The Implications of the Rwandan Government Sentencing Paul Rusesabagina, Who Saved 1,268 People During the Rwandan Genocide, to Prison on Terrorism Charges

The Implications of the Rwandan Government Sentencing Paul Rusesabagina, Who Saved 1,268 People During the Rwandan Genocide, to Prison on Terrorism Charges

By Min Ji Kim

Over a span of 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to one million people were slaughtered during the Rwandan Genocide.[1] The genocide arose from hundreds of years of conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, two ethnic groups of Rwanda, exacerbated by Belgian and German colonial rule.[2] The killings ceased after the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the extremist Hutu-led Rwandan government.[3] The RPF has since controlled the Rwandan government with one of its founders, Paul Kagame, as the President of Rwanda.[4] In the aftermath of the genocide, mass graves are continued to be discovered. As recently as 2020, a mass grave holding up to 30,000 bodies was found.[5] The graves and the sentencing of Paul Rusesabagina are, grim reminders of the genocide, still affecting the country of Rwanda nearly thirty years later.

I did what I believed to be the ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.[6]

-Paul Rusesabagina

As a hotelier, Rusesabagina saved 1,268 people, and his story inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda.[7] Since then, Rusesabagina has been a political activist criticizing President Kagame and the Rwandan government for its regime that is often characterized as authoritarian.[8] Kagame has been a de facto ruler of Rwanda since the end of the genocide, and he officially became President in 2000, currently serving a third term after constitutional amendments were passed and winning 98.63% of the vote in the most recent election.[9] Although Kagame has been praised by other national leaders and domestic supporters for rebuilding Rwanda, Kagame and his regime have been accused of repressing and even murdering opposition figures, including politicians and journalists.[10] The Rwandan government has also been accused of war crimes and genocide for massacring an estimated 200,000 Hutus in refugee camps in Congo, which accommodated genocide perpetrators but also women and children.[11]

After the safety of Rusesabagina and his family was threatened by the RPF, Rusesabagina received asylum in Belgium and eventually settled in Texas.[12] Rusesabagina continued to voice his opposition and co-founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), which ultimately led to his arrest in August 2020 after facing accusations of supporting the Front for National Liberation (FLN).[13] An armed branch of the MRCD, the FLN was responsible for deadly attacks in Rwanda in 2018.[14] Though Rusesabagina denied responsibility for the attacks, he was found guilty of terrorism charges and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison by a Rwandan court in September 2021.[15] The events leading to Rusesabagina’s sentence are filled with multiple international human rights law violations, including enforced disappearance, which is the arrest, imprisonment, or abduction by a state or a party with a state’s authorization or support.[16]

Before his arrest, Rusesabagina was in Dubai for a layover during a flight to Burundi in August 2020 and went missing for four days until appearing before the media at the Rwandan Investigation Bureau (RIB), which announced via Twitter that Rusesabagina was arrested “through international cooperation.”[17] However, the United Arab Emirates denied involvement in the arrest and stated the UAE had no extradition agreements with Rwanda.[18] During a televised appearance, Kagame denied Rusesabagina had been kidnapped but stated, “It’s like if you fed somebody with a false story that, you know, fits well in his narrative of what he wants to be and he follows it and then finds himself in a place like that” and additionally stated, “Rusesabagina heads a group of terrorists that have killed Rwandans. He will have to pay for these crimes. Rusesabagina has the blood of Rwandans on his hands.”[19] After initially being denied contact with his family and lawyers, Rusesabagina was then only given limited contact under supervision from Rwandan authorities.[20] Rwanda’s attorney general inadvertently revealed in a video accidentally sent to Al Jazeera English, that authorities intercepted privileged communication between Rusesabagina and his lawyers and that the Rwandan government paid for the private jet that brought Rusesabagina to Rwanda from Dubai.[21] In court, only state-appointed counsel was permitted to represent Rusesabagina.[22] The Rwandan government also reportedly did not provide the necessary medication to Rusesabagina for his cardiovascular condition, which he suffers from as a cancer survivor, and has not allowed independent medical evaluation on Rusesabagina.[23]

From the summary of the events, Rwanda has committed numerous violations. As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Rwanda violated various articles of the ICCPR, including Articles 9[24] and 14[25], which protect against enforced disappearances and ensure a fair and public hearing respectively. Rusesabagina was subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and was not given adequate time and facilities to prepare for his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing. While not an exhaustive list of violations, Rwanda also violated the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (CAT).[26] With these serious violations, human rights organizations and other nations have condemned Rwanda’s handling of Rusesabagina’s arrest and trial. The European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution urging the EU delegation to Rwanda and embassies of EU countries to call for the release of Rusesabagina.[27] Meanwhile, the prosecutors appealed the twenty-five-year sentence, possibly seeking to convert the sentence to life imprisonment, and on January 19, 2022, the appeal was allowed to proceed without Rusesabagina’s presence.[28] With this recent development, it is imperative that the appeal proceedings be closely observed and that organizations and nations continue to call for action.

[1] André Guichaoua, Counting the Rwandan Victims of War and Genocide: Concluding Reflections, 22 J. Genocide Rsch. 125, 125–26 (2020).

[2] Rwanda genocide of 1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (last visited Jan. 17, 2022).

[3] Id.

[4] Paul Kagame, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (last visited on Jan. 18, 2022).

[5] Samuel Lovett, Rwanda uncovers genocide grave holding up to 30,000 bodies, Indep. (April 6, 2020),

[6] Paul Rusesabagina & Tom Zoellner, An Ordinary Man xvi (2006).

[7] Abu Latif Dahir et al., How the Hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Fell Into a Vengeful Strongman’s Trap, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2020),

[8] Timothy P. Longman, Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest shows there’s no space for critical voices in Rwanda, Conversation (Sept. 2, 2020); Paragon or prison? The furious debate about Rwanda and its autocratic president, Economist (Mar. 27, 2021)

[9] Paul Kagame, supra note 4; Melina Platas, Here’s why Paul Kagame won a third term as Rwanda’s president, Wash. Post (Aug. 5, 2017),

[10] Paul Kagame, supra note 4; Paragon or prison?, supra note 8; see also Abu-Bakarr Jalloh, Rwanda: The mysterious deaths of political opponents, Deutsche Welle (Sept. 15, 2021),

[11] See Chris McGreal et al., Leaked UN report accuses Rwanda of possible genocide in Congo, Guardian (Aug. 26, 2010),; Kisangani N.F. Emizet, The Massacre of Refugees in Congo: A Case of UN Peacekeeping Failure and International Law, 38 J.  Mod. Afr. Stud. 163, 165 (2000).

[12] Longman, supra note 8.

[13] Id.; Paul Rusesabagina: Hotel Rwanda film hero arrested, BBC (Aug. 31, 2020),

[14] Joanna Taylor, Paul Rusesabagina of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ found guilty of terrorism-related charges, Indep. (Sept. 20, 2021)

[15] Id.

[16] G.A. Res. 61/177, art. 2 (Dec. 20, 2006) (defining enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law”).

[17] U.N. Commission on Human Right, Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, U.N. Doc. AL RWA 1/2020 (Sep. 30, 2020); Rwanda: Background Briefing on Proceedings Against Paul Rusesabagina, A.B.A. (Jan. 26, 2021), [hereinafter Background Briefing].

[18] Background Briefing, supra note 17.

[19] Background Briefing, supra note 17; Rwanda: Rusesabagina Was Forcibly Disappeared, Hum. Rts. Watch (Sept. 10, 2020),,serious%20violation%20of%20international%20law.&text=Rusesabagina’s%20family%20were%20not%20able%20to%20speak%20with%20him%20until%20September%208.

[20] Rwanda: Rusesabagina Was Forcibly Disappeared, supra note 19.

[21] Abdi Latif Dahir, Rwanda Official Admits Legal Violations in ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Case, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2021),

[22] Id.

[23] Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, supra note 17.

[24] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 9, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, S. Exec. Doc. E, 95-2 (1978) (stating that “[e]veryone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law”).

[25] See id. art. 14 (stating that “[a]ll persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals… everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law”) (also stating that “[e]veryone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law” and shall be entitled to “[t]o have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing”).

[26] See generally International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Dec. 20, 2006, G.A. Res. A/61/177; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment, Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85, S. Treaty Doc. No. 100-20 (1988).

[27] Hans von der Burchard, MEPs ‘strongly condemn’ conviction of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero, Politico (Oct. 7, 2021),

[28] Clement Uwiringiyimana, Appeal in ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero’s case can proceed without him, judge rules, Reuters (Jan. 19, 2022),