Rwandan diplomat allegedly spied on St. Mary’s Zoom class


On April 6, students in Bill Israel’s International Communication class at St. Mary’s University in Texas gathered for a Zoom session with guest speakers to discuss a campaign to free Paul Rusesabagina.

Rusesabagina is internationally recognized for its heroism during the 1994 genocide in Rwandawhen he is credited with protecting the more than 1,200 guests of the hotel he ran from the massacre.

Rusesabagina, Belgian citizen, permanent resident in the United States and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner whose story was dramatized in the 2004 film Rwanda Hotel, is now imprisoned in Rwanda, charged with terrorism, murder and arson. In recent years, he had become a leading critic of Rwanda’s authoritarian President Paul Kagame and the leader of an opposition coalition in exile, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, which includes an armed wing. As ABC News recently reportedRusesabagina acknowledged that the movement includes an armed wing but denied any involvement in that wing, saying his work was focused on diplomacy.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns that Rusesabagina is unlikely to receive a fair trial in Rwanda, where he was taken against his will – he would have thought he was flying to Burundi — in what Human Rights Watch calls “enforced disappearance,” a crime under international law.

Israel’s international communication class was not initially focused on Rusesabagina. But attention shifted after news that Rusesabagina’s son, Tresor, was among the 10 students enrolled.

“The deeper we got into Tre’s experience, it became clear that in terms of the final project, my students needed an opportunity to dig deeper into that,” Israel said. “There could not be a clearer case of international communication in dispute.”

On April 6, the class held a hybrid in-person/Zoom session with guests, including Rusesabagina’s wife and daughter, to discuss an ongoing campaign to secure Rusesabagina’s freedom and how students of St. Mary might help. It wasn’t until late in the class session that a St. Mary’s information technology specialist, Jeff Schomburg, reported an apparent lurker on Zoom whose name appeared as MN.

Israel interrupted the class to ask MN to identify himself. Having received no response, he asked again. When he again received no response, he asked Schomburg to terminate MN’s connection.

Schomburg and other colleagues later determined that MN shared an IP address with one Charles Ntageruka, who briefly entered and left the Zoom call earlier in class, unnoticed at the time, before reentering as of MN. Ntageruka matches the name of the Second Counselor at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Rwandan embassy did not respond to requests for comment, except to say it had forwarded a request to Ntageruka’s office for “their consideration and discretion.” Ntageruka did not respond to a message sent via LinkedIn.

Israel said it reported the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An FBI spokesperson confirmed the bureau was aware of the incident but declined to comment.

“I am offended that my students and guests have been invaded and invaded by a foreign entity that clearly has malicious intentions, and we have no intention of letting go,” Israel said.

Besides the apparent intruder, Rusesabagina’s son Tresor and daughter Ananise Kakimba, as well as longtime Rusesabagina family friend Kathleen Kreuger – all of whom attended the April 6 course – said they felt uncomfortable due to the presence of another participant in the meeting who they believe has ties to the Rwandan government. All three said the participant was invited to participate by Céline Jacquemin, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s who specializes in Rwanda.

Jacquemin, who was invited by Israel to participate in the class session, questioned St. Mary’s spokesperson Jennifer Lloyd about it.

Lloyd emailed a statement on behalf of St. Mary’s.

“The matter has been referred to the FBI for investigation, including how an individual believed to be part of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s diplomatic corps gained access to the classroom,” the statement said. “All those who were invited to the course were included on the assumption that they would contribute positively to the class discussion. It is unfortunate that some of those who were given access to the course seemed to have other intentions than to work together for the benefit of our students.”

St. Mary’s President Tom Mengler also weighed in on the incident in strong terms.

“Desperate people take desperate measures,” Mengler said in a press release. “This intrusion by a member of President Kagame’s diplomatic corps into a St. Mary’s classroom shows the paranoia of President Kagame’s administration as it seeks to quell a growing chorus of international outrage over his kidnapping of Mr. Rusesabagina.

The Rwandan government’s aggressive tactics targeting its critics abroad have been documented in a recent Freedom House reporta non-profit organization that promotes democracy around the world.

“Rwandan’s transnational repression is exceptionally broad in terms of tactics, targets and geographic reach,” the Freedom House report said. “Rwandans abroad face digital threats, spyware attacks, family intimidation and harassment, mobility checks, physical intimidation, assault, detention, rendition and harassment. ‘assassination. The government has physically targeted Rwandans in at least seven countries since 2014, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya, as well as further afield in South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Rwandans as far away as the United States, Canada and Australia report intense fears of surveillance and reprisals.

Tresor Rusesabagina said the incident in the classroom was very upsetting.

“Before this whole situation, my father was abruptly removed from our lives by the government who have been hunting him for over 15 years,” he said. “As far as I can remember, I had to worry about my family. As soon as this happened, I worry about my mother, I worry about my brother, I worry about my nieces , then I go to class and it happens.”

Ananise Kakimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter, said she was surprised that the Rwandan authorities were “tracking us down to my brother’s class… She’s the ambassador’s second adviser. To say that they would spend the two hours listening to what I had to say and what the students had to say to help us, I just found that very scary.

Kreuger, the Rusesabagina family friend and wife of former US senator and ambassador Bob Krueger, was also outraged.

“That a senior Rwandan government official in the United States spied on American citizens and jeopardized the safety and security of American students who were there simply to try to bring justice to an innocent man imprisoned – it offends me such. It just makes me angry,” Kreuger said. “The rest of us, we are adults, we understand the risks, we participate openly knowing those risks and have for years, but these students are young innocent victims of Rwandan harassment and espionage, and that should offend any honest person. ”

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