Rasmea Odeh: Between US courts and justice

Rasmea Odeh: Between US courts and justice
6 min read
01 Sep, 2015
Comment: Odeh's prolonged struggle with injustice in US courts after years of Israeli torture and imprisonment strikes a chord with every advocate of human rights, argues Samer Jaber.
Odeh survived ten years of Israeli prison to become a community leader [justice4rasmea.org]

Rasmea Odeh, the Chicago-based Palestinian American community leader, will soon find herself in a court room once more.

The 68-year-old has been at the centre of a US legal storm for more than two years, having been indicted for "unlawful procurement of naturalisation". She was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March 2015, but remains free on bail pending an appeal against the verdict.

It was claimed that, during her application for citizenship a decade ago, she knowingly failed to disclose that she had been convicted on terrorist charges by an Israeli military court.

Next week, she will take the stand and appeal against the ruling of a Detroit court in a bid to secure her freedom.

Targeted for advocacy

Odeh had been sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment, fined $1,000 and had her US citizenship revoked in a March hearing.

Odeh's defence team maintain the sentence was unfair, and her trial deliberately excluded information that would have mitigated her alleged actions. Many in the activist community believe that she was targeted for her strident advocacy of Palestinian issues.

Missing from the accounts of mainstream media is the context. The reams of articles about Odeh failed to mention that her arrest by Israel came against the backdrop of military occupation of her homeland.

While her lawyers tried to share this information with the court and public, it was ruled inadmissable.

The authorities and individuals who prosecuted the case did not welcome alternative media outlets. However, the efforts of activists and people of conscience ensured many people inside the US and around the world followed the news of her sentencing.

The sin of omission

The legal question focused on whether Odeh mentioned in her visa and citizenship applications that she had been imprisoned. Without context, one would not know if Rasmea merely violated immigration law, or if she was pushed to do so because she did not believe that she would receive fair treatment from US authorities.

     Her activism put Odeh on the FBI's radar, and it appears someone started digging through her past

Without context, one would not know of her role as a co-founder of the Arab American Action Network.

Her activism put Odeh on the FBI's radar, and it appears someone started digging through her past. It would indeed seem that the US authorities, in collaboration with other authorities, ie: Israel, are working to keep Palestinian activists at bay.

The court further kept out information related to the role of occupation in radicalising people's reaction to oppression.

In fact, for many colonised or oppressed peoples, resistance is a duty. Active resistance under military occupation is a legally acceptable action for individuals to protect their rights in life and national rights, according to international law, specifically, under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Also, defending one's own life by all means is a human right not criminalised by US law.

Odeh was told by the judge that she could not mention her 1969 experience in an Israeli jail - during which a confession of complicity in two Jerusalem bombings was extracted from her through torture.  

A gag order was given to her to not tell the court that sleep deprivation, food starvation and being stripped of her clothes in front of male prisoners were among the torture methods used against her.

She was not allowed to tell the jury that her interrogators had raped her with a wooden stick.

By not allowing this evidence, the court ended up recognising the legality of confession extracted under torture.  

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Deprivation of defence

After Odeh tried mentioning her torture at the hearing, the judge added an extra three months of jail time to her sentence.

Preventing her from telling her story deprived her of a defence in which she would be considered a victim of torture.

If Odeh was viewed by the court as a victim of torture, then it may be considered an extenuating circumstance to help explain her allegedly "fraudulent" action. A verified claim of torture could even have the effect of invalidating her conviction by an Israeli military court and expunging her "criminal record" - at least in the US. 

Moreover, it would lay the groundwork for considering Odeh's case to be politically motivated.

In filing her visa, immigration and citizenship applications, Odeh did not lie when she marked the negative box when answering if she spent any period of time in prison for committing a crime.

The ten years Odeh served was not for a crime, but was political internment in Israeli jail.

Supported stateside

Odeh's issues are even more complicated when looking at the different definitions of "freedom fighters", "dissidents" and "dissenters" used in the United States.

For example, the US-supported mercenaries known as the Contras, and many graduates of the School of the Americas, are considered by the United States government to be "freedom fighters".

It's important, in this context, to remember that Nelson Mandela remained on the US terrorist list long after the Pretoria regime collapsed.

     The ten years Odeh served was not for a crime, but was political internment in Israeli jail

If the US authorities want to deport Odea, they should deport her to her country: Palestine.  

US law obliges the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to make sure that a deported person should be safe and will not be persecuted based on civil actions.

There is no way, however, that the US can assure her safety. Palestine is occupied, with Israel exercising daily violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. Thus the judge wants to deport her to Jordan.

Criminalising resistance

The US views the Palestinian struggle as a criminal act and categorises it as an act of terror within the framework of the US-brokered "peace process".

Odeh's conviction is seen by human rights advocates as an embodiment of the US system. Her prosecution reminds us of what happened when Jewish activists escaped Nazi Germany, only to be faced with US McCarthyism. 

"Rasmea is a strong human being, she always raised the morale of people surrounding her when the situation was harsh and gloomy," a mutual friend told me.

Individuals and groups around the world should take a strong stance to support Odeh. She has walked a long path of suffering without losing sight of dignity - and without compromising her principles.

She turned down a plea deal offered last year to be immediately deported without a jail sentence, "because I wanted to come here and tell my story".

And Odeh faces injustice one more time. 

"Every time I rebuilt my life," she said, "something else from outside would put me back to zero."

She is a paragon of resilience and determination that shine with her human spirit. Odeh is appealing against the court's conviction. People in the United States, in Palestine, and everywhere in between, now have the moral obligation to stand by her.

We must fight to overturn Odeh's conviction, with media campaigns, donations and calling congressional representatives to ask them to help strike down Odeh's conviction.

Present Obama can also be asked to use his executive power to prevent her deportation.

Samer Jaber is a Palestinian analyst and activist.

Opinions stated in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.