Our Voices

UN Confirms that Rwandan Authorities Abducted and Are Arbitrarily Detaining Paul Rusesabagina

Following a petition filed by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in March 2021, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) found that the Rwandan government abducted and has arbitrarily detained the Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina for over 20 months. Requesting his immediate, unconditional release and an independent investigation of his abduction in its opinion dated March 18, 2022, the UNWGAD urges Rwanda to “accord [Rusesabagina] an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.”

A Belgian citizen and US permanent resident, Rusesabagina is known and respected for his heroism during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and subsequent activism against human rights abuses perpetrated by the Rwandan government. He has received numerous accolades, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. As an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rusesabagina has been targeted by the Kagame regime for years. The UNWGAD’s inquiry concluded that Mr. Rusesabagina’s continues to suffer egregious human rights violations “…on account of his activism as a human rights defender and his political opposition to the Government”.

The UNWGAD opinion affirms that in 2020, Rusesabagina was abducted by agents of the Rwandan government in Dubai. Believing he was boarding a flight to Burundi, he was sedated and flown against his will to Kigali where he was detained incommunicado. Rusesabagina was restrained, blindfolded, held in solitary confinement for 260 days, and remains in detention to this day. A cancer survivor with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, Rusesabagina’s medical condition is worsening in detention, as Rwandan authorities have refused to provide him with his medication and adequate treatment. Citing Rusesabagina’s detention at a location unknown to his family and lawyers, the UNWGAD states that this deprivation of liberty is analogous to an enforced disappearance, thus making his detention inherently arbitrary. They conclude that his detention has no legal basis and places him outside of the protection of the law.

“The Rusesabagina family is extremely gratified to receive the recently published opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. This report provides independent and objective confirmation that our father was abducted by the Rwandan government, and that his rights have been systematically violated throughout his arbitrary detention. This includes both horrific mistreatment in prison and a near complete lack of fair trial rights. We are hopeful that the world will listen to this call by the United Nations and put pressure on Rwanda to immediately free our father and husband,” said the Rusesabagina family.

Like other prisoners of conscience in Rwanda, Rusesabagina detention and trial was riddled with procedural improprieties and utter disregard for fair trial principles. After 4 months of detention, Rusesabagina was indicted and subsequently charged with terrorism, alongside 17 co-defendants, none of whom he had ever met. The government denied him access to his lawyers and instead foisted on him two state-appointed lawyers who effectively sabotaged his case. After his bail applications were refused, Rusesabagina was held in pretrial detention without access to documents or materials to prepare his defense. He was not allowed to call his family or lawyers and was limited to receiving a 5-minute-long non confidential weekly call from his family. His lawyers were prohibited from taking any documents or electronic devices to their meetings with him and were sometimes subjected to invasive searches of their bodies. In what was globally considered a flawed trial, Rusesagabina was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, in a brazen act of intimidation, the government appealed the sentence seeking an increase.

“After his enforced disappearance and illegal arrest, Paul was subjected to a trial that was manifestly unfair. It is heartening for his legal team to see the UN Working Group concluding that no trial should ever have taken place and highlighting the systematic violations of Paul’s rights as an accused. Of course, where there is credible evidence against an accused person, there is no need for a State to resort to kidnapping, rendition, torture, and sham proceedings. In Paul’s case, these were the only means available to silence him,” said Kate Gibson, Lead Counsel of Paul Rusesabagina.

Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, described the UNWGAD’s findings as “a clear command” to the Rwandan government to immediately reverse its course of action. “Rusesabagina,” she said, “has done nothing other than fulfill the essential role of dissent in a democracy. In order to ensure his right to freedom of expression is protected, human rights advocates and people around the world must join in the chorus demanding his release, compensation, and an independent investigation.”

Similar to earlier calls by the European Union and members of the United States Congress, the UNWGAD directed the government of Rwanda to take all steps necessary to conform Rusesabagina’s situation with international human rights law. In addition, the UNWGAD stressed that Rwanda’s “failure to provide [Rusesabagina] access to adequate medical care violates his right to health and risks further human rights violations such as to the right to life.” The UNWGAD urges the Rwandan government to immediately and unconditionally release Rusesabagina.

Read the full decision by the UNWGAD here.