Focusing on how Paul Rusesabagina was arrested is diversionary – US-based scholar

Paul Rusesabagina with his lawyers at Nyarugenge Intermediate Court in Nyamirambo on Friday, September 25. Sam Ngendahimana

Following the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, journalist Eric Manirakiza of Voice of America’s current affairs programme Amerique et Vous which is broadcast in French, hosted three guests to debate on the issue. 

Panelists included US-based scholar Dr Jean-Pierre KaregeyeIsmaël Diallo, a Burkinabé human rights activist and former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen. The programme was aired on September 18, 2020.


Below is a translated transcript of the programme. 


Eric Manirakiza: Welcome to L'Amérique et Vous, I’m your host Eric Manirakiza; Lionel Runaniragahima is producing.


Hotel Rwanda describes the heroic story of a man called Paul Rusesabagina who did everything he could in 1994 to save more than 1,200 people sheltered in the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Genocide, by preventing forces of the regime from entering the hotel.

There are divergent and contradictory opinions concerning his real role in this story, but that is not our focus here tonight. In 2005, the American President George Bush welcomed to the White House the controversial hero of Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, and awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Having become a critical voice against the regime in Kigali, in 2018 he founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, which publicly launched an armed struggle through its wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

US-based scholar Dr Jean-Pierre Karegeye.

At the end of August last year, Paul Rusesabagina was arrested and brought to Rwanda. He was indicted, notably, for terrorism, murder and financing of rebellion by a court in Kigali. His arrest sparked international outcry, especially in the United States. We will talk about this in a moment.

Tonight, L'Amérique et Vous welcomes three guests: Herman Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. Good evening.

Hermann Cohen: Good evening.

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre Karegeye, professor at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, is a researcher on religious extremism and genocide issues. Good evening.

Jean Pierre Karegeye: Good evening, Eric.

Eric Manirakiza: Ismaël Diallo, Burkinabé activist and fervent defender of human rights. Good evening.

Ismael Diallo: Good evening.

Eric Manirakiza: Without further delay, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Mr. Rusesabagina lived in exile in Belgium and in the United States since 1996. Mr. Cohen, in your tweet of September 11, you called on the international community, in particular the American government, to take a firm position in reaction to the illegal kidnapping of the hero of the genocide, Paul Rusesabagina. You added that Kigali has crossed the red line. What are your arguments?

Herman Cohen: Listen, if someone is living in exile, and they disagree with the government in their homeland, that's not a reason to go after them in another country or to kidnap them. This is not the first time that the Kigali regime has done it. A few years ago, there was a Rwandan who was strangled in a hotel in Johannesburg. He disagreed with the regime. There was another Rwandan who was shot with a gun in Nairobi, it's the same thing. He criticized the regime and was living in exile. And now it's the hero of Hotel Rwanda. So, in my opinion, we should not let this go without comment, without action. Rwanda must be criticized for that.

Eric Manirakiza: In June and December 2018, the FLN, this armed wing of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change founded by Mr. Rusesabagina himself and of which he was the current president, claimed responsibility for attacks in southern Rwanda. In an interview in Kinyarwanda on Voice of America, Mr. Rusesabagina did not dissociate himself from these attacks, and even confirmed the presence of his troops in the Nyungwe Forest. Mr. Cohen, are you aware of all of these developments?

Herman Cohen: No, I'm not aware of it, and now I believe that he had gone to war against the regime. It's true, so I kind of understand what Kigali did, but kidnapping someone who is on a private plane is against international law, even if it is your enemy on the plane.

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre, what do you think of this arrest? You can also respond to Mr. Cohen's comments.

JP Karegeye: Yes, I would like to react very quickly. First, there was a very interesting article written by Ambassador Herman Cohen. It was on June 3, 1994, towards the end of the genocide, which is incredible, where he recognized that there was a genocide in Rwanda and regretted that the Clinton Administration was not able to intervene. And he criticized this, in the name of international solidarity.

In this article, he clearly said that those killed were murdered because they were Tutsi, that’s in his article. It was amazing to see someone react like this at that time. Coming back to Rusesabagina, I think the word hero is rather confusing. I am a professor of literature and also a film critic. So the hero, from my point of view, would be the character in the movie, not Rusesabagina.

On Rusesabagina himself, he said, in Kinyarwanda, in a video that circulated, that when Rwandans were questioning the content of the film, that Rwandans did not understand that this was fiction and that it didn’t happen like that.

In fact, Rusesabagina was right, because the story of Rusesabagina appeared for the first time in Philippe Gourevitch’s book called We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, where Philip Gourevitch above all speaks from a victims’ and survivors’ perspective…

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre, the debate tonight is not… it's about his arrest.

JP Karegeye: You are right, but he is presented as a hero and the reason that I bring up Ambassador Cohen's article, is because Rusesabagina in most of his discussions, himself presents this genocide in a different way, when he says that he had saved people's lives.

I will say that it is very good news that Rusesabagina is in Rwanda. Because, as you know in several media outlets, he announced that he created an armed group FLN, or works with FLN. And when there were attacks in Rwanda in 2018 in Nyungwe forest, there were several deaths, I believe nine, and some vehicles were burned, and then in December 2018 there were new attacks as well. And when he was asked about it, he admitted it and said yes, we have taken up arms, etc, and we are in Rwanda.

So I believe that it is very good news that he will be judged in Rwanda. It is justice for the victims, the victims of terrorism. I think that, for me, (…) the question is not how a terrorist arrived in Rwanda, looking at all his actions and his armed movement, but rather how will justice take its course. I believe this is what is essential.

Eric Manirakiza: Yes, Jean-Pierre, there is the question of form and a question of substance at hand. Human Rights Watch says that the involvement of Mr. Rusesabagina in the actions of the National Liberation Front, considered as terrorist by Kigali, is not clear.

JP Karegeye: Well, then, the question is who defines terrorism and each country …even the United States’ definition of terrorism can be ambiguous. So it's quite broad, how do we define it? But Americans have the right, it seems, to define what they consider as terrorism, and they do. You have read the USA Patriot Act, for example? Which came about, by the way, when Ambassador Cohen himself was still in office. Therefore, Rwanda also has the right, the Rwandan law, to define what terrorism is. And I believe that what makes Rwanda, Rwandan law, legitimate, is not Human Rights Watch.

Eric Manirakiza: Mr. Ismael Diallo. You have read a lot about Paul Rusesabagina. You are a human rights defender. Human Rights Watch alleged that Mr. Rusesabagina was the victim of an enforced disappearance for which the Rwandan authorities were fully answerable. We have some details which have been revealed by Rusesabagina himself in the article in the New York Times. What is your point of view?

Ismael Diallo: First of all, I would like first to say that as far as I am concerned, in politics I am fundamentally against physical violence. I believe that even in verbal expression in politics, we must be careful not to take certain extremes.

That said, I am surprised to hear Ambassador Cohen point a finger at the Rwandan government. What government in the world does not seek to silence its opponents, especially when they resort to violence? Israel has been doing this since 1948. Did the United States or Mr. Cohen attack Israel? Saudi Arabia sent someone to Turkey to assassinate an opposition journalist. The real problem is that it is black Africa that’s always singled out.

Washington, Paris, Brussels demand from black Africa what they don’t ask of anyone else, of no other country. We want democracy, immediately. We want elections, right away! We want human rights, right now! And no deviation is allowed. What do we ask of the Arab world? What do we ask of the Asian world? What do we ask of Latin America? It's never the mistake of others, it's the Africans who are to blame.

Now, concerning this particular case, the government of Rwanda, like any other government in the world, will attack its opponents. I don't agree with killing them, I don't agree with torturing them. I don’t agree with a forced confession, which are not valid.

What government does not seek to silence its opponents? Unless they are opponents who do not cross a certain line. Like the opposition lady who is in Kigali who has refused to leave, and I salute her courage.

Eric Manirakiza: Victoire Ingabire.

Ismael Diallo: Victoire, exactly. I salute the determination, steadfastness, and the courage of this woman, who remains there, who goes to prison, who speaks out, who refuses to flee and to leave.

And now this gentleman, yes, he was duped, he took a flight from Dubai thinking that he was going to Burundi and he landed in Rwanda. First, he wanted to go to Burundi, knowing the relations between Bujumbura and Kigali at the moment, and certainly to hold an anti-Rwandan or anti-Kagame government speech. So, can we point the finger at the Kagame government, fine. But there is no government that does not do that. And now what will be his fate there? Will Rwandan justice act independently in what it does? Which justice in the world is truly independent?

Eric Manirakiza: We will come back to it, Mr. Diallo. Mr. Cohen, I would like to give you the opportunity to react.

Herman Cohen: Listen, I think Rusesabagina made a mistake going from Dubai to Bujumbura, right next to Rwanda. He should have known that the Rwandan government was looking for him. So, it wasn’t very smart of him to do that. And also, as for the owner of the plane, the best client of this company is the government of Kigali. So, it is clear that the government in Kigali said: you must land in Kigali, then in Bujumbura. But these people must be sued. Because they violated all international aviation laws, right? So, I think this is all very strange. And I don't agree that the government in Kigali had the right to do what they did despite the fact that every government goes after its opponents. I know the United States doesn’t go after people who oppose the government of the United States.

JP Karegeye: Can I react to that Eric if you allow me?

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre you can take thirty seconds.

JP Karegeye: The issue of terrorism cannot be reduced to how he landed in Rwanda. Because asking this question is like going back to question how the United States, you will excuse the comparison, how the United States came to have Bin Laden.

And the good news in Rwanda is that in 2007 the death penalty was abolished. So we are not at that level, and nobody supports it, I do not support in. What I mean by that is, we really have to come back to the issue of terrorism and not how he landed Rwanda. And I believe that Rwanda, as a government, has the right to ensure security for its people and that is important.

Eric Manirakiza: The US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, met the Rwandan Ambassador to the United States precisely on the subject of the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina. Then, in his tweet, Mr. Nagy said that the American government expects from Rwanda humane treatment, respect for the rule of law, and a fair and transparent legal process for Mr. Rusesabagina. Mr. Cohen, how should this statement be interpreted?

Herman Cohen: That means he did not criticize the government in Kigali for this illegal act of intercepting a plane against international law. I am a little disappointed by that. Otherwise, that is what must be said when there are people imprisoned and preparing to face justice. It's normal, we say that to everyone.

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre, what consequences should Rusesabagina face in your opinion? He is held by a regime which conquered power with arms, according to some.

JP Karegeye: First, a few moments ago, you talked about this tweet from the United States. You will notice that no government from anywhere else in the world has criticized the arrest of Rusesabagina. For the simple reason that many countries have laws on terrorism. Besides, it seems that they were maybe more informed than me as an academic researcher. They know about what Rusesabagina is accused of.

Concerning your question about taking up arms, does Rusesabagina have the right to take up arms? This is has to do with the law, Rwandan law. What does Rwanda say about taking up arms against a government and especially about killing people? I believe that for him, by taking up arms, we saw some kind of acts. And what kind of acts? There were victims, people who died in the Nyungwe forest, cars that were burnt down, and he claimed responsibility for that.

Eric Manirakiza: Mr. Diallo, you spoke earlier about Victoire Ingabire, who is in Kigali, who said that she has chosen nonviolent opposition. She considers that there are people who feel that that they don’t have a voice, that they choose to take up arms, but that they must also accept the consequences.

Mr. Cohen, do you have something to say before I give the floor to Mr. Diallo.

Herman Cohen: No. Please go ahead.

Eric Manirakiza: Mr. Diallo, you ran a human rights office and in an interview with the New York Times Paul Rusesabagina said he is innocent. You read in the article in question in April 2019, that the spokesperson of this armed wing, Major Callixte Sankara, was extradited from the Comoros, then imprisoned in Kigali. He pleaded guilty and made confessions that would be damning for the former hero of Hotel Rwanda. Is he likely to get out of the charges against him?

Ismael Diallo: You may remember that Mr. Paul Rusesabagina himself announced the launch of an armed struggle in July 2018, to, as he said, liberate the Rwandan people and fight against the RPF regime in Kigali. He has every right to do so. Does he have the right to use violence and armed struggle? Many do this when they feel like there is no solution other than this option.

Now that he is in the hands of the authorities in Rwanda, the ideal, of course, would be that he be treated well, that he get fair justice. Now, will this happen? We shall see. As to saying that they kidnapped the plane, they hijacked the plane, that's not right, that's not fair. They arrested him. They wouldn't have got to him otherwise. All of this, forgive me for the expression I am going to use, but all of this is just details, just details. Because there is not a single government in the world that is going to stand there, and not defend itself, defend what it believes to be the security of its country, including the United States, and especially the United States. I am saying the United States because Ambassador Cohen is in the debate. This is a country which certainly would not hesitate to go after its opponents, and in the worst possible way.

Eric Manirakiza: Mr. Diallo, let’s go back to the word terrorism. Aren’t there many governments which benefit from amending the law to use that term in many situations which are not, say, linked to the true definition of terrorism?

Ismael Diallo: There is no single government in the world that follows the law blindly. They are always on the side of what is the government’s interests and how does the government interpret the country’s security and stability? The law is used in accordance with this concept. So, one man's terrorist is another man's liberator, and using or not using arms makes a big difference.

Eric Manirakiza: Yes, you are talking about the details of how he was arrested. Couldn't that, let’s say, open the door to abuses, to a bad precedent for other opposition figures who may not be involved in armed struggles? But, if a government is capable, can it use the means at its disposal to extract someone from where they are?

Ismael Diallo: You cannot name a single world government, I mean a single government in the world, that would not do it if it had the capacity to do so. So, let's not pretend that this is not done by a certain country or government.

Eric Manirakiza: Jean-Pierre?

JP Karegeye: Yes, let’s get back to that. I am surprised that Ambassador Cohen raises the question on the ways they arrest, I would not say opponents, but terrorists. For example, he knows what happened with the invasion of Panama, for example. What do we have? Manuel Noriega, a Head of State who was arrested by the American forces. He knows it very well, for example, how terrorists are apprehended, how people end up in Guantanamo Bay.

Eric Manirakiza: Mr. Cohen, your reaction?

Herman Cohen: Yes, listen, there are laws on the matter of looking for people who have committed crimes and who are in foreign countries. That is, extradition. I believe that Mr. Rusesabagina lives in Belgium.

Eric Manirakiza: He also has a residence in the United States, I think?

Herman Cohen: In the United States. It would be very easy for the Government of Rwanda to say, here is this gentleman who lives in the United States, he has committed terrorist acts, he has killed people. We would like him to be tried on our soil. So to request for extradition which is done often, and it goes before an American court. Witnesses would would come and say, we have seen that the people sponsored by Mr. Rusesabagina have killed people, they were involved in terrorism. We demand that he be extradited to Rwanda. They could have won like that. But hijacking a plane mid-flight like that, I would even be hesitant to board Air France, which is now flying between Paris and Bujumbura. If Air France lands in Kigali and I'm arrested for commenting on Voice of America, that is not done by the standards of the international laws. They could therefore make a formal indictment before a court to have a trial and make a decision, right? That's how Charles Taylor was extradited to Liberia, right? This is the legal method, but if they do illegal things, it leads to problems. In fact, it's not allowed in aviation. I have seen too many hijackings in my life.

Eric Manirakiza: We have reached the end of this show, L'Amérique et Vous. Thank you to our guests, Herman Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, thank you, Mr. Cohen for your contribution to this show. Jean-Pierre Karegeye, Professor at Dickenson College in Pennsylvania, researcher on religious extremism and genocide issues, thank you as well.

JP Karegeye: Thank you, and Rusesabagina left Dubai legally. He was not kidnapped…Thank you.

Eric Manirakiza: Ismaël Diallo, Burkinabé activist and fervent defender of human rights. Thank you for your contribution.

Ismaël Diallo: Thank you.

Eric Manirakiza: Lionel Runaniragahima produced this show. Eric Manirakiza, I wish you an excellent weekend. See you next time.

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