by Frans Boogaard*
He once saved more than 1,200 lives, risking his own life and that of his family. Now Paul Rusesabagina, the ’hero of Rwanda’, has been in a Rwandan cell on suspicion of terror for almost a year.
At home in Brussels, Tatiana, the wife of Paul Rusesabagina, and (step)daughter Carine have no illusions whatsoever. His trial was one big theatre. There is no material evidence, the only two witnesses were a prisoner and someone who supposedly worked for Dad in America, but was actually employed by the Rwandan government."
And then there were co-accused of terror and armed opposition to the regime who, on pain of assault, had to confirm that ’daddy’ had collaborated with them. “The whole process was streamed, we followed everything: none of them said anything against them. But the clerk ’forgot’ to include their testimony in his summary’’, daughter Carine fulminates. Either way, he will be convicted. That was predetermined.”
Paul Rusesabagina (67) is a folk hero in his home country of Rwanda. During the 1994 genocide, which killed nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, he and Tatiana hid 1,268 people in their Mille Collines hotel in the capital, Kigali. A prize-winning Hollywood film about this in 2004, Hotel Rwanda, made him world famous.
A year later, President Bush Jr. pinned him with the prestigious Medal of Freedom. Since then, President Paul Kagame has been his nemesis. Rusesabagina already had to deal with a lot of intimidation in Brussels, he was driven off the road, he was broken into four times. Last August he was supposed to fly from Dubai to Burundi for a lecture, but just taking off he was handcuffed and blindfolded and flown to Rwanda. The priest who had invited him played a double role, the Greek company that supplied the private jet had been bribed.
Carine: We discovered four days later that he had been kidnapped and was in Rwanda, when he appeared on TV in prison uniform. The days before he had been abused and he was not allowed to take off his cuffs and blindfold for a moment.’’ Tatiana: He is mentally unbelievably strong, even in prison he keeps good spirits and his humor. But I’m very worried. He’s been off his meds for a year."
Carine: Foreign Affairs in Belgium brought them there and had them delivered to the prison by embassy staff. But as soon as they turn their backs, they are thrown away. We don’t know what they’re giving him now. Dad also gets no access to his file and no own lawyer. He has to make do with a counselor for the regime. Since then, he has refused to participate in his trial.”
Tatiana and Carine cannot talk to their husband and father about substantive issues. He is allowed to call every Friday - Tatiana: At our expense!’’ - but there is always someone there. Carine: Last month, Amnesty International discovered that even my smartphone has been bugged for at least six months, with the very expensive Israeli spy software Pegasus. Everything I did to get my father released may have been intercepted.” In the Brussels newspaper Le Soir, Rwanda rejected any involvement. "Slander, which is part of an ongoing campaign to provoke tensions between Rwanda and other countries," said Foreign Minister Biruta.
Rusesabagina faces life in prison. If that happens, Tatiana and Carine will take note of it without much emotion. We are fighting on a different front’’, says Carine. "Making the pressure on Rwanda through politics and media so great that at a certain moment they can’t help but release him." Belgium, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in February.
It just doesn’t work with the heads of government. Carine: Chairman Charles Michel, a Belgian, never even answered us. He did, however, shake hands with Kagame shortly after the resolution in the European Parliament in Rwanda. It’s impossible to say ’you can tell my back’ much more clearly."
Between Paul Kagame, the Tutsi leader who ended the genocide in 1994 and has been the strong man in the government ever since (as president since 2000), and Rusesabagina, things are never going to get better. Rusesabagina earlier in this paper called Kagame "a mass murderer who cuts his opponents to pieces." Literally: the head off and then the body in four.’’
Daughter Carine: Papa threatens his inheritance. He wants the truth about who unleashed the genocide. If that turns out to be the same as the one claiming to have terminated her (which is also suspected by a French investigating judge, ed.), then his political legacy and his 25-year carefully constructed, but lie-based, image will be ugly. down.”
Wife Tatiana was asked if she sees parallels with spring 1994, when she and her family could be slaughtered every minute in their besieged hotel. With moist eyes (she lost her parents, brother and four cousins): I often think about that time. But then we fought together. If I had the chance to go to Rwanda now and be locked up with my husband to fight together again, I would do it - immediately."
*EU correspondent of ‘Algemeen Dagblad’, a Dutch leading daily newspaper
**first published in: ‘Algemeen Dagblad’, newspaper