Paul Rusesabagina, center, surrounded by guards of Rwanda Correctional Service, arrives at Nyarugenge Court of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda, on Oct. 2, 2020.
Simon Wohlfahrt—AFP/Getty Images
December 23, 2020 7:00 AM EST

On Christmas morning, a little before 8 a.m., Anaise Kanimba will be clutching a cup of tea in the kitchen of a borrowed Washington home she now shares with her mother, staring at her cellphone and waiting for her father to call from a Rwandan jail. With just five minutes given him for the call by Rwandan authorities, she may be the only one of six children to wish her father Merry Christmas.

The weekly calls are the only contact Anaise, her mom and her siblings have had with their father, Paul Rusesabagina, in almost four months since the man credited with saving more than a thousand Rwandans from genocide disappeared from Dubai on August 27th. Days later, the Rwandan government tweeted that he was in their custody and the family says Rusesabagina was tricked into boarding a plane to a country he fled more than 20 years ago, and delivered into the hands of a political leader who has become his nemesis.

Anaise, 28, says her father doesn’t want to answer their questions in these calls. Instead, he fires queries at them: how are their jobs during the pandemic; how are the grandchildren in their first semester at college? He doesn’t like questions. “We don’t know who is listening,” she says.

To the American public, Rusesabagina is best known as the dramatized hero of the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, a Hutu credited with saving more than 1,000 Tutsi Rwandans, including his own wife and two nieces, from the genocide that killed an estimated million or more in 1994. The former hotel manager, played by actor Don Cheadle, was even awarded the U.S. medal of freedom by the Bush Administration for his bravery.

But to former Tutsi rebel leader and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the one-time hotelier is a dangerous political opponent, having used his fame to criticize Kagame’s civil and human rights record, and to openly support a political opposition movement blamed for bloody armed attacks on Rwandan civilians — though Rusesabagina denies any links to that violence.

The case also highlights lame duck U.S. President Donald Trump’s inability or unwillingness to rescue Rusesabagina, a 66-year-old cancer survivor with U.S. legal status who lives in San Antonio, Texas, from Kagame’s grip. Trump had previously spent much diplomatic capital in getting Americans home. And while the White House claims to have secured the release of dozens of hostages and detainees, a number of high-profile Americans are still languishing in foreign prisons, like Iranian-Americans Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, held hostage by an arm of the Taliban, the Citgo 6 Americans held by Venezuela’s Maduro regime, and journalist Austin Tice, believed held by the Syrian regime.

Distracted by his election defeat, Trump has given little attention to Rusesabagina’s extrajudicial rendition to Dubai, where the hero hotelier thought he was taking a smaller plane onward to Burundi to visit Christian church groups. Instead, Rusesabagina’s lawyers say, he was tied up by Rwandan security aboard the jet, and flown to Kigali, where he awaits trial on Jan. 26th on murder and terrorism charges. If he makes it that long. His family says he hasn’t gotten the heart medicine they’ve sent to him at Mageragere Prison on the outskirts of Kigali, and he complains of headaches, dizziness and rising blood pressure. They say diplomats who’ve visited him say he’s gaunt from weight loss. The jail is reportedly beset by an outbreak of COVID-19.

Paul Rusesabagina with his family on New Year's Eve last year.
Courtesy Carine Kanimba

The Trump Administration has made little public comment, beyond a State Department official, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, tweeting his call for the Rwandan government “to provide humane treatment, adhere to the rule of law, and provide a fair and transparent legal process for Mr. Rusesabagina.” A State Department spokesman emailed TIME Wednesday that U.S. diplomats had visited Rusesabagina in prison, adding that they “will continue to follow this case closely and raise our concerns with the Rwandan government,” regarding human rights.

Rusesabagina’s lawyers say his treatment has been anything but fair or transparent, with Rwandan authorities adding multiple terrorist-related offenses, presented piecemeal over the last several months, and only allowing him to meet with his chosen lawyer twice. The Rwandan embassy in Washington says Rusesabagina was “lawfully arrested and brought back to Rwanda through legal and commonly accepted practices” and that he and 18 co-accused suspects are to stand trial for charges including membership to a terrorist group, financing terrorism, arson and robbery. “Mr. Rusesabagina has not been secretive nor silent about his criminal intent and has gone further by positing (sic) a video on social media openly calling for a war on Rwandans,” an embassy spokesman emailed, adding that he is in good health, with access to healthcare.

Rusesabagina’s past comments to a coalition of exiled Rwandan opposition groups, the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, haven’t helped his case. The coalition has an armed wing that the Rwandan government blames for deadly attacks that it says killed at least three civilians near Rwanda’s border with Burundi in the summer of 2018, charges the group denies. Rusesabagina’s spokesperson Kitty Kurth, who has helped run his U.S.-based nonprofit, says he called on the UN to investigate those incidents. But later that year, he also gave a speech, widely circulated online, calling on opposition groups “to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda. As all political means have been tried and failed, it is time to attempt our last resort,” he said. The Rwandan embassy in Washington says the widely reported video was removed from the opposition group’s website after Rusesabagina’s arrest, but it provided a link to another version. In a jailhouse interview this fall, he told The New York Times he meant change via diplomacy, not violence, and that he did not remember making such a video.

His family insists Rusesabagina has no ties to violence. His daughter Carine Kanimba, 27, tells TIME from Brussels that the remarks are “40 seconds of words,” not something he’s actually done, and she called on the Rwandan judge to take into account his “20-plus years” of peaceful activism. His Washington-based lawyer Peter Choharis says if the Rwandan government had solid evidence linking him to actual crimes, it would have issued an international arrest warrant, and sued for his deportation to Rwanda, as the Kigali authorities have successfully done for similar cases in the past. The Justice Department and State officials declined to comment on whether Rwanda had shared any such information. Watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch have not been able to locate such a warrant.

Unwilling to wait for the Trump Administration to act, the family has taken more creative measures, suing the Athens, Greece-based charter company, GainJet Aviation S.A., in Texas court for aiding in what they say is an illegal kidnap of a legal U.S. resident under U.S. law. One of the family’s attorneys, Robert Hilliard, told reporters they have proof from invoices of GainJet’s involvement, adding that the company “had an independent responsibility as an international jet charter service to protect the safety of all of their passengers, not just those paying the bills,” and should have issued a “MayDay” alert when Rusesabagina was “bound and tied” before the jet landed in Rwanda. The company did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

Kagame has insisted to reporters that his political opponent wasn’t kidnapped. “There was no any wrongdoing in the process of his getting here. He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do, and he found himself here,” the president told reporters in September.

President Bush awards Paul Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9, 2005.
Lawrence Jackson—AP

Rusesabagina’s rendition follows a familiar playbook, says Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch, who was expelled from the country in 2018 for cataloguing the disappearance of “scores” of Kagame’s political opponents by security forces that Mudge says committed war crimes to take power in 1994, and keep it. “Rwanda is willing to go over international borders, to find people and trap people that it deems opponents” and “completely disregard both international norms and standard international treaties,” to silence critics, he says. The State Department’s 2019 human rights report decried Rwandan security forces’ unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearance and torture of political opponents.

Kagame and Rusesabagina weren’t always rivals. Hotel Rwanda director Terry George says that Kagame celebrated the film at its premiere in Kigali in 2005. “He said this would be very helpful for Rwanda to tell people around the world about the genocide,” the Irish filmmaker says of his evening spent seated next to Kagame and his wife. The enmity started later, George says, as Rusesabagina’s global star rose, and he published his 2006 autobiography, “An Ordinary Man,” where he criticized Kagame’s human rights record, calling him a “classic African strongman.” That’s when Rwandan-based newspapers started to claim the film “was a Hollywood fabrication,” George says.

Western diplomats are quietly warning Kagame that he may think he’s won the battle by silencing Rusesabagina with a presumed guilty verdict to come, and a long jail sentence he’s unlikely to survive. But U.S. officials have explained to him that this case could backfire, earning the enmity of the incoming Biden Administration, and turning Rusesabagina into a martyr, according to U.S. officials speaking anonymously to describe the discussions.

Jailing the former hotelier is playing badly for Kagame in the U.S. and Europe. The Clooney Foundation and American Bar Association have warned that they’ll be monitoring the Rusesabagina trial. And bipartisan outrage is building on Capitol Hill over how Rusesabagina was seized. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont says the imprisonment and “the manner in which he arrived in Rwanda, have raised concerns in the U.S. Congress about the Rwandan Government’s motivations, the rights of international air travelers, and our relations with that government.” Leahy calls the facts of the case against the hotelier “murky” but says there are “compelling humanitarian reasons why it should be promptly and satisfactorily resolved.”

If Kagame is allowed to succeed, there’s nothing to keep him from continuing the practice of secret renditions against his political opponents, says Philippe Larochelle, a member of Rusesabagina’s international legal team. “You can’t tie people up and put them on planes and take them, and give them no legal recourse, and interrogate them when they are terrified out of their wits, without a lawyer present,” he says. “It can’t be okay, to do this, no matter who the accused is.”

By contrast, Rusesabagina’s Washington lawyer Choharis says, Kagame would undermine his critics with a grand gesture if he releases him on humanitarian grounds, just after the holidays and right before the Biden Administration takes office.

In Washington, Boston and Brussels, Rusesabagina’s grown children are working to keep their father in the public’s eye. They have no faith in the trial going his way, but they do have hope that Kagame will follow his past practice of pardoning dissidents once he thinks they’ve gone through a suitably public shaming.

Anaise, who works in the international aid field, has taken leave from her job to lobby and plead for her father’s release in Washington, D.C., scrambling to learn how to pull the levers of power, during a pandemic that means she can meet almost no one in person. Her sister Carine is doing the same in Brussels. They are originally Paul’s nieces, adopted after their parents were killed in the genocide.

Paul’s wife Taciana tears up thinking of spending the holidays without him, for the first time since the tense years following the genocide, when he returned to work at his hotel before again being forced to flee.

Anaise says it will be a painfully empty New Year’s Day for her, as it’s also her birthday, which she says her father always insists on ringing in with birthday cake at 1am, the hour she was born.

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