This wasn’t in Hollywood’s script.
Photographer:AFP via Getty Images
It has been three weeks since the rendition of Paul Rusesabagina from Dubai to Kigali, but the former hotel manager who sheltered people during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide has not yet been heard from. His foundation says Rusesabagina has been denied access to his chosen lawyers, his family and to Red Cross officials.
Rwandan authorities claim that Rusesabagina is “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits.” He is an outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame, and a member of the opposition Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, which has an armed wing that engaged in a gunfight with government troops in 2018. The Rwanda Investigation Bureau says Rusesabagina helped to carry out attacks “against unarmed, innocent Rwandan civilians on Rwandan territory” that year.
Rusesabagina was the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.” A member of the majority Hutus, he risked his life to save Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In 2005, he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for showing “remarkable courage and compassion in the face of genocidal terror.”
Although he is a Belgian citizen and holds a U.S. Green Card, Rusesabagina’s arrest raised barely a murmur in Brussels or Washington. Human Rights Watch said his seizure “amounted to an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law.” Kagame felt obliged to deny that Rusesabagina had been kidnapped, but the president is under no real pressure to account for the rendition operation.
But then Kagame rarely ever comes under international pressure, or sustained scrutiny from policymakers in Western capitals, where he is regarded as a stabilizing force in a country — and indeed a region — with a history of extreme violence. Within Africa, admiration for Rwanda’s economic growth often outweighs alarm over consistent reports of human-rights abuses.
This quietude has emboldened his government to pursue its enemies aggressively. International human-rights groups say Rwanda’s intelligence network has been abducting and killing former allies at home and abroad. (The government denies the allegations.) Pushback is rare: In 2014, South Africa expelled several Rwandan diplomats after an assassination attempt on a former Rwandan army general in Johannesburg; earlier, the former head of Rwanda’s spy service, like the general a co-founder of the opposition Rwanda National Congress, had been found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room.
Rusesabagina’s trial, when it takes place, will be the most important test of the country’s judiciary since the trial of businesswoman and women’s rights activist Diane Rwigara, who was arrested in 2017 after she stood against Kagame in the presidential election. She was charged with inciting a public insurrection and forging electoral documents. Her mother was also arrested.
Held for more than a year before receiving bail, the two women were eventually acquitted. The judges declared the charges “baseless.” Another aspirant for Kagame’s job, Victoire Ingabire, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013, for conspiring against the government. She was granted early release by the president in 2018.
An even more frightening example is Kizito Mihigo, the gospel singer who, like Rusesabagina, was once hailed as a Rwandan national hero, before falling afoul of the authorities. He, too, was accused of plotting terrorist attacks and the overthrow of the Kagame government in 2014. He pleaded guilty — under duress, he said later.
Pardoned along with Ingabire, Mihigo was arrested again earlier this year, allegedly for trying to cross the border to Burundi. Soon thereafter, the authorities claimed he had committed suicide in his cell — a version of events that opposition leaders and rights groups have questioned.
Given Rusesabagina’s international profile, the government likely will be keen to make sure he gets his day in court. Let us hope that encounter also brings Kagame the kind of scrutiny that he has long escaped.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Bobby Ghosh at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at firstname.lastname@example.org
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