By Anaïse Kanimba
Over a month ago, I woke up to news that no child should ever have to hear. My father had been kidnapped and was in grave danger across the world from me, leaving him unreachable and leaving me unfathomably distressed. My father Paul Rusesabagina is a widely beloved human rights icon and activist whose remarkable story of saving more than 1,200 people during the Rwandan Genocide was shared in the film Hotel Rwanda. He is an advocate for human rights, peace, freedom, and justice across the globe, and his work has earned him many awards, notably including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As respected as my father is, his work has brought significant criticism and harassment from the Rwandan government, which routinely attempts to forcibly silence dissidents and activists. It was because of this pervasive violence that he was forced to flee Rwanda in 1996. He was granted political asylum status in Belgium. The Belgian government granted this to him because they knew what an active and ongoing threat the Rwandan government posed to him. They also knew of the service he had paid to Belgium during the genocide. The hotel he managed and sheltered people at was the Hôtel des Milles Collines, a hotel owned by Belgium’s state airline at the time, and he protected it from being the site of bloody destruction and violence. After being granted initial asylum, he renounced his Rwandan citizenship in favor of Belgian citizenship.
And now, a Belgian citizen is being indefinitely detained and subjected to a sham trial in Rwanda — the very country that Belgium recognized as an imminent threat to that citizen’s life.
Of course, no loved one would ever want to wake up to the news that their father, husband, or sibling had been detained, especially at the mercy of a brutal dictator in a court system routinely criticized by international analysts as corrupt and malicious. But the detainment phase of my father’s ongoing case was not where this nightmare began. For days, all we knew was what we could string together from a seemingly inexplicable string of information. He was traveling abroad in Dubai to attend a conference, which wasn’t unusual. Suddenly, he disappeared off the radar and days later surfaced under arrest in Kigali, imprisoned on terror charges, denied the ability to speak out unsupervised, and forced to use government-appointed lawyers while being refused the chance to speak to his international counsel.
The Rwandan government and the broader international community have focused a lot on his trial, whether or not it will be fair, and the circumstances of his detention. But we cannot ignore the monumental question of how he got to Rwanda in the first place. In fact, it is the first question to the legality or fairness of the rest of these proceedings. To suggest that my father would willingly go to Rwanda is laughable, and Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, knew this. He gleefully described laying a trap for my father to the press, but remained elusive about the specifics of his strategy to obtain my father from Dubai. We did find out the truth, though: Rwanda chartered a flight from Gainjet, snatched my father from somewhere in Dubai, blindfolded and restrained him for three days, and dragged him across international borders to Rwanda. The Belgian government did not authorize an extradition of their citizen, the government in the UAE did not collaborate on this either — meaning that this was an illegal seizure and, in plain words, a kidnapping.
A Belgian citizen was kidnapped and dragged across international borders, and the Belgian government has refused to voice their concern or outrage about that fact. While it is particularly concerning that Belgium is not highlighting this as a grave attack against their sovereignty and the international human rights of their citizens, their disinterest towards addressing that fact speaks to a broader trend about an imperative aspect of my father’s case. There are plenty of organizations and governments pledging their support to monitor the situation and ensure that the trial in Rwanda is fair, but can anything born out of an act as unjustifiable and unlawful as international kidnapping ever be fair?
When we speak about fairness, we are not simply speaking about rising above pettiness or scare tactics. Fairness is the bedrock foundation for all human rights. It is an essential question of how we treat each other, how we hold each other accountable, and how we guarantee equality — politically, socially, and legally. Fairness is a concept that my father holds to be sacred, and I’ve inherited that from him. Without fairness, there is no equality, there is no progress, and there is no truth. When fairness is attacked or subverted, the structure of human rights, jurisprudence, and justice that is on top of it begins to crumble — everything that happens after that moment is tilted, biased, and unsound.
In my father’s case, it hasn’t been hard to see how quickly things spiral after such an initial breach of fairness. The government broke international law and engaged in brazen criminal behavior by snatching my father from Dubai, and after that first infraction of honor, they’ve successfully tilted the trial against my father. After breaking international law, they proceeded to break their own law by falsely saying my father needs pro-bono representation. The lawyers he has been forced to use are there to work for the government — a government that has already publicly condemned him and asserted his guilt. The judges did not ask him how he arrived in Kigali. His supposed lawyers did not mention it. His kidnapping, that crucial violation of fairness, irreparably corrupted the rest of the trial before it even began.
If we are willing to sacrifice fairness, we start to degrade our ability to survive together in our collective humanity. Trials and legal battles are a fundamental part of a functioning society, but when we allow such vicious tampering and disregard for law to put people in those trials, we debase the integrity of the system at large. You cannot break a law in the name of enforcing another law, and yet that is exactly what the Rwandan government has done time and time again here. The way that we treat each other determines the future. When we demean the process of law and justice in one instance, we set a precedent for it to be done to others.
That precedent is chilling. If the international community lets this stand, it emboldens and endorses the actions the Rwandan government took to kidnap my father. That precedent will lead to these tactics being applied indiscriminately. My father’s case may be an issue of intrigue and importance, but if we do not protect the process of fairness now, others will follow. It is infinitely regressive. Without fairness, there’s only darkness. It’s not hard to see what could come next: a Belgian, British, or American journalist lands in Dubai for an event and the Rwandan government forcibly kidnaps them, restrains them, and hauls them away to try them for crimes in a country they’re not citizens of. Perhaps it won’t be the Rwandan government next time, perhaps it’ll be Russia seizing a German who has spoken critically of the country, perhaps it’ll be a dissident or an activist or a priest instead of a journalist. Should countries warn their citizens against traveling internationally if they have criticized another nation, even if that’s not their destination, because they’ll be kidnapped and the government won’t speak out about it? Would the Belgian Embassy only offer consular services instead of outcry about kidnapping in all of these cases?
The international community must not allow this moment to pass without consequence. Taking action to condemn these tactics and recognizing their illegality is of paramount importance to the fairness that makes world peace possible. I call upon the European Union, the Belgian government, the United Nations, and the United States to acknowledge the unlawful, unjust nature of my father’s kidnapping and to advocate for his immediate release as a result. If the Rwandan government wants to try my father, they can do so internationally or in Belgium, as they’ve done with other dissidents in the past. But his proceedings must come from a place of fairness, and his current trial has been irreversibly damaged by the way the Rwandans began this ordeal. Without fairness, we have nothing — and at a moment where our world is facing sobering challenges and hard questions, we must do everything to protect the base that holds our humanity together as equals.