Palestinian-American activist facing prison pleads not guilty on immigration fraud charges

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Supporters of community activist Rasmea Odeh hold up signs. (Photo via
Supporters of community activist Rasmea Odeh hold up signs. (Photo via

Rasmea Yousef Odeh was 21-years-old when she was thrown into the harsh confines of Israeli prison. 45 years later, the Chicago-based Palestinian-American is now facing the prospect of another prison stint–this time in the U.S.

Odeh, born in the village of Lifta in 1948, has been charged with immigration fraud by U.S. authorities for allegedly omitting her stint in Israeli prison on U.S. citizenship papers. She pled not guilty in an arraignment hearing on November 13. Arrested on October 22 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, she was released the same day on a $15,000 bond.

The immigration charge is “only a pretext for an escalation and a continuation of legal and political attacks on our community,” Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Arab-American Action Network, where Odeh works, told me. “She’s a leader and an icon in our community.”

Odeh, the 66-year-old associate director of the Arab-American Action Network, was convicted by an Israeli military court for allegedly participating in the 1969 bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket that killed two Israeli civilians.

“The United States will never be a safe haven for individuals seeking to distance themselves from their pasts,” William Hayes, a Homeland Security official, said in a statement announcing Odeh’s charges on immigration fraud.

Though she was sentenced to life by Israel, Odeh was released ten years later as part of a prisoner exchange with the Israeli government. Israeli soldiers tortured her while she was in prison, according to testimony published in the Journal of Palestine Studies. She came to the U.S. in 1995 and obtained citizenship in 2004.

Odeh faces 10 years in jail and possible deportation if she’s convicted of lying on her citizenship and visa applications.

A broad coalition is mobilizing to push back against the government’s case. Supporters of Odeh rallied across the United States ahead of her court appearance November 13, including in front of the Detroit federal courthouse where she appeared. The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation is calling for letters in support of Odeh to be sent to U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who is prosecuting the case.

A statement in support of Odeh was signed by 64 organizations such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee. Grassroots groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Al Awda also signed on.  The organizations say that Israel’s military courts, which have a nearly 100% conviction rate, “operate exclusively to subjugate occupied Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza” and that Odeh is an “exemplary citizen” who has overcome “amazing odds.” In a separate statement, the U.S. Palestinian Community Network said that Odeh was convicted “by an Israeli military court – the same court system that allows almost no right to due process.”

Odeh’s arrest comes three years after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the homes of a number of Midwest anti-war activists, some of whom are involved in the Palestine solidarity movement, like the Arab American Action Network’s Abudayyeh. The FBI issued subpoenas to the 23 activists, but they have refused to cooperate with an investigation that is looking into whether they violated “material support” for terrorism laws. Nobody has been indicted, though the investigation hangs over the anti-war activists.

Activists have raised the question of whether the targeting of Odeh is connected to the cases against the activists, some of whom are based in Chicago.

With future court hearings on Odeh set to be scheduled, supporters say they won’t let up the fight to defeat the charges against her.

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Any ideas on how Ms Odeh’s defense attorney should proceed?