The Puzzling Outcry against Rusesabagina’s Arrest in Rwanda

Picture this: An American citizen has moved to and lives in a foreign country. He becomes a naturalized citizen of his host country, but he has ambitions of one day becoming a US president. He forms a political party and makes a videotaped statement telling the world that he is forming an armed group to seize the US Presidency by force. Members of the armed group make incursions into the US territory, kill civilians, burn down and loot property, and commit a host of other terrorism-related activities. Few months later, with some kind of ruse, the founder of the armed group finds himself in the US and is arrested.

Clearly, the scenario above is implausible in the United States. As improbable as it may seem though, it is, in a nutshell, the story of Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest in Rwanda.

In much of the West, little is known about Rusesabagina’s sponsorship of terrorism-related activities in Rwanda. Since 2004, the man upon whom Don Cheadle’s character in Hotel Rwanda is based has been imagined and celebrated as the Oskar Schindler of the genocide against the Tutsi and a human rights activist. Indeed, it is on this persona that much of the news coverage about his arrest in the Western media has focused, wittingly or unwittingly downplaying or outrightly not mentioning his sponsorship of terrorism.

In his videotaped statement, he said: “I plead my unreserved resort that our youth, the National Liberation Forces (NLF), launches attacks against the Kagame army in order to free the Rwandan people.” His call to arms was followed by attacks on civilians on the Rwandan territory, killing three people and burning and looting property. Those of us who speak Kinyarwanda and have been following, in real-time, the court case have heard Rusesabagina admit, after evidence had been presented to him, that he sent $20,000.00 to the Front National de Liberation (FNL), the terrorist outfit which carried out the deadly attacks and for which he asked for forgiveness.

Bewilderingly, following Rusesabagina’s arrest, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which in 2011 awarded Rusesabagina the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in spite of protests by many survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi, issued a statement on its website decrying the arrest. It said: “Mr. Rusesabagina [was] forcibly transported to Kigali under highly irregular circumstances, where he was immediately arrested and awaits what is certain to be a sham trial.” The statement urges “the governments of Belgium and the United States – where he is a citizen and a legal resident, respectively – to take immediate action to ensure his well-being and freedom.”

The Lantos Foundation has not been alone in its condemnation of Rusesabagina’s arrest; it has been joined by Human Rights Watch and the [George] Clooney Foundation for Justice, among others. Bewildering and ironical, indeed, given what has been revealed about the killing of human beings by Rusesabagina’s armed group! Do these Rwandan lives matter to these human rights organizations?

Rwanda, a landlocked country with scant natural resources, has made territorial and national security its top priority, as would any country with the will and the means, which has immensely contributed to its economic prosperity and its people’s welfare. These human rights organizations have the luxury of operating in countries where territorial and national security is taken for granted – where a story like that of Rusesabagina would be fiction. Not in Rwanda, where there have been two incursions from neighboring countries in the last two years, after a two-decade hiatus. Not in Rwanda, where the genocide against the Tutsi claimed more than one million people in one hundred days.

Defenders of Rusesabagina can take comfort in that, despite the gravity of the crimes he is accused of, the worst punishment he can get, if proved guilty, will not be capital punishment – Rwanda having abolished the death penalty – but a life sentence. If, for supposition’s sake, Rusesabagina was an American citizen and after his arrest on US soil he was accused of crimes similar to those for which he has been charged in Rwanda, I wonder if these human rights organizations would defend him or celebrate him as a hero.

About the Author
I hold a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa in the USA. For the last twenty years, I have been teaching literature at Alabama A&M University in the USA. Twice, I have been on a study tour of Israel's historical sites, first with Echoes and Reflections and later with the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.
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