The alleged rendition and detention of a Rwandan human rights activist has prompted only a tepid political response from his adopted home of Belgium, according to the activist’s daughter, who said it called into question the value of European citizenship for political prisoners.
Paul Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, is alleged to have been forcibly taken from Dubai to Kigali, where he is facing terrorism-related charges. But his daughter Carine Kanimba said that since his mysterious disappearance, he has had one visit by a Belgian official – and that the visit took place in front of a state-appointed lawyer.
“It really calls into question what the Belgian citizenship is worth, and what the status of asylum protection is work as a political refugee,” Kanimba, 27, told the Guardian.
“I think they’re trying to be very careful and I am worried about how fair they will be with my father,” she added. “I definitely worry about the relationship between Belgium and Rwanda.”
Rusesabagina was credited with saving more than 1,200 people who sheltered at the luxurious Mille Collines hotel, where he worked as a general manager at the time of the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed.
Since then, Rusesabagina has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Rwandan dissidents have faced surveillance, kidnappings and – in some cases – mysterious deaths after speaking out against the president. After receiving numerous death threats, Rusesabagina applied for asylum in Belgium and was granted citizenship in 1996. He is also a US green card holder.
Kanimba, who lives in New York, is in Brussels trying to encourage the European parliament to take a stand against her father’s arrest.
“Hopefully it will lead to action and condemnation from the Europeans,” she said.
The family’s frustration with Belgium’s allegedly muted response comes as more questions are being raised by Rusesabagina’s family about the circumstances of his disappearance.
Kanimba said that in one brief conversation with the consular official Rusesabagina had referred to “waking up” in Kigali. The family was also seeking information from anyone who might have witnessed his arrival in Rwanda, which they believed occurred early on 28 August after Rusesabagina was forced or tricked into taking a private chartered jet from Dubai to Kigali.
Officials in Kigali have said he was arrested on what they described as “an international warrant” but have not provided further details.
It is also unclear who Rusesabagina was meeting in Dubai or where he was when first detained. Kanimba said she had booked his flight to Dubai and that it was not unusual for her father to travel to meetings, but that she had not booked his hotel.
Rusesabagina appeared in a Kigali court on Monday facing charges of terrorism and murder. His family have staunchly denied the charges, and say he has not been allowed access to his own team of lawyers.
“The whole charade is just a show,” said Kanimba. “My anticipation is that they will force him to plead guilty and that whatever torture he is experiencing will force him to do that.”
A spokesperson at the Belgian foreign ministry said officials from its embassy in Kigali had visited Rusesabagina last week and were offering him consular assistance, while declining to give further details.
“We have been following the issue through our embassy in Kigali,” said the spokesperson, who would not say whether Belgium had any plans to speak out publicly for him.
Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, a pro-democracy advocacy group, said it was not surprising that neither Belgium nor the US had publicly launched a campaign on Rusesabagina’s behalf.
Smith said he believed it reflected a reticence to criticise a country that was seen as having benefited from development aid and western support, and emerged as an African success story – even as grave human rights abuses by Kagame’s government had been ignored by the western leaders who supported him.
The US state department also issued a tepid response to the arrest of Rusesabagina, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by George W Bush in 2005.