It’s a tale about criminalizing and silencing opposition voices like the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, the poisoning of Putin detractor Alexei Navalny, and — just last week — the extraordinary rendition of 66-year-old Rwanda human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina.
I didn’t’ know Jamal; I don’t know Alexei, but I do know Paul.
We traveled together in 2005 to refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, as part of a congressional delegation led by the Chairman of the House Africa Subcommittee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). Also with us was actor Don Cheadle, who portrayed Paul — the heroic hotel manager who sheltered 1,268 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide — in the film Hotel Rwanda.
From April to July 1994, in this East African country, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a state-sponsored genocide. The human tragedy was compounded by a mass exodus of Hutus to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The scars from this national trauma, the international inaction that enabled it, and the revenge killings that followed, haunt the region to this day.
Rep. Royce’s mission for that 2005 Africa trip was to leverage the movie’s release to call attention to the on-going genocide in Sudan. He did just that. Days later, as the delegation was transiting through Chad, Cheadle was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. It was a media bonanza.
That same year, Paul was awarded the Presidential Medal Freedom by George W. Bush, and soon after, published his memoir, “An Ordinary Man.”
To those who know him, Paul is a reluctant hero and seems out of place with celebrities and fanfare. Despite his humility, he used his new platform to speak out on human rights in Rwanda, highlighting that the space for moderate Hutus had closed, and he eventually aligned with the opposition Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change.
Last week, Paul disappeared shortly after landing in Dubai.
He had told his family he would be there to attend a meeting, but he turned up days later in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, paraded in handcuffs by the Rwandese authorities for alleged crimes of terrorism.
The Bureau of Investigation of Rwanda has compiled a 14-page count against Paul, who holds a Belgian passport and U.S. residency. He is accused of murder, armed robbery, and incitement to insurrection — these are claims made against a senior citizen who has not stepped foot in Rwanda in 24 years, has recently recovered from cancer, whose modest income is generated from speaking engagements, and whose foundation operates on a shoe-string budget. Hardly a threat to the Rwandan state.
At a press conference on Sept. 6, Rwandan President Paul Kagame gloated about how easy it was to lure his opponent into his trap. Kagame said it was a “flawless” operation. He insisted that Paul has the blood of Rwandans on his hands and that Hollywood’s depiction of Paul’s heroism was deceit.
Flawless or not, Paul’s abduction was a brazen entrapment, and according to his legal counsel, an extraordinary rendition. Paul has not had access to his family or his chosen legal representation since his abduction.
Paul’s true crime — like those singled out by Rwandan authorities before him — is being a credible and consistent opposition voice against President Kagame, who has officially been in power since 2000, and who tolerates no dissent.
Remarking on Paul’s arrest, Simon Allison, Africa Editor of the Mail & Guardian, said, “the message to opponents of President Kagame’s regime cannot be any clearer, or more chilling: dissent will not be tolerated. Fame will not protect you. Distance will not protect you.”
Rwanda, in many ways, is an African success story. It has consistently been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, leading the continent in the ease of doing business and in digital innovation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perception Index, Rwanda ranked the third least corrupt country on the continent. Furthermore, Rwanda’s parliament boasts the highest women representation in the world, 64 percent.
But unfortunately, President Kagame, one of the few African military leaders to ever make a successful transition to governance, considers the Rwandan experiment to be his. A 2015 constitutional referendum allowed him to stand for office beyond the end of his second term, which ended in 2017. He won the 2017 elections, and in theory, could run twice again, keeping him in power until 2034.
President Kagame has been ruthless with his opponents according to numerous human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department. Since 2012, the regime has imprisoned and assassinated its rivals — initially with plausible deniability, using unnamed assassins in the dead of night, but lately, the actions have become more audacious.
Consider the 2017 detention and arrest of Diane Shima Rwigara who was charged with offenses against state security and forgery. Like Paul, her real offense was speaking out, deciding to run against President Kagame as the sole female candidate and openly challenging the legitimacy of his third term.
A video is now circulating on the internet, pushed out by pro-government forces, allegedly showing Paul calling for armed insurrection. His supporters doubt its authenticity and dub it part of a smear campaign. They are preparing for a ‘show trial’ which they believe will reveal more about Kagame’s continued criminalizing of opposition than it will anything about Paul.
To date, the international community has remained relatively mute, not commenting on Paul’s abduction. Not a single African nation or African institution has spoken up on Paul’s behalf. The U.S. has offered only an artfully bland statement.
America couldn’t protect Jamal Khashoggi, also a U.S. resident, from being lured by Saudi Arabia into a trap and murdered. A sham trial offered no accountability for those who ordered his death.
We must do better for Paul Rusesabagina.
The U.S. must demand his immediate release: There will be no justice for Paul in Rwandan courts.
Let’s remember that impunity is not assumed, it is conveyed by others — in this case by the authoritative global voices who celebrate Rwanda’s economic achievements but remain silent when the state abuses its authority.