Many are familiar with the story of Paul Rusesabagina. The Manager of a Rwandan hotel during the Rwandan Genocide which sheltered over 1,000 Tutsi refugees from Interahamwe militias. His actions were popularized in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, where Rusesabagina was portrayed by actor Don Cheadle.
What many are not familiar with, however, is that Rusesabagina is currently imprisoned in Rwanda on terrorism charges. Rusesabagina was arrested in 2020 and charged in 2021, to much international outcry.
Why is he in jail? Well, unfortunately, it depends on who you ask. Firstly, background is needed. Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996, saying he feared for his life. He moved to Brussels, where he worked as a taxi driver before eventually moving to San Antonio, Texas, with his family. After his story became well known with the release of Hotel Rwanda, he began a public speaking career. This speaking however includes open criticism of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He has said Rwanda is led by an “RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) Dictatorship”.
He founded the Party for Democracy in Rwanda and co-founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD). Both opposition party’s to Kagame that are based abroad. In January 2016, Rusesabagina announced his intent to eventually run for President of Rwanda. Where the complications lie is the MRCD’s armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Rusesabagina has expressed support for the armed wing in the past, and certainly helped found it, though his exact role in its function is unknown. In both 2018 and 19, the FLN launched a series of attacks in Rwanda which killed 9 people and injured many others.
In an investigation involving Rwanda, Belgium, Burundi, and the FBI starting in 2010, it was found that Rusesabagina was wiring money to the FDLR, a DRC based rebel group originally comprised of former genocidaires given shelter in the DRC. He also gave money to the FLN.
Rwanda maintains that he had a hand to play in planning the FLN attacks, and also accuses him of ordering them, which he denies.
“We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy,”
However, in a widely circulated video he is quoted as saying:
“The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed. It is time to attempt our last resort. Hence, I plead my unreserved support that our youth, The National Liberation forces, NLF, launches against the Kagame army in order to free the Rwandan people. As Rwandans it is important to understand that this is the only way to bring about change in the whole country.”
Rusesabagina was arrested in August of 2020 when he was tricked into boarding a plane bound for Kigali. He was in Dubai on a trip, and when leaving was told he was boarding a plane bound for Burundi. When it actually landed in Rwanda, he was arrested.
Internationally, many have labelled the arrest as politically motivated because of his criticisms of President Kagame. Political opponents to Kagame have been imprisoned in the past. They have also labelled the means of his arrest as illegal, though Rwanda maintains it was not illegal.
Both the EU parliament and the US House of Representatives have passed motions condemning the arrest, and calling for his release. US San Antonio Representative Joaquin Castro said:
“If President Kagame and the Rwandan government want to rebuild their credibility on the international stage, they must start by sending Mr. Rusesabagina back home to his family in San Antonio.”
The US secretary of state Antony Blinken was in Rwanda on August 10th and 11th as the last part of his tour of Africa. He spoke with President Kagame about several things including regional security and democracy, but also about Rusesabagina, calling for his release.
“We continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to Rusesabagina and his case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future,”
His family has also called for his release.
Rwanda has accused western nations of believing a “hollywood narrative”, where as the west accuses Rwanda of political repression.
Interestingly enough, Rusesabagina is not a popular figure among Rwandans, including some of those who were at the hotel, both refugees and UN troops.
Roméo Dallaire is quoted as saying the movie was “not worth looking at”
“I would like you to acknowledge the role played by those UNAMIR troops who stayed in Rwanda, including the troops from Congo-Brazzaville who were the ones who saved the people at the Hotel Mille Collines – not the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina”, also saying “I can testify that I personally was not able to watch that movie beyond a point as I found it so repulsive for its untruthfulness”.
Some refugees at the hotel have alleged that refugees were told by Rusesabagina to pay for both their rooms and the food they were given, and that he cut off communication outside of the hotel, among other things.
Kagame and Rusesabagina have historically had their differences.
“Rusesabagina should try his talents elsewhere and not climb on the falsehood of being a hero, because it’s totally false”, said Kagame.
Rusesabagina has accused Kagame of a myriad of things. He has blamed the RPF for the genocide, and also said that Interahamwe leaders were not only working for Kagame, but also began the genocide at his order. He did not provide any evidence for these claims, and these among other claims have been debunked.
Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in prison on the 20th of September 2021. He was tried alongside 20 others involved with the FLN attacks. Rusesabagina, who is a citizen of Belgium and a Permanent Resident of the US, attempted to say that since he was not a Rwanda citizen he shouldn’t be tried there. FLN spokesperson Callixte Nsabimana gave their testimony regarding his comments, saying Rusesabagina
“had ambitions to become the president of Rwanda. Now how do you have such ambitions when you’re not Rwandan? We waged war on Rwanda, and failed and were captured. It is embarrassing for him to now claim that he is not Rwandan.”
Rusesabagina is 68 years old. It is thus likely he will die while still serving his sentence.
Despite the international calls for his release, Rwanda seems unlikely to oblige.
-Written by GoodHistory Contributor Sebastien G