By Brian Endless, PhD
Today is a very sad anniversary. It was one year ago today that Paul Rusesabagina disappeared while transiting through Dubai, and turned up four days later in Kigali, Rwanda. Paul had left his home in San Antonio, Texas to travel to Dubai. There he met Constantin “the Bishop” Niyomwungere, a man he had communicated with for a few months to set up a series of speeches at churches in Burundi. Paul thought he was boarding a private plane to Bujumbura, Burundi, and was incredibly surprised when the plane landed and he recognized the Kigali airport.
Paul was drugged on the plane. He woke up and struggled, but he was bound hand and foot. He was dragged off the plane by Rwandan security agents in front of the crew. He was then taken to an unknown location which he describes as an “abattoir,” or “slaughterhouse.” People were screaming around him until the screams were cut off. Paul was tortured for four days there. Kept bound and blindfolded, in stress positions. He could not stand. He could not defecate on his own. At times his mouth and nose would be covered until he nearly suffocated, and at other times a guard would put his boot on Paul’s neck. The family and the world knew none of this until months later.
Paul’s family was frantic as he always contacts his wife, Taciana, daily when on trips. Now he had disappeared for almost four days with no news. And then they woke up on August 30th with news from friends in Kigali. Paul had appeared that morning on the news, arrested by police and walked into a police station.
As a close friend of Paul and his family, I received a fateful text minutes later: “Paul is in Kigali.” No more words were needed, I knew exactly what this meant. Having worked with Paul for almost 15 years, we talked frequently about what would happen to any of us if we traveled to Kigali. And the answers were never good. We knew that if Paul’s name was not kept in the public eye, he could easily be killed by a regime that has killed nearly 300 political opponents in the last five years. And we knew that even if the public knew what was going on, it would be an uphill battle to free him.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame considered Paul to be one of Rwanda’s most wanted, and this was personal. Paul Rusesabagina was a well-known Rwandan, arguably better known in the international community than Kagame because of the success of the movie Hotel Rwanda which chronicled the story of Paul’s heroic actions during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.And insiders regularly tell us that this is something Kagame does not tolerate. Anyone who speaks out about human rights violations in Rwanda is speaking out against Kagame personally. Anyone who talks about lack of civil liberties, lack of free speech or free press, and lack of free and fair elections is seen as criticizing Kagame personally. Paul Rusesabagina had done all of these things for many years.
I worked with Paul for much of that time, helping him and his foundation to investigate human rights abuses, author reports and make speeches on the many human rights issues facing the Rwandan people. We were working for truth and reconciliation in Rwanda, while the current Rwandan regime wanted only the truth that they dictate. I knew all too well what the Kagame regime was capable of doing to someone they see as a critic. And now Paul was in Kagame’s grasp.
Over the past year I have worked closely with Paul’s family and team in our efforts to gain his release from Rwanda. It has been an honor and a challenge. I have been honored to share the highs and the lows with them. And we have all been challenged to find the puzzle pieces that can help Paul in what many think is an unbeatable situation. Paul’s wife Taciana and six children (Lys, Roger, Diane, Tresor, Anaise and Carine) have done an incredible job in keeping up their spirits, even though we all know what a toll this has taken on the family. They have each done an incredible amount of public and behind-the-scenes work to free their father, including leading efforts to move the United States and Belgian governments to action. We’ve had small successes, terrible news, and more small successes on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
In response to their very public efforts, Paul’s family has been regularly harassed and intimidated by the Rwandan government and its agents. In one of the more extreme and expensive examples of these efforts, his daughter Carine’s phone was even tapped by the Rwandans in the international Pegasus scandal. Many confidential discussions with the legal team and government officials were recorded. Why does a government that insists Paul is guilty need to tap his daughter’s phone?
Paul’s legal team has also been incredible, bringing international experience to the fight to bring Paul home. The team has worked on international filings, including to the UN Working Groups on Torture and Arbitrary Detention, as well as the East African Court. They have worked with Paul’s two local lawyers in Kigali, who were finally accredited to Paul’s case after he went months without adequate counsel of his choice. They filed cases in the US and Europe, and worked tirelessly to advocate for Paul in the halls of Congress, the US State Department and in Belgium.
We have had the support of and benefited from the work of numerous international legal groups and human rights NGOs and international organizations, including the American Bar Association, Clooney Foundation for Justice, RFK Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the European and Spanish parliaments, the International Bar Association, the Lantos and Edelstam Foundations, Hostage International, the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, and many others. And we have many individual allies working with us behind the scenes and in public to free Paul.
But Paul’s situation remains dire. His trial is scheduled to end on September 20th after one postponement, and everyone in Paul’s family and on his team expects a “guilty” verdict and what is effectively a life sentence. The battle to free him not only needs to continue, but needs to intensify NOW since that verdict is coming up quickly.
Paul is a 67 year old man with a heart condition, high blood pressure and is a cancer survivor. He went from controlling his conditions with a regimen of pills provided by his Belgian doctors, to taking one pill offered by the Rwandan doctors. We have no idea what that pill is, but it obviously isn’t working. Paul’s blood pressure continues to be high, with his imprisonment and ill treatment certainly contributing to internal factors. He regularly complains of weakness and dizziness. He has now missed two cancer check-ins, which can be deadly for a cancer survivor if the disease resurfaces and is not caught quickly.
While we don’t talk about it often, Paul’s family and team certainly know that his deteriorating health is all a part of the Rwandan government’s plan to silence Paul as a critic, and to send a message to others. From physical and psychological torture, through his confinement in one of the five worst prison systems in the world, Paul’s health will continue to decline every day he is in prison.
The Rwandan government says “he is a terrorist!” just as they have for many critics in the past decades. But this is completely false. Paul was subjected to what is clearly a Show Trial. Only two witnesses, other than the co-accused, gave testimony for the prosecution. Neither mentioned the charges in question. The co-accused gave statements that were coerced and many recanted those statements in open court. The prosecution frequently mentions a “Belgian dossier” that they suggest includes detailed evidence. We have read the dossier in full, and there is nothing there. A Belgian court is now considering whether to throw the dossier out, and the Rwandan government is desperately trying to stop them. No credible evidence was provided in the trial of Paul Rusesabagina. There was no credible evidence that the attacks in question took place, that Paul was in any way in control of the groups who were allegedly involved, that the MRCD/FLN groups were connected, or that Paul provided any material support. None.
So what is really happening here? Paul Rusesabagina, a humanitarian who speaks out against a dictator, is guilty of the one unforgivable crime in Rwanda, or in any other dictatorship. He speaks out against the human rights abuses of that government. He brings their wrong doing to light and makes the world take notice. He acts as the voice of the voiceless in Rwanda, where free speech will land you in jail or worse. And the Rwandan government has a long and well-documented history of inventing evidence and falsely prosecuting their opponents, whether inside or outside of Rwanda.
After one year, Paul’s family and team are once again urging the international community to step in and help. Individuals, groups and governments. Paul and the Rwandans cried out for help in 1994 during the genocide, and no help came. Is the world going to abandon him again?
The US and Belgian governments need to step up and put political pressure on Rwanda, through both public recriminations and quiet diplomacy. One man in Rwanda has always had the power to free Paul with a word, and that is Paul Kagame. We need to increase the pressure on Kagame until keeping Paul in arbitrary detention, the victim of a Sham Trial, is no longer a good option. We need to press Kagame in public, and give him options to save face in private, showing him that freeing Paul is in his best interests.