DETROIT — Prosecutors called Rasmieh Odeh “a terrorist icon” who’d blown up a Jerusalem supermarket.
Her lawyers called her a “resistance” fighter who was long ago framed by an Israeli military court.
And between them, the two sides at times turned the 67-year-old Evergreen Park activist’s immigration fraud case into a proxy for the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
But in sentencing Odeh to 18 months in prison, ordering her deportation back to Jordan and stripping her of her U.S. citizenship, a federal judge on Thursday said Odeh’s case “isn’t a political case — it’s about honesty and telling the truth under oath.”
U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain split the difference between the five to seven years prosecutors wanted Odeh to serve and her request to simply be allowed to leave the country without being locked up.
Convicted at trial last year of hiding her Israeli terrorism conviction from U.S. border authorities when she arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s, Odeh became a cause celebre for Chicago’s Arab immigrant community.
About 100 of her supporters on Thursday traveled to Detroit from Chicago to hear her deliver a passionate speech in which she denied participating in a 1969 bombing that killed two students at a Jerusalem supermarket and cited her community work in Chicago as grounds for mercy.
“I came here to find justice,” she said, portraying her 2013 arrest and pending deportation as the most recent in a series of injustices afflicting the Palestinian people which will force her to “begin again from zero.”
After being forced from her home by the Israelis as a baby, living in a refugee camp for a decade, banned from studying in Lebanon, locked up in an Israeli jail and tortured, she said, living in the U.S. was “the first time I felt that I was in a secure place.”
U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain told her he was impressed by her work to help Arab immigrants since arriving in the Chicago area 20 years ago. But after prosecutors pointed to a “confession” they said Odeh gave a historian and screened videos in which Odeh’s co-conspirators in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine implicated her in the Jerusalem bomb plot, the judge added that he was convinced that Odeh’s “history does include some terrorist activites.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tuckel had warned that ISIS terrorists might be emboldened to come to the U.S. if Odeh was let off with a “slap on the wrist.”
He said Odeh was such a “terrorist icon” that “Black September” airplane hijackers in the 1970s named a unit after her — an honor he compared to “the U.S. Navy naming an aircraft carrier for Abraham Lincoln.”
But defense attorney Michael Deutsch accused the government of a “political prosecution” expounding at length on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and comparing Odeh to freedom fighters including Nat Turner and Nelson Mandela.
Holding the supermarket bombing against her 45 years later was “preposterous and unfair and unjust,” he said.
The judge castigated both sides for introducing politics into the case, which he said was really about the fact that Odeh had lied to immigration officials.
He added that he believed that Odeh had also perjured herself when she took the stand during the trial and claimed she did not understand the U.S. immigration forms when she filled them out and signed them under oath.
“This case is not about the Israel/Palestinian conflict or about freedom fighters…it’s about whether someone was truthful when they tried to get into the country,” Drain said.
“Unfortunately this has become a high-profile case and a lot of people will act on what I do here. . . . I’ve got to impose a sentence that will make people think twice before lying on the application to get into the country.”
A smiling Odeh — who was allowed to remain free on bond while she appeals the sentence — emerged from the courthouse with a raised fist to cheers and chants of “Rasmieh! Rasmieh!” from her supporters.
She was happy to be free, for now, she said.
“I want to be out,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t be sentenced to jail today.”