In an exclusive interview with a spokesperson of Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, we delve into the organization’s instrumental role in the campaign to secure Paul Rusesabagina’s release. Rusesabagina, a Rwandan humanitarian, became internationally known for saving more than a thousand lives during the Rwandan genocide. He was awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011, which further solidified the bond between him, his family, and the Lantos Foundation.
The specific role The Lantos Foundation played in the campaign to secure Paul Rusesabagina’s release.
The Lantos Foundation awarded Paul Rusesabagina the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011 and became close to his family and team during that time. The family notified us of his disappearance early on the morning of August 31, 2020. At that time, we began contacting everyone in our network who we thought could help – fellow human rights advocates, legal experts with political prisoner expertise, past and present government officials, and journalists. We were focused on not only publicizing the case, but also connecting the family with those that could be most impactful in securing Paul’s release. We continued these efforts for the duration of his unjust imprisonment.
The primary challenges faced by the organization during this campaign.
There is no roadmap to freeing a political prisoner. Every case is different, every situation has unique pressure points, and the reasons for imprisonment can vary widely. Hence, every case is challenging in its own way, but this one was particularly difficult because the Rwandan government was so fully invested in seeing Paul punished – his kidnapping was the result of more than a decade of attempting to silence his activism in the Rwandan diaspora. In Paul’s case, the false narratives coming from the Rwandan government accusing him of involvement in terrorist activities complicated the eagerness of some parties to get involved.
Additionally, despite its abysmal human rights record, Rwanda remains a fairly close ally of the United States. Sometimes this can make it easier to negotiate matters such as releasing political prisoners, but sometimes it can also lead to unexpected challenges. We found that we had to pursue every avenue for advocacy, both with the U.S. government and with other democratic governments.
The organization’s immediate reaction following the news of Mr. Rusesabagina being condemned to 25 years in prison.
No one was surprised by Paul’s conviction. How could there have been any other result from a judiciary that is controlled by the very man that orchestrated Paul’s kidnapping, charges, and imprisonment? The trial and the eventual conviction did, however, close the book on that stage of Paul’s imprisonment, allowing the whole world to see that it had in fact been a sham trial. Once it was over, it allowed the process of serious discussions around his release to begin. There seemed to be some belief, or at least a vague hope, among the international community that the trial would be fair and then the enforced disappearance and imprisonment could be justified. But once that illusion was shattered and the Rwandan government showed its lack of evidence or credibility in the case, the real work to free Paul could begin.
The reaction within The Lantos Foundation when news of Mr. Rusesabagina’s release broke.
To say that we were thrilled, relieved and grateful would be an understatement. It was a day of great joy – not only for Paul and his family, but for the people of Rwanda who live under a brutal dictator. By overplaying their hand with Rusesabagina, the Kagame regime showed the whole world its corruption, its lust for revenge, and its willingness to do whatever it takes to pursue political enemies. Kagame had brutally persecuted his enemies for years in Rwanda but had a much different persona in international circles. Exposing his playbook against an internationally acclaimed humanitarian hero damaged Kagame’s standing with other governments. This will hopefully limit his ability to continue abusing the rule of law, and we hope that this will provide some layer of protection for Rwandans who have run afoul of Kagame’s regime.
Whether the organization experienced any intimidation or harassment from online entities or individuals supporting President Kagame.
When we announced that Paul Rusesabagina would receive the Lantos Prize in 2011, we were shocked when the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, D.C. began lobbying us to rescind the nomination, claiming that the story told in the film Hotel Rwanda was a false narrative. Remember, this was only six years after President Bush presented Paul with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over the next few months, we began receiving phone calls, visits, and even a small group of protestors at our New Hampshire office saying that Mr. Rusesabagina shouldn’t receive the award. We quickly learned that this was a new tactic that the Rwandan government had adopted whenever Paul Rusesabagina was going to be honored or was invited to give a prestigious speech – harass the organizers until they withdraw the invitation. We ignored what we ultimately (and rightly) decided was nothing more than a smear campaign. Fast forward almost a decade to our advocacy for Paul’s release; needless to say, we were much more prepared for the online trolling and general smear campaign. It became a point of some pride for us to see an uptick of nasty social media comments. We quickly surmised that the comments meant we had truly hit a nerve among Rwandan government officials, prompting them to call up the Twitter troll army.
Of course, we recognize that being harassed or slandered on Twitter is nothing compared to the intimidation, physical violence, enforced disappearance and even extrajudicial killings that many of Kagame’s Rwandan critics face. We pay a very small price, indeed, for raising our voice about the human rights abuses committed by the Rwandan government. But we believe that as more voices join the chorus, it will be harder for Kagame’s supporters in the west to continue excusing or justifying his brutal dictatorial rule.
About the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice: The Lantos Foundation was established in 2008 to carry forward the legacy of Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress and a leading human rights champion. The Foundation works with a range of partners and often in cooperation with the U.S. Government on issues that span the globe. The Foundation’s key areas of focus include human rights issues related to religious freedom, rule of law, internet freedom and activist art. The Foundation also administers the Lantos Congressional Fellows Program, supports human rights advocates, activists and artists through its Front Line Fund grant program, and awards the annual Lantos Human Rights Prize to honor and bring attention to heroes of the human rights movement. Past recipients of the Prize include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Professor Elie Wiesel, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda Paul Rusesabagina, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Iraqi Parliamentarian Vian Dakhil, Hong Kong Democracy activist Joshua Wong, Bill Browder, the driving force behind the global Magnitsky movement, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson, among others.