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rwanda, paul kagame, crimes, africa, war crimes, justice

How Paul Kagame Gets Away With His Crimes

Jailing Paul Rusesabagina, an international hero, is his latest atrocity.

Words: Frank Vogl
Pictures: Olu Famule

In 2005, Paul Rusesabagina stood in the East Room of the White House to receive America’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Now, Rusesabagina, who was found guilty on terrorism charges, is starting a 25-year prison sentence in a jail in Rwanda.

The 67-year-old long-time resident of Belgium and the United States became known to the world as an extraordinary hero with the making of the movie Hotel Rwanda. He had been the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, during the 1994 genocide and he saved an estimated 1,200 lives. Over many years, Rusesabagina not only watched the increasingly brutal dictatorship of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, but he publicly spoke out against the atrocities perpetrated against all those that Kagame has viewed as actual or potential opponents. He has said that he rejects violence, but Kagame’s officials released a video clip from a speech he made to fellow exiles from Rwanda in 2018 where he stated: “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda.” The government‘s Investigation Bureau stated that Rusesabagina was “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits,” but it never provided evidence in court to support the allegations. 

Rusesabagina never planned to return to Rwanda and claimed that he was tricked into taking a flight on Aug. 27, 2020 from Dubai to Burundi that in fact landed in Kigali. He has said he was kidnapped by Kagame’s intelligence service. Since then, Rusesabagina has been in prison, often denied basic rights to communicate with his lawyers and the process leading to his trial, which Human Rights Watch has called called flawed and “emblematic of the government’s overreach and manipulation of the justice system.” While the terrorism charges have never been proven, a report in The Economist noted that a former confidant of Kagame speculated that the real motive for punishing Rusesabagina is jealousy: “There can only be one post-genocide hero in Rwanda and that’s Kagame. He wasn’t going to share the limelight with anyone.” 

Rusesabagina and Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny are both jailed public critics today. When Navalny was poisoned, President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin thugs were rightly castigated by governments across the Western world, and both the US government and the European Union swiftly imposed sanctions in response. By contrast, the international community has been virtually silent about Rusesabagina’s fate. In discussing the imprisonment of a long-time US permanent resident, the US Department of State issued a short comment after the trial noting, “The United States is concerned by the Government of Rwanda’s conviction of US lawful permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina on September 20. The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict.” Since Rusesabagina is also a Belgium citizen, Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes of Belgium also commented on the fairness of the trial and announced that she would talk to Rwandan officials about it at the UN. Kagame’s government, however, canceled their meeting.

Why is the international community so reluctant to hold Kagame accountable for his various crimes, and his treatment of Rusesabagina?

Why is the international community so reluctant to hold Kagame accountable for his various crimes, and his treatment of Rusesabagina?


Kagame continues to be seen by Western governments and multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — and of course the international investor community — as the hero who quashed the genocide, not as the paranoid authoritarian leader that he has become. Yet, there has been mounting evidence of Kagame’s crimes, thanks to the courage of people like Rusesabagina who have spoken out. To put a lid on criticism, Kagame has been going after his critics for a long time, as author Michela Wrong chillingly describes in her new book “Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and anAfrican Regime Gone Bad.” No reader of this volume would have had any doubt about Rusesabagina’s fate. But in a world where Western leaders, and the diplomats that influence them have determined, there is no appetite to challenge an African leader who, unlike so many other dictators, has found ways to secure consistent national economic growth

And so it is, for example, that just weeks before the well-advertised show trial in Kigali, the government of Rwanda could enjoy the inflow of an avalanche of cash. At the start of August 2021, the Rwandan government raised $620 million from international investors as its bankers sold international bonds offering a 5% annual interest payment. The bond markets, managed by the world’s largest banks from Wall Street, London, and other financial centers, are so transfixed by the opportunity to issue bonds with significantly higher financial yields than investors can obtain in their home countries, that they totally ignore the human rights records of the borrowing governments. Cameroon and Kenya, for example, whose governments have a lot to answer for when it comes to both human rights abuses and corruption, are other recent bond borrowers from sub-Saharan Africa. Zambia, which for years was run by a kleptocratic regime, borrowed from the international markets and then defaulted on its debts. Zambians have elected a new government, and now everyone just hopes it is more honest than its predecessor. Talks between the new government and the IMF are about to start and are likely to result in the IMF providing a bail-out.

The IMF published a laudatory report on Rwanda’s economy and public sector management just days before the country finalized its international bond borrowing. The Fund’s report, however, makes no mention of how Kagame and his government has undermined Rwanda’s democracy or questions how the fairness of the the 2017 election, which saw Kagame win with 98.63% of the vote.


Not only should Western governments sanction Kagame and demand Rusesabagina’s release, but they should launch a full-scale review of their own policies toward regimes like his. The right opportunity for an honest and blunt set of actions against people like Kagame and Putin, and so many other violent dictators, will be the Summit for Democracthat President Joe Biden is convening in December 2021. This major event should not conclude with rhetoric by leaders against human rights abuses and corruption. It is time for pragmatic, tough actions.

Trade sanctions are part of the essential strategy, as are a host of measures to counter the ability of authoritarian regimes to launder their cash into Western real estate, art, and securities. In this respect, a bipartisan group of US Congressmen has taken the lead and secured approval by the House of Representatives for a cluster of anti-corruption measures targeted at foreign government officials. Such measures alone, however, are not sufficient to make it clear to authoritarian regimes that there is a high price to be paid for their grand corruption and their abuses of human rights. In my forthcoming book, “The Enablers: How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption-Endangering Our Democracy,” I argue that Western governments not only have the power to curb the access of corrupt governments to international bond markets, but also have the ability to strengthen the conditions that the IMF imposes on its loans. More importantly, Western governments have the power to forcefully counter large financial institutions based in New York City and London — and other financial capitals around the world — that aid and abet kleptocrats and their cronies by helping them launder their dirty cash. 

When major banks are caught red-handed and fined for laundering billions of dollars of stolen loot on behalf of foreign government leaders and their associates, the chairmen and CEOs of such major institutions are never personally prosecuted. The US and Western governments need to devote large-scale resources to enforcing current laws, to investigating and punishing the bankers, auditors, financial consultants, real estate brokers, and art dealers — the financial enablers — who are so vital to the process of managing dirty cash for foreign government officials, politicians, and their oligarch associates. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed out: “One trillion dollars are paid in bribes annually, while another 2.6 trillion are stolen; all due to corruption.”

The Summit for Democracy must be a landmark event in countering authoritarian regimes across the globe and acting against their abuses. It is urgent that there be forceful actions that demonstrate that people like Kagame cannot get away with their vile criminal acts — and that all decent people across the world decry the vile treatment of Rusesabagina, and so many others in many countries whose only crime is that they sought to speak truth to power. 

Frank Vogl is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and teaches a graduate seminar on “Corruption, Conflict Resolution and Security.” He is the co-founder of the leading global organization fighting corruption, Transparency International and the chairman of Partnership for Transparency Fund. His book, The Enablers: How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption – Endangering Our Democracy is forthcoming in November 2021.

Frank Vogl

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