While WNBA star Brittney Griner’s sentencing in Russia dominates headlines, members of Congress are urging the White House to do more to free yet another prominent figure — Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the acclaimed 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.”
In a letter shared exclusively with ABC News on Thursday, Reps. Joaquin Castro and Young Kim asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “use all the diplomatic means at your disposal to ensure Mr. Rusesabagina’s safe return to the United States.” They implored the secretary to push Rwanda’s president for Rusesabagina’s “immediate release” during Blinken’s visit next week to the East African nation, where Rusesabagina has been held for nearly two years.
Rusesabagina, a lawful US permanent resident, was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, 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, slaughtering over the course of 100 days more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to protect them, according to estimates from the United Nations.
More than 1,200 people took shelter in the Hotel des Mille Collines during what is often described as the darkest chapter of Rwanda’s history. Rusesabagina, who is of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, said he used his job and connections with the Hutu elite to protect the hotel’s guests from massacre. The events were later immortalized in “Hotel Rwanda,” with American actor Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Rusesabagina earning an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 2005.
Rusesabagina, who fled Rwanda with his family in 1996 and later settled in San Antonio, Texas, rose to fame and was praised as a hero after the movie’s release. In 2005, he was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the American president. He also wrote a book, gave paid speeches, and became an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been in office for the last two decades.
In August 2020, Rusesabagina traveled to Dubai to meet up with a Burundi-born pastor who Rusesabagina alleges had invited him to speak at churches in Burundi about his experience during the Rwandan genocide. The pair hopped on a private jet that Rusesabagina believed would take them to Burundi’s capital, according to Rusesabagina’s international legal team.
Rusesabagina did not know that the pastor was working as an informant for the Rwanda Investigation Bureau and had tricked him into boarding a chartered flight to Kigali. He was subsequently arrested and tried on a slew of terrorism-related charges, with Rwandan prosecutors alleging that Rusesabagina wanted to go to Burundi to coordinate with rebel groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Last September, Rusesabagina, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted on eight of nine terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In May, the US Department of State determined that Rusesabagina had been “wrongfully detained.” In June, the US 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 if the US does not take a firm stance on Rusesabagina’s detention, others may be at risk.
“Failure to address the actions of the Rwandan government will only embolden it to continue to target US citizens and US residents,” they wrote.
According to the State Department, Blinken intends to discuss Rusesabagina’s case during his upcoming visit to Rwanda. Speaking to ABC News on Thursday, a senior US official declined to say whether Blinken would communicate any consequences for the Rwandan government if it fails to release Rusesabagina, but insisted that the Biden administration has been “very clear with the government of Rwanda about our concerns about his case, his trial, and his conviction, particularly the lack of fair trial guarantees.”
Castro and Kim said the Biden administration must move as quickly as possible to secure Rusesabagina’s freedom due to his age and failing health.
“We also ask that you visit Mr. Rusesabagina, who is imprisoned under unsafe conditions and suffering from health issues that jeopardize his life,” they wrote in their letter. “Paul Rusesabagina is a 68-year-old cancer and stroke survivor who remains in poor health. He has been imprisoned for over 700 days without proper medical care.”
In a statement to ABC News on Thursday, Rusesabagina’s family expressed their gratitude that his case “is receiving attention from senior levels within the [Biden] administration and across Capitol Hill.”
“We appreciate in particular Secretary Blinken’s dedicated visit and hope his direct engagement will help bring our family nightmare to an end,” said Rusesabagina’s daughter, Anaise Kanimba.
“Rwanda is not an adversary country like Russia, China or Iran; it is a country that significantly benefits from US taxpayer money and judicial cooperation,” she added. “If the administration can bring back other wrongfully detained [citizens] from Russia, it can certainly leverage its relationship with Rwanda.”