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Rasmea Odeh: A 'symbol' for Palestinian struggle in US

Odeh's supporters believe that her indictment deliberately weakens Palestinian activism
Odeh speaks to supporters after her status hearing in Detroit (MEE/Dave Leins)

DETROIT, United States - Dozens of activists from across the country gathered in support of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh in front of the federal courthouse in Detroit on Monday.

Odeh is appealing an immigration fraud conviction. In 2014, she was found guilty of knowingly lying on her naturalisation application for not disclosing that she served 10 years in Israeli prisons. Odeh had been convicted by an Israeli military court of involvement in a 1969 super market bombing in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian activist says Israeli interrogators used torture and rape to force her to confess to a role in the bombing.

While answering on her citizenship application whether she has ever been arrested, she checked "no," thinking the question referred to her time in the United States, Odeh said during the trial.

Since her indictment in 2013, Odeh has become a "symbol" for the Palestinian struggle in the United States. Her supporters describe her prosecution as deliberate repression to weaken Palestinian activism.

On Monday, David Finkel, of the Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestinian Jewish American advocacy group, described the Odeh case as a frontline for the struggle against injustice.

Odeh’s attorneys argue that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse she endured in Israel. They say the PTSD affected her understanding of the question. However, a US district judge in Detroit did not allow a mental health expert to testify on her behalf.

Odeh, who resides in Chicago, was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by deportation.  

The Palestinian activist remains free pending appeal. The Sixth Court of Appeals in Cincinnati gave her a glimmer of hope when appellate judges found that the district court erred by excluding the PTSD evidence.

The case is back in Detroit, where Judge Gershwin Drain held a hearing on the validity of the psychological expert’s testimony. A tentative date for a new trial was set for 10 January 2017.

Odeh will be granted a new trial if the district court judge fails to make a compelling alternate case for barring the PTSD evidence.

Her lawyers and supporters have expressed optimism.

'Nothing criminal'

Although the court session was closed to the public and the press, Odeh's supporters crowded the sidewalk by the courthouse, protesting for dropping the charges.

The demonstration in support of Odeh turned into a platform for wider issues. The protesters, who were of different ethnic and political backgrounds, also spoke out against police brutality, racism and social injustice.

Hatem Abuddayeh, the executive director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network where Odeh works, hailed the Court of Appeal's decision as a "massive victory".

Abuddayeh's home was raided by the FBI in 2010 as a part of an investigation into possible links between Illinois and Minnesota anti-war activists and designated “terrorist organisations” overseas.

The inquiry did not lead to any legal charges. The activists believe the federal government, which investigated their legal political activities, violated their constitutional rights.

Abuddayeh said federal agents "found Rasmea" after the illegal raids.

He said Zionists, right-wing ideologues and the US government are trying to demonise advocating for Palestinians’ rights by any means necessary, which is why they are going after Odeh.

“We reject that,” he said. “There is nothing criminal about our liberation movement.”

He added that the government is using “terrorism” dishonestly to conflate the Palestinian struggle with violent extremism.

Supporters demonstrate outside the hearing for Rasmea Odeh in Detroit (MEE/Dave Leins)
Supporters demonstrate outside the hearing for Rasmea Odeh in Detroit (MEE/Dave Leins)

Abudayyeh said the protesters, who were chanting anti-government slogans in the background, were excited by the prospects of a new trial.

Prominent African American intellectuals, including Angela Davis, have come to Odeh’s defence.

Abudayyeh said the Palestinian-black solidarity, demonstrated by the Odeh case, is essential to both struggles.

Asha Noor, an activist who moved recently to the Detroit area from Washington DC, said she was shocked to learn about Odeh's prosecution.

"This is definitely a witch hunt," she said. "Rasmea is not a threat to anybody in this country."

Noor added that targeting Odeh fits neatly into intrusive federal policies like surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security.

She stressed the importance of cooperation between different groups in the struggle for social justice.

"It's absolutely beautiful to be able to see different age groups, to see different backgrounds - race, ethnicity, sexual orientation - come together to see when an injustice is occurring and stand up and fight against it," Noor told the Middle East Eye. "It's absolutely beautiful see this sort of diversity in support of Rasmea."

Black and Palestinian struggles unite

Tawana Petty, a poet who goes by the stage name Honeycomb, gave a passionate speech in which she likened the African American struggle to the Palestinian struggle.

"As a rape survivor, as a domestic violence survivor, I stand here on behalf of my community saying that Rasmea is welcomed here," Honeycomb told protesters.

She said Detroiters and African Americans should show solidarity with other oppressed communities.

Mick Kelly, a member of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, slammed US policies as unjust and imperialistic. He said the government is lashing out and repressing activists like Odeh who are standing for the liberation of Palestine.

Kelly, who was one of the activists investigated by the FBI in 2010, applauded the diversity of the protesters.

"It's a sign that people are tired of what the United States is doing to the Palestinians; and it's a sign that people are concerned about fair play and justice," he said. "People of all walks of life are coming together to defend Rasmea."

A crowd of supporters discuss the days events in Detroit (MEE/Dave Leins)
A crowd of supporters discuss the days events in Detroit (MEE/Dave Leins)

Legal activism

Throughout the legal proceedings, Odeh’s supporters have packed the courtroom and demonstrated in front of the courthouse. They have launched social media campaigns, written op-eds and held protests across the country for her cause.

Abudayyeh said political activism is vital to the case and can affect the legal outcome.

Michael Deutsch, Odeh’s lead attorney, reiterated Abudayyeh’s comment. He said the support the defendant is receiving can influence the public’s and the jury’s perception of her.

“I really appreciate everybody coming and protesting and showing their solidarity with Rasmea,” Deutsch said.

The attorney added that the judge is leaning towards accepting the psychological experts testimony, which, he said, may prove to the new jury that she did not knowingly lie on her citizenship application.

Odeh’s supporters were pleased to know that Jonathan Tukle, the assistant prosecutor who represented the government during the trial, is no longer on the case.

Abudayyeh said Tukle was ideologically vested in prosecuting Odeh.

He wished for a new prosecutor who is not as personally committed to putting the Palestinian activist behind bars.

“We have a long road to go...In the meantime, Rasmea is with you; she’s continuing to do her work. Everyday that she continues to do her work is a victory for her and her community,” Deutsch said.

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