On Tuesday, November 4th, the United States government begins its prosecution of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian-American community leader and activist who has been accused of unlawfully obtaining citizenship.
When applying for naturalization in 2004, Odeh apparently failed to disclose the fact that she had served 10 years in an Israeli prison from 1969-1979. Her conviction in that case was based on a confession made after 45 days of physical and sexual torture at the hands of the Israeli military, by which she was being detained on a spurious accusation of terrorism. 20 years after her arrival in this country, she is being accused by the U.S. government of lying on her immigration papers, and she has been threatened with up to ten years in prison followed by immediate deportation. It seems senseless for the U.S. government to try and convict such a valued community member 10 years after the fact. The government’s selective indictment Odeh is telling of its intent to suppress Palestinian activism and community organizing; it is no surprise that Odeh’s arrest in October 2013 arose from a broader FBI investigation into Chicago’s activist Arab community, during which information was obtained illegally and the First Amendment rights of the accused were violated.
As if the charge itself is not reprehensible enough, prosecutors have done everything in their power to deny Rasmea Odeh her right to a fair trial. Odeh’s supporters have been accused of “jury tampering” (when a jury has not yet even been selected) and of actions “almost certainly criminal,” which a prosecutor himself simply described as “protesting and parading, carrying signs…and displaying the Palestinian flag.” In an unsurprising display of racism, U.S. judicial and poltical officials have referred to largely Palestinian and Arab groups of peaceful protesters as “hordes” and “mobs”.
For his part, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain has been no better. He has already given in to the prosecution’s attempts at intimidation by allowing partial sequestration of the jury, further creating a hostile and militarized environment for the trial, and by banning clothes or signs that show support for Rasmea. More significantly, he has dealt a major blow to her defense by ruling that her claim of torture by the Israeli military is irrelevant and therefore not permissible as evidence in the trial; this is despite his statement that the claim itself is “credible.” Furthermore, he has indicated that he will accept only Israeli documentary evidence from a 45 year old case. The jury will also not be allowed to consider the fact that Odeh suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of being brutally tortured by the Israeli military and how this might have affected her filing for naturalization. Finally, Judge Drain has also ruled that lying on one’s naturalization application is a “general intent” crime–that is a crime regardless of whether it was done knowingly or intentionally. Previously, the crime was to be considered one of “specific intent”–a crime that is done knowingly and intentionally–and the burden would have been on the prosecution to prove that Odeh had purposefully intended to defraud the U.S. government. In so doing, Judge Drain has essentially gutted Odeh’s defense and ensured that she will be unjustly convicted.
Rasmea Odeh, a long-time advocate for immigrants’ and women’s rights, and associate director of the Arab American Action Network, has established herself as a respected and admired member of the Chicago community. In 2013, she was honored with the Outstanding Community Leader Award, given by the Chicago Cultural Alliance, for her work toward the empowerment of Arab women.
Considering her resilience despite her abuse at the hands of the brutal Israeli military occupation, Rasmea Odeh is the type of citizen that American leaders should be honoring, not prosecuting. Perhaps it would be different if she had been tortured by a military that America considered hostile, or if she were not from a community that is continually and unjustly branded as terrorist and criminal. Maybe then President Obama would actually stand behind his so-called unequivocal support for those engaged in the fight to end torture, and for the “the fundamental values of our people” to which he believes the practice to be contrary.
Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine condemn Israel’s regime of unlawful imprisonment and torture. We condemn the United States’ shameful support of the crimes of Israeli government against people like Rasmea Odeh who choose to resist their oppression instead of passively submitting to it. And finally, we condemn our government’s blatantly racist and oppressive strategy of prosecuting (read “persecuting”) Palestinian activists and community organizers here in a the United States as a way of suppressing the movement for justice in Palestine.