Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh rejects US plea deal, prepares for October trial

Supporters of Rasmea Odeh rallied outside the US courthouse in Detroit during a pre-trial hearing in May.

Ali Abunimah

A federal judge in Detroit today delayed the trial of Rasmea Odeh until 21 October in order to give her new lawyer time to prepare a defense.

The trial had been set to begin on 10 June, but in a dramatic development last week, Odeh removed her Detroit-based attorney from the case and appointed Michael Deutsch of the People’s Law Office in Chicago.

Odeh, a Palestinian community organizer in Chicago, was indicted last October for allegedly lying on her citizenship application two decades ago about a conviction in an Israeli military court more than forty years ago.

Odeh, who is free on bond, faces up to ten years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, as well as revocation of her US citizenship, if she is convicted.

Deutsch is a veteran civil rights and human rights attorney who has defended a number of high-profile cases, most recently the “NATO 3,” three protestors acquitted of state “terrorism” charges in Chicago in February.

He also defended Muhammad Salah and Abdulhalim Ashqar, two members of the Palestinian community acquitted by a jury of terror and conspiracy charges in a federal court in Chicago in 2007.

At today’s hearing in Detroit, Deutsch told Judge Paul D. Borman he needed more time to prepare Odeh’s defense, including discovery of evidence from the prosecution and commissioning a psychological evaluation of his client.

No plea

Following the brief hearing, Deutsch told reporters that Odeh’s previous attorney had been negotiating a plea agreement with the government that in the best case would have seen her US citizenship revoked, and her departure from the United States.

Deutsch said that the government contends that Odeh has a valid Jordanian passport. However, he pointed out that there would be no guarantee that Jordan would not revoke her status. Jordan has a history of arbitrarily revoking the citizenship of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin.

This could put her in jeopardy of being sent to the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she would not enjoy the relative protection afforded by US citizenship.

Headshot of Rasmea Odeh

Rasmea Yousef Odeh

Arab American Action Network

Deutsch noted that Odeh had pleaded not guilty. “The statute requires that you knowingly provide false information, and the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she knowingly intended to lie. She wants that decided by a jury of twelve people who are not part of the government,” he said.

Odeh “has been living in the United States and serving her community as a model citizen for twenty years,” Deutsch added. “She’s built her life here. Her community is here and now the government wants to take that away. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Deutsch was circumspect about Odeh’s defense strategy, saying he had yet to review all the materials. But he said that Odeh’s history of torture during a decade of Israeli custody could become a relevant issue.

It is not only Odeh’s Palestinian background and activism that make this case notable for its connection to the Middle East.

Judge Borman, appointed to the federal bench in 1994 by President Clinton, has been recognized for his long history of activism promoting Israel. The Jewish Federation of Detroit lauded Borman as “instrumental in bringing hundreds of Detroiters to Israel as co-chair of numerous missions” as recently as 2007. In 1988, Borman co-chaired a “solidarity” delegation to Israel and in 1990, a delegation for Michigan legislators. He also chaired the Jewish Federation’s “Israel and Overseas Committee” in the 1990s.

While a judge must be impartial, and guilt or innocence is decided by the jury, a judge has broad influence over what types of arguments the defense or prosecution can make.

Community support

Odeh’s case has become a rallying point for members of Chicago’s Palestinian community. At her first hearing last November, dozens traveled from Chicago to Detroit.

Muhammad Sankari, a youth organizer with the Arab American Action Network, has been working to educate and mobilize members of the community in solidarity with Odeh and to bring them out for the now postponed June trial.

He was among about ten people who made the 280 mile drive from Chicago for today’s hearing.

“Rasmea has a large base of supporters in the Arab community in Chicago but logistically coordinating those people to travel and support her in Detroit is very challenging,” Sankari told The Electronic Intifada.

But Deutsch underscored that such support can make a difference. “It’s important for people to be in court,” he said. “When the government tries to paint you one way, it’s important to show that you have support in your community.”

Following her arrest last October, there was an outpouring of support for Odeh, including a statement from groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the US Palestinian Community Network and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee saying that Odeh is being targeted for her community activism.

Her arrest came at a time when “federal authorities, along with Israel and its supporters in the US, are continuing to search for ways to intimidate and silence those who are effective advocates for Arab American communities, and who speak out for Palestinian rights,” the groups said.