The last communication that Paul Rusesabagina, the much-praised inspiration for a Hollywood film on the Rwandan genocide, had with his family was when he messaged their WhatsApp group on Thursday last week to say he had safely arrived in Dubai and to wish his grandson a happy birthday.
But Anaïse Kanimba’s replies to her father did not get through, and the next thing she knew, Mr Rusesabagina was being paraded in handcuffs before the media on Monday in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. He had been arrested on charges that include terrorism, kidnap and murder.
Ms Kanimba called the charges “baseless and false”. She said her father had been abducted by the government of Paul Kagame whose Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, with a military victory.
“He [Mr Rusesabagina] was meeting someone in Dubai. We believe the person he met is the person who may have kidnapped him or taken him because he did not go to Rwanda. He was taken against his will and brought to Rwanda,” Ms Kanimba, 28, told the Financial Times. “He would never go to Rwanda of his own will because of the way the Rwandan government has been attacking him.”
Her father has long attracted criticism in his home country. Yet the mysterious arrest of the Belgian citizen and resident of Texas highlights the long arm of Rwandan policing and puts renewed focus on allegations that Mr Kagame’s government — praised for transforming the nation into a thriving economy after the genocide — silences opponents at home and abroad.
Opposition politician Diane Rwigara was jailed for more than a year after she sought to run against Mr Kagame in the 2017 election, when Mr Kagame won a third term with almost 99 per cent of the vote. In February, Kizito Mihigo, a gospel singer who criticised the government, died in a police cell — in the same detention centre where Mr Rusesabagina is being held — “allegedly of suicide”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last December, South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering Patrick Karegeya, the former intelligence chief turned Kagame critic who was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room in January 2014.
“This is a show of impunity,” said Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Rwandan spy chief who now lives in exile in South Africa. “Kagame has been getting away with everything, so Rusesabagina is also part of what he thinks he can get away with. And maybe he will.”
Mr Rusesabagina received international recognition after the success of the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, in which he was portrayed by Don Cheadle. In his autobiography, An Ordinary Man, based on his experiences during the genocide, he describes how he was “able to hide 1,268 people inside the hotel where I worked”. But in the 15 years since George W Bush awarded the 66-year-old the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he has become a divisive figure in Rwanda.
“Rusesabagina did not play any role in the survival and escape of the Tutsi held up in the hotel, rather their survival was entirely the result of a series of purported plans and actions unrelated to Rusesabagina’s presence, “ wrote Dr Bizimana Jean Damascène, executive secretary of National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide.
“He is presented as a hero who saved lives in the Hôtel des Mille Collines,” said Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, president of Ibuka, an umbrella group for genocide survivor organisations, but some survivors say they paid money to stay there, he noted. Mr Rusesabagina, he added, repeating the Rwandan state’s allegations, had “financed terrorist groups” in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
“These are also false accusations,” said Carine, 27, another of Mr Rusesabagina’s daughters. “There has not been any funding of military groups.”
In a Christmas video address from December 2018 posted on social media, Mr Rusesabagina is described as president of the Mouvement Rwandais pour le Changement Démocratique. This has a militant arm reportedly accused of attacks in Rwanda, the National Liberation Forces (FLN). In the video, Mr Rusesabagina appears to call on followers to rise against Mr Kagame.
“The time has come for us 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 says in the video, calling on “our youth” of the FLN to go “against the Kagame army in order to free the Rwandan people”.
Carine Kanimba denies that her father was calling “for war” in this video.
But Yolande Makolo, a senior adviser for Mr Kagame, asked: “Why is a Belgian citizen and US resident declaring war on Rwanda, and commanding deadly armed militia attacks on innocent villagers?”
“Those suspected of killing and wreaking terror on Rwandans, those suspected of masterminding, sponsoring or financing terror against Rwandans, will be brought to justice,” Busingye Johnston, Rwanda’s justice minister and attorney-general wrote in a tweet this week. He noted “international co-operation, global efforts to apprehend them”.
It is unclear how Mr Rusesabagina was transported from Dubai to Rwanda. The Rwanda Investigation Bureau said he was the “subject of an International Arrest Warrant”. US officials said that Rwanda had been tracking his movements. Belgian diplomats said they were informed of the arrest by the Rwandan authorities but that a “number of questions” remain open.
Given Mr Rusesabagina’s high profile, one African-based western diplomat questioned “whether it is worth the bad publicity for the Rwandan government to go after him”.
So far, the Rwandan authorities have not allowed Mr Rusesabagina to talk to his family, his daughters said. “The good thing is that Dad is high profile. He is known around the world, so they have to be careful,” said Carine Kanimba. But she added: “There’s no fairness in that country under the Kagame regime. So, I fear for his life.”
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels and Katrina Manson in Washington