CHICAGO • An Arab-American community activist from the Chicago suburbs was arrested Tuesday on immigration charges for allegedly lying about her conviction for a deadly bombing more than 40 years ago in Israel.
Rasmieh Yousef Odeh, 66, spent a decade in an Israeli prison for her involvement in a 1969 attack that involved bombs planted at a crowded Jerusalem supermarket and a British consulate, according to a federal indictment. Only one bomb — one of two placed at the supermarket — exploded, killing the two people and wounding several others. Israeli authorities have said the attacks were planned by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
An Israeli military court sentenced Odeh to life in prison in 1970, but she was released 10 years later in a prisoner exchange with the Popular Front. Israel released 76 prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured in Lebanon, according to Odeh’s indictment.
But U.S. authorities accuse Odeh of failing to mention her conviction and time in prison on immigration papers when she came to the U.S. from Jordan in 1995 and before she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2004, the indictment says.
Odeh was arrested Tuesday morning at her home in Evergreen Park, just southwest of Chicago, according to prosecutors. She moved to the Chicago area shortly after gaining citizenship in Detroit in 2004, said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Her defense attorney James Fennerty said Odeh has been a close friend of his for years and he never discussed her conviction in Israel or the 10 years she spent in prison.
"I never really asked her," he said. "She’s one of the nicest people. ... She’s always caring. She’s not a threat to anyone."
Odeh works as an associate director at the Arab American Action Network, a Chicago-area nonprofit group that advocates for new immigrants and tries to combat anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice, according to its director, Hatem Abudayyeh. According to the network’s website, Odeh has a law degree and has worked as a lawyer. It says one of her focuses has been working with domestic-violence groups and addressing various women’s issues.
"She is a leader in the community — a stalwart, an icon," said Abudayyeh, who appeared at the Chicago federal court building to support Odeh. He added about her arrest, "It’s an escalation of attacks on our community. ... We are very, very angry."
Abudayyeh was one of 23 Palestinian and left-wing activists in Chicago, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, Mich., whose homes were raided by the FBI around 2010. The government has divulged almost nothing about the investigation since, and no one has been indicted.
Odeh’s attorney said there could be a link between his client’s arrest and the FBI raids.
"Maybe someone is vindictive, (thinking that), ‘We didn’t get the 23, so we can go after her," Fennerty told reporters.
A message seeking additional comment a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Detroit was not returned Tuesday evening.
During her initial court appearance, Odeh appeared confused at times during, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mason repeatedly asked her if she understood what was happening. She later was released from custody on a $15,000 bond, and the judge ordered her to report by Nov. 1 to the federal courthouse in Detroit, where the indictment was handed down. Among other conditions, he barred Odeh from traveling abroad.
If convicted of immigration fraud, Odeh could face up to 10 years in a U.S. prison. She could also be stripped of her U.S. citizenship.
The PFLP rose to prominence with a series of hijackings and other attacks in the 1960’s and 1970’s that killed scores of people. These days, it’s a small militant Palestinian faction. The group’s leader, Ahmad Saadat, is in jail for his role in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Barbara L. McQuade said in a statement that anyone convicted of terrorist attack is barred from entering the United States.
"Upon discovery that someone convicted of a terrorist attack is in the United States illegally, we will seek to use our criminal justice system to remove that individual," she said.
Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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