Daughter of imprisoned ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to testify on spyware at House hearing

The daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the imprisoned former hotel manager who housed hundreds of refugees during the Rwandan genocide, will appear before the House Intel committee Wednesday.

Carine Kanimba is set to testify about a malware attack on her phone allegedly carried out by the Rwanda government led by President Paul Kagame, which has labelled her father a terrorist for his links to an armed opposition group accused of carrying out attacks in the country.

She says her father was lured from their home in San Antonio, Texas, and brought to Kigali, Rwanda, against his will in August 2020. There, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison after what Kanimba calls “a sham trial.” 

Now, Kanimba has made advocating for her father’s release her full-time job — placing the 29-year-old in the crosshairs of Kagame’s regime.

Rusesabagina, the inspiration for Hollywood’s “Hotel Rwanda,” adopted Kanimba after she was orphaned during the Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 people were killed.

In February 2021, forensic analysis by Amnesty International and Citizen Lab revealed that Kanimba had been surveilled, allegedly by the Rwandan government, with her phone infected with the Israeli NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus as early as a month after her father’s kidnapping.

Pegasus spyware has been connected with several instances of hacking and surveillance by governments targeting dissidents, journalists and political opponents, resulting in the NSO group being blacklisted by the US.

Kanimba says her phone was tracked during meetings and communications with foreign officials as she advocated for her father’s release. 

Pegasus spyware and similar tech can be used “to abuse innocent people, to harass innocent people and to get to do whatever they want on American soil in our country,” Kanimba told The Hill Tuesday, “and it’s being funded by us. And so there has to be consequences, and I hope that the Congress will take action on this.”

Kanimba will appear during a hearing on “Combatting the Threats to U.S. National Security from the Proliferation of Foreign Commercial Spyware,” invited to testify as a victim of spyware attacks.

The House Intel committee will also hear Wednesday from Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton, set to discuss the impacts of mercenary spyware, and the director of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, Shane Huntley, who will talk about the company’s efforts to protect its users from commercial spyware.

Kanimba, a dual U.S. and Belgian citizen, says she plans to pressure Congress to regulate and monitor the spyware industry, as well as highlight the Rwandan government’s involvement in her surveillance in the context of the country’s relationship to the U.S.

The U.S. gave $147 million in foreign aid to Rwanda in 2021 alone, Reuters reported

“I’m technically contributing to my own abuse of my own rights,” Kanimba said of U.S. funding to Rwanda. 

Though the Rwandan government has denied participation in the attacks, according to NPR, Kanimba is certain that the regime now imprisoning her father is behind her surveillance. 

“I had already been speaking out in the media and in the international news and with government officials about the fact that this government has attempted to assassinate my father. Several times,” she said. “They have broken into our home and they kidnapped him, so it was not shocking to me that they would be willing to also use illegal methods to spy on me.” 

Kanimba compared her situation to that of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose family was reportedly surveilled with Pegasus spyware before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly approved Khashoggi’s 2018 killing.

“My father was surveilled, that leads to his kidnapping and show trial, torture and imprisonment. And now I’m being surveilled and harassed by the Rwandan government, and they are attempting to silence me, so I am frightened by what could happen next to my family,” Kanimba said.

“I don’t feel safe anywhere. I have no safety and security in my private actions and my physical surroundings. They can get me anywhere.” 

Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996, becoming an outspoken critic of the post-genocide government and a leader of the opposition in exile, whose armed wing was accused of carrying out attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.

In 2018, Rusesabagina was recorded as saying that “the time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda. As all political means have been tried and failed, it is time to attempt our last resort.”

Kanimba is now allowed to speak with her father via phone for five monitored minutes each week. She said he had a stroke and was partially paralyzed, and is not being properly medicated or treated.

“We’re grateful for this five minutes, but we know that he’s not okay and we know that, every single day that he’s illegally detained in Rwanda, his health is deteriorating, and we are frightened to lose him,” she said.

“I just want my dad home. I just want to be able to hold him. I want to be able to hug him. I want to be able to get his guidance and speak with him and be a daughter.”