Daughter of imprisoned Rwandan dissident: Governments must be ‘accountable’ for spyware use

The youngest daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier played by Don Cheadle in the film “Hotel Rwanda,” is in a battle to free her father and also tackling government surveillance.

Rusesabagina risked his own life to save more than 1,000 refugees as the manager of the besieged Hôtel des Mille Collines. After the Rwandan genocide, he and his family had become refugees themselves, receiving asylum in Belgium, before moving to the United States after an alleged assassination attempt. 

Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba is now back in Brussels — not by choice, but by necessity. In August 2020, her father, on a private plane he thought was headed to Burundi, was instead taken to his home country. Rwandan authorities’ elaborate abduction plot drew criticism from international organizations and governments, but Rusesabagina was tried on terrorism charges and ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have questioned the trial’s validity.

Kanimba, 29, quit her job at an impact investment firm in New York to lead the #freeRusesabagina campaign, lobbying governments to pressure the Rwandan government into releasing him. (Celebrities including Cheadle have worn T-shirts in support of the campaign.)

“My father once told me that the only way to keep a political prisoner alive is to keep speaking out about them,” said Kanimba, on a damp Brussels day over a cappuccino. “That’s what my sister and I are doing — imploring lawmakers — she in Washington, and I in Europe.”

Kanimba’s advocacy work has also made her a target of Rwandan surveillance. In July 2021, Amnesty International published a report revealing that Rwandan authorities had used Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to track the photos, call logs, web searches and more, of more than 3,500 activists, journalists and politicians.

Among Amnesty International’s findings was that Kanimba’s phone was among those that had been targeted, between September 2020 and July 2021. In June, digital rights group CitizenLab notified Kanimba’s cousin, with whom she lives, that he had also been targeted.

“It keeps me awake at night knowing that [the Rwandan government] knew everything that I was doing,” Kanimba said to a U.S. House Intelligence Committee on commercial cyber surveillance on Wednesday. “The same government torturing my father is listening to my private calls, accessing my camera and [it] knows my location.”

The most notable incident occurred in June 2021, when Kanimba met with Sophie Wilmès, then the Belgian foreign minister. The spyware was, according to Amnesty International, reportedly triggered as soon as Kanimba entered the room and continued throughout the two-hour meeting. The two discussed the help Kanimba needed on her father’s case.

“We were discussing in private how the Belgian government could support us. Later I found out that [the Rwandan government was] in the room with us the entire time,” she said, her phone on the table during the interview.

Kanimba’s meeting with Democratic U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas to discuss her father’s case also fell within the frame of her reportedly being hacked. The revelation was one factor in Castro joining a group of lawmakers that successfully urged the U.S. Commerce Department to ban the sale of NSO Group’s products in the country. 

On Wednesday, a day after Greek S&D MEP Nikos Androulakis revealed he’d been targeted by Pegasus-like spyware called Predator, Kanimba called for consequences — political or economic — for countries that abuse the use of spyware during the U.S. House committee hearing. She pointed to massive aid packages the U.S. had sent to Rwanda that could in turn be used to buy surveillance technology worth millions of dollars. 

The European Parliament is looking into EU member countries’ use of commercial spyware | Pool photo by Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE

“We cannot just hold the technology companies accountable; we have to hold the countries who are perpetrating transnational repression on Belgian soil or U.S. soil accountable as well because we know who they are,” she said.

The European Parliament, through its Pegasus Inquiry Committee, is also looking into EU member countries’ use of commercial spyware, recently revealing that 14 EU countries had purchased Pegasus. 

Kanimba, who will speak at a parliamentary hearing in August, said that while she applauds the Parliament’s efforts — both for launching the Pegasus inquiry and for adopting a near-unanimous resolution calling for the immediate release of her father — she remains discouraged by what she considers the European Commission’s inaction.

So far, she said, the Commission had repeated the Rwandan government’s official line — namely that the authorities had “remedied” any neglect or “procedural concerns” regarding her father’s imprisonment.

“The EU has consistently and repeatedly made the Rwandan authorities aware of its expectation that the rights of Mr. Rusesabagina and the co-accused to due process and fair trial be fully respected,” a Commission spokesperson told POLITICO. 

The spokesperson also said that the Commission was aware of allegations that Pegasus had been used to spy on Rusesabagina’s family, but that the Rwandan government “had repeatedly denied the claim” it was involved.

Kanimba said such statements made her question to what extent the Commission will act, both in terms of her father’s imprisonment and the use of spyware to target activists and others. 

“One way to prove me wrong would be to bring my father home, to call on Rwanda to let him go,” she said. “That would demonstrate that the use of this type of surveillance software is not permissible.”

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