Q&A: NU alum Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, discusses efforts to free father from Rwandan imprisonment


Photo courtesy of Carine Kanimba

Carine Kanimba’s father, Paul Rusesabagina, was kidnapped by the Rwandan government in 2020. Since then, Kanimba and her family have campaigned for the release of Rusesabagina.

Pavan Acharya, Assistant Campus Editor

Carine Kanimba (School of Professional Studies ’16) has been leading a campaign to free her father, Paul Rusesabagina, from the Rwandan government for more than two years.

A Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Rusesabagina was the inspiration for the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” for his efforts to shelter more than 1,200 people at the Hotel des Mille Collines  during the Rwandan genocide.

Rusesabagina has been a vocal critic of longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his regime. Rusesabagina leads the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, a coalition of groups opposed to Kagame, though in 2020 he was kidnapped by the Rwandan government.

Rusesabagina was tried and convicted on terrorism charges following his kidnapping. However, the trial was declared unfair by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights.

Kanimba and her family have since launched the “Free Paul Rusesabagina” campaign, calling on nations around the world to pressure Rwanda to free her father. The Daily spoke with Kanimba, a former Daily staffer, about her time at Northwestern and the campaign’s efforts to free her father.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily: How did your experiences at NU influence your work today?

Kanimba: I was on the board of directors for the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights. We organized (NUCHR’s) annual conference the year I was on the board. My focus was on bringing delegates from all over the world to talk about corporate social responsibility. 

Second, I did (work) for the Global Engagement Summit Institute and worked in Nicaragua for a summer doing international and sustainable development work. All the work I did at Northwestern, both in the human rights community and (through) GESI, was a huge factor in the work I do today — both in international development in the investing world but also the advocacy for my father’s campaign. 

The Daily: Can you give a brief overview of who your father is? Why was he kidnapped?

Kanimba: Over the past 20 years, (my father has) been traveling around the world to encourage the youth to add their voice to the fight for human rights, (to speak on) the refugee crisis in Africa and to stop governments from working with dictators committing human rights abuses. 

Kagame has tried to kill my father over and over again. He’s broken into our home. When (my father) spoke at universities — like when he came to speak at Northwestern (in 2018) — (Kagame) sent a team of Rwandan spies to intimidate him. But, he continued because he felt he survived the genocide for a reason — in order to tell his story and ensure it never happens again. 

The Daily: A forensics report by the Citizen Lab and Amnesty International found evidence that strongly suggests the Rwandan government has been using Pegasus software to spy on you through your cell phone, including during a meeting between you and the Belgium minister of foreign affairs. This past summer, you testified in a public hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Intelligence about your experience being spied on by the Rwandan government. Why were you spied on? 

Kanimba: The Rwandan government targeted me because I was speaking out on behalf of my father and because I was speaking with government officials around the world. We were able to launch a T-shirt campaign with the help of Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Enes Kanter Freedom.

We’re speaking out, and they wanted to stop us. They wanted to intimidate us. They wanted to know who we were talking to so that they could get to those people, too. 

The Daily: How can countries such as the U.S. use their influence to discourage human rights violations like your father’s treatment?

Kanimba: (Rwanda is) using the money the U.S. is giving them to spy on a 20-something-year-old woman who’s just speaking about human rights and the life of her father.  The resources are not going to the people as they should. In fact, they’re being pocketed by the dictator himself, who’s using it for (his) personal vendetta. 

The United States should not be promoting dictatorships. They should be working with the people directly, responding to them through different mechanisms and imposing sanctions. 

The Daily: It has been more than two years since your father was detained. How has the Free Paul Rusesabagina movement evolved over the past few months, and has media coverage had an impact?

Kanimba: In the past few months, we’ve been able to use the fact that (the Rwandan government) infected my phone in order to spy on me. This has given us a platform to advocate for my father from a perspective of technology and privacy violations. It’s allowed us to expose the many tools the Rwandan government uses, like the kidnapping, the short trial and the intimidation attempts. Then, the House intelligence committee heard my testimony.  

Finally, (Secretary of State Antony Blinken) traveled to Rwanda recently. Before traveling, he spoke to my family. (Blinken) told us he was going there to speak to Kagame about our father. So our advocacy and the campaign has led to the highest level of the U.S. government. 

My father’s a hostage, essentially. So (the State Department) cannot be too forceful. We must somehow get Kagame to let go of my father, and the international pressure has to be done through conversations with him — however painful it is for us. 

The Daily: Your father is 68 years old and a cancer survivor. Have you been able to make contact with him to check on his well-being? 

Kanimba: My father has been treated very poorly since he was kidnapped. He lost many kilograms — (he) was around 20 kilograms within the first few weeks of his detention. He’s been deprived of his medication.  

Everybody at the prison has been warned that if they speak to him, they could get their sentences increased. So my father has virtually not spoken to anyone except for the calls we have with him, which are five minutes long. 

Healthwise, he had a stroke. His lip is now hanging. He has pain in his arm, jaw and neck. While his conscience is clear, his health might not hold as long. 

The Daily: How can community members contribute to the Free Paul Rusesabagina campaign?

Kanimba: We need people to talk about these abuses and we need people to talk about what is happening to my father, whether it’s through (Tweeting), calling on your representatives and President Biden to act, talking about his case or writing articles about the injustices happening in the region. This helps bring more pressure from the international community. We know that there is a lot of strength in a collective voice. 

We also have a T-shirt campaign. People across the world are wearing a T-shirt that shows my father’s face and calls for his freedom. That is the most annoying thing for dictators, to know the person (Kagame) was trying to silence and destroy has actually gained a voice and love from the world, rather than hate

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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