Paul Rusesabagina, the subject of the Oscar-nominated film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ who saved 1,200 Tutsi and moderate Hutu by hiding them in his hotel during the 1994 genocide, mysteriously “disappeared” from Dubai in late August, only to surface in the Rwandan capital of Kigali a few days later, handcuffed and slapped with terrorism charges.
A Belgian citizen and US permanent resident, Rusesabagina is regarded as a human rights champion; honoured with America’s highest civilian honour by President George W. Bush in 2005.
His arrest by Rwanda has been described as an “enforced disappearance” by Human Rights Watch, and comes after years of Rusesabagina criticising Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame — the country’s longstanding leader known for employing brute tactics for silencing opponents.
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Who is Paul Rusesabagina, the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ star
Rusesabagina is known for his lifesaving efforts during the 1994 Rwandan genocide — a culmination of long-running ethnic tensions between the minority Tutsi community, who had controlled power since colonial rule, and the majority Hutu. Over the course of 100 days, the tragedy took the lives of over 8 lakh people, estimated to amount up to 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population.
Hutu militias systematically targeted the Tutsi ethnic group, and used the nation’s public broadcaster, Rwanda Radio, for spreading propaganda. Military and political leaders encouraged sexual violence as a means of warfare, leading to around 5 lakh women and children being allegedly raped, sexually mutilated or murdered.
During the crisis, Rusesabagina, a Hutu whose wife is Tutsi, used the luxury hotel he was managing to shelter over 1,000 Tutsis and save them from being slaughtered.
His heroics were brought to the silver screen in the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo. The film won international acclaim, being nominated for three Academy Awards — Best Actor (Cheadle), Best Supporting Actress (Okonedo) and Best Original Screenplay.
Rusesabagina’s dispute with Kagame
Rusesabagina, now 66, did not set foot in Rwanda after the genocide, and was most recently living in the United States.
In the past few years, he became a critic of President Kagame, whose two-decade-long rule has been credited for bringing stability and development to the mineral-rich nation, but who has been blamed for cultivating an environment of fear for his political opponents both at home and abroad.
Rusesabagina was in turn criticised by Kagame of exaggerating his role during the genocide and of exploiting the tragedy for monetary gain. Rusesabagina has denied these accusations.
While in exile, Rusesabagina started the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group believed to have an armed wing called the National Liberation Front (FLN), which Rwanda has labelled a terrorist organisation.
Rusesabagina has frequently expressed support for the FLN, and in a 2018 video suggested the use of “any means possible” to oust Kagame, whose government he has described as a dictatorship.
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Rusesabagina’s alleged abduction, experts say, follows a pattern of repressive measures adopted by the Rwandan government to silence critics.
In 2013, Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former spy chief and fierce Kagame critic, was strangled after being lured to a luxury hotel in Johannesburg in South Africa. Kagame had said after the murder, “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price.”
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