Jailed ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero Sues Over Arrest in US Court

Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving people from genocide, appears at the Kicukiro Primary Court in Kigali, Rwanda, on Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — The recently imprisoned Rwandan hotelier whose actions during the East African nation’s 1994 genocide inspired the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” claims in a federal lawsuit that a Greek private charter airline and a Rwandan secret agent conspired to kidnap and jail him.  

Paul Rusesabagina, who has a home in Texas, sued GainJet Aviation and Constantin Niyomwungere in San Antonio federal court Monday afternoon, alleging they worked with Rwandan President Paul Kagame to punish Rusesabagina for publicly criticizing Kagame and his government.

“This case arises out of a conspiracy of the Rwandan government and defendants GainJet and Constantin Niyomwungere to engage in the unlawful extradition, arbitrary detention, and torture of Paul Rusesabagina,” the 90-page lawsuit states. “Mr. Rusesabagina has become yet another victim of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s practice of silencing political opponents and arbitrarily detaining them under the pretext of ‘terrorism.’”

Rusesabagina was a manager at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali in 1994 when Hutu-led militias and government officers, including police and soldiers, began a mass slaughter of ethnic Tutsi, Hwa and politically moderate Hutus during the Rwandan Civil War. More than half a million Tutsis died during the genocide.

The son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 refugees from paramilitary forces that spring before he and his wife, Taciana, an ethnically Tutsi woman, were able to flee to Tanzania with help from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, whose armed wing began and won the Rwandan Civil War before installing Kagame as the nation’s president in 2000.

Rusesabagina, his wife and their six children are named as plaintiffs in the suit. Much of the complaint documents the numerous accusations against Kagame and his government, which allegedly perpetrated human rights violations, including the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hutu Rwandans, and undermined the Rwandan democracy by suppressing opposition parties and rigging elections.

“Targeting of Mr. Rusesabagina increased as he became an internationally known humanitarian and continued to speak out against Rwandan government human rights abuses, including when Mr. Rusesabagina spoke in support of the United Nations’ Mapping Report in 2010. That report concluded that President Kagame and his government are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Congo,” the lawsuit states.  

It continues, “As a result of these criticisms of Kagame and his government, Mr. Rusesabagina became the subject of harassment, threats against his life, at least one assassination attempt and a decades-long smear campaign by Mr. Kagame’s government and its state-run media.”

This coordinated harassment has culminated, the lawsuit claims, in Rusesabagina’s August 2020 arrest in Kigali. According to the allegations, Rusesabagina was asked to leave his home in San Antonio, Texas, and travel to Burundi by way of Dubai to speak at churches and at public gatherings about his experience during the Rwandan genocide.

When Rusesabagina got to Dubai and boarded a plane chartered by GainJet, a private airline based in Athens, Greece, he expected to be taken to Burundi for this speaking circuit. Instead, he alleges he was joined by Niyomwungere, a “Rwandan operative,” and taken to Kigali, where Rusesabagina “had previously sworn that he would never return.”

“As the plane neared the Kigali airport, the coconspirators bound Mr. Rusesabagina,” the lawsuit claims. “When Mr. Rusesabagina got off the plane, he was surrounded by armed Rwandan law enforcement, blindfolded, and tied at the hands and feet. The conspirators then tortured Mr. Rusesabagina by keeping him bound by his feet and hands, and keeping him blindfolded, for three days.”

After imprisoning him for weeks, Rwandan officials indicted Rusesabagina on “terrorism” charges, which he says is cover for being “a high-profile and effective critic of Kagame and his regime.”

Rusesabagina and his family are represented by Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Martinez Gonzalez LLP in Corpus Christi, Texas. The family seeks statutory and punitive damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act, the Alien Tort Statute and international law, in addition to alleging civil conspiracy, fraud, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress.

Calls placed to GainJet and the Rwandan Embassy in Washington were not returned by press time.

In the months since Rusesabagina’s August arrest, some Rwandan media outlets — which are notably censored by the state, according to free-speech watchdogs in the U.S. — published scathing columns suggesting that the activist was “undone by hubris”, characterizing him as an “opportunist” during the genocide and accusing him of lending “support to militia groups based in neighboring [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Burundi.”

His trial is set for Jan. 26 and he has been denied bail.

“No one kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina … he was detained at a legally recognized place after being notified of charges against him,” said Jean Cabin Habimana, a Rwandan prosecutor, according to an Al Jazeera report from late November.

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