How the US, family and Hollywood freed the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero

How the US, family and Hollywood freed the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero

Rwanda’s leader was in combative form in December when, on a visit to Washington, he was asked about his country’s most famous political prisoner, and his personal foe.

No amount of US pressure could “bully” Rwanda, President Paul Kagame said, into releasing Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier whose heroism during the 1994 genocide inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”

“Maybe make an invasion and overrun the country – you can do that,” he added tartly, at an event during the Biden administration’s US-Africa Summit for leaders from around the continent.

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

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

“All of us crumbled when we saw him,” his daughter, Anaïse Kanimba, 31, said in an interview.

The freeing of Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old dissident and permanent US resident, was not only a triumph for quiet, patient diplomacy. It resolved a growing burden in Washington’s relationship with a small yet important African ally that punches above its weight on the continent, and is accused of stoking a conflict in eastern Congo that could explode into a regional war.

Rusesabagina’s plight also presented a delicate challenge for the United States as it seeks to reset its relations with African countries to counter surging Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.

That has meant shoring up ties with leaders like Kagame, a prickly authoritarian whose achievements in rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide have been overshadowed by a repressive rule that brooks no dissent – a trend that Rusesabagina’s case has come to symbolize.

Josh Geltzer, the deputy homeland security adviser to Biden, described the monthslong talks over Rusesabagina as an effort to overcome a “real bilateral irritant” and an “unacceptable state of affairs.”

Still, some US officials were not always convinced they should rescue the Rwandan prisoner.

Rusesabagina was lionized globally after the 2004 release of “Hotel Rwanda,” which depicted him as savior of more than 1,200 people at the luxury hotel he managed during the genocide.

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

He vanished in August 2020, days after leaving his Texas home on what he thought was a trip to Burundi. Rwandan agents tricked him into boarding a private jet that flew him to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where he was detained, charged with terrorism and, after what legal experts called a deeply flawed trial, sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

His family campaigned vigorously for his release with the help of celebrities including Don Cheadle, the actor who portrayed Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda,” and Scarlett Johansson. But the State Department was slow to embrace his cause – partly because of his status as a non-American citizen, and also because of the murky nature of Rwandan accusations that he had financed an armed group that had killed civilians, a US official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Still, powerful US senators took up Rusesabagina’s case on both sides of the aisle, including Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Writing letters and, at one point, withholding $90 million in aid to Rwanda, the senators pressed the government to help.

They got results in May 2022, six weeks after the court appeal process ended, when the State Department formally declared Rusesabagina as “unlawfully detained” – a status that shot his case up the administration’s list of priorities. But the effort immediately ran into difficulties.

That same day, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of US forces in Africa, flew into Kigali where he was pictured alongside a smiling Kagame. Rusesabagina’s supporters were infuriated to learn that Townsend hadn’t even raised the case with the Rwandan president – a sign, some senators said, of conflicting US priorities in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina’s family turned up the heat on Rwanda by filing a $400 million lawsuit in a US court that named Kagame. The Rwandan leader was also coming under Western scrutiny for his country’s ties to M23, a rebel group in eastern Congo that was pitching the region into chaos. He denied any links, but relations with the United States were growing strained – a crisis that formed the backdrop of a visit to Rwanda by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August.

Blinken pressed Kagame about Rusesabagina, an unmistakable signal that the case had become an American priority. Four days later, John Tomaszewski, an aide to Risch, visited Rusesabagina in prison. He showed Rusesabagina the proposed text of a letter from the prisoner requesting a pardon from Kagame.

Rusesabagina said he was willing to give it a shot.

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

Things began to move quickly. State Department officials worked quietly with Rusesabagina’s family to include language in the letter that would placate Kagame as well as a suggestion that, if released, Rusesabagina would cease his vociferous criticism of Rwanda’s government.

Family members said they disliked those concessions, but went along with them.

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

It was De Lorenzo who arrived at 8 a.m. at Sullivan’s office the day after Kagame’s bellicose outburst, in the first face-to-face talks over the possibility of freeing Rusesabagina.

After that, the 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 Rusesabagina’s criminal conviction. And they wanted the United States to issue a statement opposing “political violence” – the kind of violence that Rwanda had accused Rusesabagina of leading.

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

Still, the Rwandans were highly sensitive about the optics of releasing a prisoner they had long insisted was a terrorist mastermind. Kagame didn’t want to be seen as caving to US pressure.

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

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

When Rusesabagina flew out of Kigali on March 27, it was aboard a Qatar government jet.

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

On Wednesday, they arrived in Houston, where Rusesabagina was transferred to a military medical facility near his home in San Antonio that specializes in treating survivors of trauma. (Basketball star Brittney Griner was treated at the same facility after her release from Russia in December.)

Two days later, 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 Kagame. But Rwanda still faces several lawsuits in Africa, Europe and the United States related to Rusesabagina’s arrest, Kate Gibson, his lead attorney, said.

Another issue is also outstanding: whether Rusesabagina, now safe on US soil and arguably more famous than ever, will stick to his commitment of cutting back on criticism of his old enemy, Kagame.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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