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Vol 64 No 7

Published 30th March 2023


Kigali frees 'Hotel Rwanda' hero to assuage Washington

Paul Rusesabagina's 25-year sentence has been commuted and legal action against President Kagame's government has been dropped

Qatar won a chorus of grateful thanks from the governments of Rwanda and the United States for its role in bringing about the release of political activist Paul Rusesabagina, freed on 24 March after serving just two years of his 25-year sentence (AC Vol 61 No 18, Exile flies into a trap). Attention focused on a recent meeting in Doha between President Paul Kagame and Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, a key investor in Rwanda's economy.

It was to the Qatar ambassador's residence in Kigali that Rusesabagina was taken from prison on Friday night, flying on Monday to Doha. Semafor, a media platform which enjoys good access to the Qatari authorities, broke the news on the morning of the release.

In truth, the Qatari role was no more than a fig leaf – applied at the very last moment – for an operation instigated and fine-tuned in Washington which had been many months in the making (Dispatches 16/3/23, Kagame's bargaining chip). A US official quipped: 'Qatar's wasn't so much an eleventh-hour intervention as an eleventh hour and 59 minutes intervention.' Crucially, its token involvement provided Kagame, who had declared at a US-Africa summit in December that he would never cave in to US bullying on the Rusesabagina issue, with a way of saving face.

Rusesabagina's family and friends, who waged a relentless campaign embracing lawyers in at least four countries, international human rights groups and a bevy of Hollywood stars, were supported by the White House, both houses of Congress and the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, with the State Department bringing up the rear.

As Rusesabagina was tried and saw his case go to appeal, a series of bipartisan, bicameral letters calling for his release highlighted the fact that for Capitol Hill, the relationship Washington had enjoyed with Rwanda since the 1994 genocide risked a long-term souring (AC Vol 62 No 19, A trial on trial).

Underlining a message intended as much for its own government as Rwanda, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which holds the purse strings on foreign aid, was at one point sitting on the disbursement of US$90 million in development and security assistance.

In Kigali, the realisation dawned that Rwanda's official designation as a country that 'wrongfully detains' US subjects (Rusesabagina is a US resident but not a national), grouping it with North Korea, Iran and Syria, was going to undermine the central African state's reputation as a business-friendly, development-orientated state (Dispatches 16/2/21, Western pressure grows against Kagame over rights abuses).

US officials believe that Kigali had also become increasingly nervous about the unflattering light the legal process of discovery, triggered by a $400m civil suit brought by Rusesabagina's family against Kagame, his former Justice Minister, the heads of national intelligence and the Rwanda Investigation Bureau for abduction and torture, might shed on the workings of the Rwandan justice system.

A breakthrough in negotiations came when family members indicated that Rusesabagina would be willing to write to the president asking for a pardon, a customary step in Rwanda.

The precise wording of that letter was then painstakingly negotiated between the family, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Kigali, with support from a congressional official who twice visited Rusesabagina in prison. In the version finally agreed, Rusesabagina voiced regret for 'not taking more care' to ensure members of the Mouvement Rwandais pour le Changement Démocratique (MRCD) coalition he once led refrained from violent acts, while expressing his principled abhorrence of violence.

Rwanda's stipulations were conveyed by another American, Mauro De Lorenzo, a former Great Lakes researcher for the American Enterprise Institute who has taken Rwandan citizenship and now works as Kagame's advisor.

With the ground prepared, the emphasis that Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed on solving the Rusesabagina issue during a meeting with Kagame in Kigali in August and the distinctly cool reception Kagame received at the December US-Africa Summit in Washington drove home the damage Rusesabagina's incarceration was doing.

The carefully choreographed deal allowed the US government to lift its 'wrongful detention' designation soon after Rusesabagina's release. While Blinken and President Joe Biden have welcomed his liberation, Rusesabagina – whose terrorism sentence has been commuted but not rescinded, Rwandan officials stress – will not officially be hailed as a returning hero when he flies to San Antonio, Texas, for a checkup at the US military facility which processes released hostages. And soon after Rusesabagina boarded his plane to Doha, lawyer Ryan Fayhee announced the family would be suspending litigation against top Rwandan officials; another step in the dance.

The Rwandan government hopes for a silenced Rusesabagina. His letter to Kagame stressed his 'advanced age', 'a number of chronic maladies' and promised to 'leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind'. But as Washington makes clear, there will be nothing to stop the 68-year-old returning to vocal activism should he choose, once he has returned to the US.

And Kigali made little headway with its long-held aim to see the US officially embrace its preferred designation of the 1994 slaughter as 'the genocide against the Tutsis', a formulation that critics of Kagame's administration regard as condoning the erasure of Hutu victims from Rwanda's history.

As an activist who spent much of his career denouncing atrocities targeting members of his Hutu community, Rusesabagina was never going to agree to any such demand. Washington insiders hint that a senior official – perhaps the US ambassador to Kigali – may end up using that formulation as a gesture of goodwill and in a personal capacity at the genocide's 29th annual commemoration in Kigali in April, but official US nomenclature will not change.

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