The trial of Rasmea Odeh began today, 4 November, at the US District Court of the Eastern District of Detroit, Michigan. Though the attorneys were prepared to give their opening statements, the day came to an end just as the jury selection was completed.
Odeh, 67, was indicted with unlawful procurement of naturalization last October. The US attorney’s office of the Eastern District of Michigan alleges that nine years ago, Odeh knowingly answered several questions falsely on her application for naturalization that inquired about her criminal record.
In 1969, Odeh was arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers, who immediately began to brutally torture her for the next 25 days until she eventually signed a confession stating that she participated in two bombings in Jerusalem. Even after she signed the confession, her interrogators continued to sadistically torture her, including raping her with a wooden stick.
Even though Odeh quickly recanted the confession, the Israeli military court convicted her under terrorism charges and sentenced Odeh to life in prison. She was released ten years later in a 1979 prisoner exchange.
Odeh immigrated to the United States in 1995 and became US citizen in 2004, yet the US government now wants to deport her and strip her of her citizenship for failing to disclose her criminal conviction by an Israeli military court. If she is convicted, Odeh will most certainly be sentenced to time in prison and deportation.
Before the pool of sixty potential jurors were allowed to enter Judge Gershwin Drain’s courtroom, the defense and prosecution teams conferred on a few last-minute decisions.
On 3 November, Odeh’s lead defense lawyer, Michael Deutsch, submitted a last minute motion for Judge Drain to reconsider what Deutsch called an “unconstitutionally restrictive ruling on the defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment right to testify in her own behalf.”
In a ruling published on 27 October, Judge Drain denied several motions of the defense, including denying Odeh the ability to present evidence of being tortured or call an expert witness to testify to her probable state of mind when she filled out her application for naturalization.
Deutsch argued that by denying Odeh the ability to testify to the torture she experienced at the hands of Israeli soldiers and security forces in 1969, she will be unable to testify “freely, fully and fairly on her own behalf.”
Because Odeh is being charged with “knowingly” providing false answers, “the crime is thus based entirely on the defendant’s state of mind,” Deutsch wrote.
“Thus … to preclude her from testifying about everything that comprised her state of mind at the time she is accused of making false answers, would unfairly and erroneously limit her fundamental constitutional right to testify in her own defense.”
But Drain ruled against the motion, repeating what he argued in his ruling last week.
Drain said that what was relevant was her state of mind at the time of the offense — filling out the application in 2004 — and not when she was tortured. Drain’s statement indicates a misunderstanding of what the defense wished to argue: that Odeh’s post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the torture influenced how she filled out the application, as Mary Fabri, a clinical psychologist and expert on torture, wrote in her affidavit to the court.
“The jury is going to get evidence and documents that state her conviction and we can’t go behind that, giving us a minimal chance to get a fair trial,” Deutsch contested in court.
“We can’t testify to the circumstances that led to her filling out her application in 2004, and we can’t challenge the military court.”
For its part, the prosecution sought to have stricken from evidence all documentation of Odeh’s accomplishments in the US, including training as a domestic violence counselor, an award for Outstanding Community Leadership from the Chicago Cultural Alliance and other certificates of education and training. However, the judge allowed them to remain as a testament to Odeh’s credibility, honesty and integrity.
Furthermore, longtime civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham has joined Michael Deutsch, Jim Fennerty and William Goodwin, who have been representing Odeh for the last five months. Cunningham has noted experience representing victims of political prosecutions, including renowned environmental activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney.
Before selecting the jury of twelve and two alternates, Judge Drain asked a series of voir dire questions that probed jurors’ potential bias for or against law enforcement, government prosecutors, Muslims, Palestinians and immigrants. The questions asked by Judge Drain were pared down from two lengthy sets of questions proposed by the prosecution and defense.
All jurors who were dismissed for prejudice — a total of eleven — were done so after they admitted that they could not judge the defendant fairly knowing that she was convicted of a bombing. It is important to note that jurors will see Odeh’s signed confession and the documentation of her conviction, yet not know that she was tortured for 25 days before signing it.
While the defense had requested several questions about jurors’ attitudes towards Israel and the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the judge did not mention Israel once.
At the end of session, Deutsch registered with the court his disappointment that there was no opportunity to discern this potentially significant prejudice among jurors.
Drain defended his decision by saying, “I don’t think getting into the details of the controversy back when she was convicted is relevant to the case.”
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada after court was adjourned, Cunningham said: “This case arose from the Six Day War [1967 war] and the roundups that took place after it, and [Drain] didn’t ask a single question about Israel.”
“He said it was too long ago, but it’s not. It’s right now — whether it’s what is happening in Gaza or it’s what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is saying. It seems illogical to say that it’s too stale.”
Before the selected jurors were dismissed, the judge explained to them that a US marshal would tell them where to park every day. From there, they would be driven by a US marshal to the courthouse and enter through the basement. Drain explained that the unusual precaution was to help jurors avoid any encounters with the media.
In fact, the prosecutors had requested that jurors arrive through a separate entrance so as to not see the large amount of support Rasmea Odeh has.
Mobilizing in Detroit
While none of Odeh’s supporters were evident in Drain’s courtroom, around 90 activists from Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee filled a larger courtroom upstairs, where they watched the proceedings on large television screens.
The Rasmea Defense Committee — which is composed primarily of people from the United States Palestinian Community Network and the Committee to Stop FBI Repression — have had three of their organizers based in Detroit since 21 October.
Since focusing their mobilizing energy in Detroit, the Rasmea Defense Committee has teamed up with CAIR-Michigan and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at Wayne State University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, the National Lawyers Guild, MECAWI (Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice) and the Ramallah and Beit Hanina Clubs in Detroit.
Hatem Abudayyeh, the spokesperson for the Rasmea Defense Committee as well as the Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network, told The Electronic Intifada that “It’s been a logistical nightmare to uproot an entire base of supporters from Chicago and bring them to Detroit, and it’s incredible that we’ve been able to do it so effectively.”
Odeh’s supporters have speculated that she was prosecuted in Detroit and not Chicago, where she lives, in order to create an obstacle to community mobilization.
Since pre-trial hearings began a year ago, the Committee has been organizing caravans of supporters from Chicago to the Detroit courthouse. A bus carrying more than fifty supporters from Chicago drove into Detroit on Monday night.
Since last November, the Committee has brought out at least fifty persons to each pre-trial hearing. “There were 90 people in the courtroom today and we expect to fill it for the week. it’s a massive operation,” Abudayyeh noted.
He admitted that “the challenges have been massive,” but he also emphasized the enormous success their campaign has had albeit outside the courtroom.
“We have turned this case into Israel being on trial, its military courts, its colonization and torture, its apartheid policies and treatment of Palestinian prisoners. We did run into a big disappointment on 27 October [the day of Drain’s last ruling]… but we’ve won outside of court already, and now we’re just hoping to win on Friday.”
The trial is expected to last through the end of this week. The defense has yet to decide if Odeh will testify.