In 2020, Rwanda lured Rusesabagina onto an aircraft that he thought was going to Burundi but that landed in Kigali instead. There, he was arrested and faced a battery of charges connected with founding and supporting an opposition group – the National Liberation Front – that was blamed for attacks that had killed civilians.
During his trial, the judge cited as evidence of his guilt a 2018 video in which Rusesabagina says that “the time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed.”
The conviction sparked a storm of global criticism, with more than three dozen US senators urging Kagame to release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds and the launching of high-profile campaign for his release involving celebrities, political leaders and rights organisations.
Rusesabagina’s release comes after a noticeable cooling of relations between Kigali and Washington.
“This has been one of two issues that has really soured relations with Washington: the Rusesabagina renditioning and its active support for the M23 rebels. I think Kagame finally realised it wasn’t a good idea to make an enemy of the US government,” said Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb, a book about the killing of Rwanda’s former top spy after he fell out with Kagame.
US statements about Rwanda have become direct and forceful, she said. They have moved from criticising Kigali for supporting the M23 rebels across the border in Congo to demanding that Rwanda stop deploying troops there.
Rwanda has denied supporting the rebels – blamed for numerous mass killings of civilians – but relations between the two neighbours are extremely tense. Rwanda fired at a Congolese jet in January.
Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at SOAS University of London, observed part of Rusesabagina’s trial in Kigali. There were noticeable irregularities in the trial, he said, and the manner of Rusesabagina’s arrest was problematic.
But he also noted that much of the evidence Rwanda produced showing that Rusesabagina had financed a rebel movement came from the FBI and Belgian authorities. Both the US and Belgium provided Western Union and other bank transfer evidence showing money moving from Rusesabagina’s account to active rebels, he said.
Neither the FBI nor the Belgian police immediately responded to requests for comment. Rusesabagina’s lawyers and a family spokeswoman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Clark said the case brought unwelcome scrutiny at a time when Rwanda is seeking to strengthen its international profile. It is expanding peacekeeping missions across Africa, heading the Commonwealth of Nations, and has struck a deal with Britain to take migrants that have entered the country illegally – a plan that has sparked increased scrutiny of Rwanda’s human rights record.
Kigali has received about $US147 million ($221 million) in bilateral aid from the US, Clark said, including US military support for Rwandan peacekeepers across Africa. Those figures fluctuate by year but have been as high as $US33 million annually.
Kigali may have calculated that it had enough wins, Clark said: showing it can project power across international borders by abducting a dissident and getting information about funding for the National Liberation Front into the public domain.
“Finally, this case became too burdensome for them,” Clark said.
The Washington Post
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