Ever since the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Rep. Ilhan Omar has been a strong and admirable advocate for the rights of the accused and for reining in the abuses of U.S. law enforcement.
It therefore came a surprise when Omar brushed off blatant violations of due process and said the U.S. should not help the hero of Hotel Rwanda Paul Rusesabagina merely because he had been accused of a crime by a totalitarian regime well-known for assassinating and jailing its critics.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution Feb. 8 calling for Rusesabagina’s release from a Rwandan prison. Omar was one of the voices against it.
“While I acknowledge the reports of serious concerns related to due process relating to his arrest and trial,” she said. “This man is credibly accused of terrorism, tried and convicted.”
“Serious concerns” is an understatement, given what happened to Rusesabagina. On Aug. 29, 2020, he was lured away from his home in Texas and tricked into boarding a flight to Rwanda’s capital where he was then tortured and put on a show trial for phony charges of “terrorism” in which no credible evidence was presented, and coerced witnesses even recanted their accusations. He was sentenced to 25 years.
His only crime was speaking out. Ever since his heroism during the 1994 genocide received global attention, Rusesabagina used his platform to draw attention to the rampant human rights abuses of the dictatorship in his home nation, the routine kidnapping and murders of dissidents that caused Freedom House to rate the country a dismal 22 out of 100. Rwanda’s dictator, Paul Kagame, has long considered him an enemy.
Would Omar now be willing to tell a resident of Minneapolis that as long as some shadowy police agency “credibly accused” them, she’d have no problem if the cops stuffed them in an unmarked car, tortured them, coerced testimony against them from witnesses the accused had never met, and violated their due process so badly that the American Bar Association felt moved to say the obvious show trial had been “irreparably prejudiced” in favor of the prosecution and caused “grave disquiet” to independent legal observers?
Omar’s vote came after a visit she made to Rwanda on Oct. 9, 2021 where she attended a meeting at Kagame’s office. The visit prefigured her shift in attitude from a congresswoman who has previously been fearless at denouncing human rights abuses – the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghur people, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories – into one that excuses an illegal kidnapping by a despotic regime that the State Department says has been proficient at “unlawful or arbitrary arrests and detentions, killings, and enforced disappearances.”
Rwanda is eager to do business with the U.S. It hosts a branch campus of Carnegie Mellon University and a startup minor league of the National Basketball Association. Goldman Sachs funds a women’s education program there and electric car manufacturers are eyeing the tin and tungsten produced from its Rutungo mines.
The regime’s 2020 kidnapping of their most prominent critic, Paul Rusesabagina, was a bit of a test: How much can they get away with? Can they silence a critic who happens to be a U.S. lawful permanent resident and a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom? If they can get away with this, imagine what they can do – and have done – to humble people without such standing.
Omar’s position on Rusesabagina comes with domestic complications, threatening to throw her entire stance on the U.S. criminal justice system into a light of hypocrisy. Is she saying that police abuses not acceptable in America are okay so long as they are carried out in Africa?
What is clear is that she can’t have it both ways. She can’t be a human rights champion while carrying the water of a brutal human rights abuser.
Tom Zoellner is the co-author of Paul Rusesabagina’s memoir “An Ordinary Man.” David Himbara is a former economic advisor to the Rwandan government now living in exile in Canada.