WASHINGTON – On Monday morning, Carine Kanimba, the daughter of Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina knew something was wrong. Her phone had been buzzing with questions from friends who were alarmed by what they had seen in the news. She turned on the television and found out why. “We saw that he was in the hands of the Rwandan government and in handcuffs. That’s how we found out.”
The 66-year-old who was depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda” had been arrested in Dubai and brought to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Accompanied by police officers at a press conference, he was charged with sponsoring rebel groups and terrorism-related offenses among other things. He was seen at the offices of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, the country’s national law enforcement agency.
“He has been the subject of an international arrest warrant. So he has to answer charges of serious crime, arson, kidnap and murder perpetrated against unarmed Rwandan civilians on Rwandan territory, including a place called Nyabimata [Rwanda’s Southern Province], Nyaruguru district in June 2018 and in the Nyungwe, Nyamagabe District in December 2018,” RIB acting spokesperson Thierry Murangira told Daybreak Africa, English to Africa’s radio program.
The government accuses Rusesabagina of sponsoring two main opposition groups, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, which Rusesabagina co-founded, and PDR-Ihumure.
“He has been sponsoring extremists … those groups who are operating in various regions and abroad. Where has he denied that?” Murangira asked. Murangira would not explain how Rusesabagina was arrested, saying “we won’t disclose too much information about where he was arrested, but I can tell you, he was arrested through international cooperation.”
The family of Paul Rusesabagina accused the government of kidnapping him after two police officers brought the 66-year-old to a press conference at the headquarters of the Rwanda Investigations Bureau https://t.co/TParYImMnY pic.twitter.com/snuWcPdnc8
— Reuters (@Reuters) September 1, 2020
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates later denied involvement in Rusesabagina’s arrest and said he left “on a private jet bound for the East African country,” according to media reports.
Rusesabagina’s travel to Dubai doesn’t surprise his family. As part of his activism, he travels widely and speaks at various institutions said his daughter, whom he adopted after she was orphaned in the genocide. What was clear to the family is that he didn’t plan to go to Kigali.
“Going to Rwanda was never part of the plan. And that’s why we believe that he was forcefully taken and brought to Rwanda,” she said.
Rusesabagina is a Belgian citizen and holds a U.S. green card. It is unclear how he was taken from Dubai to Kigali.
The last time Kanimba, who spoke to VOA from Washington, said she spoke to her father was before he flew to Dubai on August 27.
“I knew he was going to meet some people and just for a few meetings and then he was supposed to come back on Tuesday. The first of September,” she said speaking via Skype.
“It was my nephew and his grandson’s birthday … and he sent … a very sweet message to his grandson, wishing him and happy birthday.” He was communicating via the messaging platform WhatsApp. When the family tried to check if he had arrived safely, the messages weren’t delivered, she said. “We never got two bar signs that we usually get when we communicate.”
The platform has been vulnerable to hacks in which dissidents and journalists have claimed they were tracked and targeted, according to media reports.
‘I never felt safe’
Rusesabagina is best known as the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the 1994 genocide. He used the building to hide over 1,000 people during the 100-day mass killings. Former U.S. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
In recent years he has become an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. In his 2006 autobiography, Rusesabagina wrote, “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.”
Family members have long believed Rusesabagina was being closely tracked by Rwandan operatives during his travels.
In 2016 he told VOA’s Africa 54, “I can tell you that I never felt safe since 2000. When I started the struggle moving around the world talking about what was going around in Rwanda when everybody else was kind of silenced. So, I was the only one … standing and getting into different offices, getting into the international community talking about what was going on in Rwanda.”
Numerous Rwandan dissidents, opposition leaders and former high-ranking officials have been killed at home and abroad.
In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch called for independent investigations into the killings and asked international partners to put pressure on the Kagame government to respect human rights.
“On the international stage, Rwanda is a model of law and order, yet we are seeing a spate of violent and brazen attacks against opposition members go unpunished,” said Lewis Mudge, Human Rights Watch Central Africa director.
“The contrast is jarring,” he said.
‘Help us bring him home’
Now Kanimba fears for her father’s safety.
“Honestly from the bottom of my heart, I am in so much fear for his life. He had survived cancer a few years ago. He has hypertension and needs medication … that has to be taken with food.”
She is pleading for help from the U.S. and other international powers.
“We do not know what condition he is in now,” she said. “So we’re pleading and begging the international community to help us see him and to help us bring him home.”
VOA’s Vincent Makori and James Butty contributed to this report.