'Suffering and Resilience' Excluded from Trial of Torture Victim, Palestinian Rights Activist

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'Suffering and Resilience' Excluded from Trial of Torture Victim, Palestinian Rights Activist

US government focuses on 45-year-old Israeli military ruling in trial of Rasmea Odeh

Supporters of Rasmea Yousef Odeh hold a banner calling for her vindication outside the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. The demonstration took place on November 13, 2013. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe)

The US government tried to place the emphasis on a 45-year-old ruling by an Israeli military court as the trial of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh entered its second day. 

Mark Jebson, the special assistant US attorney, delivered the government’s opening statement in the trial, which is taking place in Detroit, on Wednesday. In a Powerpoint presentation, Jebson outlined the charges that an Israeli military court convicted Odeh of in 1969.

He then highlighted the questions on visa and citizenship applications that Odeh is alleged to have answered incorrectly.

Jebson repeatedly emphasized that Odeh was convicted of being a member of an organization that is illegal in Israel and for helping to detonate a series of bombs, one of which resulted in the death of two civilians.

As Jebson spoke, the charges Odeh was convicted of by the military court appeared on the screen standing behind his podium. The jury saw each charge, and then, each question she answered incorrectly on her application, zoomed in on in dramatic fashion.

The intention was clear: turn the documents into the smoking gun in the case prosecutors have spent four years building.

“Great suffering and resilience”

In his opening statement Odeh’s lawyer, Michael Deutsch, noted that Odeh was convicted by a military court that was established after Israel occupied Palestinian land.

Deutsch then reminded the jury that in order to convict Odeh of knowingly providing false answers there had to be no innocent reason for the answers she provided, positing the question: “what was her state of mind?” and then stating, “there is a lot of information below the surface.”

Deutsch, with no Powerpoint glowing behind him as he spoke to the jury, used his opening statement to push against the strict boundaries Judge Gershwin Drain has placed on the trial. Triggering a number of objections, Deutsch’s bold opening statement provided the jurors with a sense — if not an actual view — of the complicating factors that led to Odeh’s false statements on her 2004 application for naturalization.

“It would be ideal if I could sit in your living room and tell you the history of Rasmea Odeh,” Deutsch said. “Rasmea Odeh embodies the history of the Palestinian people: a story of great suffering and great resilience.”

Deutsch briefly told the jurors that Odeh had lost her home twice in the span of less than twenty years to Zionist forces; that her father immigrated to Detroit, where he worked in a factory until he was seriously injured; and that she was arrested in 1969, in a massive arrest campaign by the Israeli army, during which over 500 other Palestinians were swept up.

Lisa Hajjar, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of the only book-length scholarship on the Israeli military court system, had been a potential expert witness for the defense and had submitted an affidavit to the court that stated that as early as 1969 the Israeli military had begun to employ “militarized violence and collective punishment” across the Palestinian territories, ushering in an expansive use of the military court system to counter Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

However, Hajjar will not be allowed to testify, and Deutsch told The Electronic Intifada that he will not be able to go into any further details of that arrest campaign during the trial.

When Deutsch began to suggest to the jury the “extent” of the interrogation Rasmea Odeh endured, the prosecution objected. The judge upheld the objection.

Deutsch returned to the subject of Odeh’s character. He explained that she worked with refugees in Lebanon after being released in a prisoner exchange deal and came to Detroit after her brother had asked her to help take care of her father, who had fallen ill with cancer.

In 2004, Odeh began working with women in Chicago, and soon after became the assistant director of the Arab American Action Network and a respected member of her community.

Introducing a new dimension to her defense, Deutsch told the court that it was Odeh’s brother who filled out her application for a visa in 1994 because her English was not strong enough at the time.

Again, skirting close to the perimeter of the confines of the trial, Deutsch asked the jury to consider why it took the government nine years to charge Odeh with lying on her naturalization application. The government objected to that question, with the judge upholding the objection.

On October 27,  Drain denied Odeh’s defense the ability to argue that Odeh is the victim of selective prosecution as a result of an illegal investigation into protected First Amendment activities of several Palestinian and Palestine-solidarity activists in the Chicago area.

Focus on sensational

For its first witness, prosecution called to the stand Stephen Webber, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security.

Webber began investigating Rasmea Odeh in the summer of 2010, soon after the FBI began investigating prominent Palestinian and Palestine-solidarity activists in the Chicago area. Webber has sat with the prosecution at its table in court since the start of the trial. Webber requested Odeh’s record from Israel, from which he discovered her history.

The prosecution took the jury through pages of documentation of Odeh’s arrest, conviction and imprisonment record from Israel, including records that she tried to escape prison in 1975. The prosecution also showed a series of slides of fingerprints proving that there is no contesting that Rasmea Odeh is the same woman convicted in 1969.

Again, the prosecution projected the documents onto the screen, while Webber read out loud the charges.

The defense has never contested that Odeh was convicted of these charges, but the elaborate and belabored presentation of this 45-year-old record allows the prosecution to focus on the sensational charges of which Odeh was convicted.

In Deutsch’s cross examination, he established that Webber has been working in tandem with the prosecution for over four years, helping it build a case against Odeh.

Deutsch then began a line of questioning that cast unease on the motivations behind Webber’s investigation into Odeh. Deutsch asked why Webber initiated the investigation in 2010, and why was Odeh suspected of immigration fraud over five years after her citizenship was granted?

Webber provided no reference to the 2010 investigations into Palestinian activists in Chicago.

Then Deutsch referred to a taped conversation between Webber and Rasmea Odeh that took place in July 2013 — only a few months before her indictment last October.

In July 2013, Webber waited for Rasmea Odeh at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. She was returning from a trip to Palestine and he brought her in for questioning under the pretext that he wanted to find out more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, as he admitted in court today, he wanted to confirm what he had discovered.

Unbeknownst to Odeh, the interview was filmed. However, the prosecution has not submitted this interview into evidence. Deutsch’s cross examination of Webber suggested to the court why it might have been excluded.

Reading from a transcript of the interview, Deutsch stated to the court that when Webber asked Odeh in July 2013 about her arrest by Israel, she responded, “I don’t like to talk about it” and told him that no one had ever asked her about it when she filled out her applications.

She told Webber, “I don’t like to go back to these questions, I feel nervous, please.” She repeated, “Nobody asked me, nobody asked, I don’t know.”

Two more witnesses

The prosecution called Raymond Clore, a State Department official, who was based in Jordan when Odeh applied for a visa in 1994, and Douglas Pierce, a longtime employee with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

Both provided detailed information about the process of applying for visas and naturalization and described the screening process involved.

Pierce trained the immigration officer who interviewed Odeh for her citizenship application, and the prosecution has called him to testify that all officers are trained to specifically ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime in or outside the United States, despite the fact that that specification does not appear on the application.

The defense is arguing that Odeh believed the questions on her 2004 naturalization application were referring only to convictions in the US.

On Thursday, the prosecution will continue with its questioning of Pierce and bring several more witnesses.

The trial is still expected to come to a close on Friday.

Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank, Palestine. She is a graduate of Stanford University.

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