Rasmea sentenced to 18 months, but is coming home!
Over the objections of a prosecution team that called for 5-7 years in federal prison, a harsh sentence with terrorism enhancements, Judge Gershwin Drain sentenced Rasmea Odeh, Chicago’s 67-year-old Palestinian community leader, to 18 months for Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization, of which she was convicted last November.
Almost 200 of Rasmea’s supporters filled two courtrooms in the Detroit federal courthouse, and left disappointed but not defeated. “This is a blow, of course, but we have to remember that the government wanted the judge to lock Rasmea up for half a decade or more,” said Muhammad Sankari of the national Rasmea Defense Committee. “Judge Drain had to weigh the outpouring of support that Rasmea has inspired from across the country. We made it impossible for the judge to justify an extended prison term, and now, we will stand with her in the fight to appeal the conviction itself, to make sure she doesn’t serve one day of that prison sentence.”
The decision came after her attorneys argued that she not be imprisoned at all. Seventy important leaders of unions and community-based, faith-based, civil rights, and student organizations, as well as prominent academics and activists, wrote letters to the judge in the past few weeks, urging him to issue a sentence with no prison time beyond the month Rasmea served in a county jail following the November verdict. They cited her invaluable service as a community leader in Chicago, as well as concerns for her age, poor health, and chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
One of the many letters of support came from Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit. He wrote, “I am asking for compassion in her sentencing. Rasmea has much to offer her community…keeping her out of prison would allow her to continue as a contributing and productive person, doing the work that is so critical to hundreds of refugee women.”
For their part, prosecutors called for Judge Drain to issue a sentence far beyond standard sentencing guidelines. While prosecutors had been barred from branding her a terrorist in front of the jury last year, today they were bound by no such court orders, asking that a terrorism enhancement be added to prolong her sentence.
Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression said, “The government showed their true colors today, making it clear this case was never about immigration, but rather, the political persecution of a Palestinian hero. What they didn’t bargain for is that Rasmea would defend herself, and that thousands would rally around her.”
During the trial last year, Rasmea was prevented from presenting evidence about the events that led to her conviction by an Israeli military tribunal 45 years ago. Judge Drain had ruled that the circumstances of conviction by Israel didn’t matter. “Not the illegal 1967 massacres and occupation – let alone the military ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from the land and their homes when Palestine was partitioned in 1948 – not the midnight sweeps and kidnapping by the invading Army after the 1967 war, not the torture, not the kangaroo court and false confessions, not the prison time,” said her attorneys in filings to the court.
“Be strong whatever happens,” Rasmea said before speaking to the judge, “I am strong.”
After the sentencing, Rasmea was released on bond, as she sets out to appeal her conviction. Surprising many, the prosecution did not object, despite having pressed for her bond to be revoked after the guilty verdict. She credits the work of her supporters across the country for forcing the government’s hand.
Zena Ozeir of the Z Collective in Detroit said, “I have no doubt Rasmea’s freedom today is owed to the public outcry against her persecution. The government is still out to lock her up for years, but that is something they couldn’t win today. We have been with her at every hearing and trial date, we’ve held protests across the country, and flooded their phone lines and mail boxes, with people of conscience demanding an end to this prosecution, and an end to her unjust treatment in jail this fall. We will not stop until we win justice for Rasmea!”
After today’s hearing, Rasmea returns to Chicago, where she will continue her important community activism and work with her attorneys on an appeal of the verdict. If Odeh loses her case on appeal, she will have to serve the full sentence, and then lose her citizenship and be subject to immediate removal from the United States.
Rasmea Defense Committee
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Rasmea Odeh and the war on Palestinian existence and identity:
Charlotte Kates, coordinator of Samidoun, shared the following thoughts after the sentencing of Palestinian community leader Rasmea Odeh in Detroit in U.S. courts. Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network, founder of the Arab Women’s Committee, and former political prisoner in Israeli jails, was sentenced by Judge Gershwin Drain to 18 months imprisonment, $1100 in fines, the stripping of her U.S. citizenship and deportation to Jordan, on one count of unlawful procurement of naturalization. She was found guilty in a trial in which she was forbidden to disclose that she had been tortured and raped by Israeli interrogators to extract a confession.
In the hearing (livetweeted at http://twitter.com/nfwazwaz) both prosecutor Jonathan Tukel and – perhaps more troublingly – Judge Drain, introduced and focused on themes of “terrorism” in an attempt to criminalize Rasmea. Kates’ comments, and links to the two Palestinian and Arab films introduced in the hearing by Tukel, follow:
“Rasmea’s sentencing hearing was incredibly troubling today for several reasons – beyond even the sentencing of a torture survivor, a leader and an icon to the Palestinian community. It is a victory in some ways that Rasmea is coming home to her community, despite the attempts at demonization pushed by prosecutor Tukel, including references to ISIS, and deeming her an “icon in the terrorist world”. (She is in fact an icon of the Palestinian community and all communities and movements struggling for justice and liberation.) She has a wonderful legal team who will fight vigorously for her case. And the prosecution’s attempt to push for a sentence 3-4x the standard sentencing guidelines was rejected.
But in this sentencing hearing, while Rasmea was barred from discussing her torture and rape during trial – and was today censured for breaking that gag during trial by Judge Drain – the prosecution not only used her confession extracted through torture and the prison sentence extracted through torture, but Rasmea’s own public documentation and discussion of her torture at the hands of the Israeli military against her.
Drain uncritically accepted the framework of “terrorist” to describe Palestinian armed resistance – an absolute right of a people under occupation. He uncritically ascribed the word “terrorist” to “being a member of the PFLP” (in 1969, decades before the US had a “foreign terrorist organizations” list). He then contrasted this “terrorist” past, which he alleged Rasmea has, to her “reformed” present, her admirable work organizing with the Palestinian and Arab community, especially women. He said Rasmea “changed.” That community organizing is the opposite of armed resistance – when, regardless of the facts of this case, it is absolutely not. Both armed resistance and community organizing are driven by love and service to the people. They are part of one struggle and one resistance to occupation. In some ways, the torture dens of the occupier are more honest – there are, of course, thousands of Palestinian community organizers in prison and who have been imprisoned as “members of hostile organizations” because they convened women, students and workers. Because this too is the work of every Palestinian political party labelled as “terrorist.”
Furthermore, the prosecution, in a form of “guilt by association,” in a racist display, in a criminalization of Palestinian memory and existence, displayed clips from two films. This is so disturbing because they are wonderful films. Excellent films, created by Palestinian and Arab women filmmakers, telling the stories of Palestinian and Arab women in resistance – of all kinds. These films, “WOMEN IN STRUGGLE” and “TELL YOUR TALE, LITTLE BIRD” are documents of the Palestinian narrative. They are presenting a history and a legacy for generations to come. They are films that deserve to be seen everywhere. And it is difficult to see the attempt of the prosecution to use these beautiful testimonies as “evidence” against Rasmea as something other than an attempt to suppress, silence and censor just such Palestinian documentation, memory-making, recording, oral and written history by using them for the opposite purpose for which they were intended – as some sort of “testimony” (inadmissible at trial) against the very Palestinian women whose stories they bring forward. Is such use of these films an attempt to strike fear in the heart of researchers, historians and documentarians? To wage war on the Palestinian narrative – and a woman who has always ceaselessly, courageously and clearly represented that narrative – and its memories and legacies? Rasmea’s story, her voice, will NOT be silenced, by this unjust verdict. And despite the games of the prosecutors, neither will the histories and memories – and the future – of the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
The films are available on youtube. Everyone should watch them. Screen them. Show your friends, show your families, your comrades. Hear their voices and amplify them. Jonathan Tukel does not own these voices – the Palestinian liberation movement includes, cherishes and highlights them.”
WOMEN IN STRUGGLE (2004, Buthaina Canaan Khoury):
TELL YOUR TALE LITTLE BIRD (2007, Arab Loutfi):