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'Palestine was on trial': Rasmea Odeh defiant in final court appearance

Odeh will leave US but serve no jail time after four-year legal battle over immigration case that her supporters say was political
Odeh addressing supporters in Detroit on Thursday (MEE/Natalie Gallagher)

DETROIT, United States - At the doorsteps of a US federal court, Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh vowed on Thursday to continue organising for Palestine after a judge ordered her removal from the United States.

Odeh had entered a plea agreement that will see her leave the country but serve no jail time. She was indicted on immigration fraud charges in 2013 for failing to disclose on her US citizenship form that she was arrested in Israel.

“We will continue to struggle for our cause. We will liberate our Palestine,” Odeh, draped in a kufiyeh over a blue suit, told supporters after a tense sentencing hearing.

They come after us for a reason. They come after us because we’re doing important, impactful work.

- Hatem Abudayyeh, the Rasmea Defense Committee

It was the finale of a four-year legal battle, which turned into a relentless cause for Palestinian activism in the US.

On Thursday, Odeh, 70, took the stand to narrate the history of what she described as Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian American activist had spent 10 years in Israeli prison after being convicted of involvement in a bombing in Jerusalem in 1969.

She was tried by an Israeli military court. Odeh says the conviction was based on a forced confession obtained by torture, including sexual assault by Israeli interrogators.

Odeh was convicted in the US of unlawful procurement of citizenship in November 2014 and spent five weeks in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, before being released on bail.

In 2015, she was sentenced to 18 months, which she did not serve because she remained free on bail pending appeal.

Her defence attorneys had planned to argue that Odeh misinterpreted the question on whether she had ever been arrested because she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the torture she endured in Israel.

But US District Judge Gershwin Drain excluded evidence relating to torture. A court of appeals ruled in 2016 that the district judge had erred, tossing the conviction and sending the case back to Detroit.

Earlier this year, Odeh agreed to a plea bargain that allows her to avoid jail time in exchange for leaving the country.

Throughout the ordeal, Odeh rallied support from Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and leftist groups. Prominent African American intellectuals and civil rights leaders, including Angela Davis and Marc Lamont Hill, spoke in her defence.

Her supporters have always maintained that the legal case was a pretext for a wider crackdown on Palestinian activism.

This was a political case. Palestine was on trial.

- Kristian Bailey, activist

At the sentencing hearing, Odeh framed her case within the context of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

“Why are the Palestinians prohibited from struggling for our rights?” she asked, listing what she called Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, including military occupation, jailing activists and demolishing homes.

She also highlighted the US government’s role in supporting these violations.

Judge Drain interrupted Odeh twice, telling her that the case is about immigration fraud, not Palestine. But she carried on with her statement, noting that the lead prosecutor on the case had stressed the terrorism aspect of the indictment minutes before she took the stand.

Drain, however, finally ordered Odeh to stop, threatening to lock her up for being in contempt of court.

Odeh had been active in the Palestinian community in Chicago for two decades since her arrival to the US.

Before handing the sentence, which had been agreed upon by the defence and the prosecution, Drain called Odeh a “smart lady” for accepting the plea agreement.

He also recognised her contributions to the community in Chicago. Still, he imposed a $1,000 fine on her to be a “deterrent” for people who may think about defrauding US immigration services.

In his statement, defence attorney Michael Deutsch said that given Odeh's age and positive role in her community, the prosecution should not have pursued the charges against her.

At a media conference after the hearing, he stressed the political nature of the trial, criticising Drain for not allowing Odeh to tell her story.

Hatem Abudayyeh, a leading activist on the Rasmea Defense Committee, described Odeh as an “icon” and a “legend”.

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Abudayyeh said Odeh embodied the Palestinian struggle by not backing down.

“They come after us for a reason. They come after us because we’re doing important, impactful work,” Abudayyeh told Middle East Eye.

“They come after us because we’re winning - Boycott Divestment and Sanctions is winning; the resistance is winning. And Israel, even in the United States is being seen as the pariah, criminal state that it is.”

He added that Odeh was able to inspire a coalition of support from oppressed communities with her defiance.

“She said, ‘I am going to fight this case, and I’m going to trial, and I’m going to put Israel on trial’. That’s what her attorneys did. That’s what we did in the streets,” he continued.

Odeh had been offered a plea bargain early in 2014; she turned it down.

Abudayyeh said if the US government had aimed to deter activism by targeting Odeh, it failed.

Throughout legal hearings over the past four years, dozens of Odeh’s supporters have demonstrated outside the courthouse in Detroit. Thursday was no different. Speakers from a wide range of organisations lauded the Palestinian activist after her sentencing.

Kristian Bailey, a Detroit-based African American writer who is an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights, said prosecuting Odeh was not about immigration fraud.

"This was a political case," he said. "Palestine was on trial... But Rasmea put Israel on trial."

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