Op-Ed: Rwanda’s disturbing arrest of the hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’

Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in the film "Hotel Rwanda," is an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as saving more than 1,200 people from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has been an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian president.

(Associated Press)

The Trump administration has developed a global reputation for coddling dictators, but it has an opportunity in its waning days to leave on a different note.

The authoritarian government of Rwanda is holding an unusual captive in one of its jails: Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager who rescued 1,268 people from the 1994 Rwandan genocide and whose story was portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda.” Rusesabagina is a U.S. resident and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.

Prosecutors in Rwanda have charged Rusesabagina with terrorism and supporting armed rebels in a conspiracy to overthrow the dictatorial government of Paul Kagame. The government will have to prove its case at trial. But it is beyond doubt that Rusesabagina will not get justice in a Rwandan courtroom.


Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo can help repair the administration’s notoriety as a friend to strongmen by pressuring Kagame to turn over the accused hotelier to an international court. The matter has now become even more urgent: Rusesabagina’s family reports that he is being denied medication for his chronic hypertension and may suffer a stroke.

How Rusesabagina wound up bound and blindfolded in a Rwandan jail cell is a crime in itself. On Aug. 29, he boarded a private jet in Dubai he thought would be shuttling him to the East African nation of Burundi to talk to some contacts. But the plane was staffed with members of Kagame’s security services, who flew him to Rwanda, where he was arrested and is now awaiting trial.

Rusesabagina became an unlikely international figure about a decade after the genocide in 1994 that claimed 800,000 victims, mainly of the Tutsi ethnic minority. He had opened rooms in the Hotel des Milles Collines, the luxury hotel he managed, to those who would have otherwise been hacked to death by Hutu militias. For 89 days, he deployed a sommelier’s combination of diplomacy and flattery to keep the militias from killing any of his guests.

He didn’t see his actions as particularly heroic and expected little more than a letter of commendation from his corporate bosses back in Brussels. But the director Terry George and the screenwriter Keir Pearson unearthed his story and helped bring “Hotel Rwanda” to global screens in 2004. Later that year, I signed on to help him write his autobiography and he became a U.S. resident.

Over the years, Rusesabagina has been a strong critic of the Kagame regime’s authoritarian actions against the Hutu ethnic majority and political dissidents. In a 2018 speech, Rusesabagina said it was time “to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda. As all political means have been tried and failed, it is time to attempt our last resort.” The government claims that remark is a call for violence.

Kagame has long made Rusesabagina a target of a campaign by state media to insinuate that he charged money for the hotel rooms and turned over people to be killed. None of those allegations are true. Alison Des Forges, a historian of the genocide, fact-checked his autobiography and said his account was “true to what I have witnessed and experienced in this complicated society.”


Kagame’s 26-year dictatorship has brought stability and economic growth to Rwanda. But much of that has come at the expense of free speech, free elections, free commerce and justice. Nobody expects Rusesabagina to receive a fair trial.

The Trump administration has done little to demand evidence or press for Rusesabagina’s transfer to a safer jail under the watch of neutral authorities. This is not surprising for a president who tacitly backed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and journalist, was murdered by Saudi assassins in Istanbul.

There is still time for the State Department to do the right thing, as previous American administrations used to do: demand justice on behalf of its residents imprisoned overseas. The Rwandan genocide leaders of 1994 were tried under international laws in Tanzania in a court assembled by the United Nations. At the very least, the Trump administration should insist that Rusesabagina be released from prison to seek proper medical treatment and that any trial be fair and open to international monitors.

Tom Zoellner is a professor at Chapman University and the coauthor of Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiography ,“An Ordinary Man.”