It’s a well-known fact that if not completely broken, the American justice system at the very least has some gaping holes. Last Monday’s verdict in the case of 67-year-old Palestinian and community organizer Rasmea Odeh is the latest example.
Odeh’s case began in October of 2013, when she was arrested in her home by Department of Homeland Security officers and charged with the illegal procurement of naturalization; when immigrating to the United States in 1995 and again when filing for American citizenship in 2004, she marked that she had not previously been convicted of any crimes when she had in fact been convicted of participating in a bombing in Jerusalem in 1969 by an Israeli military court. Her conviction was not surprising; a review of the Israeli court system found that almost 100% of Palestinians put on trial are found guilty. Odeh has always maintained her innocence, describing how she was beaten, sexually assaulted, and tortured for 25 days before signing a false confession. She spent 10 years incarcerated in an Israeli prison before being released in a prisoner exchange, and lived in Amman, Jordan, before immigrating to the United States.
At her trial, Odeh spoke of the twelve years she lived in Amman after being released as the happiest time of her life. “I had a car, a house, a job and bank account,” she recalled. However, while she was ecstatic to be free, Odeh suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder following her torture and incarceration. Dr. Mary Fabri, a clinical psychologist who specially works with torture victims, was prepared to testify during the trial that this PTSD, along with the language barrier, likely played in a role in Odeh’s confusion when filling out the forms at the heart of the matter.
Dr. Fabri, however, was not permitted to give this testimony, and Odeh herself was not allowed to refer to her torture: Just days before the hearing District Court Judge Gershwin Drain, declared that discussion of Odeh’s torture was off-limits, despite saying in a previous statement that he thought her claims of being tortured were perfectly credible. This can only be seen as a clear attack on the defense team, as torture underlined their entire argument, obviously for a good reason.
To start with, Judge Drain was only assigned to the case in August after Judge Paul Dorman recused himself upon the discovery that his family had financial ties to the supermarket Odeh allegedly bombed in 1969; this was a sudden reversal from his previous refusal to step down from the case despite the defense’s argument that his numerous ties to Israel could affect the integrity of his judgment. The whole affair has been bungled astronomically from start to finish, and now Odeh could spend up to 10 years in prison and face a $250,000 fine, on top of the possibility of deportation. On top of that, despite receiving a letter from Dr. Fabri warning the court that incarcerating Odeh would only intensify her PTSD, Judge Drain deemed Odeh a flight-risk and revoked her bond. As a result, she will be imprisoned until her sentencing on March 10.
The bias does not end with her imprisonment, however, and one only has to ask a simple question to see how it goes further than the courtroom: If all of this was really about illegal immigration, why was Odeh convicted only now? As she was such a prominent advocate for Arab women’s rights and well-known figure in not only the Palestinian community but the general Chicago cultural community as a whole, it was no secret that she had been in jail. Odeh acknowledged this herself several times, including just after her release in 1979, when she testified at the United Nations regarding her torture. She even answered during her trial that had she not been confused by the questions on the immigration forms, she would have readily marked that she had been convicted of a crime in Israel, saying “Why not?…Everybody knows. How can I hide it? I can’t.” The fact that Odeh was only indicted a full 9 years after becoming a citizen of the United States and that no one in the DHS caught the discrepancy until now despite all the publicity speaks volumes.
Odeh’s future may be unclear, but the amount of love and anger on her behalf of her supporters is all but ambiguous. Numerous rallies in her support were held after last Monday’s ruling as hundreds of people gathered in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. The protesters see last Monday’s conviction as invalid due to the circumstances surrounding the trial, as well as a targeted attack on not just Odeh, but free speech and the entire Palestinian solidarity community in Chicago and around the country.
Odeh’s case sets an eerie precedent and serves as the government’s attempted warning for future activists: speak up and peacefully protest against actions being backed by your country, and face a federal witch-hunt. Just as alarming as the sentiment itself is the way it’s being downplayed, and the sheer lack of awareness of it in the general public; unless one lives in the Midwest or actively follows the Palestinian solidarity movement, it’s unlikely that they’ve even heard of Rasmea Odeh: The only mass media outlet to cover the story was USA Today. Even so, the headline could not have been more general yet simultaneously a pointed effort to continue the narrative that Palestinians are somehow deserving of the horrors they face each and everyday: “Palestinian woman found guilty of U.S. citizenship fraud.”
It’s another link in a lengthening, ever-more startling chain, and a sign that change of some sort is clearly needed—a total rewrite of the narrative we are fed, and though maybe not necessarily a complete overhaul of the system, at least a thorough re-examination of whose interests the system is really protecting.