Accompanied by dozens of her friends and supporters, Rasmea Odeh travelled to Detroit on Tuesday for one of her final hearings in her three-and-a-half-year legal battle with the US government.
The plea hearing in the packed, wood-panelled courtroom on Tuesday afternoon was brief.
Before he accepted the agreement, US District Judge Gershwin Drain asked Odeh a series of questions that established Odeh had accepted the plea deal freely and voluntarily.
Odeh, who was clearly emotional as she stood before the judge, was reluctant to say she was guilty. Drain asked her several times if she was guilty of the charge – “procuring [US] citizenship contrary to law” by failing to disclose a 1969 conviction in an Israeli military court.
“I think to sign this, it makes me guilty,” Odeh said after a long pause, holding up a copy of the plea agreement.
Odeh signed the deal last month, in which she pleaded guilty to knowingly making false statements about her history in her immigration and naturalization applications.
Before the hearing on Tuesday, dozens of supporters, many from as far away as Chicago, Minneapolis and Cleveland, rallied outside the federal courthouse in Detroit, as a lone counter-protester stood nearby.
The agreement will see her stripped of her US citizenship and deported, but restrict her prison sentence to time served. Odeh spent five weeks in jail in 2014 after she was found guilty of immigration fraud.
Drain will formally sentence Odeh on 17 August and indicated that he would accept the sentencing recommendation in the agreement. After her sentencing, US immigration authorities will decide the date she will leave the United States, most likely to Jordan where she holds citizenship.
Since Odeh was indicted in October 2013, she had maintained her innocence, choosing to take 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 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” organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
No chance of fair trial
Speaking to supporters and journalists outside the courthouse after Tuesday’s hearing, Odeh’s lead attorney Michael Deutsch explained why she had now chosen to take the deal.“What happened here is that the government took a run of the mill immigration violation case and they made it into a terrorism case,” Deutsch said. He added that her victory on appeal meant that she would have been able to speak about her history of torture and rape by the Israelis in a new trial.
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.
“We knew that given the climate and given all the things the government was prepared to do, she was not going to get a fair trial around these charges,” Deutsch said. “At the end of the day, if we won this case, the government could still deport her. The finding of not guilty in the criminal case would not have protected her from a deportation proceeding by the government.”
“A decision was made that the best result was to avoid having this woman go to prison and having to go into immigration custody and to let her leave with her head held high and with her principles and integrity intact,” Deutsch said. “That is what happened in court today, the beginning of that process. It’s not a joyful process, but it’s one you sometimes have to choose, weighing all the circumstances.”
Hatem Abudayyeh, director of the Arab American Action Network, where Odeh has worked for years establishing women’s empowerment programs in Chicago, paid tribute to his colleague.
“She’s guilty of one thing,” Abudayyeh said. “She’s guilty of dedicating over 50 years of her life to the liberation of Palestine.”
Abudayyeh also lauded the supporters who had traveled long distances to Detroit for every hearing in the case, and to her lawyers.
“For three and half years we put Israel on trial in the United States,” Abudayyeh said. “We put their treatment of our political prisoners on trial. We put their military courts on trial. We put their torture on trial. We put their sexual assault of our prisoners on trial.”
Abudayyeh urged her supporters to show up one more time in August, when Odeh returns to Detroit for her sentencing.
Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.