The trial of Rasmea Odeh — feminist, community organizer, Palestinian refugee — is entering its fourth day. The US government is targeting Odeh as part of a coordinated, multi-pronged attack on Palestinians in the United States, aiming to cut off Palestinians in exile from the struggle in their homeland and to further shatter the Palestinian national movement.
By attempting to destroy what the Reut Report has called “hubs” of the organizing effort, the US government is in effect carrying out a counterinsurgency operation against both Palestinians in this country as well as their supporters. To that end, the government has repeatedly attempted to link Palestinians in exile to what it calls “terror.” By using “terror lists,” for example, it has successfully managed to prevent Palestinians in the United States from offering support to any of the Palestinian political parties that have not caved in to the Zionist project.
The government has also used those lists to criminalize purely humanitarian efforts to strengthen Palestinian society — most notoriously in the case of the Holy Land Five. Furthermore, the US government has sought to judicially harass and disrupt any and all Palestinian exile formations. The prosecution of Odeh is one example of that ongoing persecution.
What follows is an interview with Michael Deutsch, one of Odeh’s attorneys.
Can you give a capsule summary of how the United States government has gone after Rasmea Odeh?
Yes, it began in September 2010. They began to investigate her, and it was part of the investigation they were conducting of the [Arab American Action Network] in Chicago. The US attorney in Chicago requested documents from Israel about her background and history.
Ultimately, they received the documents from Israel and they begin to prepare a case against her for basically obtaining her naturalization and citizenship in violation of the law – in other words, in not being truthful in answering the questions on the application. They indicted her about a year ago, and brought her to Detroit to stand trial.
Can you quickly walk us through what the legal strategy was until last week’s rulings?
Basically we wanted to show, first of all, that all the documents from Israel were the product of an occupation military judicial system that systemically tortures people to get confessions, that is run by soldiers posing as judges, that doesn’t provide you with access to counsel until you’ve already confessed. Therefore we argued that any documents provided through that system were in violation of international law and US law and shouldn’t be admitted to the courtroom.
In addition we wanted to show that because she was so viciously and horrifically tortured, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], she’s been evaluated and diagnosed with that. That resulted in her basically blocking what happened to her in Israel when she was asked the questions in her naturalization application about whether she had ever been arrested, convicted, or imprisoned.
She interpreted that to mean imprisoned and convicted and arrested in the United States. She had been in the United States for nine years, and had a green card, and when she went for her naturalization, she assumed they were asking her about her background in the US.
What she didn’t know at that time, which she later found out after the indictment, is she had PTSD. What happens with someone who has PTSD is they cognitively block past trauma to avoid having to deal with it. So when she interpreted the questions to simply be asking about the United States, it was not only that but her PTSD blocking past trauma.
Our defense was multifaceted: keep out the documents, show the jury the illegality of the military tribunal, then put out an expert who examined her and evaluated her and said she had PTSD. The judge allowed in the documents, he blocked any testimony of torture — or innocence — because we wanted to say she was innocent, she confessed under torture, and he blocked the PTSD defense, and kept the expert out.
Can you just clarify the legal strategy and the ruling linked to the Israeli documents — how is that banned according to US law?
Well, it is inconsistent with due process and fundamental fairness — if you have a conviction that’s based on torture, you don’t allow that.
In US courts they don’t allow convictions based on torture. In the United States you have judges who are supposedly impartial, and you don’t have civilians being put on trial in military court where the judges are military officers who are involved in the invasion and occupation of your land.
So the whole process is illegitimate, and they shouldn’t be using any information obtained through that process in a US court.
Can you tell us what, if any, legal options are remaining?
She’s charged with knowingly answering questions falsely. Knowingly means not innocently, not mistakenly; knowingly means with the intent to lie. Even keeping out her PTSD, and keeping in the military documents, they have to prove she knowingly answered the questions falsely. She maintains she interpreted the questions to apply to the United States, not foreign convictions or imprisonments.
Can you talk about how the persecution of Rasmea Odeh fits into the broader pattern of what you’ve called the “domestic counter-insurgency?”
Yes, I think this is part of a campaign to suppress the Palestinian people living in the US who want to educate US people about the occupation and the attacks on Gaza, and the attacks on the Palestinian people. So what they’ve done is target the Arab American Action Network. Also they target people who travel and visit the Middle East. I think it is an intentional effort by the United States and the Israelis to suppress the truth about Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.
The prosecution of Rasmea is part of the attacks on students on campuses — Palestinian students on campuses who are trying to educate and organize around Palestine. And it’s about the people who were subpoenaed to the grand jury in Chicago, twenty-three of them, many of them worked or went on trips to the Middle East and the occupied territories. It’s about the people whose homes were raided in 2010 who were doing Palestine solidarity.
It is all part of a campaign to disrupt and neutralize Palestinian solidarity work.
And can you trace this back a little historically — you’ve spoken of similar techniques used against Puerto Rican activists?
Many of us are familiar with the counterintelligence program that targeted the rise of a black messiah — a program that sought to disrupt and neutralize the black liberation movement. The Puerto Rican independence movement was similarly targeted and in the course of prosecuting members of the Puerto Rican independence movement, they instituted a lot of repressive changes in the judicial system.
For example, they put in anonymous juries, they allowed secret cameras to be put in people’s homes, they talked about terrorism, and at the trials said you couldn’t raise the issue of colonialism and Puerto Rican independence. They kept the politics out. They also brought very stiff and hard sentences against people who were convicted of seditious conspiracy, which has hardly ever been used, but it is a conspiracy to oppose the authority of the United States by force.
And so by charging people with seditious conspiracy, anyone who was a member of a clandestine group that they determined to be illegal, whether they did anything or not, could be prosecuted or imprisoned for up to twenty years.
And what forms of support can be helpful at this point?
Well — public support, here in Detroit. There was an op-ed piece by Angela Davis in support for Rasmea, there was an open letter to Obama and the Justice Department signed by over one hundred feminist scholars in support for Rasmea. People come from Chicago to bear witness, they go to court, they fill the court room, and they’re demonstrating outside the court.
All those things have an impact and are helpful in terms of building support and educating people about her case.