raid on her home in 1969, when she was arrested along with her father and sisters. More than 500 Palestinians were swept up in mass arrests by Israel at the same time, and she broke down in tears when she recalled how the events of that night traumatized her sister to the point of an early death.

Although Rasmea was barred from testifying about the torture, she did tell the court that she spent 45 days in an interrogation center. Prosecutor Jonathan Tukel objected, and Judge Drain sustained the objection, reprimanding her. Deutsch then asked her if she was convicted, and Rasmea answered, “They convicted me falsely.” Again, the government objected and again the judge sustained the objection.

Later, Deutsch asked, “Did you try to escape?” in reference to one of Israel’s charges that the government has highlighted in this case. Rasmea answered boldly, “Of course, any political prisoner [would] try to escape!” While supporters in the overflow courtroom applauded this answer, the main courtroom heard another objection from Tukel. The judge sided with the government once more, and struck the political prisoner reference from the record.

The testimony continued with Rasmea describing her immigration to the United States, where she moved to care for her ailing father. When asked about the 1994 application for permanent residency filed in Jordan, she explained that all the answers on that form came from her brother. From the U.S., he had sent her a sample form, and she was to copy what he had written on the sample. “I couldn’t read [English], and I trust my brother. I didn’t read anything, I just copied [what] my brother said.”

When Deutsch asked about her responses on the 2004 application for naturalization, and why she had responded “No” to questions about whether she had been arrested, convicted or imprisoned, she explained that these questions followed directly three previous ones that asked explicitly about the U.S. “When I continued, my understanding was [that these questions were also] about the U.S., so I continued to say no.”

Deutsch later asked what she would have done if she had understood that the questions were intended to address imprisonment outside the U.S. as well. She answered, “If I knew it was about Israel, I would have said… It’s not a secret that I’ve been in jail. Even the embassy knows.” The U.S. embassy in Israel had become involved in the initial arrests because her father was a U.S. citizen at the time.

Rasmea will continue her testimony tomorrow, and after cross-examination by the government, both sides will make their closing arguments. The jury is not expected to begin deliberation until Monday, which is the earliest a verdict is expected.

Trial Day 2: Defense opens with scathing indictment of Israel

Cross examination exposes holes in prosecution of Palestinian American activist Rasmea Odeh

Opening statements were made today in the trial of Rasmea Odeh, beloved leader of Chicago’s Palestinian community, and the first witnesses for the prosecution were called to the stand. Again, supporters from across the Midwest packed the courtroom, with many filing into an overflow room.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Jebson opened for the prosecution, laying out the government’s case. According to him, Rasmea should be found guilty of immigration fraud for her failure to disclose the 1970 conviction by Israel. Lead defense attorney Michael Deutsch hit back hard with an opening statement that began, “Odeh was convicted by a military court that was occupying Palestinian land. [With] judges who are soldiers… Rasmea Odeh embodies the history of the Palestinian people.”

He continued by tracing her story, from the 1948 loss of the family home and land to Israeli soldiers and settlers when she was just a year old, to additional personal losses in the 1967 war, to 1969, when Rasmea was one of 500 people arrested by the Israeli military in a massive, indiscriminate sweep. Though he was barred by the judge’s rulings from mentioning torture, he told the jury that after her arrest, Rasmea was interrogated for weeks. “Use your imagination about what ‘interrogation for weeks’ means.” The prosecution quickly objected and Judge Drain sustained the objection.

Deutsch added, “Rasmea is respected, honored and revered. You will see her honesty and integrity when she testifies. In 2004, she applied; in 2013, they suddenly charged her. Ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Ask yourself, ‘Why they are bringing this case nine years later?’” Again, the prosecution objected, and again Judge Drain sustained.

In the end, Deutsch urged the jury to remain independent: “Use your sense of justice, and find [Rasmea] not guilty.”

After a short break, the prosecution called its first witness, Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Stephen Webber. He testified to initiating and leading the investigation against Rasmea since 2010. The clearly rehearsed testimony quickly changed, however, when Deutsch began his cross-examination. A previously calm and relaxed Webber began to sweat and shift nervously in his seat as Deutsch had him admit that he had worked with the prosecution to build the case against Rasmea, including traveling to O’Hare Airport to secretly record an interrogation of her as she returned to the U.S. from Palestine.

A record of the interview reveals that Webber lied to Rasmea and claimed he was questioning her because he had a genuine interest in learning more about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. In reality, he was trying to entrap her, repeatedly asking whether she had been imprisoned in Israel, to which she replied more than once, “No, please, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Two additional witnesses gave testimony after Webber. Raymond Clore, a State Department functionary and Douglas Scott Pierce of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Both spoke in general terms about the immigration and citizenship application process.

In cross-examination, Deutsch weakened the case against Rasmea – pointing out that her initial immigration application did not include a sworn statement with Rasmea’s signature, and that standard USCIS procedures only investigate an applicant’s criminal record inside the U.S.

At several points during the questioning, Deutsch emphasized that the questions on the applications that Rasmea filed do not directly ask about crimes outside the U.S.

After dismissing the jury for the day, Judge Drain denied yet another defense motion, which sought to introduce an earlier version of the application. That early 1990s naturalization form explicitly asks “inside or outside the U.S.” when attempting to assess if someone had ever been arrested, convicted, or imprisoned.

The defense confirmed that Rasmea will be called to testify on her own behalf after the prosecution closes its case. This could be as early as Thursday afternoon, and promises to be powerful. Dozens of additional supporters plan to be in Detroit to hear her tell her story to the jury.

Trial Day 1: Jury selection in Rasmea Odeh trial

90 supporters of Palestinian community leader Rasmea Odeh filled an overflow courtroom today for the beginning of her trial in Detroit, MI. They came from Chicago, Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, Ohio, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Detroit, and were barred from the main courtroom because dozens of potential jurors were seated there.

The proceedings began with defense attorney Michael Deutsch asking Judge Gershwin Drain to reconsider his decision not to allow Rasmea to testify about the vicious physical and sexual torture she experienced at the hands of the Israeli military. Judge Drain refused to change his mind, guaranteeing that when she takes the stand Rasmea will not be free to tell her full story.

The jury selection followed, with 32 potential jurors taking seats in front of the attorneys for questioning. Supporters were surprised to notice that an overwhelming majority of potential jurors were white, even in a downtown Detroit courthouse in Wayne County, where local residents are mostly Black and Arab. Many of the jurors stated that they were from Oakland County, where the population is over 77% white.

Judge Drain asked questions of all the potential jurors, including some that were submitted by the prosecution and defense, respectively. They were asked if they had heard about the case in the news, and also screened for potential bias, with questions posed as to whether they held any negative beliefs about Palestinians or Muslims.

After the jury was selected, Rasmea’s supporters gathered outside the courthouse for a rally and march to the federal building. Chanting “DOJ Let’s Be Clear, Rasmea is Welcome Here!” the supporters also heard statements from Frank Chapman of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Jess Sundin of the Rasmea Defense Committee, and representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and Kenyon College in Gambier, OH.

Pre-trial statements from the Rasmea Defense Committee:

Judge Gershwin Drain handed down a series of outrageous and unjust decisions, Oct 27-28, in the case of revered Palestinian American leader Rasmea Odeh. The government is going all out to railroad Rasmea, to jail and deport her. There was nothing fair about her being indicted on trumped-up immigration charges in the first place. The recent rulings by Judge Drain indicate that there will be nothing fair about Rasmea’s trial either.

Determined and collective action by those of us who yearn for justice, and civil and human rights, is imperative. We must fill the streets around the courthouse in Detroit, pack the courtroom during the trial, and organize demonstrations around the country. If there is to be a measure of justice in this case, we are the ones who must provide it.

In the late ’60s, Rasmea Odeh was jailed by the Israeli occupiers of Palestine, where she was tortured and raped. She has spent the past 20 years in the U.S., making huge contributions to not only the Arab community of Chicagoland, but also the immigrant rights, racial justice, women’s rights, and many other movements. She is being victimized for a second time in Detroit.

Judge Drain agreed that Rasmea’s assertion that she faced torture and sexual abuse at the hands of her Israeli captors is “credible,” then contradicted himself and ruled it cannot be brought up in the course of her trial—even though this was at the heart of her defense. Her attorneys had planned to call an expert witness to the stand, but now will not be allowed to.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Fabri, who has decades of experience working with torture survivors, would have testified that an error Rasmea allegedly made in filling out immigration forms (the basis for the charge against her) was the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Instead, Judge Drain will allow the prosecution to use documents provided by the Israelis as evidence in the case, even though these documents are the products of Israeli military courts and a “legal” system that routinely uses torture. He has even gone so far as to rule that when Rasmea testifies, she can only address issues that the prosecution agrees to allow.

No fair minded person can accept any of this. That is why we have to go all out for Tuesday, Nov. 4, in Detroit.

Rasmea Odeh has devoted her entire life to making this world a better place. The U.S. government wants to criminalize those that stand up for Palestine. We cannot allow this to happen.  We do not know how long Rasmea’s trial will last, but due to the extreme limits that Judge Drain has placed on the scope of the trial, we are urging supporters to prioritize attending the first week—Tuesday, Nov. 4 through Friday, Nov. 7.

Pack the courtroom!  Don’t let them win!   

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