Judge sentences Rasmea Odeh, insisting case is not “political”

Rasmea Odeh listens to her lead attorney Michael Deutsch following her sentencing, outside the US Courthouse in Detroit.

Ali Abunimah

Palestinian American community leader Rasmea Odeh was today sentenced to eighteen months in prison and a fine of one thousand dollars for lying on an immigation and citizenship application.

US District Judge Gershwin Drain pronounced the sentence after an intense two-hour hearing during which Odeh told the court “I am not a terrorist, I am not a bad woman.”

Her US citizenship has also been revoked and she faces deportation to Jordan. The 67-year-old remains free on bond and can stay in the United States pending her appeal, which is likely to take at least six months.

Following the hearing, Odeh’s lead attorney Michael Deutsch told supporters the prison sentence was “unjust” and “unnecessary” and confirmed that the conviction and sentence would be appealed.

But there was also palpable relief among the dozens of people who rallied outside the courthouse in downtown Detroit, and a broad smile on Odeh’s face, given that the judge rejected a government request to impose a lengthy sentence of five to seven years and allowed her to remain free on bond.

About two hundred people came to the court to support Odeh. Forty packed the wooden benches in the court room, with the rest filling an overflow room where they could watch proceedings by video.

More than forty women from the Arab Women’s Committee, founded by Odeh as part of her community development work at the Arab American Action Network, made the five-hour drive from Chicago.

“Terrorism hysteria”

The government argued that the sentence should be particularly harsh because Odeh had failed to disclose a 1969 “terrorism” conviction in an Israeli military court on her immigration application.

Odeh has always maintained that she was forced to confess to involvement in two bombings, one of which killed two people at the SuperSol supermarket in Jerusalem, after weeks of prolonged torture and sexual assault by Israeli interrogators.

Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Tukel put on a video and slide presentation which he told the judge would contain “absolutely conclusive proof that [Odeh] was involved in the SuperSol supermarket bombing.”

It included brief clips from documentaries made in 1993 and 2004 which the government claimed show associates of Odeh making statements implicating her in the attack.

But none of the clips played by prosecutors, in Arabic with English subtitles, offered any such clear proof as far as The Electronic Intifada could see or hear.

Tukel claimed that captions added by the filmmaker to one of the videos had identified Odeh as taking part in the bombing.

He also repeatedly brought up the name of Leila Khaled, the Palestinian fighter known for a series of hijackings in the early 1970s, and said one of the clips showed Odeh and Khaled reminiscing about their past.

No clip showed Odeh taking credit for the supermarket attack.

Tukel noted that a group of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) militants, including Khaled, had named their unit “Task Force Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman prisoner.”

But even Tukel acknowledged that naming an operation or a group after a prisoner was a way to “honor and respect them,” like “the US Navy naming a ship after Abraham Lincoln.”

It offered no proof in and of itself that Odeh, who was in an Israeli prison at the time of the hijackings, was in any way involved in the actions of that group.

Deutsch said that Odeh had been part of a political struggle and it was no more incriminating for her to talk to Khaled in a documentary about the history of that struggle than it would be for South African liberation heroes Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu to reminisce about their past.

When Odeh spoke, she said that she had only ever seen one of the video clips previously. “I did not do that operation and I’m not responsible for what that girl said about me,” Odeh said in reaction to one of the clips.

Odeh’s attorney Michael Deutsch had anticipated the government’s arguments, and in his opening remarks urged the judge not to be swayed by “terrorism hysteria.”

Deutsch urged the judge to give Odeh no extra prison time, taking into account her age, her ill health – including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and her exemplary record in the US.

A life of service

Several times, Judge Drain expressed skepticism at the government’s arguments, calling the video presentation “a little far afield” and affirming that he was “not giving it a whole lot of weight.”

But Drain was clear about what he thought: “Ms. Odeh’s history does include some terrorist activities. She was a member of the PFLP forty-five years ago.”

“I think technically back then she was a terrorist,” he said.

“But looking at Ms. Odeh’s recent history, she’s been involved in a lot of good works,” Drain said. He referred more than once to the dozens of letters he had received from “people from all walks of life, from all over the country” attesting to Odeh’s social contributions.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if she was a terrorist, she has changed or reformed, and that’s a good thing,” Drain said, acknowledging her “life of service.”

But Drain also said he believed Odeh had lied in her trial testimony about how she filled out her US immigration forms, and admonished her for violating his orders not to mention to the jury her torture and mistreatment in Israeli custody.

Because of this “obstruction of justice,” he increased the possible sentencing range by three months.

Rasmea speaks

After the attorneys made their presentations, Odeh addressed the court. In a strong voice, alternating in English and Arabic – there was an interpreter present – she recounted the difficulties she had faced in her life.

Odeh explained that she had rejected a plea deal that would have seen her deported without jail time “because I wanted to come here and tell my story.”

“I came here to find justice,” she told the judge.

Odeh said she had never meant to violate the judge’s orders during her testimony and if she had uttered a few words that went over the line, it was because she was “under pressure” and trying to explain her situation.

Odeh said that during her life she had suffered many hard blows, but “every time I rebuilt my life, something else from outside would put me back to zero.”

Less than a year after her 1947 birth, her family was expelled from their home during the Nakba, Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine. When she went to university in Lebanon, Israel cut short her education by not letting her return to Beirut after a visit home.

The family was displaced again during Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank.

“I was in an occupied territory and everyone was working against the occupation,” Odeh said. “I am one of my people.”

After the 1969 arrest and military court conviction, she spent a decade in prison before Israel released her in a 1979 amnesty. She said was able to rebuild her life in Jordan – going to university, finding a home and a job. But then in the 1990s her father, who was living in the US, got cancer and asked her to come and care for him.

“In the US, it was the first time I felt I was in a secure place,” she said. “During twenty years I built my life with the people I love and who love me.”

The prospect of losing that community through deportation, she said, is “like a death sentence.”

“Before I was young, I could rebuild my life,” Odeh said. “Now I’m at the door of seventy years old.”

“Think about my age, my situation and my history over twenty years,” she urged Drain. She said that during the five weeks she spent in a freezing county jail following her November conviction, often in isolation, she thought she would die.

“Not political”

In his summation, Drain acknowledged that he had “struggled” with the case. “This case has spun off in so many different directions,” he said.

“This isn’t a political case,” the judge insisted, despite the fact that the statements from prosecution and defense had been dominated by the question of Palestine.

“It’s about being truthful to get into the country. This case is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and freedom fighters and all that,” the judge said.

Drain said that given the high profile of the case, he had to impose a “deterrent sentence” and settled on eighteen months.

Odeh will receive credit for time served.

The judge’s insistence that the case is not political can ironically be seen as a kind of victory for the defense.

By taking that position, Drain effectively dismissed the government’s effort to make it about “terrorism” and standing with Israel.

From the beginning however, Odeh’s defense attorneys have argued that the reason she was indicted in the first place was because of a political witch hunt against the Palestinian American community.

“You were there, you heard what I said, you heard what Rasmea said, you heard what the judge said, you heard what the government said,” Michael Deutsch told supporters after the sentencing.

“You think it was a political case? I certainly do. You think she’s a terrorist or a reformed terrorist? I don’t,” he added. “Obviously people are going to fight for their freedom against occupation. They’re going to fight for national liberation organizations. They’re going to resist torture. So it is a political case.”

“We’re going to continue to fight and we’re going to look for justice somewhere else,” Deutsch said. “But don’t expect justice in these cases.”

Appeal

Odeh will be appealing nonetheless. Deutsch said that the grounds for the appeal would incude the severe limitations the trial judge imposed on Odeh’s defense, such as preventing her from discussing her PTSD and torture.

The appeal will also argue that the government’s reliance on Israeli military court documents violated Odeh’s constitutional due process rights.

“We had close to two hundred supporters in Detroit for the sentencing and all of us are going home happier because Rasmea is with us,” Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, told The Electronic Intifada.

“We know there is a lot of work still to do and we will continue to educate people about the case, and about Palestine support work in the cause of liberation.”

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Comments

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Very unfortunate that she got any prison time at all, but 18 months is much better than several years. What an amazing, strong, honorable woman who we all should look towards for motivation. Her current non violent stance is admirable and it would be excellent if the Israeli's would take a similar stance. Unfortunately, the oppressors are not bound by these morals, for them, violence is "defense", and theft is "divine right". Long live the struggle!

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Odeh was "convicted" by the military court of an occupying nation, after TORTURE. Suppressing those facts only served to legitimize Israel's actions and has no basis in reality. Not political? Horse manure. This was the result of the Israel Lobby again doing everything in its power to suppress Palestinian opinion, and protect Israel's one-sided argument to U.S. public opinion.

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Yes it is good that she only received an 18 month sentence but she should have been declared innocent.The Israeli lies should have been thrown out of court as they convict most as terrorists even the children throwing stones.
A sad day for American justice ,what remains of it is in tatters .I watch what is going on in the US with horror as our own Prime Dictator ,Steven Harper is going down the same road .

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Amazing how consistent legal blindness passed seamlessly from Bush to Obama's legal arm. And just as amazing how the elephant in the room never gets the recognition it deserves as the Occupier, the instrument of a ruthless state terrorism and the forceful shuffling of indigenous people from their rightful homes and areas. I can see the smug expression on this large beast. One more person getting crushed at their behest. So much for justice and freedom and welcome to the "American way."

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Drain was rushed in to pinch hit for a judge who was openly associated with the State of Israel and who resisted all attempts to persuade him to recuse himself. He had to be derricked off the bench, at which time Drain was eased into position. The new judge immediately ruled that Rasmea Odeh's torture and rape at the hands of her Israeli military jailers was to be excluded from the record. Her conviction at the hands of those war criminals was to be taken at face value. In enforcing this dictate Drain deprived the defense of any chance to demonstrate their client's history as a previous victim of injustice, knowledge which would have had a direct bearing on the jury's deliberations. Nothing about these charges or the trial was on the level. Rasmea Odeh was as comprehensively railroaded by the American justice system as she was by her Israeli torturers and rapists in 1969.

Drain now chooses to present himself in a more sympathetic guise, rejecting the prosecutor's shrill demand for yet greater penalties. But the damage is done, unless conviction can be reversed on appeal. A noble, dedicated and compassionate woman has been imprisoned, stripped of her citizenship, and now faces permanent exile.

Drain and jurists like him disgrace and defile the courts.

May Rasmea Odeh remain strong and serene during this time of great hardship. Hasta la victoria.

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To those who call Ms Odeh's sentencing "unfortunate"....but could be worse vagaries....I submit that Ms Odeh has suffered enough. To say that 18 months is "better than years".....demonstrates that some remain impervious to the facts...that the United States has been corrupted stem to stern after being "occupied" for decades by ruthless operatives who pocket our judges and politicians for their own benefit. I pray for the day that Justice/Tzedehk is delivered. Ms Odeh would not be going to PRISON if she were not Palestinian and then faced with deportation as if her life and community here were irrelevent. Justice tempered with Mercy is my prayer.....

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The freedom hating control freak thought police sadists down at the "Ministry of Love" are once again trying to tell us, the proles, who is in charge.

However, the more they attempt to emphasize that, the more they show of their dark ugly oppressive evil nature the weaker they become.

Shine on Sister Odeh! Your fight for justice is our fight. You struggle for equality is our struggle. We shall overcome!.

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Odeh was punished by the judge for including testimony of her capture, torture, and forced confession. He was under pressure from the "government' to make a decision that would undermine the innocence of a Palestinian citizen. His ruling was to to politicize the propaganda the somehow isreal is a legitimate government by making her look guilty for defending the sovereignty of her nation. I hope the judge doesn't get into too much trouble for not having Odea sent to prison for life with a $500.000,000,000 fine.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.