U.S. Politics and the Economy

New Day for Rasmea Odeh

Throwing the spotlight on Israeli torture

By Dennis J. Bernstein

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” wrote the late poet and biographer Muriel Rukeyser: “The world would split open.” And what would happen if the one woman telling the truth were Palestinian, and she was blowing the whistle about systematic torture of Palestinian prisoners, including rape of woman under Israeli custody?

Meet Rasmea Odeh. Odeh is a 67-year-old Chicago-based Palestinian community leader. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 and received her United States citizenship in 2004. Since that time she has worked diligently and effectively with community organizations that provide crucial care and support for immigrant women.

Odeh is the associate director of the Chicago-based Arab-American Action Network and a founder of the Arab Women’s Committee, which provides English as a Second Language (ESL), social services, civil rights education and leadership training to over 800 immigrant and refugee women in the Windy City. She is also a convicted felon.

In October 2013 Rasmea was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of one count of unlawful procurement of naturalization (of her U.S. citizenship). A few months prior to her arrest by Homeland Security, she received the Outstanding Community Leader Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance for her work with Arab-Americans, women in particular.

The details behind Odeh’s arrest go to the heart of the matter of an ongoing relationship between the U.S. and Israel—a national security collaboration that allows the Israelis to push forward with a policy that can only be described as ethnic cleansing. The policy’s core is seizing Palestinian land by any means necessary, while supporting an expanding settlers’ movement. Illegal arrest, imprisonment, and torture are tools used daily by Israeli occupiers to quell Palestinian resistance to the seizure of their land, house-by-house and acre-by-acre.

On February 25, Rasmea Odeh was granted an appeal for a possible new trial. I sat down with Lina Baroudi, a staff attorney for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) to talk about the details of the case. AROC is a partner organization with the Arab-American Action Network where Rasmea Odeh is associated. They are working together on a national defense committee. Let’s begin in occupied Palestine.

Dennis Bernstein: Please explain how Rasmea Odeh’s treatment as a Palestinian woman by Israeli forces began.

Lina Baroudi: In October 2013 Rasmea was charged with one count of unlawful procurement of naturalization, which is U.S. citizenship. She is accused of failing to report a prior conviction on her naturalization application, which was filed in 2004. The accusation is related to her conviction by an Israeli military court more than 45 years ago and her subsequent imprisonment for ten years in an Israeli prison.

Dennis Bernstein: Ten years, 45 years ago.

Lina Baroudi: Absolutely. She is one of the few women who have publicly spoken about the brutal, sexual, psychological, and physical torture Palestinian prisoners endure at the hands of the Israeli government. That torture is what ultimately led to her coerced confession and conviction, a conviction she been very public about and has testified about before the United Nations.

Dennis Bernstein: It took them ten years to come after Rasmea Odeh for this one count: How do you explain the timing? There must have been somebody pushing for this in the U.S.

Lina Baroudi: Yes. The immigration charge was a pretext to attack Rasmea as an icon of the Palestine Liberation Movement. She’s been long involved with that movement in the U.S. and the case against her grew out of an investigation of 23 antiwar and Palestinian community organizers in Chicago and Minneapolis in 2010, all of whom were subpoenaed to a Grand Jury but were never ultimately charged with anything.

Dennis Bernstein: This is how they came back to her.

Lina Baroudi: Exactly.

Dennis Bernstein: She went from a respected community leader to handcuffs and jail. There must be multiple sufferings as a result.

Lina Baroudi: Yes, in 2014, the U.S. District Court in Detroit convicted her of the charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization. She was sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment and subsequent deportation from the U.S., where she’s lived for so many years. During the unfair trial, Rasmea was prevented from presenting evidence about the events that led to her conviction by an Israeli military tribunal.

Dennis Bernstein: So she couldn’t talk about the torture.

Lina Baroudi: She couldn’t talk about any evidence. The judge, ironically, allowed in the actual conviction documents, but she wasn’t allowed to testify about the conviction or the circumstances that led to her arrest, her torture, her coerced confession, her imprisonment, or the subsequent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from which she suffers to this day. In addition, her expert witness on PTSD was also barred from testifying. It’s incomprehensible that the judge admitted her conviction into evidence but barred any mention of the torture and coerced confession that led to it, because he said they were irrelevant. The Israeli military court system has a conviction rate of 99 percent for the Palestinians brought before it. This flaw, in the judge’s reasoning, was the basis of the appeal, which is that Rasmea was denied the right to present a complete defense because the trial court precluded her and her expert witness from testifying about how her PTSD affected the naturalization process.

Dennis Bernstein: On what grounds was the appeal granted?

Lina Baroudi: There were several arguments put forth by her legal team. On February 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted the appeal and vacated her conviction. They looked at the de-naturalization statute, which they said criminalizes knowingly procuring naturalization, contrary to law. PTSD is relevant to whether Rasmea knowingly omitted information on her citizenship application. They found that the trial court’s conclusion—that her PTSD and circumstances of her arrest and torture were irrelevant—was wrong.

Dennis Bernstein: The court implies they believe her that she was tortured and has a right to tell that story.

Lina Baroudi: Yes. The court recognizes that PTSD is relevant to the immigration process and that when the process is asking about your background and arrests and the judge allows convictions from a military court system—referred to as a kangaroo court system by many organizations and well known scholars—then PTSD is going to be relevant.

Dennis Bernstein: Where does it go? There are two possible outcomes.

Lina Baroudi: The decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals becomes final on April 10. At that point the case goes back to the trial court. The first scenario is that the trial judge can find another basis to exclude Rasmea’s and her expert witness’s testimony and that she can appeal again to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The more likely scenario is that the trial court allows in the PTSD testimony, and that Rasmea and her expert witness will be allowed to testify at a new hearing about the circumstances of her conviction by an Israeli military court and how the lifelong effects of her PTSD may have affected the naturalization process.

Dennis Bernstein: What is your assessment as to the possibility of a positive outcome?

Lina Baroudi: The Sixth Circuit decision language is encouraging the trial court to allow in the testimony because they made a finding that PTSD is relevant. I expect the second scenario, which is a new trial.

Dennis Bernstein: Why was she targeted? Torture is such a touchy subject. The Israelis, who have so many complaints you can’t keep track of them, are sensitive on this front. Now the Americans are taking their lessons from the Israelis, so the American government is sensitive about torture. There are highly political forces operating, and some are coming down on her and others.

Lina Baroudi: The case came out of an investigation of the 23 antiwar and Palestinian community organizers in Chicago and Minneapolis. She specifically came under attack by the U.S. government because she’s a Palestinian, an Arab, an immigrant, and a woman. She’s under attack because for decades she’s organized for Palestinian liberation and self-determination, the right of return, and an end of Israeli occupation and colonization. This case is of special significance for immigrant activists in the U.S. because it highlights the level of surveillance and repression employed by the U.S. to further the interests of its allies, including the Israeli state—namely by silencing and intimidating those who speak out and organize against racism and Zionism. Last week the University of California regents adopted a statement condemning anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism on university campuses. Although it is unenforceable and raises First Amendment concerns, it’s another tool. Rasmea’s case is about stopping political speech that advocates for the self-determination of the Palestinians.

Dennis Bernstein: This is the age of degrading, disparaging, undermining the Arab-American community. We have a candidate who wants to purge the community. This is happening in this cauldron.

Lina Baroudi: Absolutely. In the post 9/11 climate, prosecutors have used fear mongering and growing anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia to target Arabs and Muslims and launch a smear campaign against people like Rasmea.

Dennis Bernstein: Why is this case so important to you?

Lina Baroudi: I am the staff attorney at the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco and we work closely with the Arab-American Activist Network in Chicago, which Rasmea is the associate director of, so AROC has been on the national defense committee since its inception. We use local efforts to amplify the demands coming out of Chicago for Rasmea’s defense. We organize to raise awareness about the case, raise money for her legal defense, conduct educational forums and direct actions. As a staff attorney who represents immigrants of an Arab organization, this case will affect my clients and how they will be treated as well.

Dennis Bernstein: Have you been monitoring an upsurge in violence, threats, and attacks?

Lina Baroudi: Yes. We’ve definitely seen a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the Bay Area. We have many complaints, and much fear. We’ve also seen how they affect our immigration cases, which are being held up for security background checks for much longer than they used to be.

Dennis Bernstein: Is Rasmea free pending appeal?

Lina Baroudi: Yes, she is out as of last year on $50,000 bond. She is free, still working at the Arab-American Activist Network in Chicago, doing well. Now we’re waiting to see what will happen at the trial court.

Dennis J. Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on Pacifica Radio, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pillar Award for his work as a journalist whistleblower. He is most recently the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.

Reader Supported News, April 3, 2016