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America’s mealy-mouthed defense of dissidents

The United States hasn’t been living up to its promise to shelter political refugees.

"Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina is handcuffed by a police officer after a court session in Kigali last year. He was accused of creating and sponsoring a terrorist group.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

After US authorities granted Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a permanent resident visa in 1976 and he settled on a farmstead in Cavendish, Vt., he marveled at how he was “no longer compelled to write in code” and could spread his manuscripts across a desk without having to hide them. The Soviet spies who harassed him in his previous exile in Zurich were nowhere to be seen.

For generations of exiled activists and writers who had crossed their home country’s oppressive regimes, the gift of legal permanent residency in the United States was seen as the ultimate brass ring of freedom. A former vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Kristina Arriaga, said her Cuban family has “never forgotten our good fortune or the debt of gratitude we owe to this country, which granted us asylum.”


But the United States has been reneging on its promise to shelter the political refugees of conscience to whom it grants legal permanent resident status. The Trump administration infamously pretended not to see that Saudi agents murdered and dismembered Washington Post contributor and US green card holder Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. And the Biden administration issued a remarkably tepid protest — hardly a protest at all — after the Rwandan Intelligence Bureau orchestrated a kidnapping and torture of the real-life hero of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” Paul Rusesabagina, who had been living in Texas as a US permanent resident but was traveling overseas at the time.

After a show trial, Rusesabagina was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in a Rwandan prison on Sept. 20. But US State Department spokesman Ned Price said only that our government was “concerned” and asked the Rwandan authoritarian regime to “establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.” With defenses like this, dissidents under US protection might be excused for not sleeping easily at night. (Disclosure: I was the co-author of Rusesabagina’s 2006 autobiography, “An Ordinary Man.”)


The State Department’s weak response is all the more troubling given its own prior statements on human rights abuses in Rwanda. The congressionally mandated 2020 Human Rights Report condemned, among other disgraces in the East African country, “forced disappearance by the government; torture by the government; harsh and life-threatening conditions in some detention facilities; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country.” But when such treatment was inflicted on a US resident — a winner of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom — the same government that so jealously protected Solzhenitsyn now has almost nothing to say, even though the proceedings were widely condemned by a range of human rights groups.

The American betrayal of Rusesabagina comes amid an uptick in extraterritorial assassinations and kidnappings carried out by the espionage services of some of the world’s worst dictators. The advocacy group Freedom House has identified 608 separate cases of what it calls “transnational repression” of those who dared to speak out against abuses in their home country and became targets of forced renditions and killings even while under the supposed diplomatic protection of a host nation.

The United Kingdom became a notorious shooting gallery for Vladimir Putin’s FSB on the hunt for inconvenient Russian expatriates in the early 2000s, partly because the British government failed to speak up forcefully. The United States, with its lame responses to the Khashoggi and Rusesabagina cases, opens the door for foreign spy services to harass political refugees it promised to protect. The Chinese government has already shown itself to be extremely interested in the lives of its nationals when they come to the United States and speak a word against the regime. The US Justice Department alleged last year that five people on US soil were working for Beijing in a plot called “Operation Fox Hunt” to go after a former government employee living in New Jersey. The Turkish government, working through disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, purportedly tried to persuade the Trump administration to approve a kidnapping operation against a dissident cleric living in Pennsylvania. Not even the KGB of the 1970s felt so emboldened to go after Solzhenitsyn in this fashion.


When the Biden administration took us out of Afghanistan and abandoned thousands of the local allies who had depended on the United States to safeguard them from Taliban reprisal killings, it promised an “over the horizon” surveillance system to monitor atrocities and identify threats. What’s now apparent is that the eyes of oppressive regimes are also peering back at US soil and making calculations about the risk-reward ratio of taking out an exiled annoyance.

George Washington wrote in 1783: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights & previleges.”


Broken promises of protection in Afghanistan have already stained our nation’s reputation enough. The United States can reassert itself as a beacon of liberty by speaking up when foreign spy services come after political dissidents holding US green cards. A good place to start is to find the courage to hold Rwanda accountable for its illegal rendition and show trial of a Medal of Freedom winner, whose only crime appears to have been speaking out against repression.

Tom Zoellner is a professor of English at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif., and the author of “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire,” which won the National Book Critics Circle award in nonfiction for 2020.