Exclusive: Members of Congress call on Blinken to demand the release of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero
As WNBA star Brittney Griner’s sentencing in Russia grabs headlines, members of Congress are urging the White House to do more to free another high profile figure – Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the acclaimed 2004 film” Hotel Rwanda”.
In a letter shared exclusively with ABC News on Thursday, Representatives Joaquin Castro and Young Kim asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “use all diplomatic means at your disposal to ensure the safe return of Mr. Rusesabagina to the States.” -United”. They implored the secretary to push the Rwandan president for Rusesabagina’s “immediate release” during Blinken’s visit next week to the East African country, where Rusesabagina has been held for nearly two years.
Rusesabagina, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when divisions between Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups came to a head. The Rwandan government, controlled by extremist members of the Hutu ethnic majority, launched a systemic campaign with its allied Hutu militias to wipe out the Tutsi ethnic minority, massacring in 100 days more than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus who tried to protect them, according to UN estimates.
More than 1,200 people took refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines during what is often described as the darkest chapter in Rwanda’s history. Rusesabagina, who is of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, said he used his job and his connections with the Hutu elite to protect hotel guests from the massacre. The events were later immortalized in “Hotel Rwanda”, with American actor Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Rusesabagina earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 2005.
Rusesabagina, who fled Rwanda with his family in 1996 and later settled in San Antonio, Texas, rose to fame and was hailed as a hero after the film’s release. In 2005, he received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States President. He also wrote a book, gave paid speeches and became a vocal critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, in office for two decades.
In August 2020, Rusesabagina traveled to Dubai to meet a Burundi-born pastor who Rusesabagina said had invited him to speak at churches in Burundi about his experience during the Rwandan genocide. The couple jumped on a private jet which Rusesabagina said would take them to the Burundian capital, according to Rusesabagina’s international legal team.
Rusesabagina was unaware that the pastor was working as an informant for the Rwanda Bureau of Investigation and tricked him into boarding a chartered flight to Kigali. He was later arrested and tried on a series of terrorism-related charges, with Rwandan prosecutors alleging that Rusesabagina wanted to travel to Burundi to coordinate with rebel groups based there and in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last September, Rusesabagina, who maintained his innocence, was found guilty of eight of nine terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In May, the US State Department determined that Rusesabagina had been “wrongfully detained”. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution calling on the Biden administration to demand Rusesabagina’s release on humanitarian grounds.
In their letter to Blinken, Castro and Kim warned that unless the United States takes a strong stance on Rusesabagina’s detention, others could be at risk.
“Failure to respond to the actions of the Rwandan government will only embolden it to continue targeting US citizens and US residents,” they wrote.
According to the State Department, Blinken intends to discuss Rusesabagina’s case during his next visit to Rwanda. Speaking to ABC News on Thursday, a senior U.S. official declined to say whether Blinken would communicate any consequences for the Rwandan government if he failed to release Rusesabagina, but insisted the Biden administration had been “very clearly with the Rwandan government about our concerns”. on his case, trial and conviction, in particular the lack of fair trial guarantees.”
Castro and Kim said the Biden administration must act as quickly as possible to secure Rusesabagina’s freedom because of his age and failing health.
“We also ask you to visit Mr. Rusesabagina, who is imprisoned in dangerous conditions and who suffers from health problems that put his life at risk,” they wrote in their letter. “Paul Rusesabagina is a 68-year-old cancer and stroke survivor who remains in poor health. He was imprisoned for over 700 days without proper medical care.”
In a statement to ABC News on Thursday, Rusesabagina’s family expressed gratitude that her case “is receiving attention from higher levels within the [Biden] administration and across Capitol Hill.”
“We particularly appreciate Secretary Blinken’s dedicated visit and hope that his direct engagement will help end our family nightmare,” said Rusesabagina’s daughter, Anaise Kanimba.
“Rwanda is not an adversary country like Russia, China or Iran; it is a country that benefits significantly from American taxpayers’ money and judicial cooperation,” she added. “If the administration can bring back other detainees unfairly [citizens] of Russia, he can certainly leverage his relationship with Rwanda. »