By Dima Khalidi, Director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights
The U.S. Attorney filed an extraordinary motion this week in the controversial prosecution of Rasmea Odeh, seeking an order to empanel an anonymous jury and sequester jurors from protests occurring outside the Detroit courthouse so that they are not improperly swayed by Odeh's supporters.
Rasmea Odeh, a beloved Palestinian-American community leader who has built an impressive program for hundreds of immigrant Arab women in Chicago with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), was arrested last October and charged with immigration fraud. The charges stem from allegations that Ms. Odeh, who has been in the U.S. for 20 years and was naturalized in 2003, failed to indicate on her naturalization application that she was convicted by an Israeli military court and imprisoned for 10 years. At the age of 21 in 1969, Odeh was arrested, severely tortured, sexually and otherwise, into confessing to a crime she maintains she did not commit, and convicted by an Israeli military court system notorious for its violations of basic due process rights and its almost 100 percent conviction rate of Palestinian defendants. Despite having been vocal about her torture experience, testifying to a UN committee in 1979, and speaking publicly about it over the years, Odeh now faces another 10 years in a U.S. prison and de-naturalization if she is convicted.
The U.S. Attorney's motion represents another startlingly repressive action in this continuing witch hunt of a respected Palestinian-American community member. Contrary to the U.S. Attorney's characterization, Odeh's so-called "hoard" [sic] of supporters do not seek to tamper with the jury or justice system. They seek, as is their constitutional right, to bear witness to another illegitimate targeting of a politically-minded Arab activist, scholar and community leader, and to communicate to all who will listen about a grave injustice. It is only from the U.S. Attorney's warped perspective that these acts of conscience and solidarity -- rather than its own prosecutorial overreach -- can be deemed a threat to our justice system.
Anonymous juries are an extreme measure used to protect jurors from serious threats to their safety. They are often used in cases related to mob activities in which there is a history of real threats of juror intimidation and violence. The prosecutor's motion in this case cites no such threats or prospect of violence; what is does do is attack Odeh's constitutional rights to due process, an impartial jury, and the presumption of innocence. Courts view anonymous juries as exceptional measures because of their potential to paint the defendant as a dangerous person from whom jurors need protection and thereby undermine the defendant's right to a presumption of innocence. Such a measure also denies the defense an adequate opportunity to screen jurors for potential biases during the voire dire jury selection process by denying the defense access to identifying juror information.
The fear-mongering attempt to portray Odeh's supporters as an unruly mob or horde has racist undertones given the modest number of predominantly Arab and Muslim supporters that have appeared outside her hearings with signs, and that filled the courtroom for the first open hearing on October 2. Also troubling is the attack on a fundamental First Amendment right to free speech, which protects the right of individuals to gather and engage in such advocacy outside of courthouses within the bounds of the law -- which her supporters have been careful to follow -- and to attend public court proceedings. The insinuations in the prosecution's motion that such activities by Odeh's supporters are criminal not only rely on baseless conjectures about their intentions to improperly influence the jury, but are highly chilling to these speech rights as well.
As with innumerable other cases of government overreach and bias in prosecuting Palestinians and Muslims more generally, the public support for Odeh is vital to raising awareness about the case and about the overwhelming biases in the media and the judicial process that are weighted against her. All over the country, PSLS is documenting incidents of repression against Palestine solidarity activists who are being targeted by the government and Israel advocacy organizations because they are outspoken advocates for Palestinian rights. Odeh's case is part of this pattern.
At her first open-court pre-trial hearing on October 2, the judge denied her motion to dismiss the case, which claimed that the prosecution was part of a larger effort to target and intimidate politically active Palestinian-Americans in the community, including the AAAN's Executive Director, Hatem Abudayyeh. Odeh's attorney, Michael Deutsch, said that Odeh's indictment was the "fruit of an illegal investigation" by the U.S. government, tied to the subpoenas of 23 midwest antiwar activists in 2010, and that Odeh was selectively prosecuted because of her protected First Amendment activities advocating for Palestinian rights.
Supporters have been rallying to Odeh's defense, calling in to the U.S. Attorney to drop the charges against her and gathering outside of the courthouse during her court appearances. This summer, the judge appointed to hear Odeh's case recused himself after the defense requested that he do so because of his significant financial support of Israel and after it was found that the judge's family had financial interests in Israel related to the case. Odeh's trial is set to begin on November 4. Additional news, updates, and ways to support Odeh are available at stopfbi.net.
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