Why a foreign diplomat spied on a San Antonio university’s Zoom class

St. Mary’s University gets uninvited guest during Zoom classroom discussion about Rwandan genocide

SAN ANTONIO – During a recent Tuesday night Zoom classroom discussion at St. Mary’s University, Bill Israel, an associate professor of communication studies, began his class on the topic of the arrest and trial of Paul Rusesabagina.

Rusesabagina saved 1,268 people during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that left around 800,000 people dead in 100 days. He was the focus of the 2004 feature film “Hotel Rwanda.” He received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom while he was living in San Antonio but is currently jailed on terrorism charges in the African country.

It was a massacre that quickly unfolded in front of the entire world while France, according to a Washington law firm in a study released two weeks ago, did nothing to prevent or stop a foreseeable genocide while it worked closely with the Rwandan government.

As the St. Mary’s professor began speaking online, he was unaware that the audience included at least one uninvited guest.

CLASSROOM INTRUDER

On April 6, exactly 27 years after the genocide began, the St. Mary’s classroom discussion began on Rusesabagina. Soon, attendees noticed an intruder.

The person logged on under the name “Charles Ntageruka” but was then booted from the Zoom call after the professor’s repeated attempts to have the individual identify themselves went unanswered. The intruder then returned, using only initials as a name and listened to the class discussion, which spanned almost two hours, in silence.

Members in the Zoom call included Tresor Rusesabagina, one of Paul Rusesabagina’s sons and a current student at St. Mary’s University. Also giving a presentation that night was Anaise Kanimba, the niece of Paul and his wife, Taciana. They adopted Anaise after her parents were killed during the 1994 genocide.

”I had heard the stories of how the Rwandan government was spying on the Rusesabagina family, but I did not expect it to happen in our own classroom,” said Noah Riehle, a St. Mary’s University student, in an interview with KSAT 12 News.

“This was an ordinary class, international communication. I had no idea we would end up in this place,” Israel told KSAT.

The St. Mary’s University IT department determined that the intruder used the same IP address to enter the Zoom classroom both times, under different names.

Professor Israel immediately researched the name used by the uninvited guest and found a profile with the same name — Charles Ntageruka, the second counselor at the Rwanda Embassy in Washington D.C.

“Appalled and then immediately defensive for my students,” Israel responded when asked how he felt when identifying the intruder. “I was not about to put up with my students feeling they were in danger.”

Israel added that he has no doubts that the Rusesabagina family is being spied on in the United States.

“We realized that this Rwandan man was someone who has followed my dad in the past in San Antonio,” Kanimba said. “We were very worried that he was in the class and listening to our conversation. I couldn’t believe that they had followed us all the way to San Antonio, that they would break into a student’s class.”

The incident was reported to the FBI by Israel. Neither the FBI nor the Department of State, which is also aware of the incident, would comment on the matter.

”Having this happen shows we are doing something, and it’s making the Rwandan government nervous,” said Riehle. “They felt the need to spy on us, so it was scary but for me, I think we are making a difference.”

The class discussion included learning more about Paul’s heroics in Rwanda, his current arrest and trial in Rwanda on terrorism charges and how to work toward getting his release from jail through diplomacy.

FILE - In this May 23, 1994 file photo, a Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel walks by the the site of an April 6 plane crash which killed Rwanda's President Juvenal Habyarimana in Kigali, Rwanda. A commission that spent nearly two years uncovering France's role in 1994's Rwandan genocide concluded Friday, March 26, 2021 that the country reacted too slowly in appreciating the extent of the horror that left over 800,000 dead and bears "heavy and overwhelming responsibilities" in the drift that led to the killings, but cleared the country of any complicity in the slaughter that mainly targeted Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic minority. (AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju, File) (AP1994)

1994 GENOCIDE

The world began to know Paul thanks to his heroic efforts during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Rusesabagina was working at the Hotel des Mille Collines in the capital of Kigali when President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed as his plane was shot down on April 6. The Hutu-majority government blamed the Tutsis-minority for the assassination, and the genocide began the following day. In the end, more than 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days, most of them Tutsis.

Rusesabagina saved 1,268 people — many of whom were in the Tutsi minority — in the hotel he worked at by convincing Hutu soldiers to stay away and not harm the guests. Every single person that stayed at the hotel survived the genocide.

“My husband was where people saw him. He was protecting people. He saved as many as he could,” said Paul’s wife, Taciana, in an extremely rare on-camera interview with KSAT 12 last week. ”I used to say, ‘Those people were saved by God,’ but God used someone, and that became my husband, Paul.”

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2005 file photo, President Bush awards Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered people at a hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in the East Room of the White House, in Washington. Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in the film "Hotel Rwanda" as a hero who saved the lives of more than 1,200 people from the country's 1994 genocide, and is a well-known critic of President Paul Kagame, has been arrested by the Rwandan government on terror charges, police announced on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, File) (AP2005)

A HERO’S WELCOME

Two years after the genocide, Paul and his family left Rwanda as exiles, moving to Belgium and later to San Antonio, where he became a permanent United States resident.

In 2004, Hollywood put Paul’s story on the big screen with “Hotel Rwanda” starring Don Cheadle. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Sophie Okonedo) and Best Original Screenplay (Keir Pearson, Terry George).

The following year, President George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the nation’s highest honors for a civilian.

The success of the movie and presidential award turned Rusesabagina into a worldwide public speaker, telling audiences about his story from the genocide that occurred 27 years ago, advocating for human rights and teaching others to stand up to injustices when one sees them.

His newfound platform also became a stage to speak out against Rwanda’s current leader, President Paul Kagame.

FILE - In this Monday, April 8, 2019 file photo, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame answers questions from the media at a press conference at a convention center in the capital Kigali, Rwanda. A commission that spent nearly two years uncovering France's role in 1994's Rwandan genocide concluded Friday, March 26, 2021 that the country reacted too slowly in appreciating the extent of the horror that left over 800,000 dead and bears "heavy and overwhelming responsibilities" in the drift that led to the killings, but cleared the country of any complicity in the slaughter that mainly targeted Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic minority. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

RETALIATION

As Rusesabagina enjoyed success, Kagame grew furious.

Rusesabagina retold the horrible stories about the Rwanda genocide and he also spoke out against Kagame for his actions since he took office in 2000 and became a critic of his government. It was then that Kagame, who had once praised the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” began a campaign to harass and intimidate the Rusesabaginas, the family said.

”When my dad would give speeches, he had to wear bulletproof jackets for fear what could happen to him,” explained Anaise. “Everywhere he would go, people from the Rwandan Embassy were sent to be his hecklers, to say what he said is false and to disturb and terrorize the people who invited my father.”

Kagame has been praised in many parts of the world for how Rwanda has transformed in two decades. Rwanda has improved in many ways, including the economy, education, health services and the classifying of people as either Hutu or Tutsis is a thing of the past.

Kagame is a man who does not shy away from the cameras and knows how to address the media. Kagame has made positive impressions around the globe and made friends with powerful allies in the United States.

”The regime of President Kagame has been ingenious in using public relations to lead the West by the nose, to defraud journalists and academics, to paint a different picture than the reality of what’s going on in Rwanda,” Israel said. “The aim of the regime seems to brutally suppress descent, if not to eliminate them.”

At the same time, Kagame has been accused of being an authoritarian leader in a country where he won his last election with 99% of the vote in 2017. He has also treated political opponents and colleagues that fell out of favor with assault, imprisonment, exile and even execution in both Rwanda and abroad. It’s those actions that make outspoken Rwandans, both in-country and around the world, feel unsafe.

“When we lived in Belgium, the (Rwandan) government was following us. Our house was broken into many times,” Anaise said. “Even the (Rwandan) ambassador moved his residence right behind our house, so we knew we were being watched. We came here in a safe place, and even in this safe place, we cannot be anymore.”

“The fear that we have is we don’t know where we can be safe,” she continued.

SMOKING GUNS?

Rusesabagina went from hero to exile to opponent of President Paul Kagame. At one point in 2017, he became the head of the opposition group Rwanda Movement of Democratic Change, known by its French acronym MRCD and its military wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Both are based outside of Rwanda in neighboring Congo and Burundi.

It was during this time that Rwanda accused Paul of funding and leading a rebel group that carried out deadly attacks in the country in 2018. Toward the end of that year, Paul also made an address stating that political means to bring change in Rwanda had failed, and it was time to “use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina has said his involvement in the MRCD was more political and diplomatic, not related to terror and violence. He’s denied any knowledge of the events leading up to the deadly attacks inside the Rwandan border that year.

THE PLOT FOR PAUL’S RETURN TO RWANDA

The plan to trick Rusesabagina back into Rwanda came at the hands of a pastor he met four years ago, according to ABC News.

Paul was headed from Chicago to Dubai on August 26, where he would then board another plane that would take him to Burundi, where he thought he would speak at churches led by Pastor Constantin Niyomwungere, according to the New York Times. The pastor started working with the Rwandan Investigation Bureau after he claimed Rusesabagina admitted in a conversation that the FLN carried out deadly attacks in Rwanda.

After boarding the private jet in Dubai with Niyomwungere, Paul was flown directly to the Rwandan capitol of Kigali instead of Burundi. Once off the plane, Paul was arrested, tortured for three days and has been held in solitary confinement since late August.

“He said he would call me on Friday. I waited, and he didn’t call,” said Taciana, before she learned her husband had been arrested. “I waited Saturday, no call. Then Monday morning, someone called me from France and told me that Paul was in Kigali. I was scared because I’ve been waiting for his call three or four days. It was scary to us. I can’t tell you how I was at that time.”

President Kagame has called the plan to capture and return Rusesabagina to the country “flawless,” while Rwanda’s spy chief has called it “a wonderful operation.” Human Rights Watch believes this incident violates international law.

Paul said he was tricked into boarding a plane headed to Rwanda. His family calls it a kidnapping.

“He was brought to Kigali against his will,” said Anaise. “I still can’t believe it. He was taken by these people who have wanted to hurt him for many years.”

Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" and is credited with saving more than 1,000 people by sheltering them at the hotel he managed during the genocide, stands before the judge as he attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. The judge on Friday rejected Rusesabagina's argument in his terrorism trial that a court there cannot try him because he is no longer a citizen. (AP Photo/Muhizi Olivier) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TRIAL IN RWANDA

Rusesabagina stands accused of 13 counts related to terrorism, including funding terrorist organizations, forming a rebel group and murder. He has stopped attending the hearings of his own trial and has stated he does not expect any justice from the court. At the same time, he has not had access to his own lawyers, nor has he been able to review any legal documents related to his trial.

”Paul has made a determination that this was a ‘kangaroo court’ in a sham trial,” Israel said. “All his rights have been deprived even now, where his lawyers are deprived to visit with him freely. He’s fearful even for his lawyers.”

Another reason for Rusesabagina’s skepticism of a fair trial in Rwanda is the main witness being used by the prosecution. American academic Michelle Martin stated before the court in March that she had evidence in the form of e-mails that Paul was financing the activities carried out by the MRCD and FLN.

Martin also admitted in her three hours of testimony that she had a contract with Rwanda as a paid government agent in 2013. She was registered in the United States as a foreign agent and her paperwork can still be seen on the U.S. Department of Justice website.

If convicted, Rusesabagina could be in jail for 20-25 years.

“My father’s lawyers are being searched before they can go speak to him,” explained Anaise. “They are not even allowed to bring in their own computers or files. He’s not allowed to read anything. We try to see how his health is doing, but it’s very difficult. They don’t give him his medication.”

Paul is standing trial along with 20 others for crimes of terrorism against Rwanda.

On Thursday, the former senior member of the FLN who is also standing trial, Herman Nsengimana, told the court that Rusesabagina “did not give orders to FLN fighters,” according to a report from the Agence France-Presse (AFP). Nsengimana denied ever having any meetings or interactions with Rusesabagina.

During the start of the trial, another defendant, Callixte Nsabimana, stated Rusesabagina did give orders to the MRCD and FLN.

EFFORTS FOR FREEDOM

Family, friends and colleagues of Paul Rusesabagina continue to call upon the Biden Administration and members of Congress to intervene and urge the release of Paul by the Rwandan government.

“I pray for the day I can see him again,” said Anaise. “We are very thankful of the support of the United States government and the EU Parliament so far. We believe if we continue working with them, maybe we can get to a place where Kagame will release my father on humanitarian grounds.”

“I believe in a God, and Kagame knows my husband is not a terrorist,” added Taciana. “I think one day he will be with us.”

If you would like more information, visit the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation website and search for #FreeRusesabagina on social media.

Daniel P. Villanueva has worked with KSAT 12 for over 17 years and is an award-winning producer. To submit story ideas, email dvillanueva@ksat.com


About the Authors:

Daniel P. Villanueva has been with KSAT 12 since 2003 and is the producer of our weekly sports show, "Instant Replay." Villanueva is a graduate of St. Mary's University and is a TAPB and Lone Star Emmy award winner.