By Jean Damascene Hakuzimana
Many Americans first learned about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda by watching the film Hotel Rwanda, whose central character is widely believed to be based on the story of Rusesabagina Paul, who is said to have sheltered Tutsi during the genocide in his capacity as the manager of the Kigali Hotel des Milles Collines. In the film, Rusesabagina was played by Don Cheadle, and is portrayed in a favorable light.
On August 31, 2020, 26 years after the genocide, a handcuffed, real-life Rusesabagina was paraded before the press in a Kigali courtroom, and on September 14, he was formally charged on 12 counts, including terrorism. His arrest follows years of harsh criticism by Rusesabagina of the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame. Rusesabagina is co-founder of the political party Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), which has worked together with Forces for National Liberation (FLN), and has admitted to staging attacks in areas of Southern Rwanda. Rusesabagina has previously expressed regret for any statements he made in the past that appeared to be advocating violence.The former spokesperson of FLN has been apprehended in the Comores Islands by the Rwandan government, and is also being tried in Kigali.
It came as a surprise to many to see Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the U.S., in custody in Kigali, Rwanda. His family believes he may have been kidnapped. Carine Kanimba, his daughter, told the Voice of America that she fears for her father’s health and wants him returned to the U.S. She said her father went to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for a meeting, and that the family lost contact with him there, until they woke up to news stories reporting that he was in Rwandan custody.
Many media houses are investigating how Rusesabagina found himself in Kigali. The Guardian reports that he left for Dubai on August 26, and informed his family of his arrival on August 27. A private jet log from a company frequently used by the Rwandan authorities records that a Bombardier Challenger flew from Dubai to Rwanda on August 28. Planes used by the company have made five round trips between Dubai and Kigali since June.
In an interview with Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, President Kagame said that Rusesabagina got to Kigali on his own. He dismissed allegations of kidnapping, and vowed that Rusesabagina would be charged for his crimes against Rwandans, especially deadly attacks alleged to have been conducted by the FNL.
Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, and other organizations have called for a quick and fair trial for Rusesabagina, and for assurances that his right to choose his own attorney is respected.
Rusesabagina was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005.