Trial Day 3: Rasmea takes the stand!

rasmeaodehRasmea’s supporters packed the courtroom in anticipation of her taking the stand, but the day began first with the continued testimony and cross examination of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Agent Douglas Scott Pierce. Under cross by defense attorney Jim Fennerty, Pierce revealed that in a previous case, he had testified that the questions on the naturalization forms can be “confusing,” especially for those who do not have fluency in the English language, and also acknowledged that older forms previously asked specifically about crimes, arrests, imprisonment, etc., “inside the United States.”

This helped set the stage for Rasmea’s argument that she had always believed that the questions she is accused of answering falsely were asking about her time in the U.S., not Palestine.  After additional testimony from Jennifer Williams, the immigration officer who actually interviewed Rasmea back in 2004, and from a fingerprint expert, the prosecution rested its case.

Lead defense attorney Michael Deutsch then called University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) professor Nadine Naber as his first witness.  Naber, who is a leading scholar on Arab women and women of color in general, first met Rasmea back in 2006, and testified to their work together, describing how Rasmea’s organizing has changed the lives of hundreds of Arab immigrant women by creating a space for them to face the collective challenges they experience.  Her testimony spoke to the character of Rasmea as a truthful person and mentor for her community.

Before Rasmea was called as the next witness, Judge Drain excused the jury to advise her and Deutsch on his previous rulings, reinforcing his restrictions on her testimony.  He told them that she would not be able to speak about Israeli torture, stating that he did not want to “retry the case” of 1969.  Rasmea responded firmly, “It’s my life, I have a right to talk about the things that happened to me!” Judge Drain refused to accede, restating that testimony referring to torture or her forced confession was inadmissible, and that if she violated his orders there would be consequences.

Nonetheless, Rasmea delivered heartfelt testimony that left the entire courtroom, as well as the overflow courtroom where dozens more were seated, in tears.  She recounted her life story, one filled with tragedy and resilience, beginning with the Nakba, the “Catastrophe,” what Palestinians call the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes.  Rasmea and her family also lost their land and home in 1948, and were forced to live as refugees in a tent before making their way to Ramallah, where they lived at the time of the 1967 Israeli war and occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Then Rasmea told the jury about the Israeli raid on her home in 1969, when she was arrested along with her father and sisters. More than 500 Palestinians were swept up in mass arrests by Israel at the same time, and she broke down in tears when she recalled how the events of that night traumatized her sister to the point of an early death.

Although Rasmea was barred from testifying about the torture, she did tell the court that she spent 45 days in an interrogation center.  Prosecutor Jonathan Tukel objected, and Judge Drain sustained the objection, reprimanding her.  Deutsch then asked her if she was convicted, and Rasmea answered, “They convicted me falsely.” Again, the government objected and again the judge sustained the objection.

Later, Deutsch asked, “Did you try to escape?” in reference to one of Israel’s charges that the government has highlighted in this case.  Rasmea answered boldly, “Of course, any political prisoner [would] try to escape!”  While supporters in the overflow courtroom applauded this answer, the main courtroom heard another objection from Tukel.  The judge sided with the government once more, and struck the political prisoner reference from the record.

The testimony continued with Rasmea describing her immigration to the United States, where she moved to care for her ailing father. When asked about the 1994 application for permanent residency filed in Jordan, she explained that all the answers on that form came from her brother. From the U.S., he had sent her a sample form, and she was to copy what he had written on the sample.  “I couldn’t read [English], and I trust my brother. I didn’t read anything, I just copied [what] my brother said.”

When Deutsch asked about her responses on the 2004 application for naturalization, and why she had responded “NO” to questions about whether she had been arrested, convicted or imprisoned, she explained that these questions followed directly three previous ones that asked explicitly about the U.S.  “When I continued, my understanding was [that these questions were also] about the U.S., so I continued to say no.”

Deutsch later asked what she would have done if she had understood that the questions were intended to address imprisonment outside the U.S. as well.  She answered, “If I knew it was about Israel, I would have said… It’s not a secret that I’ve been in jail. Even the embassy knows.”  The U.S. embassy in Israel had become involved in the initial arrests because her father was a U.S. citizen at the time.

Rasmea will continue her testimony tomorrow, and after cross-examination by the government, both sides will make their closing arguments. The jury is not expected to begin deliberation until Monday, which is the earliest a verdict is expected.

Some 70 supporters were in the courtrooms today. Inspired by Rasmea’s incredible testimony, many are rearranging their plans to stay for Friday, and into Monday. Organizers in Detroit are scrambling to ensure housing and transportation for those who are extending their stay, and to prepare for the additional people arriving each day to join the fight for justice for Rasmea.