Articles

Activist Paul Rusesabagina, Represented by the Firm in U.S. Lawsuit, Freed by Rwandan Government

April 25, 2023

By Kate Fitzgerald
Shareholder Advocate Spring 2023

The government of Rwanda announced on March 24 via The New York Times that Paul Rusesabagina, famed “Hotel Rwanda” human rights activist, political dissident, and winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, had been released from prison after two and a half years. His release came amid U.S. government negotiations and a week after a federal lawsuit brought by his family, whose legal team includes two Cohen Milstein attorneys, was allowed to proceed.

Renowned for his heroic role in sheltering more than 1,200 Tutsis at the luxury hotel he managed in the city of Kigali during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which became the subject of the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” Rusesabagina, 68, became an outspoken critic of the increasingly autocratic leadership of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. His political dissent did not go unnoticed.

As alleged in the family’s U.S. federal complaint, in 2020, Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the United States, was invited to Burundi to speak at churches and with civic leaders about his experiences during the 1994 genocide. He left his home in San Antonio, Texas for a routine trip. While flying to his destination, he was kidnapped. His flight was redirected to Rwanda, where he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to a sham trial, which resulted in a 25-year prison sentence—essentially, a life sentence, given his age and history of cancer.

As alleged in the family’s U.S. federal complaint, in 2020, Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and permanent resident of the United States, was invited to Burundi to speak at churches and with civic leaders about his experiences during the 1994 genocide. He left his home in San Antonio, Texas for a routine trip. While flying to his destination, he was kidnapped. His flight was redirected to Rwanda, where he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to a sham trial, which resulted in a 25-year prison sentence—essentially, a life sentence, given his age and history of cancer.

The United States was engaged in diplomatic efforts to free Paul Rusesabagina, and formally declared him “wrongfully detained” under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act.

At the same time, his wife and six children enlisted the services of an international legal team of human rights lawyers, including Agnieszka Fryszman and Nicholas Jacques of Cohen Milstein.

On February 22, 2022, his family filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the government of Rwanda, President Kagame, and three high-ranking Rwandan officials who planned the kidnapping, alleging the illegal surveillance of the Rusesabagina family, misrepresentation, false imprisonment, and other violations of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), and Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA).

On March 16, 2023, the Court held that the plaintiffs’ claims could move forward against the three Rwandan officials: Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, the Secretary General of Rwandan National Intelligence and Security Services (RNISS); Colonel Jeannot Ruhunga, the head of the Rwandan Investigative Bureau (RIB); and Johnston Busingye, then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Rwanda.

One week later, after extensive negotiations with the United States, Rwanda commuted Rusesabagina’s sentence. On March 29, 2023, after two-and-a-half years in captivity, he returned home to his family in the United States.

While nobody outside the Rwandan government can know what tipped the balance in its decision, some observers have given credit to the U.S. litigation, in which the judge had just ruled that defendants could not shield themselves through sovereign immunity.

As detailed by William S. Dodge, U.C. Davis Law professor and member of the Department of State’s Advisory Committee on International Law, in the Transnational Litigation Blog, on March 16,

According to news reports, the United States had been negotiating with Rwanda for months, attempting to secure Rusesabagina’s release. It is telling that the negotiations succeeded just a week after Judge Leon decided that the case could go forward. …the Rusesabagina case shows that human rights litigation can sometimes support rather than hinder U.S. diplomacy. We may never know precisely what finally convinced Rwanda to free Paul Rusesabagina. But the prospect of continuing litigation in U.S. courts and the possibility of ending that litigation must surely have influenced the Rwandan government.

Significantly the District Court found the government officials were not entitled to sovereign immunity and would have to respond to the litigation, including discovery and trial, in the District of Columbia.

The Court agreed with plaintiffs that the two officials from the RNISS and RIB were not entitled to immunity because they were not heads of state, heads of government, or foreign ministers. Nor were they Rwandan diplomats. The Court also determined that the third official, who is presently Rwanda’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, although a diplomat, was also not entitled to diplomatic immunity in United States courts given that his function was not affiliated with the United States.

Second, the Court held that the defendants’ conduct of illegally tapping Rusesabagina’s family phones in the United States and fraudulently inducing him to leave the United States on a trip he thought would take him to Burundi met the minimum contacts with the United States criteria to fulfill the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.

In addition to Cohen Milstein attorneys Fryszman and Jacques, the Rusesabagina family’s legal team included Steve Perles and Edward MacAllister from the Perles Law Firm and Brady Eaves of the Eaves Law Firm.

Cohen Milstein is delighted to have been of service to the Rusesabagina family. We are also appreciative of the industry recognition for our work, including being named to The American Lawyer’s Litigator of the Week—RunnersUp and Shout Outs.