Rwanda terror victims seek seizure of Rusesabagina assets

Saturday September 03 2022
Rusesabagina's apeal

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Paul Rusesabagina is escorted by police officers after his pre-trial court session on September 20, 2021. PHOTO | AFP


Victims of attacks by a group associated with Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero turned-fierce government critic currently serving a 25-year sentence on terrorism-related charges in Rwanda, are planning to seek financial compensation in a court in Belgium, The EastAfrican has learnt.

While details of the case are yet to be made public, a well-placed source told The EastAfrican that the case will be formally lodged in Belgium in November.

Mr Rusesabagina holds Belgian citizenship and is a permanent resident of the US. The victims want his assets in Belgium and the US frozen.

As part of the ruling when he and others were being sentenced, convicted individuals were ordered to jointly pay compensation worth over Rwf412,190,000 ($400,000) to the people that were affected by the attacks.

The victims, through their lawyer Faustin Muragwa, had already, in an open letter, requested to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Rwanda last month. They claimed their voices had been suppressed and raised the issue of compensation. The letter noted that the US extends assistance to victims of terror attacks at home and globally.

“As such, as a gesture to recognise our rights as victims of terror attacks, we request to have those efforts extended to support our needs as well. The court-ordered compensation to the victims has yet to materialise, leaving some of us in a dire financial situation.


“We are aware that some of the perpetrators of terrorism in the communities have assets in the United States. In line with its stated commitment, we hope for the US government to support our quest for remedial justice.

This, we believe, will send a strong message that the US supports victims of terrorism and is committed to holding perpetrators of terrorism fully accountable for their actions,” the letter, dated August 4, states.

‘Wrongfully detained’
The US has yet to respond to the victims. Instead, despite his conviction on terrorism-related charges, the US State Department maintains that he was “wrongfully detained” due to “the lack of fair trial guarantees provided to him.” Mr Blinken’s visit to the country was overshadowed by calls to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Rwanda stands by the decision of its courts as the due process was followed and he is legally detained.

Read: Rwanda rejects calls to release Rusesabagina

While both countries maintain that they have a “strong” bilateral relationship, Mr Blinken said he had raised the case of Mr Rusesabagina, who is a lawful permanent resident of the US with President Kagame, and underscored “our concerns about the lack of fair trial guarantees provided to him”.

On the face of it, both countries continue to co-operate on global and regional priorities. For instance, in the financial year 2021, US peace and bilateral security assistance for Rwanda was $500,000, and America remains the largest contributor to Rwanda’s health sector, with an annual investment of $116 million in the past three years.

However, there is a looming diplomatic row. The US Senate committee on foreign relations recently called for a “more effective US policy” on Rwanda. Its chairperson Robert Menendez said he was “concerned about the Rwandan government’s continuing disregard for democracy and human rights”.

Due to the classification that Mr Rusesabagina is “wrongfully detained”, the US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, is tracking the case.

While a major shift in the US foreign policy towards Rwanda is not expected, individual Rwandan officials could face sanctions.

President Joe Biden recently signed a new executive order, which builds on the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, to provide the US government with expanded tools to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions.

Asked whether there is a possibility that this act could be applied to Rwandan officials in the Rusesabagina case, a US State Department spokesperson did not rule it out.

“The July 19, 2022, Executive Order creates a comprehensive sanctions programme to assist in bringing home US nationals held hostage and wrongfully detained. We do not speculate as to how or whether this authority could be applied in any particular case,” a spokesperson told The EastAfrican.

The US introduced the “Khashoggi Ban” last year, which “allows the US Department of State to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”.

Asked if there is a possibility that a “Khashoggi Ban” could be applied to some Rwandan officials involved in Rusesabagina’s case, officials said the US continues to review incidents.

“Individual visa records are confidential under US law, so details of who is subject to the Khashoggi Ban are therefore not publicly available,” a spokesperson said.