US-Rwanda relations: Rusesabagina prosecution complicates aid support

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Monday, 23 May 2022 09:50, updated on Friday, 29 July 2022 22:32
Rwanda Hotel Rwanda Trial
Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" and is credited with saving more than 1,000 people by sheltering them at the hotel he managed during the genocide, speaks to lawyers as he attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Muhizi Olivier)

The US State Department has determined that humanitarian hotelier turned opposition politician Paul Rusesabagina is being “wrongfully detained,” straining relations with an increasingly authoritarian Rwandan government that has long been praised as a model for development in the region.

The Joe Biden administration earlier this month notified Rusesabagina’s family of its concerns after Rwanda’s Court of Appeal in April upheld his 25-year sentencing on terrorism-related charges, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Africa Report. The determination means that the US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, is now tracking the case of the permanent US resident.

“The Department of State has determined Paul Rusesabagina is wrongfully detained. The determination took into account the totality of the circumstances, notably the lack of fair trial guarantees during his trial,” the spokesperson said. “This determination does not imply any position on his innocence or guilt.”

We have concluded that there were at least some violations of his fair trial guarantees.

Rusesabagina was lured from his home in Texas in 2020 with the promise of work in Burundi but was instead drugged and flown to Rwanda from his lay-over in Dubai, according to a $400m lawsuit filed by his family in US federal court in February. He was found guilty last year of supporting the armed wing of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition coalition in exile that he co-founded.

“We have concluded that there were at least some violations of his fair trial guarantees,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We are concerned about procedural issues with his trial, such as lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel while in custody and evidence-collection during this time which called into question the fairness of the trial. We also remain concerned he lacked confidential, unimpeded access to lawyers during the appeals process. We renew our call for the Rwandan government to address procedural protection shortcomings in its judicial processes.”

Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo denied the US accusations in a 22 May tweet.

“Rusesabagina & co-accused were arrested in full accordance with Rwandan law & our international legal obligations,” she wrote. “They were then prosecuted and convicted in a live-streamed trial. There’s no way to absolve him & fellow convicts for their guilt in the violent deaths of 9 Rwandans.”

US anger

The State Department’s involvement comes amid mounting bipartisan criticism of President Paul Kagame. The country’s leader since 2000 has earned plaudits for rebuilding the country following the 1994 genocide, but is widely seen as intolerant of dissent, going so far as to allegedly order the assassination of his critics on foreign soil.

Rusesabagina’s arrest and trial have only exacerbated concerns about Rwanda’s direction. Best known for his role protecting thousands of Tutsi refugees at his Hôtel des Mille Collines at the height of the genocide – dramatized in the 2004 Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda – Rusesabagina is widely seen as a hero in the United States, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.

As early as December 2020, foreign affairs leaders from both parties in the US House and Senate wrote to Kagame demanding that he release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds, noting that he is a cancer survivor “who suffers from several chronic medical conditions”. The letter also denounced Kigali’s “disregard for US law” in resorting to subterfuge rather than formally asking the US to deport him, which it said “suggests a lack of confidence in the credibility of the evidence against him.”

“We wish to underscore the breadth of bipartisan support in the US Congress for your government to return Mr. Rusesabagina,” the lawmakers wrote. “Our government is monitoring his condition closely. Because it is in the strong interest of US-Rwandan relations and Rwanda’s international reputation, and there are compelling humanitarian grounds for your government to return Mr. Rusesabagina to his family in the United States, we urge you to do so expeditiously.”

Earlier this year in February, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution calling on Kigali to immediately release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds and allow him to return to the US. The resolution is sponsored by Congressman Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat who represents Rusesabagina’s adopted hometown of San Antonio.

The Biden administration has also previously made its displeasure known.

In a 1 April meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta, US Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power “expressed strong concern over the conviction of U.S. lawful permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina and the negative impact of Rusesabagina’s case on Rwanda’s relationship with the United States,” according to a USAID readout of the meeting.

USAID and the State Department are major donors to Rwanda, providing more than $140m in health and other assistance every year.

Still, asked how the case could impact relations with the US, the State Department declined to detail any threats to future assistance.

“The United States and Rwanda have a strong bilateral partnership, which encompasses cooperation on public health, education, international governance, environment and climate, economic growth, and more,” the spokesperson said.

Global campaign

The US government isn’t alone in expressing concern.

On 18 March, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), an arm of the UN’s Human Rights Council, found that Rusesabagina had been abducted and arbitrarily detained in violation of international law. It called for his immediate and unconditional release as well as for an independent investigation into his abduction.

The ruling came in response to a petition from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy organisation in Washington. Meanwhile the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in New Hampshire has formally asked the State and Treasury departments to sanction two Rwandan officials allegedly involved in the abduction, former Justice Minister (now envoy to the United Kingdom) Johnston Busingye and Col. Jeannot Ruhunga, the Secretary General of the Rwanda Investigations Bureau.

  • The Trailwatch Initiative of US actor George Clooney’s eponymous foundation has released three reports to date documenting alleged deficiencies in Rusesabagina’s trial.
  • There’s the lawsuit filed by Rusesabagina’s family. In addition to President Kagame, the suit names as defendants Busingye, Ruhunga and Rwandan spy chief Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, who heads the Rwandan National Intelligence and Security Services. “The Rwandan government tracked, harassed, and ultimately kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina because of his criticism of President Paul Kagame’s dictatorial policies and his regime’s ongoing human rights abuses in Rwanda, the local region, and overseas,” the lawsuit claims.

“Paul’s kidnapping is peeling off the layers of the onion skin of Rwanda’s relationship to all the donor communities,” says Kathryne Kurth, a spokeswoman for the campaign to release Rusesabagina. “So it has been, I believe, positive that people are starting to look at Rwanda and see that just because (a country) self- labels themselves a democracy, doesn’t mean they are a democracy.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options