'Hotel Rwanda' arrest: should the U.S. step in?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has long conflicted with Paul Rusesabagina, who criticized the President for a variety of actions but particularly his treatemnt of the Hutu population. However, nothing of the magnitude has occured until now. (credit: David Shankbone via Flickr) President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has long conflicted with Paul Rusesabagina, who criticized the President for a variety of actions but particularly his treatemnt of the Hutu population. However, nothing of the magnitude has occured until now. (credit: David Shankbone via Flickr)
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In 2004, the movie “Hotel Rwanda” premiered in theaters, gaining critical acclaim, along with three Academy Award nominations. Don Cheadle played Paul Rusesabagina, a businessman who used his hotel to shelter and save over a thousand people during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. During this dark time in history, more than one million lives were lost after Hutu nationalists massacred the population of the Tutsi minority. A few years after the genocide, concerned about his family’s safety, Rusesabagina relocated his family to Belgium in 1996. He traveled the world, speaking to people about his experiences during the genocide. Film executives heard about his story, and began working on a movie with Rusesabagina. After the release of “Hotel Rwanda,” his platform grew and grew, resulting in Rusesabagina receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2005.

Rusesabagina, now a permanent resident of the U.S., started to speak out against the current government in Rwanda, accusing President Paul Kagame of rampant corruption and poor treatment of the Hutu population. Rusesabagina quickly became a controversial figure in Rwanda, as many accused him of lying about his claims regarding the Kagame regime. Moreover, Rusesabagina’s backing of the National Liberation Front (FLN) landed him in hot water after an FLN attack resulted in nine deaths. However, Rusesabagina has repeatedly claimed that he had no involvement whatsoever in these attacks and strongly condemned the group's use of violence.

After his accusations of Kagame, the Rwandan government began to look for a way to silence Rusesabagina. Their plan came to fruition when Rusesabagina took a GainJet flight to Dubai on Aug. 31 of last year. When the plane took off, Rusesabagina was quickly bound and gagged. A few hours later, the plane landed and he found himself in Rwanda. Kagame and the Rwandan government had paid off GainJet to divert the plane. Rusesabagina was then arrested and charged with murder, terrorism, and arson, among other crimes. Since then, he has been held in captivity waiting for his trial. Recently, his trial took place and Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years of prison by the Rwandan court system.

While one can argue about whether Rusesabagina carries some of the blame for the actions of the FLN, most can agree that the way he was brought into Rwanda was abhorrent. Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department stated, “The United States is concerned by the Government of Rwanda’s conviction of U.S. lawful permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina on September 20. The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict .... We urge the Government of Rwanda to take steps to examine shortcomings in Mr. Rusesabagina’s case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.” Furthermore, Price criticized the lack of access Rusesabagina had to attorneys and noted how the circumstances of his trial gave him fewer rights than what a defendant would normally have in Rwanda.

To put it lightly, Price's statement just isn’t enough. I fully understand that Rusesabagina is not a fully innocent man. It can easily be argued that his sheer association with the FLN means he needs to take responsibility for the horrendous actions of the group. But even if Rusesabagina is a guilty man, it is very difficult to justify a private company and a corrupt government joining forces to kidnap and imprison a permanent resident of this nation. Some American politicians have spoken out on this, most notably Marco Rubio, who “demands that Paul be set free.” But sadly, larger names such as former President Donald Trump (who was in office when Rusesabagina was kidnapped) and President Biden have not said anything about the issue. Biden might think that having his state department put out a toothless message might mean something, but it comes off as hollow. Even though Rusesabagina was flying from Dubai, he is still a permanent resident of this country and we have an obligation to protect him. I’m no expert on foreign policy, but I do know that we could have done and said more. President Biden could have at least taken the time to personally rebuke Rwanda. This country’s lack of action on Paul Rusesabagina sets a dangerous precedent as well. Now that Rwanda has gotten away with effectively kidnapping Rusesabagina, what’s to stop other foreign governments from trying the same thing?

When people needed his help, Rusesabagina risked everything he had to save them. We in the U.S. watched “Hotel Rwanda” and wished that we had his courage and fortitude. But when his rights are being infringed upon, the world is silent. Now, I know Rusesabagina may very well be guilty of these crimes, but it is undeniable that his kidnapping made this trial anything but legitimate. Through his lack of action, President Biden is tolerating the unlawful abduction of American residents. I urge you, President Biden, speak out against the actions of the Rwandan government and in doing so ensure the safety of our residents in foreign nations.