Against all odds, against evidence and logic, they keep coming to Washington: dissidents, human rights crusaders, relatives of the persecuted from around the world. They hope for just one moment of moral clarity from America's leaders.
Last week alone, petitioners included the grieving fiancee of a Saudi journalist, slaughtered last year by a hit squad dispatched by that nation's crown prince; the forlorn daughter of a Uighur scholar who has not seen her father since he was torn from her in the Beijing airport six years ago; and a delegation from Hong Kong warning that its city-state is making a last stand as a free society while the United States stands by silently.
The fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, spoke at a House hearing and visited Washington Post headquarters, where she began her story simply: "I am 36 years old. I am Turkish. I was Jamal's fiancee."
Jamal is Jamal Khashoggi, the Post contributing columnist lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain documents he needed to marry Cengiz.
Cengiz waited outside the diplomatic compound when he entered shortly after noon. She was still waiting at midnight. In a sense, she is waiting still.
After Turkish authorities said they had audio evidence that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, Cengiz, a Ph.D. student with no political inclinations, tried at first to stay in the background. She declined invitations to Washington.
"I wasn't emotionally ready," she says.
After a few months, though, Cengiz decided that, to press for justice for the man she had loved, she would have to adopt a more public role. She moved to London to study English. Finally, she came to meet the officials of the one government that she believes could, if it chose, force the Saudis to reveal more about the crime.
"I do believe it has been inadequate," she says of the U.S. response to the killing. "I had hoped for better."
Jewher Ilham also has had to fortify herself to advocate for her imprisoned father, the respected economist Ilham Tohti. She last saw him in 2013. He was expecting to travel to Indiana for a sabbatical. She was expecting to keep him company in the United States for two weeks and then fly back to China, where she was a college freshman.
When he was detained at the airport, he insisted she fly out without him. She arrived in Chicago, speaking almost no English, famished — there had been no halal food on the plane — and in shock.
Six years later, she graduated from Indiana University and traveled to Washington to accept an award from Freedom House on her father's behalf. She speaks English, as well as Chinese, Uighur and Arabic, and she hopes to do graduate work in Washington so she can also continue her advocacy.
Because, during those six years, her father has been sentenced to life in prison (in 2014) and (since 2017) cut off from all contact with his family.
Why the added cruelty? Ilham doesn't know, but her father's isolation coincides with the emergence of a gulag of concentration camps in western China, where China has confined more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
That campaign, says Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang, is, like the assault on Hong Kong's sovereignty, "just a symptom of the new aggressiveness of the Communist Party."
In Hong Kong, which is guaranteed a separate legal system by international treaty, China is pressing for an extradition law that will ease its ability to remove anyone who offends Beijing — Chinese or foreign — to the mainland.
"If you wrote an article that China doesn't like," democracy leader Martin Lee said during a visit to The Post last week, China might effect a rendition, and then "you'll be made to confess."
The proposed law, Lee said, is the greatest threat to Hong Kong liberty since Britain handed the colony to China in 1997. "We on our part will do our best to defeat it," he said, "but we need outside pressure."
Will Hong Kong get such help? Some members of Congress speak up, and Ilham says she appreciates the officials who have raised her father’s case. In a speech at the Claremont Institute on May 11, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump doctrine includes defense of human rights. In some places — Iran, Venezuela, Cuba — the administration does criticize abuses.
But President Donald Trump undermines and negates all that. He embraces Khashoggi's killers in Riyadh. He praises the Uighurs' jailer, Xi Jinping, as his "friend." He enthuses over autocrats from Hungary to Russia to the Philippines.
Yet the petitioners keep coming, looking for some balance against the rising tide of authoritarian repression. Maybe they come because there is nowhere else to go. Or maybe they keep coming because, deep down, they understand America better than does its own president.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. Previously he was a local reporter in Virginia, a national reporter covering national security and a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo and Moscow.