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Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroic efforts during the Rwandan genocide were depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda,” was living in the U.S. when he was brought to Rwanda, against his will, to stand trial on charges of terrorism. Human rights advocates say the trial, riddled with violations of due process, is an example of “transnational repression.” Special Correspondent Benedict Moran reports.
Today, Hotel des Milles Collines is a tranquil place for tourists in the heart of Rwanda's capital Kigali.
During the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, this neighborhood was a killing field.
More than twelve hundred people fled to this hotel for safety.
It was then managed by a 39-year-old Rwandan man named Paul Rusesabagina, who, using cash bribes and gifts of whiskey, kept the killers at bay.
The story of how Rusesabagina saved the lives of more than a thousand people made him famous.
First in the 2004 Oscar-nominated movie, Hotel Rwanda.
Hotel Rwanda trailer, 2004: "The true story of a man who fought impossible odds. I cannot leave these people to die!"
In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and wrote a best-selling memoir.
In the late 2000s, he used his celebrity status to found a Rwandan opposition political party.
He did so in exile, to counter what he saw as Rwanda's turn to dictatorship.
That put him in the sights of Rwanda's authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame, who has been in power since the genocide.
Rusesabagina spoke to me in 2018.
Why do you think they are targeting you?
With the Rwandan government, you are not allowed to be a popular person who is not working for them. Either you are with them, their friend, or you are their enemy, and that's it. You are their enemy because you tell what they don't want to be told. I'm not the only one, there are many others today.
International rights groups say opposition politicians, journalists and activists both in Rwanda and abroad have been killed or made to disappear after criticizing President Paul Kagame.
Rusesabagina believed the long arm of Rwanda's government had followed him to Belgium.
He said people broke into his home, trashing it, taking nothing but Rwandan-language documents.
They came in through this door. You can see how it looks like. You can see how the door gave up.
With a constant stream of threats to his life, he said, he could never return to his homeland.
They wish I would come. As some of my friends told me, if they see me they will eat me raw. They wouldn't need to cook me.
And what's your fear if you do that?
Well if I go there they kill me, in other words, as they have done to many people, many others guys.
In 2020, he did go there – though not voluntarily.
His problems began when he left on a trip from his second home in San Antonio, Texas, where he is a legal resident.
Paul Rusesabagina flew from Texas, to Dubai. There, he boarded a private plane that he thought was going to Burundi, where he said he had plans to speak to churches. But the plane actually flew to Rwanda.
In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Rwanda's then Justice Minister Johnston Busingye admitted that Rwanda paid for the private plane that took Rusesabagina, without his knowledge, to Kigali.
Marc Lamont Hill:
I'm asking who paid?
The government paid.
So the government paid for the plane that transported him…
Once in Rwanda, Rusesabagina was arrested, and charged with being behind a series of deadly 2018 rebel attacks.
And suddenly, Paul Rusesabagina was on trial, charged with crimes including terrorism.
Paul Rusesabagina, 2018:
The time has come for us to use any means possible.
In a video published online after our 2018 interview, Paul Rusesabagina made provocative statements regarding the Rwandan government. However he denied ever playing any part in any violent action.
I spoke to his daughter, Anais Kanimba, in August of this year, in Washington DC, before the verdict.
She was there, lobbying the US government for help in securing his release.
It's been a nightmare for our family.
Kanimba is a genocide survivor herself.
In 1994, when she was just a toddler, her biological parents were murdered.
Rusesabagina is her uncle. After she and her sister were found in a refugee camp, he adopted them, and raised them as his own.
To me you know he's the person, that's the reason why I'm still alive today, you know. He's providing me the education and the love, the support that my parents couldn't because they were killed in the genocide. And so this is very personal to me because I'm afraid that he's going to be taken again, taken away.
She said she, too, felt threatened.
While her father's trial was underway, Amnesty International revealed through a forensic analysis that Kanimba's sister, Carine, was likely the victim of a near-constant surveillance campaign. From January through June this year, her phone had been hacked. Amnesty's data strongly suggested the Rwandan government was behind it, and they were using her phone as a device to listen in on her private meetings with lawyers and government officials.
They're trying to infiltrate and get to you as much as they can, all the way to everything that you have on your phone. And it's very scary. Why are they doing that? If it's not just to repress people, to repress our family, to repress my father and to repress any other person who dared to speak against them.
The nonprofit American group Freedom House, which does research on democracy and political rights around the world, says Rusesabagina's rendition — and the Rwandan government's alleged hacking of his daughter's phone — are part of a larger trend of what's known as transnational repression.
And it's happening to dissidents around the world.
Michael Abramowitz is the President of Freedom House.
Michael J. Abramowitz:
Transnational oppression is essentially the effort by coercion or intimidation or, in some cases, violence to silence the voices of critics of authoritarian regimes who have fled authoritarian regimes to the United States or other countries.
Once an exceptional tool, it's now a normal and institutionalized practice for dozens of countries that seek to control their people abroad according to Freedom House.
The organization documented hundreds of cases, from Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly assassinating dissident Alexander Litvinenko in the United Kingdom by using radioactive poison.
To Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alleging approving the Istanbul murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Kashoggi.
And – most recently – Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko using a bomb threat to force down a RyanAir flight carrying an opposition journalist.
No one is safe anymore from the long arm of the authoritarian state. So, even American citizens, If we don't stand up to transnational repression, I think that we are opening the door to authoritarian countries going after everyone living in a democracy. So I don't think this is just a matter of us and them, it's a matter of all of us.
On September 20th of this year, Paul Rusesabagina was found guilty.
Beatrice Mukamurenzi, Judge:
He founded a terrorist group that attacked Rwanda. He financially contributed to the terrorist activities. He approved monthly payments for these activities. He invented a code to hide these activities.
Human rights observers say the trial was flawed and unfair, with numerous violations of due process.
Sarah Jackson is deputy regional director for East Africa with Amnesty International.
Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International:
If the Rwandan authorities had wanted to investigate and prosecute Paul Rusesabagina, if they had a basis for this, they could have lodged an extradition request. But instead he was subject to rendition and taken back to Rwanda.
His lawyers say it was a set up, and his rendition to Rwanda amounted to an illegal kidnapping.
If they had presented a formal request for extradition, it would have never withheld a test of a judge, this is why they decided to kidnap him, because they knew following due process would have not worked out and would not have allowed them to get him. This has been going on for the last twenty seven years that they've been tracking, hunting, kidnapping, you know, killing opponents, and regardless of where they are in Rwanda or abroad, the list of people who have been, you know, killed or kidnapped is a very long one.
President Kagame rejected accusations that Rusesabagina was targeted because of his outspoken views, saying in this televised interview days before the 2021 verdict, that he was on trial only for the alleged attacks in 2018.
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda: Now he is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with … there is not even an argument, nobody's arguing about his celebrity status, however he got that, that's them, whoever gave it to him, or even for himself, it's their business.
Paul Rusesabagina's family is now suing the private airline that flew him to Rwanda.
Now the only contact Anaise Kanimba has with her father is a five-minute weekly audio call from his Kigali prison, which she records and listens back to.
I love hearing this, I love listening to his voice. The moment that we have with him, and how fast it is. It's really easy to feel like there's no hope, even us, sometimes we have those scary thoughts, but we just don't allow ourselves to think about that. Why would Kagame let him go? I ask myself that question, but then I go to sleep by telling myself, no no no, he's gonna come back. There's no reason, rationale to how he will, but he will come back.
Meanwhile the Rwandan Government is working in the courts to have Rusesagabina's sentence changed from 25 years in prison to life.
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