A 64-year-old man pleaded guilty Wednesday to violating the civil rights of an 83-year-old Somali man he assaulted in Minneapolis last year while yelling that his victim was a Muslim and should go back to Africa.

George Thompson of Minneapolis appeared before U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in federal court in St. Paul.

Court papers said that Thompson, a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration, attacked his victim on May 4, 2010, because of the man's "actual and perceived religion and national origin."

The incident occurred near 5th Street and Cedar Avenue S. The victim was identified in court papers only by his initials.

The Hennepin County attorney's office deferred to federal authorities because Thompson could receive a longer sentence under federal law, said Chuck Laszewski, a county attorney's office spokesman.

Thompson was charged under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act, passed in 2009. Shepard was tortured and murdered in Wyoming by two men who believed he was gay; Byrd, a black man, was dragged to his death behind a truck by three men in Texas.

The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis said Thompson could receive up to 10 years in prison.

On July 26, 2010, Thompson was arrested a second time by Minneapolis police, also near 5th and Cedar, in a similar incident.

A Somali man told police he was getting into a car when he was approached by Thompson and asked if he was a Somali. When the man said he was, Thompson told him he was going to kill him and began to chase and threaten him.

Thompson then went into the Nomad World Pub, where he was taken into custody. The complaint said Thompson was intoxicated and had two loaded firearms with him and a permit to carry them. Thompson was charged in that case with second-degree assault and making terroristic threats.

Laszewski said the Hennepin County attorney's office will move to dismiss the charges in the July 2010 case once it gets official notice of the status of Thompson's federal case.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382