To many in the U.S., the concept of political prisoners may seem foreign, something that happens in other countries. Yet they’re closer, and more numerous, than many may like to imagine.
On Dec. 11, Rasmea Yousef Odeh, 67, an American citizen originally from Lifta, Palestine, was released on bond after spending five weeks in jail at Port Huron, Michigan. She was imprisoned and awaiting sentencing after being convicted on Nov. 10 of lying on her naturalization form to become a U.S. citizen. Sentencing for her crime will take place in March.
While it may seem like the arms of the U.S. Department of Justice have done wonders by meticulously combing through immigration documents of naturalized citizens to prosecute those with discrepancies, the reality is that Odeh is a casualty in a war against people and organizations with political affiliations at odds with the U.S. government.
People in the United States are prosecuted because of their politics, explained Joshua L. Dratel, a New York City-based lawyer, who defended one of the so-called “Holy Land Five” (five individuals convicted of providing material support to Hamas). He further asserted that people are targeted and prosecuted in a way that attempts to fit their conduct into an existing statutory framework.
“They don’t say, ‘You’re going to jail because you’re pro-Hamas,’” Dratel told MintPress News. “They say, ‘Oh, you gave money to Hamas. You did this for Hamas.’ But, in fact, it’s because of the politics. So they’ve been convicted of a crime, but the only reason they’re targeted in the first place is because of their politics.”
Dratel defended Mohamed El-Mezain in the case of the United States v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). The founders of the HLF, a Texas-based Islamic charity, were convicted in 2008 of providing material support to Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization, according the State Department.
The case was the largest terrorism-financing case in the U.S. since 9/11. There were five defendants — Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, Mohammad El-Mezain, and Ghassan Elashi — who were all leaders of the HLF.
The U.S. government had seized all of HLF’s funds in 2001, designating it a terrorist organization. The defendants were sentenced in 2009: Abu-Baker and Elashi received 65 years in prison; El-Mezain and Odeh got 15 years; and Abdulqader received 20 years.
The case against the HLF utilized language regarding material support that was so vague that it gave “prosecutors the authority to argue that humanitarian aid to designated terrorist organizations could be indirect, and therefore, a crime,” Noor Elashi wrote in CounterPunch in 2011.
Noor Elashi is the daughter of Ghassan Elashi, the co-founder of the HLF and one of the Holy Land Five.
“In my father’s case, he is charged with conspiring to give Material Support in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinian distribution centers called zakat committees. Prosecutors admit the zakat committees on the indictment were not designated terrorist groups, but according to the indictment released in 2004, these zakat committees are ‘controlled by’ or act ‘on behalf of’ Hamas, which was designated [as a terrorist organization] in 1995. Their theory is that by providing charity to zakat committees, the HLF helped Hamas win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Palestinian people,” she wrote.
A history of repression
In 1978, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young told the French newspaper Le Matin that the U.S. has “hundreds of people that I would categorize as political prisoners in our prisons.”
While the exact number of political prisoners in the U.S. is unknown, the National Jericho Movement, a movement that aims to gain recognition of the fact that political prisoners and prisoners of war exist within the U.S., lists 60 current political prisoners on its website.
The list includes First Nations political prisoners, including Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who was convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents. Currently serving two consecutive life sentences, Peltier maintains that he is innocent. Amnesty International has stated that “political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”
The list also includes people involved in the black liberation movement, including Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sundiata Acoli. Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of the murder of a police officer, but maintains that he was framed. Acoli, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was sentenced to life in prison in 1974 for murdering a New Jersey state trooper. The International Jurist, an outlet that “publishes perspectives and opinions on the current state of international law and its future,” declared Acoli a political prisoner in 1979.
Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a former political prisoner, was released in March after spending 44 years in prison after being convicted of murdering a police officer. Conway, a former member of the Black Panther Party, told MintPress that he was framed for the killing of a police officer because he exposed an agent provocateur in the Black Panther Party.
“I was targeted by COINTELPRO because of that exposure. I ended up being swept up in an arrest that involved two other Panthers in the killing of a police officer,” he said, explaining that he was framed and that a police informant was used to validate the arrest.
Terrorism lists: FTOs and SDNs
The U.S. federal government has multiple lists that designate people or organizations as terrorists or supporters of terrorism. The two most frequently cited are the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and the Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN).
There are currently 59 groups on the FTO list. Created in 1997 by the State Department, it only includes foreign organizations whose terrorist activities threaten the U.S. It is unlawful for a person in the U.S. or under U.S. jurisdiction to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to a designated FTO, and U.S. financial institutions must report any economic activity they have with an FTO to the Department of the Treasury.
Meanwhile, the SDN List is maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department. There are currently thousands of people on this list, which is hundreds of pages long. It can include anybody — not only foreign nationals or organizations — that poses a potential terrorist threat to the U.S. Even Americans can be put on the SDN list, but only one person — the late Anwar al-Awlaki — has been.
Al-Awlaki was an American citizen targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. He was accused of encouraging terrorism but never charged with any crime. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of al-Awlaki’s father, challenging the government’s authority to use targeted killings. That case was dismissed in 2011.
Palestine: The origins of the FTO list
On Jan. 23, 1995, then-President Bill Clinton issued an executive order titled, “Prohibiting Transactions With Terrorists Who Threaten To Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process.” The document, which preceded the creation of the FTO list, outlined the framework and the motivating factors for the FTO list.
“I, William J. Clinton, President of the United States of America, find that grave acts of violence committed by foreign terrorists that disrupt the Middle East peace process constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
The stated reason for creating this list was that “the U.S. was spearheading the Middle East Peace Process, also known as the Oslo Process,” and that process was being threatened, said Charlotte Kates, the coordinator of Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, a network of organizers and activists, based in North America, working to build solidarity with Palestinian prisoners around the world in their struggle for freedom.
“That’s what the FTO list was all about. It was about listing organizations that rejected Oslo,” Kates told MintPress. “It wasn’t to list all these other organizations, like al-Qaida or any of this.”
The FTO list currently includes, among many others, groups like the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), a paramilitary group based in Ireland; Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is thought to be responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed over 150 people; and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group responsible for the deaths of up to 8,000 people since 2011. Yet is also contains a number of Palestinian groups, including Hamas, a Palestinian political party currently in control of Gaza, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist organization founded in 1967 and the second-largest group forming the PLO.
The Oslo Accords, to which Kates referred, are a set of agreements that were supposed to exchange land to Palestinians to create peace. Mark LeVine, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, explained the accords thusly: “Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza and accept a demilitarized Palestinian state with at least a part of East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians would forgo the right of return for most of the 5 million refugees and end political and territorial claims to pre-1948 Palestine.”
The problem, explained Kates, was that the Oslo process undermined fundamental Palestinian rights, Palestinian historical claims to true self-determination, independence, and the right of return.
However, she said that in the 1990s, the U.S. viewed the Oslo process as part of its own national security interest — and it still does. Thus, Palestinian groups opposed to Oslo, like the PFLP, essentially became enemies of the U.S. Clinton’s 1995 executive order and the subsequent creation of the FTO list formally criminalized those groups, Kates asserted.
Solidarity organizations, leftist groups and other entities in the U.S. that supported Palestinian liberation in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel were suddenly suspect and faced real dangers of violating national security laws created with the FTO and SDN lists. People who gave any type of support to groups such as the PFLP — whether through awareness campaigns or fundraising — could now be arrested for their activities.
The terrorism lists and material support laws have directly affected Palestinians and solidarity groups in the U.S. — and that was the point, according to Kates. She told MintPress that the lists were meant to signal to Palestinians in the diaspora: “You should be afraid to be part of the Palestinian national movement. You should be afraid to be politically involved. You should be afraid to know about or to support or be aware of the Palestinian political parties in the national liberation movement.”
These lists were created not only to give rise to a climate of surveillance and fear, she said, but to alienate Palestinians in exile from their own national liberation movement.
One way in which the lists create a climate of fear is through scaring communities and organizations by implying that they might be breaking laws that criminalize material support to terrorism, including those in the Patriot Act. Indeed, in a policy brief (“Countering Religion or Terrorism: Selective Enforcement of Material Support Laws Against Muslim Charities”), Sahar Aziz, a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy, wrote that material support laws have “chilled religiously mandated charitable giving and hampered humanitarian aid operations, thereby eroding the independence of the American nonprofit sector and unduly politicizing humanitarian assistance.”
Aziz wrote that the laws are being used against a varying number of people and institutions, including non-Muslim entities, which engage in peace work, humanitarian aid and human rights advocacy.
“A combination of public apathy about the state of civil liberties, pervasive stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists, and government misinformation about the efficacy of counterterrorism policies has facilitated increased surveillance and investigative authorities commonly found in police states,” Aziz wrote.
Kates told MintPress that the surveillance, harassment and arrest of Palestinians, solidarity groups that support the Palestinian cause, and similar behavior among law enforcement against groups and solidarity networks that support liberation movements in places like Colombia, are part of counter-terrorism strategies that openly suppress individuals and groups for their political affiliations. The laws are being used by governments around the world, but especially the U.S., to “disrupt so-called counter-insurgency, and to disrupt popular movements,” she said.
“That’s not a conspiracy theory,” she continued. “All of these agencies speak openly about their coordination with other international security agencies in order to find people that are ‘wanted’ or to share ‘relevant security.’”
Kates pointed out that the Israeli government does not need to come to the U.S. and explain which organizations to look into, or to determine who to arrest and surveil. The nexus between Israeli and American security agencies is so thick that they operate almost seamlessly, she explained. The New York Police Department – which operated a Zone Assessment Unit (better known as the Demographics Unit) in New York City designed specifically to monitor the city’s Muslim communities — has even opened a branch in Israel.
Kates told MintPress that “the U.S. government has absolutely positioned itself as an enemy of the Palestinian liberation movement,” in part, to maintain its dominance in the region.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship began to blossom in 1967, when the U.S. saw Israel as a tool with which to contain the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Since then, this close relationship has been maintained — partly to ensure U.S. access to oil markets, and partly to create a kind of colonial hegemon to maintain stability in the region.
“That’s the reason we see cases of people, like Rasmea Odeh, or the Holy Land 5, or the Anti-War 23,” Kates said, noting that the Palestinian struggle is a struggle for liberation and justice — a struggle that is opposed to imperialism. The U.S., she said, politically suppresses Palestinians, solidarity networks, and individuals and entities from other countries involved in revolutionary struggle because it sees those struggles as a threat to its own security.
Joshua Dratel, the lawyer, told MintPress that the U.S. takes sides in foreign conflicts and wants a monopoly on foreign policy with regards to how those conflicts are managed. Thus, the country will target individuals and groups within its borders to pressure forces it sees as opposed to its own stated foreign policy goals.
The Anti-War 23 and Rasmea Odeh
According to court documents and the documentary film “Women in Struggle,” Rasmea Odeh had once been associated with the PFLP. In November, Odeh was convicted of lying on forms to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen — a process that granted her citizenship in 2004.
Kates emphasized to MintPress that Odeh’s history and current associations should not be forgotten when thinking about her case. Kates asserts that Odeh was targeted.
When asked about Odeh’s case, Kates said, “We have to remember where it came from.”
“It’s not that there are people in I.C.E. [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] that sit around reviewing nine-year-old immigration applications, knowing that the statute of limitations is going to come up in a year and they need to catch any potential falsehoods before then.”
“That’s not how this case developed,” she said.
According The Associated Press, an FBI agent, who called herself Karen Sullivan, infiltrated and joined the Minneapolis Anti-War Committee in 2008 to infiltrate organizing for the Republican National Convention. Her goal was to investigate potential terrorism during the convention’s protests. She concluded her investigation with little to report.
However, during the time that she was involved with the Anti-War Committee she met people from a Marxist-Leninist organization called the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO). “These folks talked openly about international solidarity about the people’s struggles taking place in Colombia and Palestine, and popular resistance organizations and left-wing organizations,” said Kates.
As such, Sullivan and her supervisors at the FBI saw this as an opportunity to continue the investigation, but to change the focus. Sullivan then proceeded to infiltrate the FRSO, looking for anything that would constitute material support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC-EP) or the PFLP– two groups on the FTO list.
Sullivan signed up to go on a solidarity trip to Palestine in 2009 — a trip that was halted by the Israelis based on information provided by Sullivan. Upon the group’s return, Sullivan started to focus on Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Arab American Action Network, a grassroots nonprofit serving the Arab-American community in Chicago.
This new focus resulted in over 70 FBI agents raiding the homes of 23 anti-war activists and labor organizers (who later became known as “The Anti-War 23”) in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2010. Abudayyeh told MintPress in October: “What we had in common was that we had all done some level of Palestine support work. I was doing it within the Palestinian community directly, some of the others were doing it in their capacity as international solidarity activists.”
Nobody was indicted. Abudayyeh described the raids as a “witch hunt.”
Then, in 2013, Odeh was arrested. Abudayyeh told MintPress that he was made aware several months after the initial 2010 raids that the FBI came to be interested in Odeh because she was a colleague of his.
“They sent a request from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago to the State Department in D.C. to get documents from Israel. And after they got those documents is when they started developing this case against her,” he said.
An appeal to exonerate Odeh of the charges will be filed in March, following sentencing.