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Rwandan courts will not protect refugees’ rights, say daughters of genocide hero

<span>Photograph: Kevin Fogarty/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kevin Fogarty/Reuters

The Rwandan legal system is incapable of protecting refugees sent from the UK, according to the daughters of Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda.

Carine and Anaïse Kanimba campaigned for more than two years to secure the release of their father, who was freed from a Kigali jail after three years of incarceration earlier this year, and they have detailed first-hand knowledge of the true nature of the Rwandan legal system.

Rusesabagina, a former hotelier, is credited with saving more than 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. He rose to fame after the 2004 Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda depicted his heroic acts.

UK ministers will soon present proposals strengthening the protections in government plans for the automatic deportation to Rwanda of any refugee entering the UK illegally. The supreme court earlier this month declared the scheme unlawful because there were insufficient guarantees that those deported to Rwanda would not be sent back to home countries where they fear persecution.

Ministers plan to upgrade a memorandum of understanding signed in 2022 with Rwanda into a legally binding treaty. The home secretary, James Cleverly, has said: “Rwanda is ready to receive thousands of people, process their claims, give them excellent care and then support them to integrate in Rwanda.” He added: “This is an African country full of potential and promise.”

Paul Rusesabagina in a suit and tie, handcuffed, wearing a face mask pulled down around his chin, in front of a sign saying ‘Rwanda Investigation Bureau’
Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered 1,200 people from the Rwandan genocide at his hotel in 1994, following his arrest in 2020. Photograph: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

But Anaïse Kanimba challenged this assessment. She said: “Our father’s trial demonstrated to the world that the Rwandan justice system lacks basic fair-trial protections and due process. Rwanda is a dictatorship in which the president is also the judge in the court of law.

“The justice system is not independent; it is used as a tool to further oppress people who are not in agreement with what the regime does. If refugees were to appeal against being mistreated in Rwanda, for instance, the last thing they should expect is fairness and due process.

“In our father’s trial, we also saw how the co-accused were abused by the government. In the trial, many complained of being hungry or having been mistreated when they were able to speak in court. Rather than being concerned about this, or even asking for further information on the mistreatment of defendants, the judges rushed to shut down their submissions.”

She challenged the UK government’s claim that Rwanda would be able to improve its procedures with the help of UK Home Office monitors, saying: “There has already been numerous years of training and international aid invested in Rwanda’s justice system, yet judges seem to be swayed by what the Rwandan president wants.”

The assessment was broadly shared in an April 2022 Foreign Office memo entitled Review of Asylum Processing: Rwanda, which was presented to the high court. Although the unnamed author said Rwanda was full of contradictions, he said: “The Rwandan legal system is not independent, is regularly interfered with and is politicised. Opposition/political cases do not receive a fair trial or support.”

To underline this point, the sisters claim their father’s release was not due to Rwanda’s legal system reaching a considered judgment but due to relentless external pressure, including the threat of sanctions specifically against Johnston Busingye, the longtime Rwandan justice minister who is now Rwanda’s high commissioner to London.

In June 2021, the Lantos Foundation, a US campaign group, sought sanctions from the US state department against Busingye without success. Then on 1 September, days before Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years, Busingye was selected to be Rwanda’s new envoy to London.

Rusesabagina had been found guilty by the court of moving beyond criticism of the regime to backing a rebel group that was behind deadly attacks in 2018 and 2019 in northern and southern parts of Rwanda.

The daughters criticised Busingye’s role in their father’s case, although he has defended his position. His planned appointment provoked expressions of concern from two MPs but the Foreign Office ultimately cleared it in March 2022, one month before the UK-Rwanda asylum partnership memorandum was published.

The Home Office had – on the basis of what the supreme court described as desk-based research and two brief visits in January and March 2022 – concluded that Rwanda was safe for asylum seekers, contradicting a Foreign Office official.

Remarkably, the two Home Office fact-finding visits were held as a UN working group published a report condemning Rusesabagina’s treatment during his imprisonment, including his being drugged, mistreated in jail and being denied a lawyer of his choosing.

The trial drew global attention and was described as self-evidently “illegal” by the Clooney Foundation, the campaign group led by the lawyer Amal Clooney and her husband, George Clooney. Rusesabagina eventually refused to participate in the trial process.

Anaïse Kanimba argues that the evidence assessed by the supreme court about Rwanda’s asylum procedures, combined with her father’s treatment, shows that basic tenets of judicial fairness cannot exist in Rwanda and cannot be superimposed on a country through a treaty signed in the UK in return for money.

“There can be no oversight or accountability, since Rwanda is a dictatorship,” she said.