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Journalist and Yale alum Anjan Sundaram says Yale is ignoring the Rawandan president’s atrocious record in both Rwanda and Congo

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Why has the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, been invited to speak at Yale? That’s a question some are asking ahead of a planned speech, Tuesday. Sure he’s been credited with helping halt the Rwandan Genocide. And even The New York Times has called him, “the global elite’s favorite strongman.” But there’s a darker side to Kagame the media likes to ignore. That’s why groups wrote an open letter to Yale questioning the decision to allow him to speak unchallenged. Members of Yale’s Law Community write, QUOTE “Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and even the United Nations have documented grave human rights abuses committed by Rwandan officials: enforced disappearances, summary executions, arbitrary detentions, suppression of free speech, and widespread intimidation of journalists and civil society members. By ignoring these violations, Yale implies that serious human rights violations are less important to our community than reaching development goals. We disagree.” Yale ignored our repeated interview requests but now we’re joined by Anjun Sandaram. He’s the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. An award-winning journalist, he has reported from central Africa for The New York Times and The Associated Press. He’s also an alumni of Yale. Can you start off by giving us your response? We know that you’ve also been in touch with Yale. What is your thought about the reaction from the overall, several members of the Yale community, there’s gonna be a protest tomorrow, a teach-in ahead of Kagame’s speech. What’s your response to the school inviting him and, thus far, from the press releases and the information we had, it appears, his event is gonna go unchallenged. His record is not gonna be challenged in the introduction and the materials that’s gonna be presented. ANJUN SANDARAM: So, thank you for having me Jaisal. I think it’s a travesty that Yale is inviting someone who’s human rights abuse are so well documented. Yale is not only inviting him to speak unchallenged, they are whitewashing his record by announcing his speech without mentioning any of those abuses. They’re also relying on informed audience to ask him tough questions, that’s what they said to me, rather than asking him those tough questions, themselves. In essence, they’re giving him a platform to propagate government and official propaganda. NOOR: I actually wanted to play a clip of an event I filmed in 2013 for The Real News. When a protestor asked Kagame a tough question. This was at Cooper Union. The protestor was put on a choke hold and dragged out. NOOR: So, we just watched a clip of a protestor being dragged out for trying to raise the issue of Rwanda’s role in the Congolese civil war, specifically, the backing of M23 rebels who had widely been linked to Rwanda and also linked to a whole series of atrocities. What’s your response? That’s what happened when someone tried to ask Kagame a question. SANDARAM: I think its very clear that Kagame’s approach to free speech is to stifle it. He has destroyed his country’s free press. He has, systematically, imprisoned and abused journalists who have criticized him. One of my journalism students, in Rwanda, was shot dead on the day he criticized Kagame. Two young women were sent to prison, for several years, for insulting Kagame. Two others fled the country, fearing for their lives. Others have joined the presidential propaganda team or simply abandoned journalism because its so dangerous for themselves and their families. So, for Yale to rely on the audience to ask Kagame tough questions is ridiculous. NOOR: We had hoped that David Himbara, a former official who worked with Kagame, called his “right hand man,” would be able to join us for the interview, but he had technical problems. But he, himself, has faced death threats. He had to flee his position because his relationship with Kagame got frayed and he lives in Toronto, now. But he still lives in fear because Rwandan officials have been linked with assassination attempts, around the world, for critics of the regime. SANDARAM: Not only have they been linked, but Kagame has taken few pains to distance himself from those killings. After Patrick Karegeya, a former spy chief in Rwanda, was strangled to death in a hotel room in Johannesburg, Kagame came out and said, “People who criticize the government will get what they deserve.” So, there’s very little ambiguity about who might be responsible for these killings. Kagame’s opponents, journalists, political opponents, military officials, former military officials, have all suspiciously, one by one, turned up either in prison or dead. NOOR: Supporters of Kagame would say: “He helped stop the Rwandan genocide. We’ve seen a mini economic miracle in Rwanda, since the genocide. There’s been many economic leaps and although he’s authoritarian, maybe that’s what people need there. They need a strongman to help take the country to a place of stability and prosperity.” Those are common arguments, made by his supporters. How do you respond to those types of arguments? I would compare the situation to Congo and say, “Look, at least its not as bad as what’s going on in Congo.” SANDARAM: I think its fair to say that maybe that’s what the people need but the people should be able to freely choose that. Unfortunately, whenever people try to express themselves freely in Rwanda, they end up in prison, dead, or out of the country. Kagame does not offer Rwandan people the opportunity to speak freely. Anyone who came to speak on behalf of the Rwandan government have been dishonest because its been well-documented that there is no free speech in Rwanda. To the point about economic development, I think one needs to look at it in the context of other dictatorships. Dictatorships like, Iraq, Syria–Saddam Hussein, Bashar Al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi – they all had countries with good [inaud.], good hospitals, growing economies. These are not new things that we know dictatorships can accomplish. Of course, if you criticize the government you lose all those benefits. You lose access to the hospital. Indeed, you are abused in prison, sometimes tortured or even killed. So, these arguments in favor of Kagame are not new. They can be applied to almost any dictatorship. NOOR: Finally, I wanted to turn to news out of Congo. A total of fourteen protesters and three police officers were killed in violent clashes in Kinshasa on Monday, September 19th. Police in Kinshasa fired shots and teargas canisters to disperse protesters marching against an expected move by the president to delay an election. And we’ve seen these violence, sort of, explode in Congo over the last few months. I think this is key, the issue of Rwanda, in Congo. Among the demands of the concerned, Yale community members, is Kagame be questioned over Rwanda backing M23 rebels implicated in abuses, in the DRC. That’s what’ that protestor was asking about when he was dragged out of that speech at Cooper Union. Talk about this, because I think, for a lot of people in the West, they’re just unaware of the documented role that Rwanda has played with the M23 rebels, and beyond. SANDARAM: I met the M23 rebels a couple of years ago, in Congo. And its well-documented that the Rwanda government did support those rebels. Now Rwanda’s involvement in Congo, at least in the last couple of decades, goes back to 1996, when Rwandan forces invaded Congo. Mobutu Sésé Seko, the then dictator of Congo, had sparked a war that continues today and has taken the lives, claimed the lives, of more than five million people. Rwanda, subsequently, invaded Congo again in 1998 and continues to support rebel groups in Eastern Congo that challenged the government and are responsible for a host of human rights violations of mass refugee; people fleeing en masse, hundreds of thousands of people, mass rapes, events of indescribable violence. Rwanda has always denied its connection to any of these rebel groups. But in Rwanda, I’ve been in government meetings where Rwandan government puts up maps on the wall that show Rwanda, not only encompassing what we know as Rwanda territory but also including Congolese land. So many people in Rwandan government believe that a portion of Eastern Congo belongs, rightfully, to Rwanda. And they will say that to you in private so they believe that their support for rebel groups in Eastern Congo is justified and an attempt to take back land that was illegally taken away from them and given to Congo. NOOR: Finally, Paul Kagame, has been a longtime, close, staunch ally to the U.S. Government going back decades. Do you think students at Yale have a responsibility to really challenge him about these abuses, which are really happening, with U.S. support? SANDARAM: I think students at Yale have a platform to be able to challenge him but I fear that many of them will be afraid of the consequences for themselves and their families. Particularly, if you have any ties to Rwanda or to central Africa because of the way Kagame has gone after his critics in the past. So, its quite possible that Kagame comes out of the talk, relatively unscathed and able to present himself as promoter of human rights, which is how Yale announced his speech. NOOR: All right, we wanna thank you, so much, for joining us. We wanna have you back on to talk about your books and your work. And we’re certainly gonna follow the story and see what happens tomorrow when Kagame is visiting. SANDARAM: Thank you, Jaisal. NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Anjan Sundaram is the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo. An award-winning journalist, he has reported from central Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press.