The US academic, the hero of the genocide, and the fake plot to topple Rwanda’s president

The would-be plot to topple the Rwandan government was supposed to have been hatched on the eighth floor of a Los Angeles hotel.

Representatives of a shadowy Chinese mining company had taken over the whole floor, which was bustling with activity. A metal detector had been installed and anyone going in and out had to hand over their phones.

One woman was walking up and down a corridor having a loud conversation in Chinese, and a delegation apparently from a Latin American country were just leaving as the Rwandans arrived accompanied by their newly-acquired financial adviser, a tall, blond Frenchman called Frank Corto.

They trusted Corto because they trusted the person who had introduced him, an American lecturer in social work called Michelle Martin, who had been a volunteer for charitable foundations helping Rwandans. They would later discover that Martin, pure, was not quite as she appeared.

Corto had set up the meeting in November 2013. Waiting for them inside a conference room were a dozen executives, ten men and two women. One of the women and one of the men looked Asian. The rest seemed to be white Americans.

At stake, the Rwandans were told, was half a million dollars – and that was just seed money. In definitiva, the Chinese venture was prepared to bankroll an armed uprising with $50m in return for mining concessions to be granted when President Paul Kagame had been deposed and a new regime was in power.

There was just one problem. The conspiracy’s would-be figurehead, the leader of the opposition Rwanda National Congress (RNC), was not on board. Infatti, Theogene Rudasingwa was growing increasingly angry that he had been asked to Los Angeles in the first place.

“They said to me: ‘Do you honestly think that you can remove Kagame with simply political means?’ They kept pushing harder and harder,” Rudasingwa recalled. Alla fine, he got to his feet and said: “I think we cannot continue, because I didn’t come here to commit to violence, because I do not believe in it and my organisation does not believe in it.”

The meeting ended abruptly.

Rudasingwa had once been Kagame’s chief of staff, a major in the Rwandan Patriotic Front army that had swept to power in 1994, ending the 100-day genocide of Tutsis by Hutu extremists. Rudasingwa had also served as Rwanda’s ambassador to Washington, but had become increasingly alarmed at Kagame’s drift towards autocracy. Nel 2004 he went into exile in the US, [object Window] 2010 founded the RNC, intended as a broad opposition movement including Tutsis and Hutus.

Before the Los Angeles meeting, Corto had advised Rudasingwa to write a wishlist for the RNC. He had put down things like office supplies, vehicle costs and projected expenses from political and diplomatic campaigning. But in the hotel conference room, the supposed backers kept pushing him in another direction.

As the meeting broke up acrimoniously, Rudasingwa strode out, followed by his RNC colleague, Providence Rubingisa, and an anxious, red-faced Corto, who urged Rudasingwa not to burn his bridges with such wealthy potential donors.

But Rudasingwa had become convinced that there was something phoney about the whole situation – an impression which had been growing since Corto had unexpectedly handed him $5,000 in cash in the car on the way to the meeting, and the fact that before entering the conference room he was persuaded to hand over his phone to people he had never met before.

“In my mind I was saying, ‘This is a set-up,’” he said. “I was actually very annoyed when I was talking to them and said: I wish I had known that it would come to this. I wouldn’t have come here.”

Rudasingwa reproached himself for having been too easily led by promises of funding, promises that in retrospect were always too good to be true. But he could not initially understand who was behind the elaborate pantomime.

The chain of events led back to Michelle Martin, an academic at Dominican University in Illinois, who seemed the last person likely to be involved in any intrigue. But it later transpired that Martin was registered with the justice department in 2013 as a consultant for the Rwandan government, pagato $5,000 a month for research on the diaspora.

Rudasingwa and Rubingisa immediately jumped to the conclusion she must have been coopted by Rwandan intelligence. It was an impression reinforced last year when she appeared in Kigali as the star witness in the trial of another Rwandan dissident, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu former hotel manager in Kigali whose heroics in saving the lives of Tutsis from massacre from Hutu militias were portrayed in the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda.

Nel 2009, Martin had befriended Providence Rubingisa, who had introduced her to Rusesabagina, and she had volunteered for the latter’s charity, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation.

In over three hours of testimony in Rwanda in March last year, Martin presented emails which she had downloaded from Rubingisa’s computer, to which she said he had provided access when she was helping him with charitable work. Some of the emails suggested links between Rusesabagina and former members of the Interahamwe – the Hutu militia responsible for mass killings during the 1994 genocide – and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo which includes many former Interahamwe members.

Martin, who has a doctorate in peace studies and international development from Bradford University and a master’s from Bristol University, refused to provide any comment for this article, pointing instead to her testimony, in which she said that having stumbled on links to genocidaires she felt duty-bound to provide evidence.

“What I later discovered is overt genocide denial, and a clearly orchestrated plan to take their country back by any means possible,” Martin told the court.

Rusesabagina was sentenced last September to 25 anni di carcere, having been found guilty over terrorist attacks in Rwanda which killed nine people in 2018 e 2019, allegedly carried out by the armed wing of his political party, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.

In un 2018 video message, Rusesabagina had expressed his “unreserved support” for the armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN), and encouraged it to “use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed”.

Rusesabagina’s legal team denounced the proceedings in Kigali as a show trial, saying the prosecution had not even attempted to prove the FLN was behind the attacks – or that Rusesabagina had ordered them.

Independent judicial observers described the trial as deeply flawed. Rusesabagina had been kidnapped by being lured onto a plane in Dubai, which he was told was going to Burundi, but which landed instead in Kigali, where Rwandan security forces were waiting to arrest him.

Much of the trial was held without his presence, after he refused to participate in the early stages. His lawyers say he was held in solitary confinement and tortured. He was also denied regular access to his legal team, who were not shown Martin’s emails or any other prosecution evidence ahead of the trial.

Geoffrey Robertson, an Australian-British barrister and human rights expert, ha scritto: “It is clear that Mr Rusesabagina’s fair trial rights – in particular his right to confidential communication, his right to the presumption of innocence, and his right to prepare his defence – have been violated, potentially to the irreparable prejudice of the defence, calling into question the fairness of any potential convicting verdict.”

Lo scorso mese, the US state department formally deemed Rusesabagina to be “wrongfully detained”.

Martin’s participation in the trial, coupled with her past paid consultancy for the Rwandan government, led to opposition allegations she was a spy for the regime in Kigali. Rudasingwa, from the RNC, became convinced that Frank Corto and the 2013 meeting with the would-be business executives in Los Angeles were all part of an elaborate trap laid for them by Kagame.

tuttavia, the Guardian has seen evidence that it was instead an intricate but abortive sting operation by the FBI.

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, but Martin said at the Rusesabagina trial she had been an informant in a US investigation. An official source confirmed the cooperation with the US government began in Kigali where Martin attended a conference on reconciliation in December 2011, and decided to hand over the emails and other material she had downloaded from Rubingisa’s computer to a diplomat from the US embassy.

On her return to the US she was approached by the FBI and persuaded to help gather further evidence. She ceased active cooperation in 2012.

Martin began her consultancy with the Rwandan government in 2013. According to a source close to her, it was for a year-long macro-level review of the available literature on the Rwandan diaspora, and never involved reporting on individuals.

In all, the Los Angeles charade involved up to 20 agents playing different roles. There is a real Frank Corto, who has his own financial consultancy and lives in Pennsylvania and Florida, but he is not the tall Frenchman who posed as his namesake. The real Corto did not respond to an email, and a woman who answered his listed number said he was not interested in talking.

The whole operation appears ill-conceived from the start.

By Rudasingwa’s account, almeno, the fake investors overplayed their hand, trying to browbeat him into accepting money for armed struggle. While many members of the Rwandan exile community supported military action against Kagame’s regime, Rudasingwa was not one of them.

He said differences over the use of violence ultimately triggered a split in the RNC in 2016 and his subsequent formation of a splinter group.

Providence Rubingisa, who stayed on in the old RNC under a former Rwandan army general Kayumba Nyamwasa, disagreed, claiming the cause of the split was the former leader’s unwillingness to relinquish hold of his post.

He said that some of the emails from his computer which Martin produced at the trial in Kigali were genuine, but insisted others had been fabricated. He also denied the existence of an armed wing of the RNC, saying the DRC-based rebels operating under that banner were mainly provocateurs orchestrated by Kagame.

Michela Wrong, autore di a book about Kagame’s regime and its opponents called Do Not Disturb, said the RNC’s military effort is real but ineffective.

“There’s very little doubt the RNC has got an armed wing, but the military side of things is doing very badly on the ground,” Wrong said. “My sources say they’re struggling, [e] attempts to unite with other groups active in eastern Congo have failed. It costs money to keep people in the field, and that’s in short supply.”

Although the two Rwandan exiles have become estranged since the attempted sting operation in Los Angeles, Rubingisa largely confirmed Rudasingwa’s account. Both said they had not been formally approached or cautioned by the FBI.

After a more than 17-year wait, Rudasingwa was finally granted permanent resident status a few months ago. Michelle Martin is now an associate professor in the department of social work at California State University, Fullerton.

Nel frattempo, Rusesabagina, the erstwhile hero of Hotel Rwanda, is serving a 25-year term in a Kigali prison, in worsening health – and an increasing source of friction in US-Rwandan bilateral relations.

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