Rasmea Odeh stood in a US federal courtroom in Detroit packed with her supporters, law enforcement officials and journalists on Thursday and recounted her treatment at the hands of Israeli occupation forces decades ago.
“They tortured me, they raped me, they destroyed my house,” the Palestinian community leader said.
This was part of a statement she made before US District Judge Gershwin Drain imposed a sentence on her. The hearing was supposed to be a formality, albeit one that sets the 70-year-old on a new course in her life.
But there was some drama in the courtroom.
Odeh’s lead lawyer, Michael Deutsch, told the judge he thought immigration fraud charges should never have been brought against Odeh. But given the outcome, the court should spare Odeh a fine that would deplete her modest savings that she will need to start a new life.
Prosecutor Jonathan Tukel countered the favorable picture Deutsch had painted of Odeh as a dedicated community organizer, insisting there was evidence she had been involved in bombings in Jerusalem in 1969.
“I am not a terrorist”
Then it was Odeh’s turn to speak.
“I’m standing today to raise my voice on behalf of myself as a Palestinian woman and on behalf of all Palestinians whether in refugee camps or scattered across the world,” she stated.
Odeh recounted Israel’s ethnic cleansing and mass killings of Palestinians and the occupation of their land, its violations of international law and the role the US plays in enabling it. She said Palestinians have as much right to resist occupation as Americans would if their country were invaded.
Drain interrupted Odeh, but she insisted on carrying on.
“This is the first and last time to raise my voice,” she said. “I’m not a terrorist and my people are not terrorists.”
“You weren’t found guilty of being a terrorist and you didn’t plead guilty to being a terrorist,” Drain replied. “So all this has no bearing on the sentence I will impose.”
Drain interrupted Odeh twice more, urging her to wrap up and threatening to jail her for contempt if she didn’t.
But Drain stuck to the terms of a deal outlined at a hearing last April when Odeh pleaded guilty to knowingly making false statements about her history in her immigration and naturalization applications.
Drain sentenced Odeh to time served – the 33 days she spent in jail in 2014 – and a fine of $1,000. She will also lose her US citizenship and be required to leave the country.
“You’ve done a lot of good community work,” Drain told Odeh. “You’ve helped the people in the Chicago area quite a bit, all the Palestinian women who immigrated here.”
“But still you were untruthful and dishonest about the statements you made in your application. I don’t at all want to minimize the nature of your offense,” he added. “It’s a serious offense.”
Drain noted the attention Odeh’s case has garnered and the strong support the community has shown.
“I don’t have any reservations about the fact that when you get back to Jordan or wherever you go, you will be welcomed with open arms,” Drain told Odeh. “I know that the Palestinian community loves and respects you.”
Exactly when she leaves the US is now up to US immigration authorities.
Many of Odeh’s supporters who made the trip to Detroit for her final court hearing were at a celebration with more than 1,200 people in Chicago on Saturday to honor and bid farewell to the community activist.
Before the sentencing hearing on Thursday they rallied outside the courthouse as they have during every other court appointment, this time despite heavy rain.
Thursday’s hearing marked the end of Odeh’s four-year legal battle with the US government.
When Odeh was indicted in October 2013, she maintained her innocence, taking her case to trial instead of accepting the plea deal that was offered at the time.
She was convicted in a trial in November 2014, but won an appeal in February 2016.
She was prepared to go to a new trial to argue that she had failed to disclose her conviction and imprisonment by the Israeli military on her immigration forms due to her post-traumatic stress disorder.
But during the preliminary phase of the new trial, federal prosecutors expanded their indictment against Odeh, adding charges that she was a member of a “terrorist” group.
Odeh was originally charged with immigration fraud for failing to disclose her conviction by an Israeli military court in 1969 for alleged involvement in two bombings in Jerusalem, one of which killed two civilians.
She was also convicted by the Israeli military court for alleged membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that was designated as a terrorist organization by the US in 1997.
As the attorney Michael Deutsch told Odeh’s supporters at the celebration in Chicago on Saturday, “We didn’t achieve the goal we set out to achieve – to keep her in this country.”
“The reality was it was going to be a very, very difficult fight in the federal court,” Deutsch added, explaining that even if Odeh was acquitted at a new trial, the government still intended to use administrative procedures to deport her anyway.
“Not guilty in the federal court would not have kept her in this country,” he said.
“We knew they were going to make it into a terrorism trial,” Deutsch added. “After a long hard struggle and talk, we decided the best alternative was to take the plea that we took.”
Deutsch said there were still “some victories” in the outcome, notably that Odeh won’t spend any more time in prison on top of the five weeks she spent in custody in 2014.
“We were able to bring out in the federal court and the public that the Israeli government systematically tortures political people, and that Rasmea was tortured and suffers from post-traumatic stress as a result of that torture,” Deutsch said.
“We were also able to show that the sham [Israeli] military tribunals that convict 99.4 percent of the Palestinians that go before them is a sham and is illegal under international law.”
Deutsch praised supporters who had traveled to Detroit repeatedly over the years, but reserved his warmest words for Odeh: “She has been a model for us and given us strength in some of the darkest periods of our struggle in the courtroom.”
Saturday’s farewell event was a celebration of Odeh’s years as a community leader in Chicago.
Odeh is associate director of the Arab American Action Network, where she founded the women’s committee that is credited with organizing and empowering hundreds of immigrant women.
The Chicago event was a strong demonstration of cross-community solidarity, endorsed by more than 50 organizations.
“Many of us are sad and angry that we could not achieve a complete victory in Rasmea’s case,” the iconic scholar and activist Angela Davis said in a keynote address. “As Fidel used to say, we will turn a defeat into a victory!”
“This is a beautiful event and a beautiful night … but it’s also a very difficult night for me,” Odeh told the crowd in an emotional speech on Saturday.
“You are the ones who supported me when I needed you, providing a safe place and a warm environment to help me begin a new life away from here.”
Odeh vowed that she will continue the struggle for Palestinian rights wherever she lands.
Where her new life will be is still uncertain. Her lawyers say Odeh, who is a citizen of Jordan, is still exploring options about where she will go.