Conflicting claims swirl around treatment of Paul Rusesabagina in Rwandan prison; his family in San Antonio alleges abuse

Family of “Hotel Rwanda” hero tells KSAT 12 he is not receiving food or water while on trial; Rwandan government denies claim

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, speaks to lawyers 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) (Muhizi Olivier, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – While the trial in Rwanda for Paul Rusesabagina has continued without him for almost three months, his family in San Antonio says he is no longer receiving water or food and has been cut off from communicating with them.

The Rwandan and United States government tell a different story, though, leaving unanswered questions about the high-profile case of a hero accused of terrorism.

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Rusesabagina, who rose to fame after his actions to save dozens of lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide became the focus of the feature film “Hotel Rwanda,” is facing terrorism charges in his home country.

Rusesabagina, who is a United States resident and had been living in San Antonio with his family, denies the charges and claims they are a product of political persecution because of his criticism of Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

On Friday, during his weekly communication with his family through a prison phone, Rusesabagina stated he would no longer be given food, water and medicine by the prison, starting on Saturday. His weekly communication with his family was also to end, the family claims in a statement released last week.

According to the New York Times, the 66-year-old is a cancer survivor with cardiovascular issues.

They believe the alleged move by Rwandan officials is an effort to get Rusesabagina to return to his trial, which he has not attended since mid-March, stating he did not expect a fair trial.

KSAT 12 News confirmed with Rusesabagina’s international legal team on Tuesday that lawyers did visit with him this week, and that he stated he was being provided food and water but only once per day.

Previously, the prison provided Rusesabagina with three meals and three bottles of water per day. That’s been decreased to at least one meal per day with water, the attorneys said.

On Saturday, the Rwanda Correctional Services posted two messages on Twitter denying any abuse of Rusesabagina. The messages stated that all inmates are treated equally and that Rusesabagina “is currently provided the same meals as the other inmates & has access to a medical doctor whenever required.”

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The Rusesabagina family has previously stated that Paul has been held in solitary confinement since his capture last August. Those conditions changed last month when Paul was moved to a cell with other inmates, according to an ABC News article published in May.

KSAT 12 News has learned that the United States Ambassador to Rwanda, Peter Vrooman, has personally attended some of Rusesabagina’s trial proceedings, and, in other cases, members of his office have also attended.

On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Department of State told KSAT 12 News in a statement that they are in communication with Rwandan authorities and that Rusesabagina has access to food and water.

Rusesabagina’s rise to fame turned political in recent years. Rusesabagina 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. In 2018, the FLN carried out deadly attacks in Rwanda. Rusesabagina denies having prior knowledge of the attacks.

In August 2020, Rusesabagina left San Antonio and flew to Chicago, then to Dubai. He then met with an associate and boarded a private plane, thinking it was headed to Burundi where he would speak at several churches.

Instead, the plane - chartered by Rwanda, according to an interview in Al Jazeera - flew to Kigali, Rwanda, where Rusesabagina was arrested. Rusesabagina’s family believes Paul was tricked onto the plane and that his arrest violates international law.

President Paul Kagame has responded to the critcism of Rwanda’s treatment of Rusesabagina including the way he was captured. Three weeks ago, President Kagame gave an interview to France 24 saying, “I don’t see why people make a lot of noise. He is in a court of law. He is not being hidden somewhere.”

In response to a question on how Rusesabagina ended up in Rwanda, President Kagame said, “What’s wrong with tricking a criminal you are looking for? When you get him, where do you put him? If it is in a court of law, I think that’s okay.”

“I want to see a fair trial myself,” added President Kagame in response to questions about the fairness of Rusesabagina’s trial. “Why do you think being fair belongs to Europe or U.S. or anybody and not for us?”

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.)

Rusesabagina is currently on trial on terrorism charges against Rwanda and could possibly spend the rest of his life in prison if found guilty. Rusesabagina’s legal team believe their only move at this point is to urge the Rwandan government for Paul’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds.

Rusesabagina’s trial is expected to resume on June 16.

Read more about Rusesabagina on KSAT:

About the Author:

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.