A new UN human rights report gives Rwanda a failing grade. At the same time, the case of the kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina continues to stir. Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta reacts to the criticism. The case of Paul Rusesabagina continues to weigh on Belgian-Rwandan relations, writes The Standard Friday 07 May 2021, Page 16 and here is the full story.
During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Rusesabagina was manager of the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali. In that capacity he saved more than a thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus from the clutches of murderous soldiers and militias.
After the genocide, the ‘hero of Mille Collines’ became at odds with the Collines’ fell out with the current president Paul Kagame, especially when Rusesabagina had become an important opposition leader in recent years.
He was granted asylum in Belgium and chose Belgian nationality. On 27 August 2020, Rusesabagina was lured onto a private jet in Dubai that flew him to Kigali, where he ended up in prison and was accused of terror.
The accusation is based on his opposition party MRCD’s alleged links to a rebel movement in eastern Congo, the Forces de Libération Nationale (FLN). Human Rights Watch describes Rusesabagina’s arrest as a ‘forced disappearance’ and a ‘serious violation of international law’.
In an interview with this newspaper, Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine stated that her father has no chance of a fair trial. She fears for his life.
In an interview, Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta gives his view on the case.
First let me tell you that a Rwandan court is hearing this case, which means that as a minister I cannot comment in detail on its content. What I can say, however, is that Rusesabagina deliberately and of his own accord boarded the private jet. Nobody forced him to do so.
Rusesabagina fled to Belgium in 1996 fearing for his life. Since then, tensions with the Rwandan government have only increased. Why would he voluntarily board a flight to Kigali? He himself explained that he was under the impression that the plane would take him to Burundi, where he would give a number of lectures.
Vincent Biruta: ‘I can only repeat what has already been said in court: he travelled on his own initiative from his home in San Antonio to Dubai and boarded a private jet that took him to Kigali.
Is it true that the Rwandan government paid for the private jet?
I can confirm that our government paid for that flight. But again I refer to what was said during the trial. The Rwandan court referred to a number of similar cases in which other countries also organised the transfer of a suspect. For example, the case where Belgium lured a Somali pirate to Brussels in 2013 with an excuse and then arrested and tried him. That operation involved the Belgian judiciary and police forces.
If Belgium is allowed to set up such an operation, surely Rwanda can do the same?’
You compare Rusesabagina to a Somali pirate?
I am simply quoting what the Rwandan court said about it. I would also remind you that Mr Rusesabagina is accused of terrorism. The armed group he founded is responsible for the murder of nine Rwandans. In total, there are no less than 84 civil parties standing up for their rights as victims in this trial. I am happy to talk about the rights of the defence, but there is also such a thing as the rights of the victims.’
The secrecy of the investigation makes it difficult to get a clear view of those allegations. The European Parliament and the American Bar Association argue that there are insufficient guarantees of a fair trial. Rusesabagina is said to be denied access to his lawyers, the prison authorities confiscated his defence file and, according to his family, he is not receiving his medication for hypertension.
In Rwanda, there are laws that respect the rights of the defence. For example, the claim that Rusesabagina does not have access to a lawyer is not true. He is assisted by a Rwandan lawyer. The issue is that non-Rwandan lawyers also wanted to defend him and the Rwandan Bar Association did not allow this.
If you ask my opinion, it is not normal for non-Rwandan lawyers to come and check the independence of the Rwandan judiciary. What kind of attitude is that? Belgians coming to supervise our judges, I thought that system ended in 1962, the year Rwanda became independent from Belgium.’
Is the Rwandan government considering transferring Rusesabagina to Belgium so that the Belgian judiciary can try him? The same formula was already applied in 2005 in the case of the Belgian Father Guy Theunis, whom your government suspected of inciting genocide.
Belgium has not yet submitted a request to that effect. Moreover, Rusesabagina has Rwandan nationality: it is logical that a Rwandan judge should rule on his case.’
Rusesabagina’s lawyers say he is Belgian. According to them, he received Belgian nationality in 1999 and dual nationality was not possible at that time.
‘According to our laws, he is also a Rwandan citizen. But again, your question is without object because Belgium did not yet apply for a transfer.’
How much weight does this case carry on Belgian-Rwandan relations? On 10 March you had a meeting in Kigali with the Belgian ambassador Benoît Ryelandt. According to several sources, you said that Belgium should not get too involved in this process and that this case would determine the quality of Belgian-Rwandan relations.
I regularly meet with the Belgian ambassador, but I never said that. You know, our relations with Belgium are good and there are many mutual interests. The Rusesabagina case does not weigh so heavily in that regard.’
A recent report by the UN Human Rights Council gave your country a failing grade across the board: torture of opponents, suspected disappearances of opponents, political interference in the legal system, persecution of opponents, journalists and human rights activists.
Normally, such a UN human rights report is drawn up with the participation of the country concerned. For reasons that are unclear to us, this did not happen this time. I would also like to say that the guarantee of human rights is a process. In such a report there are comments, we take them seriously and that is how we make progress.’
It is remarkable that both the United States and the United Kingdom used the UN report to heavily criticise your government. Both countries have been Rwanda’s major donors for years.
‘It is true that the UK and the US are important partners and they have the right to express their views on Rwanda. But the Rwandan government works for the Rwandan people and not for donors and partner countries. Moreover, in addition to the human rights you list, there are other human rights that are important: the right to food, the right to education, the right to health. On all those human rights we score well.
Yet the lack of openness seems to be eating away at your government. Investors seem hesitant to open branches in Rwanda. Last week, Twitter decided to establish its African headquarters in Ghana. The company justified its choice by referring to Ghana’s climate of free speech and internet freedom. This is great news for Ghana.
Twitter has the freedom to choose where it wants to do business. But it is not true that investors are turning away from Rwanda. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking, Rwanda is the second best country in Sub-Saharan Africa to do business. As a government, we are very transparent and trustworthy.’
At the request of French President Emmanuel Macron, French experts recently published their final report on the ‘heavy and crushing’ responsibility of France in the run-up to the Rwandan genocide. Does your government expect an apology?
The French research report reaches more or less the same conclusions as a similar study conducted at the request of the Rwandan government. Now that we share the same analysis of our past, we have a strong basis for building a new relationship. It is for the conscience of France and President Macron to decide whether apologies are necessary. It is not for us to influence it. Macron had the political courage to open the French archives. We are confident that his next steps will also be good.’
The famous woman doctor and Nobel laureate Dennis Mukwege has been urging for some time that the much-discussed Mapping Report on the Congolese wars be revisited. In that report, Rwanda is also accused of serious human rights violations and war crimes. Are you prepared to look at that aspect of the past?
No, we have rejected the contents of that report and the report has no official status. I don’t see why Rwanda would participate in that exercise.’
If a Nobel laureate is one of the initiators, this demarche carries quite a lot of moral weight, doesn’t it?
‘Is that so? Mr Mukwege is a Nobel Prize winner, but at the same time he is just a human being like you and me.’