By Ella Baker Summer Interns Ruhan Nagra and Thomas Power
The opinions of internationally recognized torture experts will be considered in the Sixth Circuit appeal of 67-year-old Palestinian American community leader Rasmea Odeh. Last month, CCR filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of five organizations with extensive expertise on the psychological and physical impact of torture on victims. Amici expressed deep concern at the district court’s exclusion of expert testimony on the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on Ms. Odeh. The United States, which had initially objected to the filing of the brief, informed the Court on Tuesday that it, in fact, “has no objection” to the brief.
Ms. Odeh is challenging her November 2014 immigration fraud conviction. She argues that her status as a torture survivor and sufferer of PTSD is relevant to whether she acted “knowingly” when she incorrectly answered questions on immigration forms.
In 1969, at the age of 21, Ms. Odeh was arrested by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night at her home in the West Bank. For the next twenty-five days, her interrogators tortured her. Ms. Odeh has described her torture in detail, recounting severe beatings with batons and metal bars, electric shocks to her genitalia and breasts, and sexual violence, including rape. At times she was forced to watch the torture of fellow prisoners, including her father. Ms. Odeh has said that only when her torturers threatened to force her father to rape her did she finally agree to sign a confession.
Ms. Odeh spent the next ten years in an Israeli prison before her release in a prisoner exchange. In 1995, she moved to the U.S., eventually becoming a prominent leader in the Arab-American communities in Detroit and Chicago. Ms. Odeh has spoken publicly about her torture in Israeli custody, including before a United Nations special committee; however, when completing her application for naturalization in 2004, Ms. Odeh answered “no” when asked if she had ever been charged, convicted, or imprisoned for a crime. According to her legal team, she interpreted the question to refer only to her time in the U.S.
Although the judge in Ms. Odeh’s 2014 criminal trial for immigration fraud accepted her claims of torture as “credible” and did not take issue with her PTSD diagnosis, he refused to admit any evidence of the torture or its psychological effects – even though this information was directly relevant to Ms. Odeh’s alleged culpability in the crime charged. A conviction required the jury to determine that Ms. Odeh had acted “knowingly” when completing her naturalization application.
As amici argue, “The psychological effects of torture can impact the actions of torture victims in a manner that may not be wholly within their control or consciousness. It is well-established that torture survivors develop coping mechanisms to avoid the acute trauma that accompanies recollection of the circumstances of their torture. These coping mechanisms, including avoidance and dissociation, can result in a torture survivor acting instinctually from a place of self-preservation – not consciously from a place of awareness or volition.”
Ms. Odeh’s expert witness, clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Fabri, would have testified that PTSD sufferers often automatically – not consciously, intentionally, or irresistibly – filter their memories to avoid reminders of previous trauma. When completing the application for naturalization, Ms. Odeh may well have interpreted the question about past crimes and imprisonment to refer to her time in the U.S. because such an interpretation enabled her to cognitively filter the recollection of her torture in Israeli custody. Had the jury believed Dr. Fabri’s testimony, Ms. Odeh could have been found to lack the requisite mental state for a conviction.
Ms. Odeh – sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison but released on bond – has been stripped of her U.S. citizenship and faces deportation to Jordan. The jury should have at least had the opportunity to consider potentially exculpatory evidence. Indeed, amici– International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, REDRESS, and the World Organization Against Torture – explain that, under international standards, psychological evidence is regularly admissible in cases involving claims of torture. CCR and amici hope that the Sixth Circuit instructs the district court to correct this gross miscarriage of justice.