The NBA Should Demand the Immediate Release of Paul Rusesabagina

Adam Silver, National Basketball Association

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Human rights groups are concerned that using Rwanda as a backdrop would provide a public relations boost for its autocratic leader -- Dave Zirin

This week the National Basketball Association (NBA) launched the Basketball African League (BAL) in Kigali, Rwanda. This is unacceptable given Rwandan President Paul Kagame's awful human rights record. People in that nation live in fear of their government and any criticism of it or its officials can result in arrest and up to five years in prison.

Dave Zirin puts it this way:

But while the prospect of a Basketball Africa League itself is being met with widespread praise, the choice of country in which to hold its debut has been accompanied by strong criticisms. The ruler of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has been accused of widespread repression including the detention and torture of Paul Rusesabagina, who, as played by actor Don Cheadle, was the protagonist of the film Hotel Rwanda. The 2004 movie was about how Rusesabagina saved more than a thousand lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. A permanent US resident living in San Antonio, Tex., Rusesabagina was kidnapped by Rwandan forces while on a trip to Burundi. He has been quite literally paraded in front of the Rwandan media as a “terrorist,” charges that Rusesabagina and his family steadfastly deny.

One reason the NBA has given for using Rwanda and its launch space is that it has the "infrastructure" to handle such operations. It is true that people often note how clean the country and city are. That is less indicative of a well-run place and more a function of the oppression felt by the people there. The NBA has cultivated and fostered an image of supporting human rights as is evidenced by its work on the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement and in the arena of voter registration but actions like this pull the league backward. We need your help to make them use their leverage in the area to free Paul Rusesabagina.

To help Paul's legal defense, please check out this event.

For More Information About Paul Rusesabagina and the Situation:

For More Information about President Paul Kagame:

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To: Adam Silver, National Basketball Association
From: [Your Name]

Taciana Rusesabagina, the wife of kidnapped Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina, recently wrote a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pointing out the extreme human rights problems in Rwanda and asking the NBA to take this into account with the launching of the new Basketball Africa League (BAL), that will play at the Kigali Arena in Rwanda.

I join Taciana’s call and ask the NBA and its BAL teams and players to take this opportunity to call out the human rights violations of the Rwandan regime and call for the immediate release of political prisoner Paul Rusesabagina. Rwanda is a lovely country with wonderful people, and the government has put on a great public face for the world. This includes one of the nicest capital cities on the continent, featuring a great new basketball arena.

But all of this beauty hides the sad truth that the Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame regularly violates the human rights of the Rwandan people. Rwandans have no civil liberties, no right to free speech, no freedom of the press, free association, or freedom of expression. They are completely prohibited from participating in any way in electoral politics unless it agrees with the ruling Rwandan Patrotica Front (RPF) party and its ruler, Paul Kagame.

Paul Rusesabagina’s story is just one of the most recent of thousands of cases of human rights violations. As Taciana said in her recent letter to Mr. Silver:

“My husband Paul is a Belgian citizen and permanent US resident, residing in San Antonio in the great state of Texas. He saved 1,268 people from certain death while managing the Hôtel des Milles Collines during the Rwandan Genocide. His story of sheltering his fellow countrymen and bravely protecting them during a period of brutal violence touched countless people after seeing it depicted by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, but what’s more remarkable is the work he has done since then. He has been a tireless advocate for human rights, democracy, and fairness, speaking out across the world even after numerous attempts on his life.

Paul was traveling to Burundi from San Antonio, TX via Dubai, but was kidnapped by agents of the Rwandan government and taken on a private charter jet to Rwanda. There he was tied up, blindfolded, and tortured for his first three days in captivity. He now faces a corrupt trial on false charges, managed by an authoritarian dictator who has already publicly declared him guilty. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has declared himself “eternal president” and frequently boasts that he received 99% of the vote in his last election. A dictator that flouts fair elections installs himself to a permanent position, publicly asserts the guilt of dissidents, and flagrantly violates international law by kidnapping his enemies is a man that stands in opposition to freedom, and is not an image that should be given credibility by the NBA.”

The NBA and BAL must realize, and we need to let the world know that political repression within Rwanda is harsh, and Paul Rusesabagina was kidnapped into that system. Dissenters and critics inside of the country are regularly harassed, physically abused, are subject to extrajudicial detention, tortured, imprisoned, exiled, and in the worst cases subject to extrajudicial killing. And the reach of the Rwandan government extends outside of the country, with critics across the African continent, in Europe, and in North America surveilled, harassed, assaulted, kidnapped, and in some cases killed by Rwandan agents. Rwanda is regularly called out on these issues by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, the United Nations Human Rights offices, and the US State Department, among others.

While the BAL is an excellent recognition of African athletes from around the continent, the fact that the games will be hosted in a country with one of the most repressive governments in Africa is not at all consistent with the NBA's image.

I believe that the NBA stands for decency and justice, as the league, owners, and many of the players have shown in domestic human rights issues in the United States. We hope that you will continue that stand with the BAL in Africa. In addition, we fear that it is likely that playing BAL games in Kigali will lead to bad publicity for both the league and for Rwanda, as the international press can very easily question why a sports venture of this stature is taking place inside of a dictatorship with enormous humanitarian problems.

I join the Rusesabagina family and many others to urge you to put pressure on the Rwandan government both to free Paul Rusesabagina, but also to dramatically improve their treatment of other dissidents and their general treatment of their own citizens.

Thank you for your support.