/ 8 November 2022

Rwanda fed false intelligence to US and Interpol as it pursued political dissidents abroad

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Convicted individuals are delivered to the Court of Appeal by wardens from the Rwanda Correctionnal Services (RCS) in Rwandan capital, Kigali on April 4, 2022. (Photo by Simon WOHLFAHRT / AFP)

When Paul Rusesabagina left his Texas home in August 2020, he believed he was travelling to the East African country of Burundi for a speaking tour. But in Dubai, the human rights activist was diverted onto a private plane, flown to his native Rwanda, and detained on dubious terrorism charges.

In an interview with The Guardian, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame described the operation that lured his 68-year-old critic out of the US as “flawless”.

The elaborate kidnapping plot that entrapped Rusesabagina sparked international outrage; the world knew him as the subject of the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, which feted him for saving the lives of more than 1 000 people who sought refuge in the hotel he managed during the country’s 1994 genocide.

It was only the latest in a decades-long crusade of harassment, threats, assassination attempts and smear campaigns orchestrated by the Rwandan regime, according to a lawsuit filed by the Rusesabagina family in a Washington, DC, court.

For years, Rwandan dissidents have claimed that Kagame has used unscrupulous tactics to go after his foreign-based critics — including filing false charges and abusing the Interpol red notice arrest warrant system, a policy that Freedom House calls “transnational repression”. Prominent dissidents have been assassinated in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique.

Now, a classified FBI report obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) confirms that US law enforcement has long known of Rwandan intelligence operations against civilians on its soil, including the targeting of Rusesabagina, a US permanent resident, as early as 2011. 

The report also reveals the US government knew as early as 2015 that agents of the Rwandan government had repeatedly attempted to mislead and co-opt US law enforcement to target Kagame’s critics.

Despite this, the US government is Rwanda’s largest bilateral donor, with $147-million handed over to Kigali in fiscal year 2021.

‘Poison pen information’

Written in the build-up to Kagame’s re-election to a third seven-year term, the 2015 FBI report warned American diplomats that Rwanda was using its intelligence services to spread disinformation in the US about Rwandan asylum seekers and opposition members. 

Its tactics included “providing poison pen [intentionally false or misleading] information to US law enforcement agencies concerning alleged criminal violations through the use of double agents, as well as attempting to manipulate US government immigration law and the Interpol Red Notice System”, the report noted.

The FBI report said a number of dissidents were targeted, including Rusesabagina. 

In 2011, nine years before he was kidnapped, the Rwandan government made a formal request to US authorities to investigate Rusesabagina for his alleged support of militants in Central Africa.

This was a common allegation against the regime’s detractors. Between 2012 and 2014 the FBI investigated people affiliated with the US-based Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an anti-Kagame opposition group, after the Rwandan government alleged that it was supporting Central African terrorists but found no evidence of criminal activity.

The FBI report said its investigations were “consistently hindered” by Rwandan intelligence services “operating double-agents in the United States who were providing misinformation to investigating agents”.

Rwandan intelligence services sought to use an intermediary to plant “derogatory information” that would discredit RNC members, with the goal of getting them deported, the FBI report said. The intermediary confessed to working on some 40 individual cases. 

The person also provided false information alleging that RNC officials were plotting to kill Kagame in 2011 while he was on a visit to the US.

The FBI and US state department declined to comment. A Rwandan government spokesperson did not respond to questions.

Manipulation of Interpol

The Rwandan government also manipulated Interpol and its red notice system to get foreign law enforcement agencies to go after its targets.

Léopold Munyakazi, a former trade union official in Rwanda, moved to the US in 2004 and later taught French at a private liberal arts college in Maryland while waiting for political asylum.

The Rwandan government asked Interpol to issue red notices for him in 2006 and 2008 after he criticised the government, and US-based Rwandan diplomats and intelligence officials monitored Munyakazi’s activities between 2011 and 2013, according to the FBI report. 

But Rwanda’s allegations against Munyakazi were inconsistent, first claiming that the dissident was a member of the RNC, then saying he was wanted on charges related to the genocide.

US immigration authorities investigated Munyakazi and deported him in 2016 for suspected human rights violations, despite the fact that the 2015 FBI report said the investigation was “almost certainly” compromised by a Rwandan intelligence agent, and cast doubt on the allegations. 

In Rwanda, he faced trial on genocide charges and was sentenced to life in prison — only to be cleared of atrocities a year later and re-sentenced to nine years for “downplaying the genocide”, according to multiple media reports.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to questions.

Even senior officials can be targeted. Eugène Richard Gasana was Rwanda’s permanent representative to the United Nations until he disagreed with changes Kagame made to Rwanda’s Constitution in 2015 that cleared his way for a third term in power. 

Gasana knew he couldn’t return to his homeland and settled in New York, his lawyer told the OCCRP.

Soon he was being accused of supporting rebel groups. His lawyer told a New York court that the US investigated these allegations and did not find them credible, while an internal Interpol document about Gasana’s case indicated the policing body found the charges to be politically motivated.

Then, he was accused of rape by a Rwandan woman who had interned in his office at the UN several years earlier. New York law enforcement investigated the criminal complaint but did not find a basis on which to bring criminal charges, according to a subsequent Interpol investigation. The accuser is now suing Gasana in New York over the same allegations.

In 2020, Interpol issued a red notice when the Rwandan government recycled the same charges. Gasana challenged the notice, arguing that the charges were political. The internal Interpol review obtained by the OCCRP also concluded that there was “a predominant political dimension” to Rwanda’s case against Gasana, and that Interpol “may be perceived as facilitating politically motivated activities”.

“They manipulated Interpol. They snuck the arrest warrant into the system but we were able to get it deleted,” Gasana’s lawyer, Charles Kambanda, told the OCCRP. He’s now representing Gasana in the civil litigation in New York, and speculates that after the Rwandan government failed in its efforts to go after Gasana through law enforcement, its intention now “is probably to bankrupt him”.

Will Hayes, a lawyer at the law firm Kingsley Napley in the United Kingdom, who represents clients fighting extradition requests and challenging Interpol red notices, told the OCCRP the system is “open to abuse.”

“The effects of red notices are so onerous and significant compared to the ease with which they can be issued,” said Hayes. “This highlights the disparity between the power of the authorities that request them and the subject who then has to deal with the consequences.”

The minimum requirements for issuing a red notice are low, said Hayes. Although in theory the requesting country should be able to provide information demonstrating the accused’s participation in an offence, in reality, “as long as there is a valid arrest warrant and the person is sufficiently identified, it’ll go through”, he said.

To challenge a red notice, they must petition an Interpol commission, which meets four times a year and can take nine months to issue decisions.

In 2016, Enoch Ruhigira, a Rwandan living in New Zealand who was travelling to the UK, was detained in Germany on the basis of a red notice, even though it had already been deleted. 

Ruhigira, the head of presidential staff under the previous Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, had been accused by Kagame of genocide in 2004, but presented convincing evidence to the contrary and got the red notice against him rescinded in 2015. Still, he spent eight months in custody while the confusion was sorted out.

Interpol declined to comment.

‘You can run but you can’t hide’

Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front took power in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, which saw nearly one million members of the Tutsi ethnic group and their sympathisers murdered. Lauded for bringing peace and fast economic growth, his government has been embraced by Western allies for nearly three decades. But human rights organisations have documented numerous killings, disappearances, threats, attacks and forced returns under Kagame’s rule.

The RNC, an opposition group established in the US in 2010 by exiled former senior government officials, has drawn particular ire. RNC co-founder Patrick Karegeya, a former head of Rwandan intelligence, was murdered in a hotel room in South Africa in 2014. Co-founder Faustine Kayumba Nyamwasa, an ex-Rwandan army chief, has survived three assassination attempts.

“I am a high-profile target, but I’m safer than someone in Kigali [Rwanda’s capital] with similar thinking like me, Nyamwasa told the OCCRP. 

“We have our own way of getting to know what is intended,” Nyamwasa said, explaining how he has managed to stay alive. “But you cannot control everything.”

The Rwandan regime gets away with abductions, disappearances, and assassinations at home and in other African countries, where perpetrators can avoid justice by paying bribes, Nyamwasa said. In Europe and in the US, where there are stronger institutions and rule of law, Rwanda uses disinformation instead.

The disinformation and intelligence operations are run out of Rwanda’s embassies all over the world, according to former high-ranking security officials now living in exile.

Robert Higiro, a former major in the Rwandan army, says sometimes the operations are carried out by people posing as refugees who are actually working for the government. He said they “push aggressively” by telling the US state department, FBI, CIA or the UK’s foreign office that certain targets are criminals and shouldn’t get asylum.

Several exiles told the OCCRP about warnings and briefings they had received by police in the US, UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands, suggesting that despite warm diplomatic relations, these governments are aware of Kigali’s tactics.

British journalist Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb, a book about the Kagame regime and the killing of Karegeya, told the OCCRP that Rwanda’s extradition efforts are designed to dissuade any political challengers to Kagame. Foreign law enforcement agencies don’t always realise what they’re dealing with, she said.

“The message is, ‘You can run, but you cannot hide. I will get you in the end.’ That’s what all these operations boil down to,” Wrong said. “This is a personalised message directed at Kagame’s own entourage, which he believes would be the source of any serious challenge to his regime.”

Reconsidering US Support?

Despite Rwanda’s poor track record on human rights, Western allies have maintained their support for decades. In addition to training the Rwandan military, the US proposed to spend $145-million in assistance to Kigali in 2023. 

And the UK signed a bilateral agreement to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, despite being warned that Rwanda tortures and kills political opponents.

One US lawmaker is putting pressure on the Biden administration to reconsider supporting Kigali, especially after Rusesabagina’s kidnapping in 2020.

“Not only would Rwanda be flouting US laws by targeting dissidents inside the United States, Rwanda appears to be the only foreign government in the world that is both wrongfully detaining an American resident and seen by the United States as a partner and ally,” wrote senator Robert Menendez, the chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Relations, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in July.

Menendez said there was a “need for a more effective US policy” and that he would place a hold on all security assistance to Rwanda until the state department undertakes a comprehensive review.