The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My husband risked it all to protect hundreds in Rwanda. Now, he needs our help.

President George W. Bush awards Paul Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov. 9, 2005. (Lawrence Jackson/AP)

Taciana Rusesabagina is the wife of the Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina.

It has been more than a year since my husband, Paul Rusesabagina, who became well-known from the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” was lured from our Texas home and diverted from his intended destination to another continent to face “justice.” His supposed crime was nothing more than using his voice. Since then, my husband has languished with limited human contact in a jail in Rwanda and our family is enduring another holiday season without him, sustained only by slivers of joy brought by the 5-minute phone calls we are permitted every Friday morning.

In 1994, Paul used his words, wit and intellect to save 1,268 Tutsis and Hutus at the Hotel des Mille Collines during one of the most horrific killing sprees in modern times. In 2005, Paul was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush for his demonstration of “remarkable courage and compassion in the face of genocidal terror.”

The United States gave Paul a platform and he has used it for good. He and his foundation have worked over nearly two decades for peace, democracy, truth and reconciliation in Rwanda. Rwandans need not be separated by ethnicity. I am a Tutsi and Paul is a Hutu. We have four Hutu and two Tutsi children, the latter our adopted daughters who lost their parents in the genocide. Paul’s goal has always been to bring all Rwandans together.

My husband has not spared the Rwandan government, led for more than two decades by President Paul Kagame, from his criticism. My husband Paul and many others throughout the world have made their hopes for Rwanda clear. Simply stated, Paul has been a voice for the voiceless, calling out loudly in favor of human rights and a system of democracy that does not currently exist.

Incapable of being muzzled and sought for political crimes, in August 2020, Paul was tricked by the government of Rwanda into boarding a plane in Texas, beginning a journey to a place he knew he could never safely go. Then he was wrongfully detained, tortured and subjected to lengthy periods of solitary confinement. He also endured a sham trial on completely false charges of “terrorism” to silence its most effective critic. Paul was given a 25-year sentence, a penalty that has been appealed by the Rwandan government as lacking in severity. It prefers life imprisonment. If my husband is guilty of any crime, it is that he has been an agitator for democracy and human rights.

The Rwandan government’s propaganda machine has sought to convince the world of my husband’s “guilt.” It has even pushed a narrative that the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was fake, even though the facts presented were carefully vetted by the writers and director and also by the White House. The Rwandan government has even gone after my two adopted children who, in a sad coincidence, are only seeking to rescue the man who had rescued them many years ago.

Rwanda is an ally of the United States. It is the recipient of millions in financial aid and cooperates more broadly on important foreign policy interests in Central Africa. President Kagame maintains direct relations with many political leaders in Washington, but has put those relationships in jeopardy due to his actions regarding Paul. We are encouraged by the growing chorus around the world calling for my husband’s release. Politics aside, right now all our family wants is to have him home. Adding to our anxiety are Paul’s health issues, including previous bouts with cancer and heart disease, which present a grave risk if not properly monitored.

If the U.S. relationship with Rwanda is strong enough to be deserving of financial and trusted cooperation, then it is strong enough to push for the release of my husband on humanitarian grounds. When searching for strength in quiet moments, I can’t help but recall watching my husband rise from his seat on the White House stage to approach President Bush, as the announcer said: “His life reminds us of our moral duty to confront evil in all its forms.”

I know the United States will not forget Paul’s example and will take what steps are necessary to bring him home.