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Trial Day 2: Defense opens with scathing indictment of Israel; cross examination exposes holes in prosecution of Palestinian American activist Rasmea Odeh
Opening statements were made today in the trial of Rasmea Odeh, beloved leader of Chicago’s Palestinian community, and the first witnesses for the prosecution were called to the stand. Again, supporters from across the Midwest packed the courtroom, with many filing into an overflow room.
Assistant US Attorney Mark Jebson opened for the prosecution, laying out the government’s case. According to him, Rasmea should be found guilty of immigration fraud for her failure to disclose the 1970 conviction by Israel. Lead defense attorney, Michael Deutsch, hit back hard with an opening statement that began, “Odeh was convicted by a military court that was occupying Palestinian land. [With] judges who are soldiers… Rasmea Odeh embodies the history of the Palestinian people.”
He continued by tracing her story, from the 1948 loss of the family home and land to Israeli soldiers and settlers when she was just a year old, to additional personal losses in the 1967 war, to 1969, when Rasmea was one of 500 people arrested by the Israeli military in a massive, indiscriminate sweep. Though he was barred by the judge’s rulings from mentioning torture, he told the jury that after her arrest, Rasmea was interrogated for weeks. “Use your imagination about what ‘interrogation for weeks’ means.” The prosecution quickly objected and Judge Drain sustained the objection.
Deutsch added, “Rasmea is respected, honored, and revered. You will see her honesty and integrity when she testifies. In 2004, she applied; in 2013, they suddenly charged her. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself why they are bringing this case nine years later.” Again, the prosecution objected, and again Judge Drain sustained.
In the end, Deutsch urged the jury to remain independent, “use your sense of justice, and find [Rasmea] not guilty.”
After a short break, the prosecution called its first witness, Department of Homeland Security special agent Stephen Webber. He testified to initiating and leading the investigation against Rasmea since 2010. The clearly rehearsed testimony quickly changed, however, when Deutsch began his cross-examination. A previously calm and relaxed Webber began to sweat and shift nervously in his seat as Deutsch had him admit that he had worked with the prosecution to build the case against Rasmea, including traveling to O’Hare Airport to secretly record an interrogation of her as she returned to the U.S. from Palestine.
A record of the interview reveals that Webber lied to Rasmea, and claimed he was questioning her because he had a genuine interest in learning more about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. In reality, he was trying to entrap her, repeatedly asking whether she had been imprisoned in Israel, to which she replied more than once, “No, please, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Two additional witnesses gave testimony after Webber. Raymond Clore, a State Department functionary, and Douglas Scott Pierce of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), both spoke in general terms about the immigration and citizenship application process. In cross-examination, Deutsch weakened the case against Rasmea—pointing out that her initial immigration application did not include a sworn statement with Rasmea’s signature, and that standard USCIS procedures only investigate an applicant’s criminal record inside the United States.
At several points during the questioning, Deutsch emphasized that the questions on the applications that Rasmea filed do not directly ask about crimes outside the United States. And after dismissing the jury for the day, Judge Drain denied yet another defense motion, which sought to introduce an earlier version of the application. That early 90s naturalization form explicitly asks “inside or outside the US” when attempting to assess if someone had ever been arrested, convicted, or imprisoned.
The defense confirmed that Rasmea will be called to testify on her own behalf after the prosecution closes its case. This could be as early as Thursday afternoon, and promises to be powerful. Dozens of additional supporters plan to be in Detroit to hear her tell her story to the jury.
The Rasmea Defense Committee has organized people from across the Midwest to pack the courtroom throughout the trial, and more are still pouring in. Each day of the trial, supporters will rally from 8-8:15 a.m. and again after adjournment at 1 p.m.