The years of struggle to get Paul Rusesabagina out of Rwanda

The leader of Rwanda was in combative form last December when asked about his country’s most famous political prisoner and personal enemy during a visit to Washington.

No US pressure could “bully” Rwanda, President Paul Kagame said, until release Paul Rusesabaginathe hotelier whose heroism during the 1994 genocide inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”.

“Maybe invade and overrun the country – you can do that,” he added sharply at an event during the Biden administration. Top USA-Africa for leaders from across the continent.

Nevertheless, one of Mr. Kagame’s top aides quietly met with President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, early the next morning to discuss the terms of a possible release.

It was an important step in a complex, secretive effort to free Rusesabagina that culminated on Wednesday with his return to the United States, where he was reunited with his tearful family at a US Army base in Texas.

“We all collapsed when we saw him,” his daughter, Anaïse Kanimba, 31, said in an interview.

The release of Mr. Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old dissident and US permanent resident, was not just a triumph for quiet, patient diplomacy. It resolved a growing burden in Washington’s relationship with a small but important African ally who is towering above his weight on the continent and accused of starting a conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo that could degenerate into a regional war.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s plight also posed a delicate challenge to the United States as it seeks to repair its relations with African countries in order to emerging Chinese And Russian influence on the continent.

That meant forging closer ties with leaders like Kagame, an irritable authoritarian whose achievements in rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide were overshadowed by a repressive regime that would not tolerate dissent—a trend that the Rusesabagina case has come to symbolize.

Josh Geltzer, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser, described the months-long talks about Rusesabagina as an attempt to overcome a “genuine bilateral irritation” and an “unacceptable state of affairs.”

Still, some U.S. officials weren’t always convinced they needed to rescue the Rwandan captive.

Mr Rusesabagina received worldwide acclaim following the release of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ in 2004, which depicted him as the savior of more than 1,200 people in the luxury hotel he managed during the genocide.

But in Rwanda, Rusesabagina’s outspoken criticism of Mr. Kagame led him into exile in Belgium and then the United States.

He disappeared in August 2020, days after leaving his home in Texas for what he thought was a trip to Burundi. Rwandan agents cheated on him aboard a private jet that flew him to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where he was detained, charged with terrorism and, after some called legal experts a very flawed process, convicted to 25 years in prison.

His family vigorously campaigned for his release with the help of celebrities such as Don Cheadle, the actor who played Mr. Rusesabagina in ‘Hotel Rwanda’. and Scarlett Johnson. But the State Department has been slow to embrace his case — in part because of his status as a non-U.S. citizen, and also because of the shady nature of Rwanda’s allegations that he had funded an armed group that killed civilians, a U.S. official said. on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Yet powerful US senators took up Mr. Rusesabagina’s case on both sides of the aisle, including Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Writing letters and at one point withholding $90 million in aid to Rwanda, the senators urged the government to help.

They got results in May 2022, six weeks later the court appeal process has ended, when the State Department formally declared Mr. Rusesabagina as “unlawfully detained” – a status that rocketed his case up the government’s priority list. But the effort immediately ran into difficulties.

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That same day, General Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of US forces in Africa, flew to Kigali where he was pictured next to a smiling Mr. Kagame. Mr Rusesabagina’s supporters were outraged to learn that General Townsend had not even raised the matter with the Rwandan president – a sign, said some senatorsof conflicting American priorities in Rwanda.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s family put the spotlight on Rwanda by filing a $400 million lawsuit in a US court named Mr. Kagame. The Rwandan leader also came under Western surveillance his country’s ties to M23, a rebel group in eastern Congo that plunged the region into chaos. He denied any ties, but relations with the United States grew increasingly tense — a crisis that was the backdrop to a visit to Rwanda by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in August.

Mr Blink Mr. Kagame insisted about Mr. Rusesabagina, an unmistakable signal that the case had become an American priority. Four days later, John Tomaszewski, an assistant to Mr. Risch, visited Mr. Rusesabagina in prison. He showed Mr. Rusesabagina the suggested text of a letter from the prisoner asking Mr. Kagame for a pardon.

Mr. Rusesabagina said he was willing to give it a shot.

“Paul’s family had doubted he would go through with the letter,” Mr. Tomaszewski said. “But Paul was pragmatic.”

Things started moving fast. State Department officials silently worked with Mr. Rusesabagina’s family to include language in the letter that would placate Mr. Kagame, as well as a suggestion that if released, Mr. Rusesabagina would stop his boisterous criticism of the Rwandan government.

Relatives said they didn’t like those concessions, but went along with them.

In November, the White House, led by Mr. Sullivan, took over the secret negotiations. The Rwandan side was led by Mauro De Lorenzo – an American-born, former Africa researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who had taken Rwandan citizenship and become a staunch defender of Mr. Kagame’s policies.

It was Mr. De Lorenzo who arrived at Mr. Sullivan’s office at 8 a.m., the day after Mr. Kagame went belligerent. eruptionin the first personal conversations about the possibility of releasing Mr. Rusesabagina.

After that, discussion shifted to how a release might happen, US officials said. While the Rwandans did not demand money or a prisoner exchange, they wanted the family to drop the lawsuit. They insisted on retaining Mr. Rusesabagina’s criminal conviction. And they wanted the United States to issue a statement opposing “political violence” – the kind of violence Mr. Rusesabagina had accused Mr. Rusesabagina of.

The United States agreed to those demands, leading to Mr. Kagame’s first public hint of a potential release on March 13.

Yet the Rwandans were highly sensitive to the prospect of releasing a prisoner they had long claimed was a terrorist mastermind. Mr. Kagame did not want to give the impression that he was yielding to American pressure.

So he turned to Qatar, an investor in Rwanda that has often used its vast wealth of gas to solve international crises.

When Mr. Rusesabagina was issued from jail on the night of March 24, US diplomats took him straight to the home of Qatar’s ambassador to Rwanda, where he spent three nights.

When Mr Rusesabagina flew out of Kigali on March 27, he was aboard a Qatari government jet.

US officials flew with Mr. Rusesabagina to the Qatari capital, Doha, where he was welcomed by his US attorney, Ryan Fayhee. The two men checked into the luxury St. Regis hotel, where the former inmate enjoyed his first glass of wine in years.

They arrived in Houston on Wednesday, where Mr. Rusesabagina was transferred to a military medical facility near his home in San Antonio that specializes in treating trauma survivors. (The basketball star Brittney Griner was treated at the same facility after her release from Russia in Dec.)

Two days later, Mr. Rusesabagina was back home, surrounded by his wife, six children and supporters who had campaigned for his release. They popped champagne, shared a barbecue, and sang “God Bless America.”

That same day, his lawyers formally dropped the lawsuit against Mr. Kagame. But Rwanda is still facing several lawsuits in Africa, Europe and the United States in connection with Mr Rusesabagina’s arrest, said Kate Gibson, its lead attorney.

There’s also another problem: whether Mr. Rusesabagina, now safe on American soil and arguably more famous than ever, will stick to his commitment to lessen criticism of his old enemy, Mr. Kagame.

Declan Walsh And Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Michael D. Shave from Washington.