On Monday, August 31, Rwanda’s government made a shocking announcement: Paul Rusesabagina, the man made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda for sheltering hundreds of civilians during the 1994 genocide, was in Rwandan custody and being held on suspicion of terrorism. His troubling arrest may be one of the latest installments in a dangerous and underreported global trend: transnational repression.
The news of Rusesabagina’s arrest was especially stunning given that he had left the country in 1996, like thousands of other Rwandans who chafed at the brutal police state led by President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which brooks no democratic discussion, much less opposition. Rwandan authorities did not reveal how Rusesabagina came to be in custody, except to say that he was brought to Rwanda through “international cooperation.”
His family has indicated that although he had Belgian citizenship and lived in the U.S. with a green card, he had last been in touch from Dubai on the Thursday before Rwanda’s announcement. CNN has since reported that he had traveled from the UAE to Rwanda via private jet on Friday, mere hours after his last contact with family. The UAE itself denied any role in his detention. That Rusesabagina would have traveled to Rwanda willingly seems unlikely; the fact he was incommunicado from Friday to the announcement of his arrest on Monday also raises suspicions.
Rusesabagina’s appearance in Rwanda looks quite a lot like a flagrant case of transnational repression, or the targeting of exiles and diasporas by their origin countries’ governments. Transnational repression is a widespread tool of authoritarian regimes, which face what the scholar Gerasimos Tsourapas has called the “illiberal paradox”: they want to control their populations’ political and civic activities, but they must allow migration so as to earn remittance revenue, reduce unemployment, and cope with overpopulation. Transnational repression enables these states to maintain a grip on citizens after they leave.
Transnational repression thrives in the nooks and crannies of the existing international order, with its ubiquitous digital communications and tracking technologies, and its dense webs of finance, criminality, mobility, and intelligence. Dubai is an important hub for such connections for Central Africa, as for many other regions of the world, and if Rusesabagina was taken from there, he would not be the first. The Emirati city has been the site of numerous kidnappings, forced deportations, and even assassinations by state actors from Israel to Russia and Central Asia.
The international legal regimes governing mobility provide a ready conduit for transnational repression. Authoritarian states have found it easy and effective first to manipulate the international warning system INTERPOL to detain dissidents in transit outside their borders, and then to use bribery, coercion, or diplomatic suasion to have the detainees transferred into their custody. The fact that we still do not know what process preceded Rusesabagina’s appearance in Rwanda itself raises questions about its legality. If the UAE did play a role, despite its denials, the Rwandan state’s established record of employing torture against dissidents should have precluded any handover. Kagame denied that Rusesabagina was kidnapped, but conflictingly suggested that Rwanda lured Rusesabagina into what amounted to a trap, saying, “It was actually flawless.” That his family had no knowledge of his detention until the August 31 announcement, and has not been able to communicate with him since then, indicates that he received no access to counsel before he was taken into custody. In light of these apparent rights violations and others, on Monday Rusesabagina’s lawyers filed an urgent appeal to the UN special rapporteur on torture requesting immediate intervention. Pending further information, Rusesabagina’s case looks more like an abduction than a lawful extradition.
The groundwork for such an operation was no doubt well prepared. Rwandan exiles in countries as far-flung as Uganda, Canada, Australia, Belgium, and the United States have reported intense fear of surveillance and retribution by the RPF. Sweden and South Africa have expelled Rwandan diplomats for these very activities. Just in the last several years, Rwandan exiles have been targeted with sophisticated spyware purchased from the Israeli company NSO Group and forcibly transferred from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There have also been high-profile assassinations and mysterious deaths over the span of decades. Former interior minister Seth Sendashonga was shot to death in Kenya in 1998. On January 1, 2014, Patrick Karegeya, a former spy chief who had fled the country and gone into opposition, was murdered in a Johannesburg hotel. Kagame himself has publicly endorsed these attacks. The week after Karegeya’s murder, he gave a speech stating that “no one will betray Rwanda and get away with it.”
In its announcement, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau accused Rusesabagina of terrorism. After leaving Rwanda in 1996 following threats on his life, Rusesabagina became active in opposition politics. Like many others who dared to question Paul Kagame and the RPF, he faced smears and threats even while abroad. He seems to have become more radical over time as Paul Kagame’s intense and often violent control over the political system has ossified. More recently, he has assumed a leading role in the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), which has an armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). There are allegations that in recent years Rusesabagina had endorsed armed struggle against the RPF, and the Rwandan government held the FLN responsible for attacks in Rwanda in 2018.
Even an accusation of terrorism does not remove the requirement that Rusesabagina be afforded due process before being transferred to Rwandan custody. If Rwanda wants its accusations taken seriously, and if it has credible evidence of terrorism, it should have worked to have Rusesabagina extradited through a normal legal process. It should allow Rusesabagina full access to legal counsel of his choosing, and the chance to challenge any charges against him in an independent court of law.
While transnational repression is becoming more common, supporters of democracy should not allow it to be normalized. An environment in which exiled dissidents disappear and ordinary emigrants live in fear would not just eliminate the possibility of refuge from repressive regimes. It would also contribute to a broader breakdown in international law and order, creating a world of borderless persecution in which spies and assassins dispatched by tyrants prowl the globe untrammeled by borders or domestic laws.
Such a world is closer than we think, as many of the culprits hold outsized sway in the international community. Kagame’s Rwanda has long been a darling of the global development community, Saudi Arabia is a privileged partner of the United States, and China’s intercontinental influence continues to grow. If policymakers remain blind to transnational repression, our globalized future will undoubtedly include more cases like Rusesabagina’s.