More than 14 months have passed since the Rwandan regime of President Paul Kagame, who has held a tight grip on power in the East Africa nation since 2000, orchestrated the kidnapping of the country’s most celebrated citizen in exile, political opponent and human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, a part-time resident of San Antonio since 2009.
A ticketed fundraiser and rally will take place in Legacy Park in downtown San Antonio Thursday at 6 p.m., organized by family members and supporters aiming to bring the case back into the forefront.
Rusesabagina departed San Antonio in August 2020 on a flight to Dubai and what he thought would be a second flight to Burundi at the invitation of an evangelical pastor to address church groups there. He boarded a chartered jet in Dubai that flew instead to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where security officials arrested, bound, and interrogated him.
In a legal proceeding in Kigali that was widely condemned around the world as a show trial, Rusesabagina was convicted last month on charges of terrorism and sentenced to 25 years in prison. With no real prospect of an appeal, the outcome was the equivalent of a death sentence for Rusesabagina, who is 67 and reportedly has health issues.
Rusesabagina gained world acclaim as a hotel manager in the capital city of Kigali who sheltered 1,200 refugees during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that killed as many as 1 million people. His story was told in the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda.
He left the country in 1996, reportedly after an assassination attempt. Since then, he has come under criticism inside Rwanda and beyond by critics who claim the film exaggerated his role in protecting refugees, while others say Rusesabagina has falsely accused Kagame of various crimes unsupported by any evidence.
Human rights groups say Kagame has increasingly resorted to torture and other extrajudicial means to silence critics at home and abroad.
Family members who share homes in Stone Oak and in Brussels, Belgium, where Rusesabagina has Belgian citizenship, and William Israel, a St. Mary’s University associate professor of journalism and political communications, have engaged for the past year in an international campaign to publicize Rusesabagina’s illegal detention and imprisonment and secure his release. One of the activist’s children, Tresor Rusesabagina, is a senior at the university and a student under Israel.
On Thursday the family, Israel, and representatives from the Chicago-based Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation will lead the protest rally to bring attention to the case and to raise additional funds for the legal effort. Tatiana Rusesabagina, Paul’s wife; Tresor Rusesabagina; and daughter Anaïse Kanimba, are expected to attend.
Israel said family members met last week with State Department officials in Washington, D.C., and hope Rusesabagina’s show trial and harsh sentence will lead to higher-level efforts within the Biden administration to secure his release and return to San Antonio.
To date, senior officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations have held back from sanctioning Kagame and other senior Rwandan officials. A tepid statement was issued after the Sept. 20 conviction.
“The United States is concerned by the Government of Rwanda’s conviction of U.S. lawful permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina on September 20. The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” the statement reads. “We have consistently highlighted the importance of respect for all applicable legal protections throughout these proceedings and have raised concerns that these protections were not addressed in an impartial manner consistent with Rwanda’s international commitments. We are concerned by the objections Mr. Rusesabagina raised related to his lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel. We urge the Government of Rwanda to take steps to examine these shortcomings in Mr. Rusesabagina’s case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.”
In diplomatic terms, the statement fell far short of putting the Kagame regime on notice.
“But there is some good news that has developed,” Israel said Friday. “The State Department has welcomed the family in the last few days and it appears the response is going to be escalated now.”
Believe it when you see it. In my own previous experience working abroad as a Newsweek correspondent in countries with dismal human rights records, the State Department consistently weighed bilateral relations before acting on behalf of imprisoned individuals. Unless direct aid is cut off and personal assets hidden overseas are subject to international sanctions, Rusesabagina is unlikely to be freed.
This column has been updated to clarify which of Rusesabagina’s family members will be in attendance at Thursday’s event.