JOHANNESBURG – Paul Rusesabagina sounded strained. The man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving people from genocide but is now accused of terrorism in Rwanda was speaking to his family for the first time since being paraded in handcuffs on Aug. 31. But something was wrong.
With Rwandan authorities listening in, it was clear Rusesabagina wasn’t allowed to speak openly on the phone call, said Brian Endless, part of the international team trying to defend him.
It remains a mystery how Rusesabagina disappeared from a trip to Dubai late last month and appeared in custody in a country his family says he would never return to voluntarily.
“Paul briefly mentioned boarding a plane on the call, but this was strained and he cut off the discussion immediately after. We have no idea if this was Paul speaking freely or coerced,” Endless told The Associated Press. In comments to the BBC, he said Rusesabagina mentioned waking up on the plane to find himself in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.
Endless said Rwandan officials also attended a meeting between Belgian officials and Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. permanent resident.
The uncertainties around his arrest have led Human Rights Watch to assert that the 66-year-old Rusesabagina, long an outspoken critic of the Rwandan government, was “forcibly disappeared.” In a statement released late Thursday, the organization said Rwandan authorities should urgently explain how he was apprehended and taken to the East African country.
“The fact that Rwanda did not pursue Rusesabagina through lawful extradition proceedings suggests the authorities do not believe their evidence or fair trial guarantees would stand up to scrutiny before an independent tribunal, and so opted to circumvent the rule of law,” the group’s Central Africa director, Lewis Mudge, said.
Rusesabagina’s legal team, which has not been able to speak with him, believes he boarded a private plane operated by GainJet, which has been used by the Rwandan government and has an office in the capital, Kigali. The legal team points to publicly available flight records.
It is not clear what the flight plan or passenger list say, and GainJet’s CEO Ramsey Shaban has not responded to a request for comment. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates, home of the Dubai city-state, have not responded to questions.
Human Rights Watch asserted that “Rusesabagina was in the custody of the Rwandans or their proxies as of the night of Aug. 27 but his detention was not acknowledged by the Rwandans until Aug. 31.”
Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a nationally televised interview Sunday indicated that Rusesabagina might have been tricked into boarding a plane to a country he hasn’t lived in since 1996. “It was actually flawless!” Kagame said, suggesting that “he brought himself — even if he may not have intended it.”
Rusesabagina became famous for protecting more than 1,000 people as a hotel manager during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. For his efforts he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
But Rwandan authorities accuse him of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, which has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks inside Rwanda. They point to a video posted online in 2018 in which he expresses support for the National Liberation Front and says “the time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed.”
Rusesabagina in the past has denied funding rebel groups and said he was being targeted over his criticism of Kagame’s government and alleged rights abuses.
Rwanda’s government has changed its account of Rusesabagina’s arrest and has not allowed him access to legal counsel of his choosing or any confidential consultations, Human Rights Watch said. The group for years has documented cases of critics of Rwanda's government being killed overseas, apprehended under unclear circumstances or dying behind bars.
“In Rwanda, history over the past 20-plus years shows that there is unfortunately a wide variety of things that the Rwandan government can do beyond prison,” said Endless, a U.S.-based professor. “We are very concerned that Paul could be disappeared at any time or could suffer a health crisis manufactured by the Rwandan government.”
Rwanda's government has long denied alleged abuses, and its supporters point to the country's widely praised development and stability since the genocide.
Rusesabagina has not appeared in court. His file was handed over to prosecutors on Wednesday. Rwandan law says a suspect can be in provisional detention for 15 days, renewable for up to 90 days.
Rwanda's prosecutor general, Aimable Havugiyaremye, told the AP that Rusesabagina is still being interrogated and a court date is yet to be announced.
Rusesabagina’s legal team has filed a complaint with the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, and the office is “moving forward with their procedures,” Endless said. The office told the AP it could not comment.
Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda, contributed.