Editor’s Note: Carine and Anaïse Kanimba are the adopted daughters of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own. See more opinion on CNN.
Our father, Paul Rusesabagina, is a hero.
He rescued us from a refugee camp in Rwanda after our biological parents were killed during the 1994 genocide and raised us as his own. We – Carine, who had one at the time, and Anaïse, who had two – were saved, in addition to the 1,268 lives he saved by protecting inside a hotel during the genocide.
His story was told in the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda”, and he received several awards for his bravery and humanitarian work.
Over the years, he has become one of the most vocal critics of Rwanda’s longtime president Paul Kagame. Then, in August 2020, our father – now a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the US – was kidnapped by the Rwandan government and has since been in prison on false charges for over 650 days.
Now, as representative heads of state, including the Prince of Wales, descend on Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Monday, they must not turn a blind eye to the host nation’s human rights violations.
While it is sad that the CHOGM is being held this year in a country that does not adhere to the fundamental values and principles of the Commonwealth, we should see this as an opportunity to clarify the lack of democracy in Rwanda.
Our family is asking Prince Charles not to be silent about this reality and not to shake hands with the tyrant who holds our father a political prisoner.
The United Nations, the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the International Bar Association and many others have publicly stated that our father is only in prison because he spoke out against a government that does not accept any criticism.
The United States recently branded our father an “unfair detainee,” noting the massive irregularities in his capture and trial.
Rwanda lacks freedom of expression, a core value of the Commonwealth of Nations and a right my father was arrested for exercising. There is also no democracy, freedom of association or the right to participate in opposition political parties in Rwanda.
Kagame “won” two elections with more than 98% of the vote in 2017 and 93% in 2010 and may run for decades after changes to the Constitution in a controversial 2015 referendum. Critics are regularly harassed, brutalized, tortured, imprisoned, exiles either disappeared or died under suspicious circumstances.
This includes both political opponents and former regime members who are seen as potential threats. Rwanda is a government that rules only for Kagame and a small elite.
Our father is also one of many victims of Rwanda’s practice of transnational repression, a tactic typically used by Russia, China and Iran, where a government crosses borders to silence critics. In addition to my father’s case, Rwandan officials and agents harass and intimidate opponents in other countries, including the US, UK and Europe.
Our father was kidnapped nearly two years ago, lured from our home in San Antonio, Texas, through Dubai, where he was taken to board a flight to Kigali. A Rwandan government agent, posing as a bishop, asked our father to come to Burundi and speak to religious groups about reconciliation. Having boarded a plane in Dubai hoping to fly to Burundi, he was drugged, waking up only to find he had landed in Kigali, Rwanda – a place he would never voluntarily return to.
Upon arrival, he was tortured for four days and forced to make a false confession, which was then used as “evidence” against him. He did not have access to a lawyer of his choice. He was forced to endure solitary confinement for 250 days, in violation of UN Nelson Mandela rules, which characterize imprisonment of more than 15 days in solitary confinement as torture.
And he was subjected to what international monitors agree is a mock trial, with no credible evidence presented that he was involved in any way in the terrorism-related crimes he was accused of.
The Rwandan government has rejected all criticism of these processes, claiming incredibly that it acted in a manner consistent with international law.
Even more painful is that governments like the UK continue to partner with the Rwandan regime, including in the scheme to offshore vulnerable asylum seekers to Rwanda. It is not surprising that the British government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Rwanda’s widespread human rights abuses is garnering massive opposition from the Church, civil society and all who care about the plight of those fleeing for a better life.
Now our father has been sentenced to 25 years in prison, which will be a life sentence for a man who turned 68 last week. Our only wish for his birthday is to bring him home safely to us. He is a cancer survivor with hypertension whose health is deteriorating while he is incarcerated. His current symptoms, including a weak right arm and facial paralysis, indicate he may have had one or more strokes while in prison, but these are not treated.
While it is still incomprehensible to us, and to so many victims of the Rwandan regime around the world, that Rwanda was given the privilege of hosting the CHOGM this year, its presence in Kigali also offers a unique opportunity.
The Prince of Wales and other CHOGM leaders may choose to focus on their shared values and principles and put pressure on members who do not uphold these values in practice to do so. This includes Kagame’s Rwanda. Although Prince Charles is not a political figure, he may seek dialogue behind closed doors, or even ask to visit our father.
Rwanda has many friends in the CHOGM, both countries and individuals, and we ask the Prince of Wales and all the other leaders gathered to not be silent and ask Kagame to provide our father with a compassionate release now, before it is too late.
Our father saved us in 1994. We ask the international community to take this opportunity to save him.