Barack Obama Would Let Shoaib Choudhury Die

Like everyone else, I have my own political principles and beliefs; and I feel very strongly about them.  But when I began fighting for anti-Islamist Muslim journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury [see AT Sunday edition], I knew that I could not be successful if I garnered support from only one political party or philosophy.  The fact is, Shoaib was in prison, being tortured, and risking his life.  He still is; which is why we have not stopped fighting.  Clearly this was a matter of human rights, of basic American principles, and everyone with an ounce of human decency should support us.

And, thankfully, things have turned out that way.  Support for Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury on Capitol Hill has been a celebration of bi-partisan cooperation.  When the Bangladeshi paramilitary force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) kidnapped Shoaib recently, I called four members of Congress-two Republicans, two Democrats.  All four lawmakers had previously been outspoken in their support for Shoaib, and they came through again.  Not only did all of them call the Bangladeshis, but they also had other lawmakers do the same; leading to Shoaib's release.

Last March, Congress passed House Resolution 64, authored by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and co-sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY).  The vote was 409-1, Ron Paul being the lone dissenter.  I was present for the debate on the Resolution.  After a pantheon of Democratic and Republican lawmakers offered impassioned speeches on Shoaib's behalf-and not incidentally in praise of Rep. Kirk -- the Republican and Democratic floor leaders (Gary Ackerman of New York and John Boozman of Arkansas respectively) both commented on the bi-partisan nature and strong solidarity of the afternoon.  Boozman called it a "a very bipartisan effort."  Ackerman said he hoped "we might bring this kind of approach and dedication" to all issues before the Congress.

A really telling incident occurred not long before the 2006 election when I approached two senators at about the same time.  Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is about as far on the left as we can find.  Then Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) is about as far on the right as we can find.  Both men responded with identical support and public action.  I later suggested to Santorum that it might have been the only time that he and Durbin agreed on anything.

In fact, I approached about 15 percent of the House and a handful of Senators:  Democratic, Republican, left, right, moderate; you name it.  And every one of them reacted with support; every one of them, that is, except one.  Who was the one lawmaker that took a pass on saving the life of an imprisoned US ally and opponent of Islamist extremism?  That's right, my own Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

I first met with his staff in April 2005 in his DC office.  Keep in mind this was the same week that Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spent hours learning about the case and then met well after "working hours" in a very difficult meeting with the Bangladeshi ambassador and me to secure Shoaib's release.  I brought Obama's staff extensive documentation of the injustice, as well as other evidence of Shoaib's activities; we spoke for quite a long time, but they never called back.  In fact, they ignored all my subsequent follow-up contacts.  But it was, after all soon after his election; perhaps early disorganization was to blame. 

Yet, I spoke personally with Obama 13 months later at a general meeting hosted by Obama and Durbin.  To my delight, when my name was mentioned, Durbin responded immediately with praise and support, saying that it was "an important human rights case," and asked to see me privately about the matter.  I spoke with to both him and Obama, who at his best moments looked quizzical and confused.  While Durbin later sent a formal protest to the Bangladeshis, Obama never responded; nor again did he or his staff reply to my subsequent entreaties.

I spoke with Obama one other time about Shoaib's case, less than six months later.  I reminded him or our last encounter, gave him an update on the case, and asked for his support in one of any number of ways.  He hesitated a moment then held out his hand and said, "Well, we're sure happy for all the work you are doing."   Propriety prevents me from verbalizing what I was thinking then.  I offered to send him more information, which he asked me to do.  And, guess what, I never heard back despite the reams of evidence I did send.

Barack Obama wants us to think that he has a special sensitivity to injustice and that his entire life has been about combating it.  Yet, in this one concrete situation he faced, he failed to act.  The fact that not one of the dozens of other lawmakers failed speaks volumes.  The fact that support was never contingent on ideology speaks volumes.  I often wondered if his refusal to act was strategic, ignorant, or simple cowardice.  No matter, the impact on Shoaib Choudhury was the same, as it would be on any freedom fighter.

When speaking about this, I ask potential voters this question.  If Barack Obama does not have the ability to stand up against injustice in Bangladesh, where is he going to find the moral courage to stand up to Iran, North Korea, or China?
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