The man portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as saving the lives of more than 1,200 people from genocide was “kidnapped” while in Dubai, his daughter asserts, while a video shared by Rwandan authorities allegedly backing his arrest on suspicion of terrorism was quickly challenged by his foundation.
Paul Rusesabagina's appearance in handcuffs in Rwanda’s capital on Monday prompted concern among human rights activists that this was the latest example of the Rwandan government targeting critics beyond its borders. He had lived outside Rwanda since 1996, in Belgium and then in Texas.
Rwandan authorities said they issued an arrest warrant for Rusesabagina to answer charges of serious crimes including terrorism, arson, kidnap, and murder perpetrated against unarmed civilians. The authorities cited “international cooperation” and gave no details but suggested that Interpol was involved. They did not say where or how he was apprehended.
Rusesabagina’s adopted daughter, Carine Kanimba, told The Associated Press she last spoke with him before he flew to Dubai last week but she didn’t know the nature of his trip. She didn’t provide evidence to support her claim that he was kidnapped.
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She said the family has not been able to speak to him and is worried the 66-year-old may not be getting his hypertension medication. Rusesabagina is a Belgian citizen and U.S. permanent resident and has long been a target because of his criticism of Rwanda's government, she said.
“What they’re accusing him of is all made up,” she said. “There is no evidence to what they’re claiming … We know this is a wrongful arrest.”
Rusesabagina has won numerous international honors including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011.
Rusesabagina has denied the Rwandan government’s charges that he financially supports Rwandan rebels. In 2010, he told the AP that the government was conducting a smear campaign against him for opposing Kagame. He has called Kagame’s government a dictatorship and urged Western countries to press the government to respect human rights.
“I believe it is a travesty that a human rights champion like Paul Rusesabagina should be captured, detained and held in the way he is being held,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. “This should raise a lot of deep concern and skepticism.”
It was not clear when Rusesabagina would appear in court. Police called him the suspected “founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits including the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD).”
The MRCD condemned the arrest and called Rusesabagina one of its leaders. The group, which describes itself as an opposition political platform, did not respond to a request for comment.
An armed wing of the MRCD, the National Liberation Front, was accused of clashing with Rwandan soldiers in 2018 and 2019, and Rwanda arrested NLF spokesman Callixte Nsabimana last year.
In the video shared by Rwandan authorities, Rusesabagina said “it is imperative that in 2019 we speed up the liberation struggle of the Rwandan people ... 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.” He expressed support for the NLF.
But Kitty Kurth, spokeswoman for the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, said the video appeared to be staged. Rusesabagina was wearing the same jacket and tie he was photographed in on Monday, she said, and the video was not filmed at Rusesabagina’s homes in Texas or Belgium. She said he exclusively speaks off-the-cuff in recorded speeches, whereas in the video he seems to be reading from a script.
“It’s been recorded within the last couple days and, obviously, they made him read something,” Kurth told the AP.
Michela Wrong, a British journalist researching a book about Rwanda, told the AP that Rusesabagina’s group posed no real danger to Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s rule.
“When you have a country where no genuine opposition is tolerated, there’s no freedom of speech and elections are routinely rigged, challenges to the status quo inevitably end up taking guerrilla form,” she said. “Rwanda may be a donor darling, but it is probably the most repressive country in Africa today.”
Rwanda’s government has been accused of previously hunting down dissidents overseas. South African investigators have said Rwanda was directly involved in the killing of Col. Patrick Karegeya, an outspoken critic, in Johannesburg in 2014.
Interpol declined to comment on Rusesabagina's arrest, saying it does not discuss its “red notices” for people wanted for prosecution unless they are public.
Police and authorities in Dubai, a city-state in the United Arab Emirates, did not respond to a request for comment. Kagame maintains a close relationship with Dubai.
In Belgium, authorities said they had no information about Rusesabagina’s arrest and were not involved. The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring the situation and referred questions to the Rwandan government.
“No country has broadly conceded that it arrested and handed over Mr. Rusesabagina to the Rwandan authorities. This is a clear indication that whatever happened was illegal and nobody wants to take responsibility for blatant illegal action,” said Etienne Mutabazi, spokesman for the Washington-based opposition Rwanda National Congress.
The 2004 Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” showed Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, as using his influence as a manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines to allow more than 1,200 Tutsis to shelter in the hotel’s rooms.
The Rwandan government disputes Rusesabagina’s story about saving people during the 1994 genocide, in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed by Hutus. Officials accused him of seeking to profit from his experience.
Actor Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the film, told the AP “it is my sincere hope that Paul is being treated humanely and fairly, and that a transparent and just legal process designed to reveal the veracity of these charges is advanced in a timely manner."
Bleiberg reported from Dallas, Texas. Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda; Raf Casert in Brussels and Matt Lee in Washington contributed.