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Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina's release and apology – a master stroke engineered by Kagame

By Jonathan Beloff - The Conversation
Article Paul Rusesabagina receives the Medal of Freedom from US President George W Bush in 2005.  - Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
THU, 30 MAR 2023 LISTEN
Paul Rusesabagina receives the Medal of Freedom from US President George W Bush in 2005. - Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rwanda's ministry of justice recently announced the pardon and release of Paul Rusesabagina from jail. Rusesabagina was involved in events portrayed in the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda .

In September 2021, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in jail over his ties to groups opposed to Rwandan president Paul Kagame. His release followed intense diplomatic talks between Washington and Kigali, and was negotiated by Qatar .

While Rusesabagina's release may be celebrated by his supporters in the west, it's a bit more complicated within and for Rwanda. His pardon needs to be understood within the greater context of Rwandan foreign policy , whose primary objectives are state security, reduction of foreign aid reliance and economic diplomacy.

Rusesabagina's arrest illustrated the Rwandan government's determination to neutralise threats it sees to its national security. His subsequent release provides important narrating elements for both domestic and foreign audiences.

In his official request for pardon from Kagame, Rusesabagina admitted to working with anti-Rwanda groups and took responsibility for their actions. This legitimises Kigali's move to arrest him. It also provides the government with ammunition to combat future criticisms of human rights abuses over the arrest .

But perhaps more importantly, Rusesabagina's release portrays Kagame as a pragmatist on the international stage – one willing to negotiate once a security threat is neutralised.

The pardon also helps restore the close ties Rwanda and the US have historically enjoyed. Senior US political leaders, including secretary of state Antony Blinken , had censured Rwanda over the arrest.

Domestically, the government has said Rusesabagina's release fits within its truth and reconciliation process following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi .

Who is Rusesabagina?

In Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) is depicted as being the primary person to save the lives of 1,268 people hiding inside Hotel Des Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Over the course of 100 days , more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

However, the Hollywood narrative has been challenged by genocide survivors who say it misrepresented facts. Instead, they say, Rusesabagina ran the hotel as a personal profit-making venture.

Read more: Hotel Rwanda: a film that proved to be a double-edged sword for Kigali

Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996, and eventually became a US resident and Belgian citizen. Following the film's release, he received several humanitarian awards, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 . He used his newfound platform to promote his political ambitions and ideology.

The Rwandan government accused Rusesabagina of terrorism over his funding of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, which has the National Liberation Front and PDR-Ihumure military wings. These groups have called for a change of government within Rwanda and a return to ethnic divisions.

Kigali viewed this as harmful to the country's post-genocide social development under the Ndi Umunyarwanda (I am Rwandan) ideology.

Rusesabagina aired a call for armed resistance against Kagame , and soon after, National Liberation Front militants attacked Rwanda. In June and December 2018, the group carried out two attacks in southwestern Rwanda. Nine civilians died .

These attacks sparked a harsh response from the Rwandan government, which issued an arrest warrant against Rusesabagina. He was captured on 27 August 2020, and subsequently tried and convicted. His 25-year jail term was effectively a life sentence – he is 68.

Rusesabagina's arrest put Kagame on a collision course with Washington. The Rwandan government had arrested an American resident, and the move was seen as an attempt to silence a critic. US secretary of state Blinken and senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the senate's foreign relations committee, were among high-profile political leaders who demanded Rusesabagina's release.

Rusesabagina's family petitioned the Belgian and American governments to intervene. Hollywood actors started a “ Free Rusesabagina ” clothing campaign. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups added their voices .

Why pardon Rusesabagina?

Rusesabagina's release followed his request for pardon from Kagame on 14 October 2022. In his letter, he acknowledged that violence is not the solution for Rwanda's post-genocide development.

More importantly, he agreed to respect Rwanda's current political system with Kagame as its leader, saying:

Moving forward, I know you will focus on securing a peaceful future for all Rwandans.

He also said he wouldn't dive into Rwandan politics again, and would instead “spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection”. The pardon can be interpreted as effectively silencing Rusesabagina.

Rwanda's Minister of Justice said Rusesabagina would still have to pay reparations to victims of the 2018 attacks. The courts awarded them 412 million Rwandan francs (US$374,000).

Who wins?

Rusesabagina's release is still shrouded in mystery, with few details released. So far, the Rwandan government has said the Qatari government negotiated his release, not the US.

Despite Kigali denying US pressure , the release does benefit the Rwanda-US relationship. The US can say, whether officially or informally, it helped free a US resident and took a hard stance against its African ally. For Rwanda, it illustrates the government's willingness to constructively engage with its most important global ally.

Read more: The US and Rwanda: how the relationship has evolved since the 1994 genocide

Rusesabagina's release eases tensions with US political leaders, including Blinken, who privately discussed Rusesabagina's release with Kagame during an August 2022 visit to Rwanda . The pardon also effectively removes a lightning rod that US politicians and activists have used to criticise Rwanda's human rights record.

The release additionally benefits the Rwandan government at home. Forgiveness is a central tenet of the country's “ gacaca ” judicial system. This traditional form of justice pursued reconciliation outcomes rather than punishment after the genocide. It was used to try one million suspects . Rusesabagina's pardon reinforces the importance of forgiveness for those who confess their crimes.

Finally, by publicly disclosing Rusesabagina's pardon request, the government has illustrated to both Rwandans and foreign nations how even harsh critics can change tune and support Kagame. This helps reinforce the government's narrative that Kagame is the best leader for national development.

Jonathan R Beloff receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Project Reference: AH/W001217/1).

By Jonathan Beloff, Postdoctoral Research Associate, King's College London

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