Was Convicted Palestinian-American Rasmea Yousef Odeh Allowed a Fair Defense?

Independent journalist Charlotte Silver discusses how the defense was blocked from including the role of torture and PTSD in her case

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Rasmea Yousef Odeh, the associate director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network, was found guilty of committing fraud on her 1994 U.S. visa and 2004 naturalization applications. The prosecution in the case, The United States of America v. Rasmieh Yousef Odeh, said that the 67-year-old Palestinian-American intentionally failed to disclose her 1969 conviction in an Israeli military court for her participation in two 1969 bombings in Jerusalem that killed two Israeli civilians. Odeh served ten years in prison, was released in a prisoner exchange in 1979, and then deported to Lebanon.

Rasmea and her defense say her confession was false and obtained by torture, which included sexual humiliation and threats of rape. They also claim that the incorrect answers on her applications were not intentional but unknowingly made, which she said, during her testimony, was due to the ambiguity of the questions, specifically as to whether the issue of previous criminal convictions or jail time referred to her time in the United States.

Odeh was found guilty of the charges on Monday, November 10, and faces up to ten years in prison, deportation, loss of citizenship, and a $250,000 fine. The defense plans to appeal after her sentencing, which is due to take place in the upcoming weeks.

Joining us now to discuss this case is Charlotte silver, who has been closely following the case. She is an independent journalist based in Oakland, California, who writes regularly for the Electronic Intifada and Al Jazeera English. Her work is also appeared on The Nation, In These Times, Vice, and Jacobin magazine.

Thanks for joining us, Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE SILVER, INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.

WORONCZUK: So, Charlotte, Rasmea was indicted in October 2013 and was arrested by Homeland Security. And this is after she had lived in the United States for about 20 years. How is it that it took 20 years for Homeland Security in the United States to find out this contradiction between the nondisclosure of this conviction on her visa and her naturalization application?

SILVER: Well, they discovered it because they were narrowing very specifically on Palestinian and Palestine Solidarity activists in Chicago and in the Midwest in general. The indictment of Rasmea Odeh was the result of this very broad investigation that began in the summer of 2010 of individuals in the Arab American Action Network.

Rasmea Odeh was actually not one of the first targets of this investigation. Others that she worked with, her colleagues, her friends, they were. Their houses were rated, searched, their computers seized. And it was in this process that they discovered Rasmea Odeh’s name. And when they were conducting this investigation, they requested documents from Israel. And so, by receiving thousands of documents, thousands of pages of documents from the Israeli military court, they were able to line up this discrepancy between Rasmea Odeh’s visa and naturalization applications and this record that they dug up from 1969 in Israel.

WORONCZUK: And tell us some of Rasmea’s personal story. Like, what has she been doing in the United States for the past two decades?

SILVER: So she came to the United States in 1995 really at the invitation of her brother and father, who had been living here for decades before that. They had a restaurant here. And her father had been diagnosed with cancer. And so her brother asked Rasmea, who at the time, in the ’90s, had been living in Jordan.

And when she testified in court last week, she said that this was–when she was in Jordan, it was the happiest time of her life. She had–in the years prior, she had spent ten years in an Israeli prison and was released in 1979 on a prisoner exchange, and then lived in Lebanon for a few years, and then finally made her life in Jordan.

And so she came to the United States in 1995 to help her brother take care of their father. And that was actually in Detroit. And that’s why–that’s one of the reasons why the trial took place in Detroit and not Chicago, where she’s lived since 2004.

And then, in 2004, she came to Chicago. And she tells that she had this sort of transformative experience working with Arab women, immigrants, who she realized were all very isolated from each other. And so she did this really sort of diligent work of reaching out, opening up a phone book, reaching out to women with Arab names and calling them up and asking them to work with her at the Arab American Action Network, and sort of helping them learn English, helping them sort of acclimate to the challenges in Chicago, and sort of coaxing them out of their isolation. And she established the Arab Women’s Community here, which is part of the Arab American Action Network. And it’s become a 600-woman network of people. And many of the women that she worked with traveled every day of every hearing for the past year to Detroit, to be there in the courtroom, to show their support for Rasmea. And they were there all last week, filling the courtroom and the spillover room to show the jury and to show the judge the kind of support that Rasmea had.

WORONCZUK: So even though the trial took place in November, there were a couple of instances that took place in the previous few months that seemed to have an impact on the case made by the defense. One of them was that in July of this year, the defense made a request for the original judge of the case to recuse himself. Why did they do that?

SILVER: Well, the original judge, Judge Paul Borman, had a history of traveling to Israel, bringing delegations of people to Israel, to sort of tour them around, bringing politicians in the ’80s. And so the defense, which had been planning to really make their trial a political trial, in that they wanted to challenge the conviction, the 1969 conviction of Rasmea Odeh, based on the fact that she was convicted by an Israeli military court, which relies almost exclusively on confessions extracted through torture, has a nearly 100 percent conviction rate, is composed of Israeli soldiers who sit as judges and preside over cases. So they had wanted to challenge all of this evidence that was going to be admitted. And so they argued that if the judge presiding over the case have this sort of affinity to Israel, he would not be able to be impartial.

And interestingly enough, he initially rejected their request for him to recuse himself, and then he looked a little bit further into the circumstances of the case and realized that his family had some–he sort of–he made oblique references to they had some sort of connections to the Super-Sol grocery chain in Israel. And the Super-Sol grocery chain is one of the targets of the 1969 bombing, which Rasmea Odeh was convicted of being involved in in 1969. So he then took it upon himself to recuse himself, and Judge Gershwin Drain replaced him.

And it was actually Judge Gershwin Drain who made all the rulings that actually all came only a week before the trial began, that severely truncated Rasmea’s chances of putting forth a robust defense. And for many people who watched the trial take place last week, they felt like the outcome was already written in these pretrial rulings. And that was that the defense was not going to be allowed to refer at all to the fact that Rasmea was tortured for 25 days before finally signing a confession that was used to convict her in 1969. And this was really crucial, because their defense had been that not only was the conviction based on a torture confession, but also that when she filled out her application for naturalization and she was asked about her criminal background, the posttraumatic stress that she suffers from and she has [continued to] suffer from since 1969 acted so that she avoided recalling those memories. And that was the alibi for the fact that she’d answered no. And she had been examined and diagnosed by a woman, Mary Fabri, who has 30 years of working with victims of torture, and in an affidavit that was submitted to the court, she had written up all the details of Rasmea’s torture, and then also concluded that it was reasonable that Rasmea would have avoided recalling those memories in 2004 when she applied for her visa. So she was originally going to be admitted as an expert witness to testify to this, to this defense, and that was going to be their explanation.

WORONCZUK: But why did the judge say that evidence of torture could not be admitted as part of the defense’s case?

SILVER: The judge said that this case is not about what happened in 1969. We are not trying to relitigate what happened in 1969. He said that as a way of justifying not admitting the information of the torture, which calls into question the legitimacy of her conviction. But at the same time, he also let in what she was convicted of, which was participating in a series of bombings that resulted in the deaths of two people. So it was imbalanced. And the prosecution alluded to this conviction numerous times. I think her defense attorney said it was over 50 times did they repeat this, convicted of two bombings that killed two people, which is a very inflammatory charge that would prejudice any jury.

And so there was a contradiction in the ruling. There was–on one hand, there was this insistence that this case was not about the 1969 conviction. But at the same time, it was entirely about the conviction, because the whole point was she would never have been admitted had the U.S. immigration authorities known about her alleged participation in these bombings.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And then, as the trial began in November, can you summarize for our viewers what were the cases made, both by the prosecution and by the defense?

SILVER: The prosecution made the point that they had documents that they had had translated from the original Hebrew given to them by the Israeli military court of all the counts that Rasmea was convicted of in 1969. They also showed that in 1975 she attempted to escape the Israeli prison she was being held in, and that she was released in 1979. And then they showed the documents that she answered incorrectly–the questions she answered incorrectly on her visa and naturalization applications. And they brought in several immigration authorities to sort of testify to the fact that there’s no ambiguity in the questions for her to misunderstand, and that had they known her past, they would not have ever granted her a visa to come to the U.S. as a permanent resident in 1995.

The defense, having been completely hamstrung by the rulings that occurred a week before–not being able to admit the torture evidence, not being able to put forth the posttraumatic stress disorder as their defense–they showed that there were several inconsistencies within the application for a visa and naturalization that led Rasmea to answer in a way that was not knowingly false. And so they really–because the charge is that she knowingly answered these questions incorrectly. And so the defense focused in on the fact that she was answering what she believed to be a question inquiring about her criminal record in the United States specifically. And so the question says, have you ever been arrested? And she said no. And in court she said, I believed they were asking, have I ever been arrested in the United States, even though they don’t specify in the United States or anywhere in the world.

And according to the prosecution and the witnesses they brought, it is protocol–although it’s not written anywhere as protocol, there’s no written evidence of this, but it’s just sort of verbally instructed to all immigration authorities–that when they conduct the naturalization interview, they verbally add, have you ever been arrested anywhere in the world, have you ever been convicted of a crime anywhere the world, have you ever been imprisoned anywhere in the world. And Rasmea Odeh, when she testified, said that that was never added in the interview.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And what has the community’s response been to her guilty verdict?

SILVER: Well, the community was prepared for a guilty verdict, knowing the limitations on the defense. Last week at the trial, they filled the courtroom and the spillover room every single day. A lot of people were coming from Chicago, spending the night in Detroit, or coming on the days they could come. So there’s been a huge outpouring of support for Rasmea.

But what was really awful for them and surprising and shocking was yesterday the government, in what I understand to have surprised Rasmea’s lawyers as well, asked to revoke the bond that she was out on, that she had put forth, a $3,000 bond that she had put forth last October. They had asked for that to be revoked, so that she was immediately taken into custody. And that was not expected. And they made the argument that she was a flight risk. And what the government said: there was a short recess between the verdict and then the hearing on whether or not her bond would be revoked. And what the prosecutors said, they referred to a statement she had just made in between and during the recess outside the courtroom, that she said that she thought the verdict was injust. They referred to that. And then the judge, heeding this motion to revoke her bond, said, we see what you do when you don’t respect the authority of a court’s sentence–in 1975, you tried to escape. So you have a history that suggests that you might pose a flight risk, which was a really telling comment and ruling by the judge that even though he had made this big emphasis that this was not about her 1969 record, it really was, it really was all about that. And the decision to revoke her bond and send her to jail immediately upon the verdict really spoke to that.

WORONCZUK: Some supporters of the conviction have argued that there’s no documentary evidence supporting Rasmea’s claims that she was tortured. How have her supporters and her defense responded to that claim?

SILVER: Well, Rasmea has testified to the torture she experienced repeatedly since she was released in 1979. As early as 1979, she spoke to the UN and explained exactly what happened. And then again in 2004, in a documentary about women imprisoned by Israel, she refers to it again, and then again when she speaks to Mary Fabri about the torture, and it’s very sort of clinically documented. And there are no inconsistencies in all of these different testimonies to her torture. And the judge himself, when he ruled against admitting it into court, said, I believe this to be credible, that your experience of torture was credible; it’s just not relevant here.

So I think that the consistency–and in fact the consistency for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, that they experience torture, that has been documented by our own government–a 1977 report put forth by the U.S. consular in Jerusalem, actually based on testimonies given by Palestinians applying for visas with the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. They gave testimonies to the experience of torture they had had in Israeli jails, and very consistent corroborating experiences of torture that the U.S. government–she wrote, this points to a systematic use of torture against Palestinian prisoners. And the torture that Israeli inflicts on its prisoners for the past four decades has been documented as being consistent with the reports that Rasmea gave.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Charlotte Silver, independent journalist, joining us right now from Chicago, she’s been following this case extensively, and you can check out her work on Electronic Intifada.

Charlotte, thank you so much for joining us.

SILVER: Thank you so much for having me.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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