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Can Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh get a fair trial?

Victoria Brittain

October 17, 2014

Does the Palestinian background of community activist leader Rasmea Odeh make her trial too politically loaded to be a fair one?

Rasmea Odeh, a long-standing Palestinian/American community organiser in Chicago, goes on trial in Detroit on 4 November in a case dating back to her naturalisation application in 2004. 
 
Odeh is charged with immigration fraud. She faces a 10 year prison sentence, a fine of $250,000, or deportation after 20 years living in the US. Rasmea’s case looks likely to become another notorious one in which Israeli intelligence cooperation with US authorities sees prominent Palestinian/Americans removed from public life by long prison sentences or deportation. Some of the US names involved in bringing those iconic cases of injustice – against the Holy Land Foundation and Professor Sami Al Arian - have already emerged in preliminary hearings on this one.
 
Rasmea is from a historic Palestinian generation where many young men and women opted for armed resistance after the Arab humiliation of the 1967 war. The heavy price they paid in death or prison terms after military trials and torture is documented in copious books and poems. Rasmea and her female colleagues told their own stories in the powerful 2004 documentary film Women in Struggle by Buthaina Canaan Khoury.  
 
From the age of 19 Rasmea spent ten years in an Israeli jail where she suffered physical, mental and sexual torture in an attempt to force a confession to alleged links to two bombings in Jerusalem in 1969. Her extreme experience, which with great bravery she described to a UN panel in Geneva, included being kept naked, having to watch as a naked man died under electric torture, being raped with a large stick, and seeing her father’s agony as the Israeli torturers attempted to get him to rape her. Her confession was coerced by this torture.
 
Rasmea was finally deported to Jordan with other prisoners in an exchange for one Israeli soldier. She trained as a lawyer before leaving for the US in 1994 and becoming a US citizen ten years later. On the naturalisation form she did not detail the prison years of 35 years before, which she had put behind her in an attempt to heal the PTSD from her torture experience diagnosed by a US clinical psychologist.
 
In the US Rasmea lived first in Detroit and then in Chicago where she became the associate director of the Arab American Action Network, a social service and community organisation. There, she established the Arab Women’s Committee, a grassroots collective that encourages leadership among Arab immigrant women, and works to secure a safe political, economic, social, and cultural environment for Arab women and their communities. In 2013, the Chicago Cultural Alliance gave Rasmea its Outstanding Community Leader Award in recognition of her devotion of "over 40 years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women."
 
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has made a high-level appeal to Attorney General Eric Holder for her case to be dropped as it targeted her as a result of injustice in another country – pointing out that torture is illegal under US and international law. The AAD also described Rasmea as an exemplary citizen in the US, much valued for her work in areas such as literacy and combating domestic violence that have had great social value, especially for immigrant arab women. The organisation also underlined that the case plays into the perception that the US government is intentionally targeting and prosecuting Arab American activists.
 
Dozens of feminist academics and writers have publicly supported Rasmea, and in pre-trial hearings busloads of people who know her in Chicago traveled to Detroit to attend the court or demonstrate outside.
 
Rasmea’s case mirrors the 2004 case of Fawaz Damra, originally from Nablus but by then Imam of the largest mosque in Cleveland. He lost his citizenship after being charged with failing to reveal ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad in (IJ) 1993, four years before IJ was put on the government’s list of terror organisations. A grand jury indictment against him also stated that he failed to disclose an affiliation with groups that supported the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation – a cause then financed and supplied by the US. After a long court case using material supplied to the FBI by the Washington-based Investigative Project, the Imam was convicted in 2004, then deported in 2007 and obliged to relocate his US-born family in the West Bank where he sold clothes to make a living. 
 
The most high profile political trials against Palestinian Americans in recent decades show what Rasmea is up against in the US judicial system. Dr Sami Al Arian was an engineering professor from Florida and a tireless speaker and lobbyist on Palestine and on Arab/American issues such as secret evidence, indefinite detention and targeting of Muslims in the 1990s. Dr Al Arian, a tenured professor, lost his job despite a history good political links to the Bush White House, and extensive protest from many prestigious academic organisations. He was accused of "material support" for terrorism and spent five years in 13 different maximum security prisons pre-trial, had a six month trial in which the government brought 21 witnesses from Israel. The jury found him not guilty of the conspiracy charges he faced. But he was still not released until very recently after years under house arrest although he had agreed a plea bargain including deportation on a separate issue.
 
It took the US government two trials to convict in the case against the Holy Land Foundation chair and chief executive Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker, highly successful Palestinian Americans, for "material support for terrorism" – in fact sending $12.4 million to Zakat committees in Gaza. There were 246 unindicted co-conspirators named with them, in what the American Civil Liberties Union described as "an extraordinary step." The men are serving jail terms of 65 years. As Nancy Hollander, lawyer for Shukri Abu Baker put it after the sentence: "I was horrified by it, the thought that somebody gets 65 years for providing charity is really shameful and I believe this case will go down in history, as have others…as a shameful day. Essentially these people were convicted because they were Palestinians."
 
- Victoria Brittain worked at The Guardian for many years and has lived and worked in Washington, Saigon, Algiers, Nairobi, and reported from many African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. She is the author of a number of books on Africa and was co-author of Moazzam Begg's Guantanamo memoir, Enemy Combatant, author and co-author of two Guantanamo verbatim plays, and most recently of Shadow Lives, the forgotten women of the war on terror. She is on the board of the Institute of Race Relations, a patron of Palestine Solidarity, and co-founder of Action for Palestinian Children.



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