The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rwanda kidnapped my father. Here’s why the world should work for his release.

President George W. Bush, left, and first lady Laura Bush, second right, meet with Paul Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana, in the Oval Office on Feb. 17, 2005. (Eric Draper/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Anaïse Kanimba is the daughter of Paul Rusesabagina.

My father, Paul Rusesabagina, saved more than 1,200 innocent people during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. His act was later dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda,” and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.

On Aug. 27, 2020, my father went missing. Several days later, he turned up, under arrest, in a police station in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda — the country he had fled in 1996 after being targeted by a government incapable of tolerating his criticisms.

My family soon found out that he had been abducted by Rwandan intelligence agents. Ever since the movie, which depicts my father’s heroic actions during the Rwanda genocide, he has been falsely accused of a series of crimes, absurdly including arson and terrorism. This is how Rwandan President Paul Kagame tries to silence his critics.

In 2010, Rwanda tried to get Belgium and the United States to cooperate with their campaign of false accusations against my father. (My father holds Belgian citizenship and is a permanent resident of the United States.) Both nations refused because the allegations had no merit and the Rwandan government was unable to produce any evidence to support them.

In the end, it resorted to outright kidnapping. In August 2020, my father boarded a plane in Dubai that he believed was taking him to a series of events in Burundi. Instead, he found himself on a one-way flight to Kigali — orchestrated by the Rwandan intelligence service. (The phone number of my sister Carine turned up in a list of those apparently targeted for surveillance by the Israeli spyware recently exposed in the Pegasus Project — one more bit of evidence of the obsessive interest taken in our family by the Kagame regime.)

My father’s abduction blatantly violated Rwandan law as well as international law, particularly the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Rwandan government “denied him access to international counsel, seized attorney-client privileged documents and violated the presumption of innocence by publicly condemning him at the highest levels of government,” says Peter Choharis, my father’s lawyer. “There is no chance of a fair trial, and the United States and Belgium need not wait for this show trial to be over.”

My father wrote in his book, “An Ordinary Man,” how he had called and faxed the State Department and the White House again and again during the genocide. His pleas for help to stop the killing fell on deaf ears then. Will our family’s pleas to help this brave man, whose only crime is having the audacity to stand up for human rights, fall on similarly deaf ears now?

My father is in prison in Rwanda, which boasts one of the worst prison systems in the world. He is denied his prescribed medications. He is a cancer survivor and suffers from hypertension. He faces a sham trial. His legal rights are routinely violated. In the trial, witness testimony has proved to be false or completely unrelated to my father. Nor is there any defined end date for the trial.

We know that there is no independent judiciary in Rwanda and that my father will be found guilty. Kagame has already declared him guilty in the press. The judges always do what Kagame says.

During his first days of false imprisonment last year, my father was tortured, bound and gagged in stress positions, sometimes with a boot on his neck, in a detention center he called a “slaughterhouse.” He listened to female prisoners scream — and then had to contemplate their sudden silence.

My father has endured kidnapping, torture, and violations and rejections of all his legal rights. What is the United States waiting for? The world knows that Kagame’s critics and brave journalists in Rwanda often end up “disappeared” or dead. Rwandan leaders use poison and other violent means to get rid of people who they believe speak inconvenient truths. Is the international community waiting for the worst to happen? What about this process is supposed to be reassuring to our family?

How can a fair trial start with kidnapping and torture?

We need the immediate help of the United States and other democracies to bring my father home now. The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice recently proposed imposing Magnitsky sanctions on the people responsible for kidnapping my father. My family is also thankful for the support of 41 members of Congress who recently sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the State Department to pursue my father’s release.

When a U.S. resident and human rights hero is kidnapped abroad, dragged across international borders and tortured, I believe that the moment for action has already come.