Editor’s note: For years, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, journalists and academic experts to discuss key international issues. This year’s edition is planned as an in-person and live-stream “hybrid” event. It will be held from Tuesday through Friday. It is free, but sign-up is required at worldaffairsconference.org. This column was written by a conference participant.
For the last month, a bizarre legal procedure has been playing out in a courtroom in Kigali, one that says a great deal about today’s Rwanda and the nature of President Paul Kagame’s rule.
Since Jan. 17, lawyers have been appealing a 25-year sentence pronounced on a 67-year-old convicted of terrorism. What’s bizarre is that these are state prosecutors, the very legal team responsible for the original conviction.
Challenging their own work — whose outcome they now say was too lenient — they want the sentence delivered against former Rwandan hotel manager and human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, who was renditioned in August 2020, extended to life.
It’s an eyebrow-lifting development. Rwanda is one of Africa’s poorest countries, its legal resources not unlimited. Court hearings of less high-profile suspects were placed on hold during Rwanda’s strictly enforced COVID lockdowns and backlogs built up. Why waste precious man hours essentially retrying someone already unlikely ever to walk free?
The move is particularly puzzling when one considers the reputational impact of Rusesabagina’s original capture and trial.
When Rusesabagina was arrested on arrival in Kigali, having been lured onto a plane he thought bound for Burundi, the Rwandan authorities clearly believed they had pulled off a major coup. A delighted President Kagame hailed it as a “flawless operation.”
The subsequent trial was aimed at discrediting the man whose denunciations of the regime’s human rights record had made him the bête noire of central Africa’s most implacable strongman. Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and who once had the American Medal of Freedom hung around his neck by George W. Bush, stood accused of funding the National Liberation Front (FLN), a militia blamed for attacks in southwest Rwanda in which nine people died.
It didn’t work out that way, and not just because, in the eyes of many observers, any trial that kicks off with a kidnapping is built on shaky foundations.
While the authorities made sure proceedings could be followed across the globe on YouTube -- simultaneous translation into English helpfully provided -- they failed to show a similar interest in the rules of jurisprudence. Basic principles, such as a suspect’s right to choose his lawyer, read his own case file, hold confidential conversations with his defense team, or know in advance which witnesses will be called, were violated.
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While Rusesabagina may have questions to answer — including a decision to videotape an expression of support for the National Liberation Front — this flawed trial botched the opportunity to put them.
When the verdict was announced, it accordingly came across as an act of personalized score-settling rather than a rendering of justice. The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights denounced it as a “show trial” plagued by serious discrepancies — a view echoed by former colonial master Belgium — while the European Parliament said the process exemplified Rwanda’s human rights violations. The chair of the U.S. House’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Development has introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for Rusesabagina’s immediate release.
So why, given the damage done to Rwanda’s international standing, repeat the exercise?
It’s tempting to interpret this doubling-down as a characteristically defiant gesture from a leader who has made the rejection of compromise his leitmotif. But there’s something else at play, and it is rooted in Kagame’s existential fears: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Kagame is sometimes referred to by Rwandan critics as an “accidental president,” because he only took the reins of the ruling party Rwandan Patriotic Front as a result of the 1990 shooting of Fred Rwigyema, its immensely popular leader. The ruthlessness with which Kagame suppresses dissent is explained by the awareness that he is feared rather than loved by both the country’s Hutu majority and his own Tutsi generals.
Hence the intelligence agents dispatched from Kigali to murder defecting aides and army chiefs who flee into exile — a campaign logged in my book — hence the physical attacks on opposition leaders, human rights activists and journalists. Hence, most recently, the ridiculously heavy sentences doled out to Rwandan YouTubers daring to criticize the regime.
Rusesabagina’s trial was never primarily about justice, his family says, or combating terrorism. “The trial was a piece of theater and this appeal is its continuation,” says Carine Kanimba, one of Rusesabagina’s daughters. “They want to control the narrative, keeping my father’s name in the public domain as long as possible as a deterrent to anyone who might think of speaking out.”
Tellingly, while the original trial offered simultaneous translation into English, appeal proceedings are being conducted solely in Kinyarwanda. The international community, after all, is not the intended audience.
“The regime is playing to the domestic and African audience,” says David Himbara, who was once Kagame’s economic adviser and is now, from exile, one of his most virulent critics. “The strongman needs a story to show that he is tough.”
Not so much a trial, then, more a piece of cautionary performance art.
Michela Wrong has spent nearly three decades writing about Africa, first as a Reuters correspondent based in Cote d’Ivoire and former Zaire, and then as the Financial Times Africa correspondent, based in Kenya. From journalism, she moved into book-writing. Previous books include “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz,” the story of Mobutu Sese Seko, “I Didn’t do it for You,” focusing on Eritrea, “It’s Our Turn to Eat,” an examination of Kenyan corruption, and “Borderlines,” a novel set in the Horn of Africa. Her latest, “Do Not Disturb,” is a scathing assessment of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and President Paul Kagame. She is based in London.