On Thursay, the third day of her trial on immigration fraud charges, Rasmea Odeh took the stand in her own defense. Earlier, US prosecutors rested their case. The Palestinian-American’s defense attorneys called one other witness in addition to Odeh.
Odeh testified under strict instructions from Judge Gerswhin A. Drain not to mention her history of torture by Israeli occupation authorities.
The court gallery remained at capacity with about twenty more onlookers in the spillover room on the seventh floor of the US courthouse in downtown Detroit. Among those seated in the gallery was Basil Joffe, the brother of Edward Joffe, one of the two people killed in one of the bombings that Rasmea Odeh was convicted of helping to orchestrate by an Israeli military court more than forty years ago.
The immigration fraud charge stems from the US government’s allegation that Odeh failed to disclose that conviction in a US naturalization application.
Joffe declined to speak to The Electronic Intifada, but in an interview with The National Review earlier this year, he said he hopes Odeh receives a prison sentence in the United States on top of deportation.
Odeh denies participating in the bombings, and says she was forced to confess under prolonged Israeli torture, a claim the judge said he found “credible” in pre-trial hearings, though he refused to allow testimony about the torture in the trial itself.
In the morning, immigration officer, Douglas Pierce resumed his place on the stand and continued his testimony for the prosecution, during which he asserted that Odeh did not obtain her permanent residency visa legally, nor did she answer truthfully on her N-400 form when applying for naturalization.
The two applications under scrutiny in the government’s case are Odeh’s 1995 visa application and her 2004 application for naturalization. On both, she is alleged to have provided false answers, though it is her answers on the N-400 naturalization application that are at the center of her indictment.
On the visa application, Odeh is alleged to have failed to list all the countries in which she had ever lived. The visa application consists of two parts across four pages. It asks only basic questions of the applicant — name, address, destination in the US and parents’ names.
She listed only Amman, Jordan, and the prosecution insists that she should have stated that she lived in Israel for ten years — when she was held in Israel’s Ramle women’s prison.
On the third page, in fine and dense print, a series of classifications of ineligible applicants are listed, next to which the applicant is to check if any applies to him or her. One category includes, “An alien convicted of, or who admits committing a crime involving moral turpitude … .”
Odeh checked “No.”
The prosecution asked Pierce, “Would it have been important for the USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] to know about the bombing she was convicted of?”
“Yes, these charges would have made her ineligible for naturalization or a visa,” Pierce responded.
During the cross examination, the defense tried to establish the lack of clarity in the questions.
On Wednesday, the defense established that it would argue that Rasmea Odeh answered the questions on her N-400 with the assumption that it was inquiring about her arrest, conviction and imprisonment history exclusively in the United States.
Defense attorney Jim Fennerty began by presenting to Pierce a testimony he had given in a prior immigration case, United States. v Bazzi, in which Pierce stated that “some of the terms on the N-400 can be confusing or complicated,” and that the questions can be “confusing.”
In an older version of the N-400, which the defense obtained, the same set of questions asked if an applicant had “ever been arrested for a crime committed in or outside the United States.”
Fennerty suggested the potential ambiguity of the questions as they appeared in the current version of the N-400, that just ask if an applicant has “ever been arrested … .”
Furthermore, the second part of her visa application is unsigned, which the defense has called attention to in order to establish that government and immigration officials make mistakes. On Wednesday, Raymond Clore, a witness for the prosecution who served as chief of the US consular office in Jordan in the 1990s, testified that he would not have approved an application without a signature.
By attributing the oversight to the immigration and consular officials, the defense laid the groundwork for calling into question the testimony of the next witness for the prosecution, Jennifer Williams, who interviewed Odeh in 2004 for her application for citizenship. Pierce had established that immigration officials like Williams are trained to take applicants through each question on their N-400 to ensure there is no misunderstanding, and even verbally specify that the questions refer to “anywhere in the world.”
However, as the defense point out, in all the written instructions given to applicants of the N-400, there is no mention of the fact that questions regarding applicants’ criminal backgrounds are referring to anywhere in the world.
When the prosecution called Williams, an employee with Department of Homeland Security’s citizenship and immigration services for the last 25 years, she told the court that she conducted the naturalization interview of Odeh but does not have any specific recollection of the interview.
Williams began interviewing applicants for citizenship in 2004 and says she probably interviewed a total of one thousand applicants each year.
Williams was soft-spoken, unemotional and precise when answering questions posed by the government. She answered that she follows the same, exact instructions for each interview, that begins when she invites each applicant into her office.
“We go through the entire application, every question,” she told the court.
Each answer on Odeh’s application is inked over in red — these markings were made by Williams and indicate that she asked the question of Odeh during the interview. Williams told the court that she is “positive” she did this for every question in every interview, as it is what her training taught her to do.
However, during the cross examination, it became possible to imagine that Williams may not have conducted the interview as mechanically as her demeanor in court suggested. According to Deutsch, Odeh remembered Williams as sheepishly asking her questions about prostitution, admitting, “I’m embarrassed to have to ask you this.” As Deutsch continued to question her, Williams easily became flustered, and her formerly certain disposition began to falter.
Prosecutors then called a fingerprint specialist to testify that Odeh tried to escape from prison in 1975 and that he had analyzed the fingerprints from her 2004 application for naturalization and confirmed she was one and the same person who had attempted the escape in 1975.
The defense had no questions for cross examination, and with that the prosecution rested its case.
The defense first called Nadine Naber as a character witness for Odeh. Naber, an associate professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies, has done extensive work and research on immigrant women in America.
She told the court that she began following Odeh’s work in Chicago as early as 2004 and quickly became an admirer. Naber was impressed by Odeh’s success at reaching immigrant Arab and Muslim women in Chicago, who are difficult to access and frequently isolated from any larger network or community. Naber praised Odeh’s persistence and dedication, which she said were responsible for Odeh’s ability to overcome those unique challenges.
The prosecution’s cross examination served only to point out that Naber did not know Rasmea Odeh in 1969 — the year the witness was born — or 1970.
Rasmea Odeh takes the Stand
Before Odeh took the stand, the judge instructed her to not veer into the history of her torture by Israeli soldiers.
“But your honor,” Odeh said, speaking for the first time in court since the trial began, “It’s my case. I have to say the situation of my life — its effect. It’s my life.”
In keeping with his previous ruling, however, Judge Drain insisted that she not speak of her torture and warned that he could find her in contempt of court if she violated this instruction.
Odeh has had an interpreter with her in court throughout the trial, but she has decided to testify in English. Her English is strong, but not fluent, and after taking the oath she explained why she chose to speak to the court in English: “I am not fluent but I want to speak in English so I can speak to the jury, and try to reach and contact all of you.”
She began by describing the expansive community work she does with the Arab American Action Network and how she built the Arab Women’s Committee into a 600-woman-strong network of Arab and Muslim immigrants.
Odeh’s voice is deep and percussive, and as she answered Deutsch’s questions she appeared calm and unrehearsed.
She told the jury that she was born in 1947 in Lifta, Palestine, but that her family soon fled to Ramallah after they heard reports of massacres and rapes from other villages in Palestine. She briefly described the miserable and cramped conditions her family experienced in the following years, but as she began to explain in more graphic detail what occurred during the June 1967 war and subsequent occupation of the West Bank, the prosecution objected.
In 1969, she said, she was one of hundreds of Palestinians arrested by Israel. As she recollected the night the Israelis raided her home in Ramallah and seized her, two of her sisters, including one who was paralyzed, and her father, her voice began to shake. As she started to describe the terrifying details of the night her voice cracked and succumbed to tears.
Deutsch asked her what happened next.
Odeh said she was taken the “Moscobiya” (the Russian Compound detention center) in Jerusalem. Deutsch asked if she was allowed to speak to a lawyer. The prosecution objected, which the judge upheld.
Deutsch rephrased the question: “Were you ultimately taken to a military court and placed on trial?”
“They convicted me falsely,” Odeh answered, but the judge ordered “falsely” be stricken from the record.
Odeh told the court that she was released as part of a prisoner exchange that occurred in Geneva. From there, she was taken to Libya, then Syria and finally to Lebanon, where she remained until she could go back to Jordan, in 1983.
It was the next twelve years in Amman, Jordan, that she described as the happiest time in her life: “I had a car, a house, a job and bank account.”
But her brother needed her help in Michigan, where he had been living and running a restaurant outside Detroit with their father, who had just been diagnosed with cancer.
So her brother filled out a visa application for her so that she could copy the answers. At that time, 1995, her english was not good enough to read the questions.
“I couldn’t read and I trusted my brother — he’s my brother!” She said to the court. “I never lied, I didn’t read it. I trusted my brother. I can’t imagine my brother would put lies.”
As stated above, the visa application for permanent residency in the United States consists of two parts. In Odeh’s application that’s been submitted as evidence to the trial, there are two different handwritings on the first and second part. Odeh says that the first part that she submitted was just the application that her brother had alread completed. For the second part, she directly copied the answers he had provided.
That is why her signature is missing from the second part of the application: he had left it blank and she — not reading English proficiently —had not realized she was supposed to sign it.
Odeh told the court that for almost ten years after she came to the US she hoped to return to Amman, until she came to Chicago and had what she describes as a transformative experience when she realized the impact she could have working with Arab women immigrants in the US. She decided then to apply for citizenship and commit to remaining in the US, working with this community of women.
Deutsch then asked her to look at the application for citizenship that she filled out in June 2004. She said that all questions leading up to those which inquired about her criminal background had referred specifically to the United States, so when she reached question number 15 —“Have you ever been arrested” — she assumed it was in reference only to her time in the United States.
Deutsch asked, “If you’d understood the question to be asking about what happened in Israel, would you have answered differently?”
“Yes, why not? It’s not a secret that I’ve been in jail. Everybody knows. How can I hide it. I can’t.”
Rasmea Odeh will continue to testify today, Friday. After her cross examination, the defense and prosecution will deliver their closing statements to the jury before they go into deliberation.
If convicted, Odeh could face prison and fines as well as the loss of her US citizenship.