The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has raised US concerns about the trial of the jailed dissident Paul Rusesabagina with Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and other senior Rwandan officials during a visit to the capital Kigali.
Blinken is in Kigali on the last stop of a tour of sub-Saharan Africa that aims to regain the diplomatic initiative across a continent that received little attention under the Trump administration.
Rusesabagina, a permanent resident of the US who was portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda saving the lives of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, has been in prison in Rwanda since being tricked on to a private plane from Dubai in 2021. He is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences.
Speaking at a press conference, Blinken said he had been clear about US misgivings related to Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction, particularly “the lack of fair trial guarantees”.
“We continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to [Rusesabagina] and his case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future,” Blinken said.
The issue is delicate for the US, which is seeking to reinforce its relationship with Kagame amid growing regional instability and competition for influence from other powers across the continent. Rwandan officials insist Rusesabagina has been convicted at a fair trial and that any foreign interference will be unwelcome.
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, told reporters Rwanda would “continue to abide by our laws and the decisions made by our judiciary”.
Carine Rusesabagina, a daughter, said the 68-year-old’s family was very grateful that Blinken, who arrived in Rwanda on Wednesday evening from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was seeking a solution to their father’s detention.
“Our father has been wrongfully detained, tortured … he is sick, he has had multiple strokes,” she said.
“I know the geopolitical factors are important but this is a human rights issue that requires humanitarian attention separate from the political issues at play. We are past the politics now.
“I know that my father will come home before it is too late. We understand that diplomacy can take time. We are doing our best to stay strong and brave as a family.”
The US state department has said Blinken will raise democracy and human rights concerns with Rwandan officials, including transnational repression and the limited space for opposition.
At a meeting with civil society representatives in Kigali, Blinken said their work, and that of an independent media, were “at the heart of any democracy”.
The US has determined that Rusesabagina was “wrongfully detained”.
Blinken is travelling to Rwanda at a particularly difficult time for Africa’s Great Lakes region, with rising instability in the east of DRC that Kinshasa blames on support for rebel groups by Kigali.
Blinken has described as “credible” a new report by United Nations experts stating that Rwanda’s armed forces were conducting operations in eastern DRC in support of a rebel group known as M23 that has been blamed for much recent violence.
Rwandan authorities in turn accuse DRC of giving refuge to ethnic Hutu fighters blamed by Kigali for Rwanda’s genocide. Both countries deny the charges of backing rebel groups.
A third actor is Uganda, which has long vied for influence with Rwanda in the region. Although once close to the US, the relationship has soured in recent years over the crushing of political dissent and western pressure to recognise LGBTQ+ rights. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986 and the recipient of huge sums of western aid, has accused the west of interfering in domestic affairs.
Last month, the Russian foreign minister visited Uganda and three other countries in Africa to rally support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
There is no sign that Kagame is reconsidering his pro-western stance but repression in Rwanda complicates the relationship with Washington, analysts said.
The chair of the US Senate foreign relations committee in a letter to Blinken last month called for a comprehensive review of US policy toward Rwanda and noted his concern that US support for Rwanda, widely described by human rights groups as authoritarian and repressive, was not in line with the country’s values.
On his tour, Blinken has outlined Washington’s new strategy for engaging with sub-Saharan African nations as “equal partners.”
In a speech in South Africa that sought to counter Russian and Chinese accusations that the US was a “neo-imperialist power” that wanted to dictate to African countries, Blinken repeatedly stressed that Washington wanted to act in consultation with local leaders and communities, reinforcing existing African initiatives.
“This is not our demand or insistence on democracy, it’s what people in Africa want, it’s 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],” Blinken said in Pretoria.
In December, the US will host a summit meeting for African leaders, an Obama administration initiative that lapsed during Donald Trump’s term in office. Russia will hold a rival summit in mid-2023.