The Truth about the Humanitarian and the Dictator False Charges, Kidnapping and the Torture of Paul Rusesabagina

By Brian Endless, PhD

Is Hotel Rwanda humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina a terrorist? No. But Rwandan President Paul Kagame wants the world to believe he is. Why are we accepting the word of a dictator over a humanitarian who criticizes human rights abuses in the dictator’s country?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Why would the Rwandan government go to the extraordinary steps of kidnapping Paul Rusesabagina by luring him from his home in San Antonio, through Dubai, and then onto a flight (that the Rwandan government paid for) that he thought was going to Burundi, but ended up in Rwanda? Why would they torture him for three days upon arrival without asking any questions? Why would they keep him in solitary confinement for more than 250 days and provide extremely limited contact with his lawyers and family? Why would they violate nearly all of his rights to a fair trial?

These are not the actions of a government bringing a criminal to justice. Rather, they are the actions of an authoritarian government silencing one of their primary critics. These actions stop Rusesabagina from calling for an end to human rights abuses and have a chilling effect on other critics. It sends a message: if we can get Rusesabagina from the United States, we can get you too. This is a government that has kidnapped and committed political assassinations in other countries many times in the recent past. There is no reason to believe that this is anything but more of the same. The false charges are simply covering up the actual crime.

Rusesabagina became a target of President Paul Kagame’s ire long ago. When the movie Hotel Rwanda was first released, Kagame celebrated the film until Paul Rusesabagina got more praise around the world for his heroic actions to save lives during the genocide than the praise given to Kagame. The film premiered in Kigali with Kagame in attendance and singing the praises of the movie and of Rusesabagina. But in the next few years, everything changed.

By 2007, Kagame had created false stories of Rusesabagina’s association with the FDLR (Demorcratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group closely associated with the former Hutu military and Interhamwe militias involved in the 1994 genocide) and his financing of rebels. There was no association of Rusesabagina with the FDLR. In fact, the FDLR always hated Paul because he hired Tutsis at the Hotel Milles Collines, was married to a Tutsi and was the son of a Tutsi mother. Worse yet, they did not like the way that the FDLR was portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

Kagame and the Rwandan propaganda machine began an assault on Rusesabagina back in 2007 when Rwandan Ambassador James Kimonyo publicly and falsely accused Rusesabagina, along with two retired United States Ambassadors, Robert Flaten and Robert Krueger, of meeting with funders in South Africa and “gun running” for the FDLR. This story was a complete fabrication, but, it did not stop the Rwandans from continuing a media campaign of false charges.

There was a steady stream of accusations against Rusesabagina in the media in the years around 2010–2012. False claims again tried to tie him to the FDLR and accused him of financing rebels. When Rusesabagina finally received a copy of the documents that Rwanda said proved he was sending money to terrorists, he was able to prove that one of Western Union receipts was from a location hundreds of miles away from him and another from a day when he was on another continent. These false charges were rejected by Belgium and the US, who took no legal action. Rusesabagina continued his efforts to stop the flow of conflict minerals and his advocacy for an internationally sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission for the Great Lakes region of Africa. He continued educating people about the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide so that Never Again would actually mean Never Again.

The Rwandans told the media and the international community that there was an Interpol warrant for Rusesabagina’s arrest. There never was any warrant. The Rwandans said that Rusesabainga was financing rebels. He was not, and no evidence was ever provided. The Rwandans said that he was consorting with the FDLR with no proof. He was not. The Rwandans lied about all of it, and the international community rejected those lies. Rusesabagina traveled the globe regularly in his humanitarian work. He was never stopped getting on or off a plane, he was never on a no fly list, he was never wanted for any charges. The Rwandans continually lied about these things.

Why are these false accusations from more than a decade ago important? They are important because the charges are strikingly similar to the false charges that Kagame is leveling against Rusesabagina now.

Beyond the politics, there are no legal merits to this case. Just as there were no merits to charges leveled in the media a decade ago. The International community rejected those long ago charges and would likely have rejected these fake charges, so Kagame resorted to kidnapping.

In bringing the current charges, the Rwandan government is counting on the fact that outsiders don’t understand the Rwandan diaspora political parties and groups involved nor how Rwandan politics work. They expect us to see this as just more infighting by “those Africans.” And they use the word “terrorist” as a trigger, because they know that some in the West will assume that any accusation of terrorism is true. As noted by Freedom House report, “authoritarian states see an opportunity to exert control beyond their borders by exploiting accusations of terrorism in particular.” (Freedom House, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach,” Feb 2021). But we know about the organizations involved. They are:

  • MRCD (Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change) — founded in 2018, this is a loose affiliation of political parties in the Rwandan diaspora, focused on bringing democracy to Rwanda. Each individual party that is a member of the MRCD coalition has no direct connection to the other parties. Each party has its own leadership and its own directives. Leaders of affiliated parties serve as rotating presidents of this group.
  • PDR-Ihumure (Party Democratic Rwanda) — is the political party founded by Paul Rusesabagina and others in 2006. This is a party focused on bringing democracy to Rwanda. Paul was the President.
  • CNRD (National Council for Renewal and Democracy) — Callixte Nsabimana (aka Sankara), one of defendants in the Rusesabagina trial, was the spokesperson of this party. CNRD is also focused on democracy in Rwanda. This is the political wing of the FLN group. CNRD and FLN joined the MRCD group in 2018 and they left the MRCD group in 2020.
  • FLN (National Liberation Forces) — this group was the armed wing of the CNRD political party. The group was formed in 2016 to act as a self-defense force for Hutus living in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This group broke off from the FDLR because they did not believe in the FDLR’s mission, which was still focused on Hutu Power. The FLN had various clashes with Rwandan military and militias who regularly invade the DRC to attack Hutu civilians and refugees and took credit for these actions. The FLN have stated repeatedly that they never attacked Rwandan civilians.

The Rwandan government claims there is a group called the MRCD/FLN that is responsible for three attacks in and around the Nyungwe forest. This is a meritless claim for several reasons:

  1. There is no MRCD/FLN group. MRCD leadership has no command or control over the FLN group and its actions. FLN activities are planned on their own, with no input from other parties in the MRCD.
  2. Other co-defendants in the trial who identify themselves as affiliated with the FLN are clear that the CNRD is the “political wing” of their party, but that the FLN has no connection to the MRCD. Several had not even heard the name MRCD until they were in prison in Rwanda and told that they were going to be co-defendants in the Rusesabagina trial.
  3. With the exception of Sankara, who has now been in jail since 2019 and whose testimony was very likely coerced in exchange for a shorter sentence, none of the other co-defendants make any connection between Paul Rusesabagina and the FLN in their court testimonies.

The Rwandan government has so far presented no evidence at trial that the three attacks in question exist. They have also presented no evidence that any of the defendants took part in these attacks, that the FLN was responsible, or that anyone in the MRCD knew about these attacks.

  • MRCD and CNRD statements at the time the attacks were made public by the Rwandan government make clear that these groups not only said they did not commit the attacks, but that they believe the Rwandan military itself was responsible for the attacks. These statements asked for an independent investigation, preferably by the United Nations, to determine whether the attacks occurred and who was responsible. The Rwandan government never asked for or allowed such an investigation.
  • No evidence has been presented at trial that these attacks took place or who committed them, except for Rwandan government statements and press reports by the captive Rwandan press at the time. No independent investigators have looked into the attacks.
  • Victims/witnesses brought by the prosecution in the case describe items that were lost in the attacks (a car, a sack of potatoes, etc), but do not describe any details about the attacks, how they were carried out, or who committed them. Two of the “victims” are a mother and her infant child, who appeared in court in February. They claim that they lost their father and husband in these attacks, which allegedly occurred in June of 2018, which is 32 months ago. The infant was just a few months old.

One of the charges also claims that Paul Rusesabagina and the MRCD provided funding to the FLN for the alleged attacks. The documents provided to the defense and in-court testimony so far show no evidence whatsoever of financing. There have been no receipts, no bank records, or any paper trail of evidence. In fact, these allegations were made against Paul Rusesabagina as early as 2010 and have been investigated by both the US and Belgian governments, with neither finding any evidence of transfers or wrongdoing.

During the Rwandan government’s torture of Paul Rusesabagina at the place he described as an “abattoir” or “slaughterhouse” two government officials, Rwandan Prosecutor General, Mr Aimable Havugiyaremye and the Secretary General of the RIB, Mr. Janot Rubunga, tried to coerce Rusesabagina into saying that the Zambian president provided him with funds to give to the FLN. Despite multiple days of torture, he refused to go along with this false accusation.

Oprah Winfrey and Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism in the face of genocide inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” named as recipients of the National Civil Rights Museum’s annual Freedom Awards (2005).

Paul Rusesabagina is not and never has been a terrorist. This is what Paul Kagame and his highly authoritarian Rwandan government want the world to believe. Rusesabagina frequently says that he and other human rights critics are a “voice for the voiceless” inside of Rwanda and other countries. And Paul Kagame desperately wants to silence that voice. This desperation can be seen in the kidnapping, torture, arbitrary detention, and complete lack of rule of law exercised since Paul Rusesabagina was brought against his will from the United States, through Dubai and to Rwanda.

The international community can continue to pay lip service to Kagame’s fraud by “encouraging a fair trial” and using other polite contrivances. But a fair trial is not a part of this situation, and it never was. This is all about a dictator kidnapping a humanitarian. If the United States, Belgium and the international community are going to stand up for human rights, it is now time to demand that Rwanda free Paul Rusesabagina.

#FreeRusesabagina is fighting for the freedom of the international humanitarian activist Paul Rusesabagina.