Perspective: It’s time for the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ manager to go free
With an upcoming summit of U.S. and African leaders, pressure should rise for the release of human rights champion Paul Rusesabagina
Most people are familiar with the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda,” based on events that occurred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The hotel manager depicted in that film, Paul Rusesabagina, has been unjustly imprisoned since August 2020.
The U.S. government should use whatever leverage it has to push for Rusesabagina to be released from prison. An opportune moment may be the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in September. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has an opportunity to provide a gesture of good will and release Rusesabagina before the summit.
Rusesabagina, played by American actor Don Cheadle in the film, is a human rights defender known for saving the lives of 1268 people during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. President George W. Bush awarded him the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for his bravery. He is also, notably, a Belgian citizen, and the European Union could play an important role in protecting the human rights of one of their citizens.
When Rwandan police announced his arrest on Aug. 31, 2020, they said he was detained on terror charges. Instead, his imprisonment is likely related to his criticisms of Kagame’s increasing authoritarianism. Rusesabagina founded the PDR-Ihumure political party in 2006, Rwanda’s opposition political party to the ruling RPF party. Some who have expressed opposition to Kagame’s regime, such as politicians or opposition candidates, have died or been imprisoned.
U.S. authorities believe that Rusesabagina was the victim of a state-sponsored kidnapping. On Aug. 26, 2020, Rusesabagina flew from San Antonio, Texas, to Dubai, where he then boarded a private jet he believed was headed to Burundi. The plane landed in Kigali instead, where Rusesabagina was immediately arrested. His arrest has been called a violation of international law by many advocacy and watchdog groups.
In September 2021, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment after a sham trial. He was kidnapped, tortured and deprived of all his rights. He was held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days. Moreover, Rusesabagina has survived cancer and has cardiovascular issues and is not receiving the proper health care he needs while in prison. The Rwandan government has done nothing to address his health situation meaningfully.
The U.S. government has a lengthy agenda of other issues to discuss with the Rwandan government. Frankly, the Rwandan government has been helpful to the United States on a number of other fronts, so the Biden administration is conflicted about pushing on the wrongful detention too vigorously. The State Department has reclassified the Rusesabagina case as “wrongfully detained” by Rwanda which formally places the case in the hands of Roger Carstens, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. This is a symbolic gesture that illustrates the Biden administration’s efforts to free Americans who are imprisoned abroad, despite the potential international consequences.
Both U.S. and multilateral actors have called out the injustices Rusesabagina has been facing. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department determined that Rusesabagina is being wrongfully detained in Rwanda according to the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that Rusesabagina’s arrest was illegal under international law and politically motivated. The group declared his human rights were violated and demanded his immediate release.
Given Kagame’s many accomplishments in Rwanda, it would be an incredibly important gesture and help the American hosts of the U.S.-Africa Summit if Rusesabagina would be released. Kagame lead the Rwandan Patriot Front to victory after the 1994 genocide and established a new government. Since then, Kagame has fostered Rwanda’s economic growth and managed Rwanda’s post-conflict reconciliation. He has overseen Rwanda’s continued 5% GDP growth for a number of years. He has championed national unity, passed a law that criminalized genocide denial and pardoned former President Pasteur Bizimungu in 2007. Kagame also released 2,000 political prisoners in 2018, and he should consider providing the same gesture to Rusesabagina.
The U.S. government should not stay silent on this cruel and sustained injustice. Fortunately, the U.S. has able officials such as Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who has raised this issue in her travels on the continent. But having this wrongful detention continue during the U.S.-African Leaders Summit would be an irritant and distraction from the many other issues at hand.
If Rusesabagina is still imprisoned at the time of the summit, the Biden administration should use the summit to quietly but insistently press the Kagame government to order his release and seek a deal that would provide clemency.
Better yet, Kagame should demonstrate his magnanimity as he has on other occasions and release Rusesabagina before the summit.
Dan Runde is the senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he holds the William A. Schreyer chair in global analysis. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power.”