Rwanda has rejected calls to release Paul Rusesabagina, who was found guilty of crimes related to terrorism, despite intense lobbying by the US which has termed his arrest as “wrongful” detention.
He, a permanent resident of the US who was portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda saving the lives of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, was sentenced to 25 years for terrorism by a Rwandan court last year in what his supporters called a sham trial.
Speaking at a joint press briefing on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that during his meeting with President Paul Kagame he raised concerns related to Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction, particularly the lack of fair trial guarantees.
“We continue to urge the government to address our concerns about the legal protections afforded to him in this case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.
“I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with President Kagame this morning. I will not get into specifics but will continue to engage on it. I also had an opportunity a few days ago to talk to Rusesabagina’s family and will continue to be in touch with them as well,” Blinken said.
Despite the talks, Rwanda has poured cold water on any suggestion that they might consider releasing Rusesabagina amid international pressure including a recent resolution calling for Rusesabagina’s release passed by the US House of Representatives.
In a recent letter addressed to Blinken, New Jersey Senator and Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Relations Robert Menendez said he was “concerned about the Rwandan government's continuing disregard for democracy and human rights” and called for a review of US policy towards Rwanda, threatening to withhold aid to the country.
“This contradiction is deeply problematic and emblematic of a policy towards Rwanda that is increasingly out of step with US interests and values,” he said.
But Rwanda says it maintains its position that Rusesabagina was lawfully detained.
Addressing a joint press conference on Thursday, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said Rusesabagina is a Rwandan citizen who committed crimes while residing in the US and was convicted lawfully under Rwandan and international law alongside 20 other accomplices for serious crimes against its citizens.
“Rwanda will continue to abide by our laws and the decisions made by our judiciary. And we would request our partners to respect Rwanda’s sovereignty, laws, and its institutions,” he said, adding that the country wouldn’t bow to international pressure to release him.
“Those thinking that Rwandans will one day wake up to hear that he has been released because of external pressure from other countries; that will not happen.”
Ahead of Blinken’s visit, victims of Rusesabagina’s terrorism attacks in southwestern Rwanda wrote a letter to Secretary Blinken, requesting an audience with him to discuss their experiences and impacts of the attacks.
“We wish to ensure that our voices and experiences are not erased from the debate around Paul Rusesabagina…We are very concerned that the justice that was served is now at significant risk considering the pressure being applied to release Rusesabagina,” the letter says.
Blinken, however, did not meet the victims during his visit.
The US says it is concerned about the increasing trend of its citizens and residents being unjustly detained. Blinken said his government would continue to advocate for the detained nationals and “try to work for their return back home to the United States.”