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Trouble looms for lawsuit filed by Hotel Rwanda hero's family against airline that flew him back to Africa

Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, is escorted in handcuffs into a courtroom, in Kigali
CLEMENT UWIRINGIYIMANA/REUTERS
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Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, is escorted in handcuffs into a courtroom, in Kigali, Rwanda October 20, 2020. REUTERS/Clement Uwiringiyimana

The proxy fight over the future of Paul Rusesabagina played out in federal court in San Antonio, and trouble may be looming.

The Hotel Rwanda hero was credited with saving 1,200 people lives during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. He settled in San Antonio. In 2020, the Rwandan government tricked him into leaving the United States and transported him back to Rwanda, where he was jailed and subsequently convicted of terrorism the following year..

Now, his family is suing the charter airline they said illegally extradited him.

But the judge was unsure if his court had jurisdiction over the case.

“It seems to me that you're in the wrong court,” said Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

The family’s lawyer is sure the case is in the right court.

“Without GainJet’s role accepting to play this role in the conspiracy, the government of Rwanda would not have been able to reach into the state of Texas to kidnap Rusesabagina,” said Nicholas Shadowen.

The civil case may be the last legal recourse and public pressure point for a family desperate to retrieve the human-rights activist from a Rwandan prison cell.

The family is seeking unspecified damages in the suit. Rusesabagina’s family are also seeking $400 million from Rwandan officials in a separate court case filed in Washington D.C.

Rusesabagina was arrested, tried and convicted of terrorism in a Rwandan court by its government after being delivered to the country in 2020. He now faces 25 years in prison.

His family said his trial was a farce, and he was illegally extradited from what he thought was a goodwill speaking tour. A conspiracy — including the private airline he flew in — “hoodwinked Mr. Rusesagabina into leaving his home in San Antonio and flying to Dubai,” said the federal complaint.

Instead of a speaking tour of Burundi churches, he was flown to Kigali, Rwanda, and tortured, said the federal complaint.

Rodriguez said the behavior of the airline did appear suspicious but questioned if he was the judge to explore it.

“I'm a federal court sitting in Texas, and I can only handle matters that we have personal jurisdiction over,” Rodriguez said. “And you're not showing me anything that has a Texas connection, other than speculation that maybe somebody, whoever that may be, texted or had a phone call with somebody in Texas.”

The hearing to compel the redeposition of a GainJet employee then focused almost solely on what connection GainJet has to Texas. Rusesabagina's lawyers have argued in court documents that phones used to conduct the ruse by Gainjet that would have shown the link to Texas were destroyed after the lawsuit was filed in late 2020.

GainJet’s lawyer said that the charter carrier didn’t communicate with Rusesabagina when he was in Texas and only found out who he was and where he was going shortly before takeoff from a Dubai airport.

Lawyers for the family said they believe the company did communicate with him in the state and lied to him about their destination.

Rodriguez adjourned without ruling and about the deposition. A hearing on GainJet's motion to dismiss is expected.

Rwandan officials maintained that Rusesabagina gave material support to terrorists fighting the minority Tutsi government — which has been accused of rigging elections for strongman leader Paul Kagame.

Rusesabagina has been an outspoken critic of Kagame for many years, condemning several human rights abuses documented by the United Nations, including allegations in 2010 that the Rwandan forces commited genocide against Hutus in the Congo.

His comments have not gone unnoticed — Rusesabagina has said Rwanda’s leaders have tried to have him killed. That is what led to him leaving Belgium where he lived since 1996 for Texas in 2008. Many believe the notoriety around the 2006 movie depicting him as a hero precipitated the renewed interest from Rwandan officials.

Amnesty International has said the Rwandan elections that keep Kagame in power are filled with targeted killings, disappearances and intimidation.

“Mr. Rusesabagina has become yet another victim of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s practice of silencing political opponents and arbitrarily detaining them under the pretext of “terrorism.” read the amended complaint.

The BBC reported that in 2018 that Rusesabagina called for regime change by any means necessary in a recorded video statement, saying elections had failed.

What impact the court case in Texas could have on the 25-year sentence of Rusesabagina was unclear. Also unclear was whether the case will survive long enough to find out.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated which case the Rusesabaginas were seeking $400 million in damages. They are seeking it in another case, and the amount is unspecified in Texas.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive