In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Paul Kagame and other top government officials to express American concerns about the ongoing trial of imprisoned dissident Paul Rusesabagina.
Kigali is Blinken’s last stop on a tour of sub-Saharan Africa designed to retake the diplomatic initiative across a continent that has received little attention from the Trump administration.
In 2021, a group of criminals from Dubai tricked US permanent resident Rusesabagina into boarding a private plane to Rwanda, where he has been imprisoned ever since. In the film, he is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. For his role in terrorist activities, he was given a life sentence plus 25 years.
Blinken, speaking at a press conference, said he had been clear about US concerns regarding Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction, specifically “the lack of fair trial guarantees.”
Blinken emphasized the importance of the government addressing concerns about the legal protections afforded to Rusesabagina and his case and establishing safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.
Because of rising regional instability and competition for influence from other powers across Africa, the United States is treading carefully as it seeks to strengthen its relationship with Kagame. The Rwandan government maintains that Rusesabagina was found guilty after a transparent trial and that any further international intervention is unacceptable.
Rwanda will “continue to abide by our laws and the decisions made by our judiciary,” Vincent Biruta, the country’s foreign minister, told reporters.
A daughter, Carine Rusesabagina, expressed the family’s gratitude to Blinken for coming to Rwanda from the DRC on Wednesday night to try to resolve their father’s detention.
Our father has been unlawfully detained and tortured… He’s had multiple strokes and is very sick. I get that there are political considerations at play, but at its heart, this is a human rights issue that calls for humanitarian attention in its own right. “It’s time to move on from the politics,” she declared.
My dad will get here before it’s too late, I just know it. It’s okay if diplomacy takes time; we get that. As a unit, we are making every effort to keep our courage and strength.
According to the US Department of State, Blinken will bring up democracy and human rights concerns with Rwandan officials, such as transnational repression and the lack of space for opposition.
Blinken told Kigali’s civil society representatives that their work, along with that of an independent media, is “at the heart of any democracy.”
According to the United States, Rusesabagina’s detention was “wrongful.”
Traveling to Rwanda at this time is especially risky for Blinken because of the rising instability in the east of the DRC, which Kinshasa attributes to support for rebel groups by Kigali.
According to a new report by UN experts, Rwandan armed forces have been conducting operations in eastern DRC in support of a rebel group known as M23, which has been blamed for much of the recent violence. Blinken has called this report “credible.”
In turn, Rwandan authorities accuse DRC of providing safe haven to ethnic Hutu fighters whom they hold responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Both governments insist they have done nothing to aid the rebels.
Uganda, a third player, has competed with Rwanda for years to be recognized as a major power in the region. The suppression of political dissent and western pressure to recognize LGBTQ+ rights have strained already tense relations with the United States in recent years. Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and has received massive amounts of aid from the West, has claimed that this aid has been used to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.
The Russian foreign minister went on a tour of four African countries last month to drum up support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Analysts say that Kagame is not wavering in his pro-western stance, but that the repression in Rwanda has made relations with the United States government more difficult.
In a letter to Blinken last month, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed his concern that US support for Rwanda, which has been widely described as authoritarian and repressive by human rights groups, was not in line with the values of the United States.
Blinken, on his tour, has laid out the United States’ new policy toward sub-Saharan African countries, which involves treating them as “equal partners.”
In a South African speech aimed at rebutting Russian and Chinese claims that the United States is a “neo-imperialist power” that wants to dictate to African countries, Blinken stressed several times that the United States was interested in working with African leaders and communities to build on their own initiatives.
Blinken said in Pretoria, “This is not our demand or insistence on democracy, it is what people in Africa want, it is clear in poll after poll, they want openness, they want it on an individual basis, as communities, and to choose their own path [as nations].”
An initiative begun by the Obama administration but allowed to lapse during Donald Trump’s presidency will culminate in a summit meeting between American and African leaders in December. In the middle of 2023, Russia plans to host its own summit that will be in direct competition with the Western one.
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