A report from the Rasmea Defense Committee:
Video by Tom Callahan:
On Tuesday, April 25, Palestinian American icon Rasmea Odeh was joined in Detroit by close to 150 supporters from across the Midwest, at a federal court plea hearing based on an agreement reached last month. Sentencing will be formally imposed on August 17 in Detroit, but its terms were discussed and approved by Judge Gershwin Drain at this hearing. Rasmea will be stripped of her citizenship, and have to leave the United States permanently. She will not be sentenced to any further prison time (Drain jailed Rasmea for five weeks in November and December of 2014 after her conviction at trial), and she will “voluntarily” depart the country without being detained by immigration authorities.
The courtroom was packed, leaving many supporters to watch the fairly straightforward proceedings from an overflow room. The government summarized the terms of the plea agreement, and Rasmea’s lead attorney, Michael Deutsch, added a few points. While the government was not asking for more prison time or a fine if the plea was approved, Drain informed Rasmea that he would determine the sentence, which normally would carry a maximum of 10 years imprisonment plus a $200,000 penalty. But, later in the hearing, he clarified that he intended to honor the terms of the agreement.
After a few other clarifications, Drain asked Rasmea if she agreed to the “factual basis” of the plea agreement. After a long pause, and some quiet exchanges with Deutsch, Rasmea said, “I signed.” This was not enough for Drain, who asked several times for Rasmea to say she was guilty. Each time, she answered, “Yes, I signed it.” Once more, he insisted that she must admit guilt. Rasmea paused again, then answered, “I signed this; it says I’m guilty.” It was clear that this was as far as Rasmea was willing to go, so Drain relented, and approved the plea agreement.
It is important to note that this agreement did not include the last minute submissions by zionist Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel, who attempted to put on the record that Rasmea had committed “terrorist” acts and was a member of a “designated terrorist organization.” One final time, Tukel was denied the opportunity to use the case against Rasmea as a platform to grandstand for Israel.
Surprisingly, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade—who brought the original indictment against Rasmea but resigned after being asked to by Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions—was sitting in the first row of the courtroom.
“For years, she had claimed that this was not a political case, and that Rasmea was not being targeted for being Palestinian,” said Nesreen Hasan of the Rasmea Defense Committee, “but McQuade was so invested in this plea that she showed up when it’s not even her job anymore!” Rasmea’s supporters were so incensed that they chanted “Shame on you” and “You’re a phony” to McQuade while filing out of the courtroom.
Everyone then rallied for a program on the steps outside the courthouse. Deutsch spoke first, explaining that because the government was prosecuting this simple immigration case as one related to terrorism, it was doubtful that Rasmea could receive a fair trial.
Hatem Abudayyeh, of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), said, “We’re going to lose Rasmea, she’s going to leave [us]. We know that. But we also know that for three and a half years, we put Israel on trial in the United States. We put their treatment of Palestinians in 1948 Palestine, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in all the refugee camps on trial. We put their treatment of our political prisoners on trial. We put their military courts on trial. We put their torture on trial. We did incredibly valuable and valiant work.
“And because of her bravery, because she said from day one, ‘I’m not going to allow anyone to criminalize my people,’ we built support from the most important social justice movements in the country … anti-torture, women’s rights, sexual assault survivors, immigrant rights, Movement for Black Lives, anti-war… [they all] came out in support of Rasmea, and in support of Palestine, because of the brave woman who’s standing here today.”
Abudayyeh praised some of the individuals and groups that played a critical role in defending Rasmea over the years—her legal team (Deutsch, Jim Fennerty, Dennis Cunningham, Bill Goodman, and Huwaida Arraf); Arab, Black, and Latinx youth from the Arab American Action Network; members of the Arab Women’s Committee established by Rasmea back in 2004; organizers from the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and the Anti-War Committees of Chicago and Minnesota; Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) activists; and leaders of the national organizations that anchored the political defense, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression (CSFR) and USPCN.
Frank Chapman (below) of CAARPR then took the mic. “This is a sad moment for me, but we gotta measure up. The Palestinian movement for liberation is not lost and is not losing, and it’s because we have comrades, sisters like Rasmea Odeh. It’s been a proud moment for me to stand with this movement, to stand with this comrade, because united in struggle I know we can’t lose.”
Jess Sundin of CSFR was introduced next, and said, “We are absolutely committed to continuing to stand with you. At the end of day, we don’t run these courtrooms. We don’t make these laws, we don’t write these plea agreements… but we can always fight back. We can always resist. We can be sure that Rasmea’s work, wherever she is, will continue to make a huge difference in advancing the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, and the liberation of all of us.”
Black4Palestine’s Kristian Bailey added, “Angela Davis said two years ago in Chicago, she knew that when the government went after her it wasn’t because she as an individual was a criminal. They were trying to target and dismantle an entire movement. She said the same thing is true in Rasmea’s case. And we’re not going to let them dismantle the wonderful movement we built in Chicago; we’re not going to back down. Now is the time to unite and fight and win!”
Veteran organizer Elaine Rumman of USPCN’s Detroit chapter thanked Rasmea for her work and commitment and said, “[Rasmea] is our star; she is our success!”
Lorena Buni of Anakbayan, a Filipino youth organization, criticized the unjust system that attacked Rasmea: “The reality is, they are the ones who are afraid of us, for them to go to this extent to criminalize such a strong woman and organizer. And we will not let the struggle die. We will continue the fight. Rasmea did not lose today, because everyone that’s gathered here today stands in solidarity with her and with Palestine.”
An alumnus of National SJP, Leila Abdelrazaq, recalled a lesson shared by Rasmea to an SJP conference years prior: “She told us young Palestinians that we shouldn’t feel that the Palestine movement is separate from us, or that what’s happening in Palestine is separate from us. Rasmea has proven she fights for Palestinians all over the world. She came to the U.S. and dedicated her life to our community here, just like she did back home. … Rasmea’s dedication to that fight makes us also fight for her, and fight for each other.”
Brant Rosen of Jewish Voice for Peace wrapped up the solidarity messages, praising Rasmea and addressing her directly: “The best teachers don’t teach by what they say or what they write, but by what they are. What I take away today is the image of you standing before the judge, who was demanding that you say to him and the world that you are guilty, and you refused, because you are not guilty. Your strength and your courage and your kindness and your compassion really teaches all of us how to be in this world.”
After a number of already emotional moments, Rasmea stepped forward to thank her supporters, speaking first in Arabic and then in English. “I believe my case is Palestine’s case,” she began, her voice cracking. “We have to continue our struggle to get our freedom and to have our Palestine [be free] and to go back. We have to go back to our villages. There is no choice. No choices. Like today in court, they gave me no other choice – [either] prison and then [get sent] back. Or [deportation] without jail.
“I think to continue my struggle, I chose this [even] if it’s hard. I don’t want to leave! This is my second country. But they want me to leave because they want to destroy us, to destroy our struggle. So we have to continue our struggle. Thank you for your support… your support is very important to me… to Palestine… to all countries struggling for freedom and justice.”
Supporters will return to Detroit with Rasmea on August 17 for the formal sentencing. Before that, a massive sendoff for her will be organized in Chicago. Look for an announcement soon, as we hope people from all across the country will attend—to say farewell, and to honor Rasmea’s lifetime of work for Palestinian liberation.