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Jailed for terrorism, onetime hero Rusesabagina is a point of U.S. contention with Rwanda

Paul Rusesabagina became known as a rare hero in one of modern history’s ugliest chapters: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in the 1994 genocide. He was credited with saving a number of people and inspired books and a movie.

But today, Rusesabagina is starting his second year in prison as a convicted terrorist in the country he said he once hoped to save.

As questions arose over the years about his exact heroic efforts, Rusesabagina ran afoul of the government of President Paul Kagame, another figure once widely admired but now criticized for increasingly authoritarian practices in his more than two decades of rule.

Because he is a legal U.S. resident with many global supporters, Rusesabagina won special scrutiny for his case from the U.S. government. The onetime manager of a Rwanda hotel that sheltered hundreds of Rwandans was on the agenda when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called on Kagame and other senior officials during a swing through sub-Saharan Africa that ended Friday.

As it has in the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia and several other imprisoned U.S. citizens and residents around the world, the State Department has designated Rusesabagina as “wrongfully detained.” After meeting with Kagame in Kigali, the capital, Blinken told reporters that the U.S. has “been clear about our concerns related to Paul Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction, particularly the lack of fair-trial guarantees.”

“We continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to him and his case and [to] establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future,” Blinken said.

Blinken and other senior U.S. officials chose their public comments carefully, emphasizing what they described as a lack of due process for the former hotel manager, rather than specific charges the Rwandan government has leveled against him.

The glow on Rusesabagina’s reputation has faded in recent years, amid controversy over how he saved people at the hotel and, in particular, as he became an outspoken critic of Kagame.

Kagame’s administration has accused Rusesabagina of belonging to an armed militia, active along Rwanda’s border, that seeks a violent overthrow of the government and has staged attacks within the country.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, speaking at a press conference with Blinken, insisted that Rusesabagina was guilty of “terrorism” and maintained Rwanda’s “sovereign” right to deal with him. He noted that Rusesabagina was tried and convicted, along with 20 “accomplices.”

But the Biden administration sees the case as an example of broader human rights violations alleged on the part of Kagame. Blinken said he recognized the legacy of the genocide that heightens Rwandan sensitivities over possible threats to government stability, but ignoring free speech and other rights is not an appropriate response.

Blinken said he told Kagame that Rwandans “should be able to express their views without fear of intimidation, imprisonment, violence or any other forms of repression. That’s true whether they are political opponents, human rights defenders, journalists … or simply citizens.”

“We recognize Rwanda’s incredibly difficult history,” Blinken added, “but criminalization of some individual’s participation in politics, harassment of those who express opposition to the current government, we believe [undermine] future peace, stability and success.”

In the summer of 2020, Rusesabagina was living in San Antonio and traveling through Dubai en route to Burundi, which borders Rwanda. Instead, his family says, he was tricked into landing in Rwanda, where he was arrested by a team of government security agents, held, tried and, late last year, convicted on eight counts of murder and terrorism.

A Belgian citizen, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He immediately labeled the process a sham, while human rights groups in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere took up his cause, despite lingering questions over his antigovernment activities.

By the end of Blinken’s talks in Rwanda, it was becoming clear that any change in Rusesabagina’s situation was not likely. U.S. officials said the issue, for the foreseeable future, would be a point of contention in the U.S.-Rwanda relationship, with Kigali insisting that critics represent a security threat, and Washington demanding a more transparent legal system and respect for rights.

“They’re focused on [the threat Rusesabagina] represents to their political system … as we’re focused on an unjust process and wrongful detention,” a senior State Department official who was traveling with Blinken told reporters. “Paul is an example of the challenges that the government has [in] dealing with political dissent.” The official noted that the government is “not at all comfortable with anything that looks like it could trigger” violence or instability.

“This is going to be part of our bilateral relationship,” the official added. “A constraint on our relationship.”

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