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Tresor Rusesabagina’s classmates and international communications professor at St. Mary’s University just wanted to help him.

They wanted to use the skills they learned in Professor Bill Israel’s class to help Rusesabagina’s father, Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts to save more than 1,200 fellow Rwandans from genocide inspired the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. Rwandan authorities arrested him in late August and put Rusesabagina on trial on charges including terrorism, arson, and murder.

Under Israel’s and Tresor Rusesabagina’s guidance, the students read about Rwanda and its history. They kept up with the trial of Rusesabagina’s father, who has lived in San Antonio since 2009, and as a final class project, many students chose to work on ways to help secure Paul Rusesabagina’s release. They contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio). Their next step was to call on Texans of faith and ask them to contact their senators and representatives in Congress to urge President Joe Biden’s administration to demand Rusesabagina’s release.

But the St. Mary’s students did not know what they were up against until April 6, when a Rwandan diplomat in Washington sneaked into their Zoom videoconference, according to university officials. Tresor Rusesabagina; his mother, Taciana Rusesabagina; and his adopted sister Anaise Kanimba also were on the call.

The FBI is probing the allegations that a Rwandan diplomat listened in on the St. Mary’s class. Israel said agents interviewed him and several students after he contacted the agency.

The San Antonio FBI office declined to comment, other than to say agents are “aware of the incident,” Public Affairs Officer Michelle Lee said.

University technology services staff identified the intruder as Charles Ntageruka, who joined for less than three minutes before departing and reappearing a few minutes later under the initials “MN.” The person stayed on the call until Israel challenged the caller to identify themselves and cut the connection after hearing no response.

Ntageruka is listed on his LinkedIn profile as a second counselor at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, D.C., Israel said.

Tresor Rusesabagina, who is attending St. Mary’s remotely and living in another city, said the videoconference intrusion has caused him to worry about the safety of the rest of his family, as well as renewing his fears for his father’s fate.

“What else are they willing to do? Who else are they willing to spy on? It feels like a desperate act from them, but when does desperation become dangerous?” he said. “It’s clear that these people are willing to try anything to get to us. It’s a good thing we were raised by Paul Rusesabagina. We’re strong, and we don’t break.”

Tresor Rusesabagina speaks to classmates at St. Mary’s University via Zoom. Credit: Courtesy / St. Mary’s University

St. Mary’s President Thomas Mengler said in a press release that the “intrusion” by the Rwandan government “shows the paranoia of President [Paul] Kagame’s administration in seeking to quell a rising chorus of international outrage over its kidnapping of Mr. Rusesabagina.”

Paul Rusesabagina, 66, worked as a hotel manager in the capital, Kigali, during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He sheltered 1,268 ethnic Tutsis fleeing violence that killed up to 1 million Rwandans. Rusesabagina has become a critic of the country’s president, who has served since 2000. Rusesabagina left Rwanda out of fear and became a Belgian citizen. He also is a permanent U.S. resident.

In August, Rusesabagina left San Antonio intending to travel to Burundi to speak to churches at the invitation of Constantin Niyomwungere, who posed as a Burundi minister, but he never arrived. Rusesabagina arrived in Dubai on a flight from Chicago on Aug. 27 and checked into a hotel before boarding a private jet he believed was headed to Burundi. The jet landed in Kigali, where Rwandan security officials arrested, bound, and interrogated him. The St. Mary’s class is part of an international campaign to bring attention to Rusesabagina’s arrest and to secure his release.

In December, the family filed a federal lawsuit against Niyomwungere and the airline, GainJet, that transported Rusesabagina to Kigali, claiming the airline “unlawfully flew” him to Rwanda and delivered him to “co-conspirators.” Rwanda’s attorney general told Al Jazeera that the government had paid for the private jet that brought Rusesabagina to Kigali. The Corpus Christi-based Hilliard Martinez Gonzales and Hilliard Shadowen law firms filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

The complaint presents two narratives, one of how Kagame has increasingly used authoritarian tactics to silence his critics, and the other of how Rusesabagina’s arrest fits into Kagame’s pattern of trying to eliminate political opposition. Rusesabagina and human rights groups have accused Kagame of torturing, killing, and making dissenters disappear.

“Mr. Rusesabagina’s outspoken criticism of the Kagame regime, combined with his high profile following the success of ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ has caused the government to try to discredit, smear, and silence him,” the suit states.

Further, the family claims in the lawsuit that Rusesabagina was kidnapped and not lawfully arrested because no international arrest warrant was issued for him and the United Arab Emirates does not have an extradition treaty with Rwanda. The family also asserts the GainJet pilots were responsible for the safety of all passengers on board and that they handed Rusesabagina over to be “physically and psychologically tortured.”

“As the plane began preparation for landing in Kigali (the Defendants and their coconspirators had led Mr. Rusesabagina to believe in Burundi) Mr. Rusesabagina’s hands were bound,” the suit states. “Pursuant to its agreed participation in the conspiracy, GainJet and its employees and agents did not issue any international ‘Mayday’ call or ‘squawk 7700’ on the radio – the internationally recognized code for distress or an emergency situation in flight.”

The lawsuit also claims Rusesabagina is being held in unsafe conditions, “confined to a prison where Covid runs rampant.” Rusesabagina is a cancer survivor who suffers from heart disease and hypertension, so he is at “extremely high risk of contracting the potentially deadly disease,” according to the lawsuit.

While the Rusesabagina family is accustomed to the Rwandan government spying on them, they never expected that violation of privacy to spread to U.S. citizens at a U.S. university, said Kitty Kurth, Chicago-based spokeswoman for the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. She has worked with Rusesabagina for more than 15 years.

When Rusesabagina spoke at universities or even in Washington, Kurth said, Rwandan government or embassy officials would show up and follow him or try to disrupt the event. They would send letters to the host, saying Rusesabagina should not be allowed to speak and accusing him of being a perpetrator of genocide. His house in Brussels also was broken into, but nothing was stolen except some papers written in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan native language, Kurth said.

“We don’t think that Belgian cat burglars have a lot of interest in Rwandan documents,” she said.

Kurth said she and the Rusesabagina family, who are residing in Washington as they work to free Rusesabagina, were “unnerved” by the videoconference intrusion at St. Mary’s because the Rwandan government has a history of using academics as spies in the U.S. The university and other Rusesabagina supporters plan to press Cornyn, Castro, and the State Department to expel Rwandan diplomats who allegedly committed the cyber invasion.

In February, Cornyn and Castro joined 35 other members of Congress calling for Rusesabagina’s release and return to the U.S. And the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding an international investigation into Rusesabagina’s case and for Rwandan authorities to provide him with a fair trial.

Rusesabagina is being tried with 20 other defendants who are accused of organizing and participating in an armed opposition group exiled from Rwanda, ABC News reported. In a September pretrial hearing, Rusesabagina admitted the group had an armed faction but denied his involvement.

Supporters of Rusesabagina and his family say Kagame is seeking political revenge and that the trial is just a sham. Kanimba said Kagame has been smearing her father’s name for more than 15 years, since the movie debuted and President George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Kagame also coerced Rwandans and the genocide survivors who stayed in the hotel to say Rusesabagina profited from the situation.

The “fear tactics” employed by the Rwandan government, such as the incident at St. Mary’s, will not deter Rusesabagina’s family from doing the work to try to free him, Kanimba said. In fact, it only motivated her more.

“It just became even more real, but at the same time it reminded me of what kind of fight that we have,” she said. “We cannot be scared because if we are scared, then my father is going to stay in prison illegally there forever, and that’s a bigger nightmare than having the Rwandan Embassy following me here.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.