JOHANNESBURG — The man portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as saving the lives of more than 1,200 people from genocide was “kidnapped” while in Dubai, his daughter asserts, while authorities on Tuesday gave no further details behind his arrest on accusations of terrorism.
Paul Rusesabagina’s appearance in handcuffs in Rwanda’s capital on Monday prompted concern among some human rights activists that this was the latest example of the government targeting critics beyond its borders. He had lived outside Rwanda since 1996, in Belgium and then in Texas.
Rwandan authorities said they issued an arrest warrant for Rusesabagina to answer charges of serious crimes including terrorism, arson, kidnap, and murder perpetrated against unarmed civilians. The authorities cited “international cooperation” and gave no details but suggested that Interpol was involved. They did not say where or how he was apprehended.
Rusesabagina’s adopted daughter, Carine Kanimba, told The Associated Press she last spoke with him before he flew to Dubai last week but she didn’t know the nature of his trip. She didn’t provide evidence to support her claim that he was kidnapped.
She said the family has not been able to speak to him and is worried the 66-year-old may not be getting his hypertension medication.
Rusesabagina is a Belgian citizen and U.S. permanent resident and has long been a target because of his criticism of Rwanda’s government, she said.
“What they’re accusing him of is all made up,” she said. “There is no evidence to what they’re claiming … We know this is a wrongful arrest.”
It was not clear when Rusesabagina would appear in court. Police called him the suspected “founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits including the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) operating out of various places in the region and abroad.”
The MRCD in a statement condemned the arrest and called Rusesabagina one of its leaders. The group, which describes itself as an opposition political platform, did not respond to a request for comment.
An armed wing of the MRCD, the National Liberation Front, was accused of clashing with Rwandan soldiers in 2018 and 2019, and Rwanda arrested NLF spokesman Callixte Nsabimana last year.
In a video circulated online last year and seen by the AP, Rusesabagina said “it is imperative that in 2019 we speed up the liberation struggle of the Rwandan people … 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.” He expressed support for the NLF.
Michela Wrong, a British journalist who is researching a book about Rwanda, told the AP that Rusesabagina’s group posed no real danger to Kagame’s rule.
“When you have a country where no genuine opposition is tolerated, there’s no freedom of speech and elections are routinely rigged, challenges to the status quo inevitably end up taking guerrilla form,” she said. “Rwanda may be a donor darling, but it is probably the most repressive country in Africa today, so Rusesabagina’s trajectory isn’t that surprising.”
Interpol declined to comment on Rusesabagina’s arrest, saying it does not discuss its “red notices” for people wanted for prosecution unless they are public.
Police and authorities in Dubai, a city-state in the United Arab Emirates, did not respond to a request for comment. Rwandan President Paul Kagame maintains a close relationship with Dubai, often attending events in which moderators largely avoid discussing his government’s targeting of dissidents.
The state-owned RwandAir has direct flights between Dubai and Kigali.
While experts believe Dubai is among the most surveilled cities in the world, state-organized kidnappings have happened there. Most recently, the family of an Iranian leader of a militant dissident group said Iran kidnapped him from a Dubai airport hotel weeks ago.
In Belgium, authorities said they had no information about Rusesabagina’s arrest and were not involved. The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring the situation and referred questions to the Rwandan government.
“No country has broadly conceded that it arrested and handed over Mr. Rusesabagina to the Rwandan authorities. This is a clear indication that whatever happened was illegal and nobody wants to take responsibility for blatant illegal action,” said Etienne Mutabazi, spokesman for the Washington-based opposition Rwanda National Congress.
Rwanda’s government has been accused of hunting down dissidents overseas. South African investigators have said it was directly involved in the killing of Col. Patrick Karegeya, an outspoken critic, in Johannesburg in 2014.
“Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price,” Kagame said after the killing.
Rusesabagina has denied the Rwandan government’s charges that he financially supports Rwandan rebels. In 2010 he told the AP the government was conducting a smear campaign against him for opposing Kagame. He has called Kagame’s government a dictatorship and urged Western countries to press the government to respect human rights.
Government supporters reject his criticism, saying Kagame’s leadership supports democracy and economic growth.
Rusesabagina has won numerous international honors including the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 2005, and the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011.
“I believe it is a travesty that a human rights champion like Paul Rusesabagina should be captured, detained and held in the way he is being held,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. “This should raise a lot of deep concern and skepticism.”
The 2004 Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” showed Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, as using his influence as a manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines to allow more than 1,200 Tutsis to shelter in the hotel’s rooms.
The Rwandan government disputes Rusesabagina’s story about saving people during the genocide, in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed by Hutus. Officials accused him of seeking to profit from his experience.
Actor Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the film, told the AP in a statement that “it is my sincere hope that Paul is being treated humanely and fairly, and that a transparent and just legal process designed to reveal the veracity of these charges is advanced in a timely manner. It would be careless and perhaps even dangerous for Paul for me to comment further at this time.”
Bleiberg reported from Dallas, Texas. Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda; Brooke Lefferts in New York; Raf Casert in Brussels and Matt Lee in Washington contributed.