The Hero and the Strongman

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When ethnic Hutu militants committed genocide against members of the minority ethnic Tutsi community in Rwanda in the mid-1990s, hotelier Paul Rusesabagina sought to give refuge to more than 1,000 people. His life story inspired the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” a gripping tragedy that sought to explain how the United Nations and others failed to prevent politically choreographed mass slaughter.

To many people around the world, Rusesabagina, now 68, is the hero of that sad chapter in the East African country’s history. Yet until recently he was in prison in Rwanda because of his alleged ties with an armed group that opposes Rwandan President Paul Kagame. As Reuters reported, Rusesabagina had been a permanent resident of the US for more than 10 years, though he expressed interest in running for president of his homeland in 2016.

In 2019, Rusesabagina boarded a private plane that he thought was going to Burundi but instead landed in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where police arrested him. As the New York Times wrote, he was in effect kidnapped. Convicted on terrorism charges in a deeply flawed trial, he faced 25 years in prison. Recently, however, after the US interceded on his behalf, he was released and was back in Houston, CNN added.

He was likely not the first political dissident to fall prey to Rwandan agents on foreign shores. Citing classified FBI reports, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project demonstrated how Rwandan agents used “poison pen information,” or fabricated allegations, to attempt to convince American law enforcement agencies to deport Kagame’s enemies living in the US. Interpol revoked an arrest warrant for a Kagame critic after officials learned that Rwanda’s claims against him were baseless, too.

Kagame has also come under pressure for his administration’s treatment of political dissidents within the country.

Leaders of political parties who run against Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front – the party that has ruled since its armed wing won the country’s civil war and ended the genocide in 1994 – go to jail, disappear, or die without explanation, wrote Rwandan political activist Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza in Al Jazeera. Deutsche Welle assembled a list of Rwandan activists within and outside of the country who have perished under mysterious circumstances. American diplomats have also issued warnings about Kagame’s authoritarianism – despite Rwanda’s importance to the US, being a small but important ally in its push to counter Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.

A Rwandan government spokesperson told Britain’s Channel 4 News that there was “nothing wrong with human rights” in her country.

As human rights officials have pointed out, that might be true if one thinks jailing opponents after show trials is just fine.

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