May 08, 1978 12:00 PM

The first news of her granddaughter’s arrest, says Rosa Guerrero, 66, came in a collect phone call from an American official in Tel Aviv last Nov. 1. Terre Fleener, a former University of Texas student, had been taken into custody at Ben-Gurion airport one week earlier. “According to the military police,” Mrs. Guerrero recalls, “it was a serious matter.”

Just how serious became clear on Jan. 9. One day after her 23rd birthday, Terre Fleener pleaded guilty on advice of her lawyer and was sentenced to five years in prison. Her trial was held in secret and only last month did Israel disclose—in vague terms—the charges against her: That she had acted “on behalf of a terrorist organization to obtain photographs of hotels, kibbutzim, public gathering places and beaches and ships at Haifa and Eilat.”

Terre “was never accused of photographing military installations,” points out her attorney, Felicia Langer, a Russian-born member of the Israeli Communist party. A frequent defender of Arabs, Langer is not a popular figure in the country. She persuaded Terre to plead guilty because she did not think the young woman was up to a severe grilling by the prosecutors. “I believe one reason for the secrecy,” Langer says of the six-hour trial, “is that if the U.S. public knew the truth, the campaign for Terre would be much stronger.”

The campaign is gathering strength. Fleener’s family and her friends at the University of Texas at San Antonio have raised a furor over her Kafka-like arrest and trial. Not only was she held incommunicado during a three-day pretrial interrogation, says her mother, Mary Boettcher, of Enon, Ohio, but one month after being sentenced, Terre was placed in solitary confinement. Her cell had no water, lights or toilet. Then, secretly moved to another prison, she was interrogated by teams of five or six men. “They brought in a vial and needle and threatened to use sodium pentothal,” says Mrs. Boettcher. “They told her they were going to torture a friend and that they would do things to Terre no one would believe. She was placed in solitary and heard distant screams. I don’t care if it is psychological or physical, torture is torture.”

When Terre complained to the American consul in Tel Aviv, the U.S. embassy filed a protest with the Israeli government. “She received rough treatment,” says one State Department official in Washington, choosing his words with diplomatic care. “Let’s just say that the interrogation methods in Begin’s Israel are very rigorous.”

Friends recall Fleener as an intelligent, outspoken young woman with a burning curiosity about the Middle East. Born in Bethesda, Md., she was two weeks old when her father left home, and she and her mother went to live with her grandmother in San Antonio. “She called me ‘Mama,’ ” says Mrs. Guerrero. “I brought her up until her mother remarried and took her to Ohio when she was 7.” Unhappy with her stepfather, Terre returned at 13 to grandma in Texas. “When she was 14 she wanted to join a synagogue and she began attending a Jewish study class,” Mrs. Guerrero recalls of her German-Lutheran granddaughter. “Her dream was to join a kibbutz.”

Terre’s interest in the Mideast quickened as a result of two boyfriends. The first was an Iranian air force cadet, stationed in Texas, who failed his exams and wound up in the Shah’s army. Later there was Tony Akiki, a Christian Lebanese studying in San Antonio. Terre went to Lebanon with Akiki in 1972 and again in 1973. “She visited Palestinian refugee camps,” says Mrs. Guerrero, “and became pro-Palestinian because of the way they lived.”

By 1975 Terre, in the Mideast for the third time, found work as a stewardess for Kuwait Airlines. After her romance with Akiki ended, she met Fouad Bawarshi, a Lebanese-Cypriot whom Israeli authorities list as a member of the Arab terrorist group Al-Fatah. Vacationing in Israel in spring 1976, she took the snapshots with a pocket Instamatic that later caused her arrest. “She showed them to everyone who would look,” a friend later recalled. “I remember once she said, ‘See that little brown hill there? We weren’t supposed to photograph it, but I did anyway.’ It was typical Terre.” (One U.S. official believes Terre “was more naive and stupid than guilty. It appears that her Arab boyfriends asked her to do something as a favor and she was dragged in.”)

Last year at the University of Texas, Fleener struck up a friendship with political science instructor Dr. Catherine Edwards. “She was an immediate standout in class,” says Edwards. “She wrote an excellent paper on the Palestinian issue. She was against terrorism and insisted the Palestinians didn’t advocate it.” Edwards recalls Terre at a meeting at the Jewish Community Center, “locked in battle with the speaker and accusing Israel of treating Arabs just the way Jews were treated in Nazi Germany. After the meeting, they came up and asked us our names.” Ironically, her ill-fated trip to Israel last fall was, Terre told friends, “to find out both sides of the story. Don’t tell my Arab friends,” she cautioned, “that I’m going.”

At the time of the trial, says Edwards, who was allowed to testify about Terre’s character, “Terre had lost 20 to 30 pounds and was suffering a severe fungus infection on her feet. She seemed forgetful, almost drugged, like a person used to being dumped on and just taking it.” Student protesters who visited Fleener in jail last month found her disoriented, fearful and complaining that her hair was falling out.

On the 30th anniversary of Israeli independence May 11, Terre’s mother will appeal to the President, Ephraim Katzir, for clemency, in hopes that her daughter will be deported to the U.S. Even then, her friends fear, Terre’s punishment may not end. In a recent letter, Terre wrote of her ordeal: “I’m the same person as before. I look the same. I feel the same. How come I don’t act the same?”

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