BFP Exclusive- PTSD, Community, and Character: Notes on the Trial of Rasmea Odeh

The Trial: Nothing about United States v. Odeh Seems to Add Up

It was as if all the air had been let out of the room. With a brief pause and puff of his cheeks this past November, Judge Gershwin Drain of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan—just hours after unconventionally lauding the jury for finding Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh guilty of unlawfully procuring her U.S. citizenship––sided once more with the government’s lead prosecuting attorney, Jonathan Tukel, in moving to revoke Odeh’s bond and have the 67-year-old immediately detained.

The possibility that prosecutors would seek to establish Odeh as a flight risk prior to her sentencing reportedly took her attorneys by surprise in a hearing that many assumed to be a mere formality, including the friends and supporters who filled the benches of the Detroit courtroom to capacity in their support, a large majority having made the 300-mile trek from Chicago the night before. Odeh, dressed in an emerald-green taqsireh––an embroidered, waist-length Palestinian jacket––maintained her usual poise as the arresting officers barreled toward her, appearing almost instantaneously, as if mere fixtures of the art moderne architecture. Hulking over her as they handcuffed her arms behind her back, she was quickly rushed forward.

“We love you, Rasmea!” a woman shouted out from the back row, cutting through the shock waves of nervous disbelief that had suddenly pervaded the room.

“I love you!” Odeh responded, her chin lifted up toward the ceiling, adding last-gasp before being whisked away entirely: “Don’t mind––be strong!”

And then she was gone.

Why the trial was assigned to Detroit in the first place is in itself a point of contention. Odeh originally immigrated to Michigan via Jordan in 1994 to join her brother and help care for their father who was suffering from cancer, but by 2004––the same year that she acquired her U.S. citizenship––she had begun her work with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), a Chicago nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Chicagoland’s Arab American community through education and cultural outreach. Advancing from volunteer to her current position as associate director, she developed the Arab Women’s Committee within the organization, establishing an impressive base of a six hundred woman collective aimed at promoting leadership among Arab immigrant and Arab American women, along with challenging forms of oppression between the binds of patriarchy and racial discrimination.

Odeh’s strong commitment to her vocation, and the positive, significantly widespread impact that she has had not only upon her own community in Chicago, but all across the globe, is a direct testament to her character, and thereby strongly influenced by her personal life experiences and history. On February 28, 1969, Israeli soldiers and secret security police forcibly entered Odeh’s family home in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and violently arrested her without a warrant or explanation, along with her father and two sisters. Hundreds of other Palestinians were likewise arrested in a massive, slipshod round-up following a week of resistance operations in response to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank following their “Six-Day War” of June 1967. Odeh was accused of being involved in two separate bombings allegedly credited to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): one involving a supermarket explosion in East Jerusalem and another at the British Consulate in Tel Aviv, the former killing two university students. She maintains that she was brutally tortured for 25 days while in custody, with a total of 45 days spent at Jerusalem’s infamous Moscobiyya Detention Center. Described as “more than hell” by a former detainee, it is primarily used as a place of interrogation before moving Palestinian prisoners to an Israeli prison. As Nahla Abdo writes in her book Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle Within the Israeli Prison System: “Transferring political prisoners from an occupied territory to the territory of the occupier represents a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.”

From the moment that she was arrested and transported to the initial jail site, to the horrors of Moscobiyya, Odeh was beaten nonstop with fists and clubs, repeatedly raped, and subjected to further traumas in the form of threats, humiliation, deprivation, and electrical torture. Court documents filed by her defense team cite the torture she faced as being “consistent with reports from Israeli and Palestinian lawyers, the United Nations, Amnesty International and the American Vice-Counsel in Jerusalem.” Three months passed before she saw a Red Cross representative, during which time she was finally coerced into signing a false confession prepared for her in Hebrew (a language that she could not read or understand), taken before an Israeli military court, and given a life sentence. She was 21 years old.

In 1979, ten years into her sentence, Odeh was one of 76 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured during the “Litani Operation” invasion of Lebanon. That same year, she testified before a U.N. special committee in Geneva, Switzerland regarding the heinous torture that was perpetrated against her while in Israeli custody. Living in Lebanon and then settling in Jordan, she worked to assist displaced Palestinians living in refugee camps to obtain U.N. humanitarian aid, in addition to achieving a law degree. On her time spent in prison, she would later relate, “It may have been ten years, but it felt like 100 years.”

Fast-forward to October 22, 2013: Odeh is arrested in Chicago by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, indicted on one charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization, and released on $15,000 bond. Her name and history had been dredged up in a 2010 COINTELPRO-type operation by the FBI that included targeted surveillance and house raids on various community and political activists. 26 people total were subpoenaed to a grand jury that never returned a single indictment from the investigation. As her defense writes: “Over two years later, with nothing to show for its raids in 2010, Ms. Odeh was indicted for falsely answering questions in 2004 in her naturalization application. Interestingly, the indictment was obtained by the office of the United States Attorney’s office from the Eastern District of Michigan through a grand jury sitting in the Eastern District of Michigan. The United States Attorney in Illinois, which was the office that initiated the request for the Israeli documents and was carrying out the investigation, apparently passed the case to the office in Michigan, to divert attention from its failed efforts to criminalize the work of the AAAN in Chicago.”

Procuring several hundred documents provided to the Justice Department by the State of Israel––which later included thousands for the trial itself pursuant to the 1998 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty Between the United States and Israel––Odeh was convicted of knowingly failing to disclose the nightmare she had survived 45 years prior. In what is essentially a retroactive witch hunt against a law-abiding and prosperous U.S. citizen, the prosecution, aided by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, cultivated an argument mainlined by the perceived notion that Odeh would not have been admitted into the country 20 years ago had she properly disclosed details of a personal history all but impossible to have ever kept hidden to begin with. Additionally, the government was allowed to dictate a trial in which her factual guilt or innocence for the crimes she was convicted of in Israel were considered “irrelevant to the question of whether or not she truthfully answered questions on her U.S. naturalization application about whether she ever had been arrested, charged, convicted or imprisoned,” and her claims of torture were barred from being entered into evidence.

After being held for over a month in St. Clair County Jail in Port Huron, Michigan, including two weeks spent in solitary confinement, Judge Drain granted Odeh’s Motion for Reconsideration of his decision to revoke her bond pending sentencing, despite the government’s Response in Opposition. In doing so, Judge Drain retracted and revised many of the reasons originally given for her detainment. In light of the Sentencing Memorandum of the United States filed on February 25 in which the government laid out its request for an unprecedented enhanced sentence of between five and seven years imprisonment––drastically higher than the usual 15-to-21 month guidelines––and with the upcoming sentencing hearing scheduled for March 12 in Detroit, it is increasingly imperative that the Court’s previous decision to detain Odeh be properly dissected.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

In disallowing any mention of the torture that Odeh alleges she experienced while in Israeli custody––causing her to be coerced into signing a fraudulent confession––the Court likewise precluded what her attorneys described as the “heart of her defense,” which consisted of the professional diagnosis and testimony of Dr. Mary R. Fabri, a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of expert experience specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of survivors of war trauma and torture. Dr. Fabri met with Odeh six times for approximately three hours each time over a period of four months. She testified before the Court as to her belief that the experiences that Odeh related to her over this significant length of time were “very credible” and diagnosed her with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Citing scientifically grounded facts and examples under both direct and cross-examination, Dr. Fabri stated that it was a “strong possibility” that Odeh’s PTSD would have caused her brain to cognitively interpret the question of whether or not she had ever been convicted of a crime to apply strictly to her time in the U.S., thereby unconsciously protecting her from activating the terrible memories of her past traumas. “We all try to find ways of coping with our stresses,” she explained, “whether they’re extreme or mild. For survivors of severe trauma, they work really hard to develop filters that help keep the reminders out, so that during acute phases where someone is symptomatic, those filters aren’t working very well, and, again, that cognitive processing part is diminished.”

Odeh’s own personal coping devices were developed over the course of over 45 years and without the aid of therapy, making what she has been able to accomplish as an active member of society all the more impressive. People with chronic PTSD are vulnerable at all times to the effects of different sensory reminders of stress or past trauma; a constant, unpredictable handicap of sorts.

As Dr. Fabri testified:

When there’s a trauma happening, it can be overwhelming and the cognitive part of our brain can become overwhelmed. So if we look at different brain centers, and I’ll keep this simple, there is the emotional center, which is the hippocampus. There — I mean, I’m sorry, the amygdala, which is mediated by work of the hippocampus and pre medial frontal cortex. They mediate information.

So all of us process emotional information through the amygdala and if the hippocampus and the pre medial, the pre frontal medial cortex are functioning well, they’ll sensor for us so we don’t say or do things that are emotionally reacted.

During the traumatic event or, like torture, war trauma, many other things that are intense stress, those mediating parts of the brain become overwhelmed, and so in an experience of torture the memory is encoded in an emotional way, in a very sensory way in the amygdala so that when there are reminders of that past trauma and the memory is recalled, it’s recalled in a very emotional intense way without that cognitive processing.

She additionally submitted a 15 page psychological affidavit consisting of typewritten notes from her sessions with Odeh, along with her psychological assessment consisting of her behavioral observations, diagnosis, testing data, and treatment recommendations. Included in the affidavit were extensive details of Odeh’s torture at Moscobiyya: endless beatings with hands, fists, wooden batons, and metal rods; sleep-deprivation; denial of medical attention and legal resources. Left naked for the majority of the time, she was beaten in front of male detainees, and was likewise witness to the sights and sounds of others being tortured, including her father and sisters. At one point she was forced to watch the death of a man from electrical torture. Using chains to restrain her arms and legs, she was raped, tortured with electrical wires, and experienced pain and trauma so severe that she would often fall in and out of consciousness.

Dr. Fabri additionally interviewed Odeh following her five week imprisonment in St. Clair County Jail and wrote a letter indicating that her PTSD symptoms had been reactivated as a result of her recent arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment.

PTSD is an enduring condition that has profound implications for emotional and physical health. Reactivation of symptoms result in severe stress reactions in the body and has been demonstrated in multiple studies that PTSD contributes to a higher prevalence of mental illness, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.

It is this evaluator’s opinion, to a reasonable and psychological certainty, that someone with chronic PTSD has a higher risk to develop serious health conditions that impact psychological and physical health as they age. Ms. Odeh falls in this category as a 67-year-old woman with a history of multiple traumas and a diagnosis of chronic PTSD.

While the jury was never told a word about Odeh’s alleged torture or her PTSD diagnosis, Judge Drain had all of this information at his fingertips, and even surmised during the detainment hearing that it would be “very one-sided” and “unfair to the government” if he were to allow Odeh to properly testify about her real life experiences. One doesn’t have to be an expert in psychology to be able to accurately predict the serious mental and physical effects that incarceration can have on a woman of Odeh’s age and background, including the possibility that she could be placed in solitary confinement. Such punishment is known to cause PTSD symptoms in inmates, further evidenced by a 2011 report by a U.N. Special Rapporteur defining prolonged solitary confinement to be in excess of 15 days, during which time “certain changes in brain functions occur and the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.”

Odeh was inexplicably placed in solitary confinement for the last two weeks of her incarceration in the St. Clair County Jail, completely segregated and confined to her cell for all but a half-hour of each day. The jail’s disciplinary records indicate that she was originally sentenced to six days over a dispute with a guard that seemingly consisted of a mere misunderstanding, perhaps heightened by a possible language gap. An excuse to then keep her in prolonged solitary confinement was possibly invented out of a previous incident in which another inmate discovered an article about Odeh’s trial in a local newspaper and shared it with her before the newspaper was “taken and disposed of.” From this arose a questionable narrative that Odeh was being kept in solitary for her own safety, an implication that was strongly rebuked by Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the AAAN and lead spokesperson for the Rasmea Defense Committee. Speaking to Ali Harb of The Arab American News, Abudayyeh described the explanation that he received from a prison administrator for the punitive measures taken against Odeh as “utter nonsense.”

“She had no issues with other inmates. She was getting along with them and had actually formed relationships with some people there.”

Such accounts are consistent with the ways in which Odeh was able to survive her previous imprisonment in Israel: building strong bonds and relationships with other inmates by educating and organizing; protesting prison conditions, going on hunger strikes together, and, most importantly, keeping their sumud, their determination.

COMMUNITY

In granting Odeh’s request for bond pending sentencing, Judge Drain asserted that her “dedication to her community work and the people that such work assists, as well as the presence of relatives in Chicago, demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that she is not as significant a flight risk as originally believed.”

Such a statement is so vastly contradictory of the opinions that he previously expressed during the November 10 detainment hearing that the sincerity behind his “as originally believed” pivot seems, well, difficult to believe.

In very indelicate fashion, and before a courtroom full of the many women whose lives she had touched and deeply affected through her work at the AAAN, her family, Judge Drain contended that Odeh “doesn’t have any real ties to the Chicago community,” labeling her community ties via the AAAN as insignificant, while insisting that she could easily be committed to “doing the same work in another country.”

Such blunt disregard for Odeh’s assimilation into her adopted country is notable for two reasons. For one, it represents a manifestation of what Odeh and her supporters have suspected from the very beginning: that her indictment was a product of selective prosecution rooted in the discriminatory targeting of those doing political work in Arab and Muslim communities, particularly pro-Palestine activists. Furthermore, the government had made reference to the Rasmea Defense Committee’s “wide-ranging media campaign” as far back as July, culminating in their almost comical Motion to Empanel an Anonymous Jury and to Take Other Measures Necessary to Ensure an Untainted Jury. Claiming that Abudayyeh’s publicly stated goal of “filling the courtroom, rallying outside the courthouse, and chanting while holding posters” constituted a “concerted effort to sway the jury,” the prosecution even went so far as to cite the recent Detroit trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah, the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” as an ideal example for how the Court should approach Odeh’s case. In what equated to a very translucent effort to paint both Odeh and her supporters in a terrorist light, the tenacity with which the government pursued the empaneling of an anonymous jury should have at least adversely alerted Judge Drain to the support she had from her community—branded as mobs and hoards by the government. Though he rejected their request, he did allow for a partial sequestration, meaning that the jurors arrived at an off-site location and were driven by federal marshals to the courthouse garage.

Just as absurd as the government’s plea for an anonymous jury was the flight risk narrative that it had concocted, surmising that Odeh might flee to the Palestinian Authority or Jordan ahead of her sentencing, which runs completely contrary to why she chose to exercise her constitutional right to a trial in the first place. The government had offered her a plea agreement that would have guaranteed no more than six months imprisonment and she would have been given 90 days to depart the country voluntarily, instead of being held in immigration custody awaiting deportation. “To speak of torture,” she told Dr. Fabri, “is to be tortured again.” That Odeh, a woman who suffers from chronic PTSD, chose to go through an entire federal trial undoubtedly guaranteed to activate her symptoms, gambling on the prospect of years of incarceration in the process, certainly speaks volumes of her will to remain in America.

At one point while she was under cross-examination, Dr. Fabri, being pestered over the fact that she had recommended to Odeh that she continue seeing a therapist, and that Odeh had declined, seemed to suddenly remember something.

“But, actually,” she began, “what Ms. Odeh told me is that her community supported her and she really didn’t feel the need.”

CHARACTER

According to the government’s expert witness Douglas C. Pierce, the section chief of U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services (USCIS) in Detroit, Michigan, submission of the Israeli police and trial records relating to Odeh’s conviction would have been a “more than sufficient basis for USCIS to conclude that the defendant lacked the requisite good moral character to become a USC.”

As for evidence relating to Odeh’s claims of innocence of her underlying convictions, the government writes:

“Evidence of defendant’s factual guilt or innocence for crimes of which she was convicted in a foreign country (Israel) is irrelevant to the question of whether or not she truthfully answered questions on her U.S. naturalization application about whether she ever had been arrested, charged, convicted or imprisoned… Rather, this case focuses on the truthfulness of her answers in the immigration process, not the level of due process afforded her in Israel.”

And once more, just for clarification:

“What is relevant here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of the Israeli charges themselves, but only whether defendant was untruthful when she denied them.”

“Truthfulness” and “candor” seemed to stick to the tongue of Judge Drain as he listed more of the reasons why he needed to incarcerate her.

“She does have a little bit of history of flight,” he noted, citing her alleged escape attempt from prison back in 1975. Exhibits as to the authenticity of her fingerprint taken at the scene following her arrest were even entered into evidence.

This idea that she lacked the proper amount of respect for the criminal justice system was floated in numerous ways, most recently documented in the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum, quoting a comment Odeh gave to reporters following her conviction in which she states: “I felt the verdict is not justice, it was a racist verdict.”

“Given the clarity of defendant’s violation of United States immigration law,” writes the government, “the criminal history from Israel which she concealed, and the bombings which she undertook, as discussed in detail above, anything less than a significant sentence would grossly fail to promote respect for the law.”

Within the same paragraph, the government begins to cite the current world affairs issue of “foreign fighters” who fight on behalf of “ISIS and other designated terrorist organizations,” and then return home.

A light sentence in this case would be a signal to anyone who has fought overseas for ISIS or a similar organization that there is not much risk in coming to the United States, hiding one’s past, and seeking citizenship. If not caught, such a person derives all the benefits of citizenship. After perhaps 15-20 years of living in the United States, as was defendant Odeh, a person who is simply given a slap on the wrist and then deported is much better off than that person would have been by not having come to the United States in the first place.

Lastly (and notice I have not spent a great deal of time expounding on any of these quotes and incidents as to Odeh’s character much, as the arguments themselves speak louder than the words do), there is the issue of her blurting out while under intensive cross-examination the inadmissible “claim” that she was tortured while under Israeli custody. Also included was the fact that she called herself a “political prisoner” and stated that she was innocent of the crimes that she was charged with in Israel.

And so the underlying theme here for Odeh seems to be that she simply cannot win. She is punished either way, whether she is honest or (allegedly) not. When you put all of the statistics of the case together; the intangible attributes therein, nothing about United States v. Odeh seems to add up.

* * * *

One last lasting memory of Rasmea Odeh: speaking to her supporters a few hours before her detainment hearing, megaphone in hand, some still wiping tears from their eyes––a tenacious, impromptu piece of oratory outside of the Detroit Federal Courthouse shortly following her conviction. “We can find the justice in some place,” she solemnly began, reaching out toward the towering 10-story limestone structure: “There’s a justice in this world. We will find it. Don’t worry. We will find it. We will find the justice!”

Staring down the immediate prospect of prison, she was altruistic and brave. “I don’t mind,” she avowed. “I don’t want you to feel weak! We are strong!” she yelled out to the impassioned crowd, her voice strained with fervor: “We will be stronger than that!”

It reminds me of a quote from a woman who was in prison with Odeh in Israel. Remarking on the incredible fury and passion of the speeches that she would sometimes give to the women there, she wrote: “Her words were so strong; they could melt iron.”

# # # #

Mark Mondalek – BFP contributing author, is a writer and editor based in Detroit.

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Comments

  1. Great job Mark! The restriction of admissible testimony/evidence is reminiscent of Bradley/Chelsea Manning’s trial. All that was most important in her defense was ruled inadmissible. The branches of government which were supposed to serve as checks and balances on each other now work hand in glove.

  2. kariflack says:

    moved me to tears. but you did a great job of plainly explaining everything, thank you.

  3. Thank you Mark!! Your powerful report is certainly appreciated and very moving. If not for this report, I would not know about Rasmea Odeh and her quest. It’s important to know that her spirit is still free and inspiring others! Thanks again…

    • Dennis,

      Same here. This is what I mean by ‘having solid independent journalists (with heart & rock-solid conscious)to shed light on significant stories and cases like this one.

      Here is one of my dreams: Be able to have Mark Mondalek on board full time with pay, and enable him to quit his current hard full-time job. I know he likes nothing better than doing that.

  4. Thanks for highlighting this important story, Mark. Kafka himself could not have imagined a justice system this perverse.

    • John,

      As I was going through my court cases, with my place of birth, date of birth, where I got my degrees, being shown as ‘classified’ and part of ‘state secrets,’ every single day, I was thinking of ‘Kafka.’

  5. Thank you for a great article, Mark, on a subject I knew nothing about until now. What a tragic and traumatic event and what a brave woman. I know a person who has suffered from extreme PTSD and the descriptions of the condition as given in court by Odeh’s psychologist seem accurate to what I have heard from my friend. Keep up the great work. S

  6. Mark Mondalek says:

    TRIAL UPDATE:
    On Thursday, March 12, Rasmea Odeh was sentenced to 18 months in prison, deportation, and a one thousand dollar fine. Her U.S. citizenship has also been revoked.

    However, Judge Gershwin Drain allowed her to remain free on bond pending appeal, which was hailed as a victory by her joyous supporters, considering the very real possibility of immediate detainment that she was facing.

    In his ruling, Judge Drain failed to take Odeh’s age, health, or very many other aspects of her unique situation into account, including any mention of her PTSD.

    Odeh’s lead spokesperson, Hatem Abudayyeh, credited all the support that she has received as the reason why she was on her way back to Chicago to continue her cherished community work as associate director of the Arab American Action Network, opposed to being locked away in a federal prison cell. More support will definitely be needed going forward.

    Thank you all for your comments! I will have a proper follow-up article on the sentencing hearing in the near future. Until then, further comments and/or questions are very much welcomed.

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