Boosting Hopes of a Retrial, Court Rules Palestinian Activist Rasmea Odeh Was Denied Due Process

Circuit court says the judge unfairly muzzled Odeh's defense team.

Rasmea Odeh pictured in March, 2015.
Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP

Palestinian activist and torture survivor Rasmea Odeh today received a significant boost from the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which unanimously vacated her 2014 conviction of an immigration violation, thereby opening the possibility of a retrial.

“This isn’t a full victory yet, of course,” cautioned Nesreen Hasan of the Rasmea Defense Committee. “But it really is what we were hoping for and anticipating at this stage. The conviction wasn’t overturned altogether, but at least Judge Drain will be forced to rethink his decision on the torture evidence.”

The 2014 conviction was broadly criticized as a politically motivated ruling, based on trumped-up charges and unfair court proceedings. Odeh was found guilty of immigration fraud for failing to disclose her detention and conviction by the Israeli military more than 40 years ago on documents filled out in 1994 and 2005 during her naturalization process in the United States.

In 1969, Odeh was living in the West Bank city of Ramallah as a refugee from her village of origin, Lifta, when she was arrested by Israeli soldiers, who reportedly held her for 21 days and employed torture, including beatings and sexual assault, to elicit a false confession. Even though she later retracted this confession, Odeh was convicted of a crime in an Israeli court.

During her 2014 trial, U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain prohibited Odeh’s legal team from presenting evidence of their client’s torture and PTSD. Torture expert Mary Fabri was barred from testifying at the trial, even though she said she had evidence that Odeh suffered trauma-related repressed memories, contributing to her failure to disclose her prior conviction. Yet the court did permit the prosecution to draw heavily on decades-old Israeli military court documents.

As a result of the 2014 ruling, Odeh was handed an 18-month prison sentence and ordered deported to Jordan. She was eventually granted bond while she filed her appeal.

The three-judge panel of the circuit court today ruled that Drain had, in fact, denied Odeh’s right to a full defense. "Dr. Fabri’s proffered testimony is relevant to whether Odeh knew that her statements were false. The district court accordingly erred in categorically excluding this testimony," Judge John Rogers wrote.

Odeh’s lead attorney Michael Deutsch explained in a press statement that the case “will be remanded [back to Drain] for a determination as to the admissibility of expert testimony. The appellate court has essentially stated that it was an error for Drain to have precluded that testimony.”

Nonetheless, the ruling was celebrated by Odeh’s many supporters as a positive step toward a hopeful retrial.

“We are relieved that the appeals court has recognized that evidence of her torture and PTSD should not have been categorically excluded during her trial,” said the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed an amicus brief in Odeh’s appeal. “The court’s decision presents a great victory to anti-torture advocates and survivors of torture. We hope this legal nightmare will soon be over for Rasmea, who has been forced to relive unthinkable trauma throughout this process.”

In 2014, immediately following her initial verdict, Odeh addressed her supporters, saying: “We can find justice in some place, maybe not in this court, maybe in another place. There is justice in this world. We will find it... We will fight for justice."

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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