Until late August, there was nothing exceptional about Paul Rusesabagina’s summer. For months, the 66-year-old had done little more than sit on the porch of his home in Texas, water his plants, telephone his children and chat with neighbours. A cancer survivor, he worried about Covid-19 and carefully observed the measures recommended to avoid catching the virus. His weeks passed without incident.
But on the other side of the world, in Rusesabagina’s native Rwanda, security agencies were formulating plans to bring the former businessman to the capital, Kigali, to face terrorism charges, a trial and jail.
The secret operation – described by Rusesabagina’s lawyers as an illegal “rendition” – has focused the world’s attention on the small country’s traumatic history, its veteran leader’s ruthless efforts to silence dissidents, a region teetering on the brink of catastrophic conflict, and a family in shock.
“We are under stress, we are worried but we are strong. Our dad raised us to be this way, to expect the unexpected all this time. He has a voice that they want to shut down,” said Rusesabagina’s son, Filston.
Rusesabagina had not set foot in Rwanda since the genocide there that killed about 800,000 people in 1994, but over the years had become increasingly involved in efforts to oust Paul Kagame, the president for 20 years.
For months, maybe years, Rusesabagina was being tracked by Rwandan security services, and his family have long expected harassment and surveillance. “We’ve been cautious all our lives … always aware that we might be followed or listened to,” said Filston Rusesabagina.
It therefore came as a surprise when, in mid-August, Rusesabagina told his family that he would be travelling to Dubai for “meetings”.
“It must have been incredibly important. He would never entertain the idea of going there otherwise. He hasn’t left the US for a long time,” said his son.
Flying on Emirates via Chicago on 26 August, Rusesabagina reached Dubai in the early evening of the 27th and called his family at about 11pm to tell them he had arrived safely.
What happened next is a mystery – which is how Rwandan authorities hope it will remain.
Flight logs have identified a private jet that took off from Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport at 12.55am on 28 August and landed at Kigali at 6am. Lawyers acting for his family said they believed it was “highly likely” that Rusesabagina was on the plane, a Bombardier Challenger that is operated by a company frequently used by the Rwandan government.
According to flight data obtained by the authoritative website Africa Confidential, planes used by the company have flown five round trips to the Rwandan capital since June. Authorities in the UAE have denied all knowledge of the incident.
Four days after Rusesabagina called his family, Rwandan authorities notified Belgium they had detained an unnamed Belgian citizen. Only when they paraded their captive in handcuffs in front of selected media in Kigali did his identity become known.
Rwandan authorities have said Rusesabagina is accused of being “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits … operating out of various places in the region and abroad” and was arrested on what they described as “an international warrant”.
But Jeannot Ruhunga, head of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, told a local news website Rusesabagina had been arrested on arrival in Kigali. Rwandan opposition sources said they believed that Rusesabagina was the victim of a deception.
Rusesabagina, who spoke out in 2010 against the jailing of an opposition leader and four years ago announced a political campaign against the government, which he called a dictatorship, was no ordinary critic.
As the manager of a luxury hotel in Kigali during the worst of the violence in 1994, he had sheltered more than 1,200 people, saving them from murder by machete. His actions were portrayed in the critically acclaimed Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, and won him the highest civilian honour in the US, awarded by the then president George W Bush in 2005.
In late 2018, Rwandan authorities sent Belgian authorities a 14-page request to arrest Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen, at his other home in Brussels. The document blamed his movement for dozens of violent acts. But though the dissident’s residence was searched, nothing was found and there were no further investigations. Instead, a new plan was seemingly hatched by Rwandan security services.
Several senior figures in the Rwandan opposition are based in Dubai and some dissidents speculate that Rusesabagina may have been enticed to a meeting with someone he trusted, but who betrayed him.
“It’s what we are all most scared of … These people will abduct you, hide you, disappear you. Some are killed, some are told what to say and kept alive,” said one, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The security services are believed to be responsible for assassinating, abducting, attacking and threatening dozens of prominent Rwandans in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, the UK and elsewhere.
One of the most prominent cases was the killing of Patrick Karegeya, an outspoken critic and former spy chief, who was lured to a luxury hotel room in Johannesburg in January 2014 and strangled. “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price,” Kagame said after the murder.
Last year, Callixte Nsabimana, who led an armed group linked to the political organisation set up by Rusesabagina, went missing in the Comoros Islands and reappeared two weeks later in Kigali in police detention charged with terrorism offences. He had been flown there on a private jet, dissidents told the Guardian this week.
Nsabimana was a leader of the Forces for National Liberation (FLN), which has carried out a number deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years. The FLN was the military wing of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) political party, which Rusesabagina helped to found.
Rwandan authorities allege Rusesabagina was funding some of the FLN’s operations through his charitable foundation. Relatives say the claim is groundless, and that the foundation has had no resources for many years.
Kagame was deliberately cryptic in an interview on Sunday, denying that Rusesabagina had been kidnapped, but suggesting he had been the victim of some kind of trick, describing how feeding someone a “false story that fits well in the narrative of what he wants to be” could be very effective.
“There was no wrongdoing in the process of him getting here. He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do. It was like he called a wrong number … It was flawless,” Kagame said.
Kagame, who won a third term in power with 98% of the vote at elections in 2017, is a divisive figure. He is credited with the development and stability Rwanda has experienced since the genocide, but he is also accused of intolerance of any criticism, whether domestic or international.
Analysts said any trial could be a delicate exercise for the Rwandan government, as prosecutors would have to present convincing evidence to the international community without revealing too much about the methods of Rwanda’s security services.
The Rwandan government has long disputed Rusesabagina’s story about saving people during the genocide, and Ibuka, a Rwandan genocide survivors’ group, has said Rusesabagina exaggerated his own role.
Dino Mahtani, Africa Program deputy director of Crisis Group, said the episode revealed much bigger problems in Africa’s restive Great Lakes region as disputes between rival local powers become increasingly bitter.
“This is not just about Rusesabagina … It’s about the broader destabilisation of a region that is ongoing. The region is a tinderbox.”