Rusesabagina convicted of terrorism
A Rwandan court on Monday found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of belonging to a group linked to terrorism. The man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” was sentenced to 25 years in prison in a trial that human rights observers and other critics of Rwanda’s repressive government have called an act of political retaliation.
Rusesabagina, credited with saving the Tutsi ethnic group during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, boycotted the announcement of the verdict, saying he did not expect justice be rendered in a trial which he described as a “sham”.
The U.S. resident and Belgian citizen was convicted of nine counts, including forming an illegal armed group, membership in a terrorist group, financing a terrorist group, murder and kidnapping. He was charged with 20 other people. Prosecutors had requested a life sentence.
The circumstances surrounding Rusesabagina’s arrest last year, his limited access to an independent legal team, and his deteriorating state of health sparked international concern for the 67-year-old, who left Rwanda in 1996.
Rusesabagina admitted belonging to the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group opposed to the regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, but denied any responsibility for the violence perpetrated by its armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Rusesabagina denied all charges against him.
The case has received high profile since Rusesabagina was arrested last year on arrival from Dubai after what he described as a kidnapping by Rwandan authorities. Human Rights Watch said at the time that her arrest amounted to enforced disappearance, which it characterized as a serious violation of international law.
Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, where he housed hundreds of guests during the genocide that left 800,000 dead.
After the genocide, he became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned-president whose forces put an end to the massacres. He accuses Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and leaves Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium then in the United States.
Since being described by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda”, Rusesabagina has become a leading international critic of President Kagame.
His supporters have called the trial a sham and proof of Kagame’s ruthless treatment of political opponents.
The other defendants include Callixte Nsabimana, known as Sankara, who was a spokesperson for the FLN and told the court that Rusesabagina was not a member of the armed wing. But the judges said the two groups did not stand out, calling them MRCD-FLN.
Rusesabagina rose to global stardom after the film, which depicted him risking his life to house hundreds as the boss of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital during the 100-day genocide when ethnic Hutu extremists killed more 800,000 people, mainly from the Tutsi minority. . Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role.
Rusesabagina used his newfound fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a rebel Tutsi commander who seized power after his forces captured Kigali and ended the genocide.
Earlier this month, Kagame dismissed criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in the dock not because of his fame but because of the lives lost “because of his actions.”
A “show trial” marred by allegations of torture
Rusesabagina had refused to participate in the trial and has not appeared in court for months, after attending the first hearings in a hot pink prison uniform, face mask and handcuffs.
The United States – which awarded Rusesabagina his Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 – as well as the European Parliament and Belgium were among those who expressed concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
Kagame’s government accused Rusesabagina of supporting the FLN, which is accused of attacks in 2018 and 2019 that left nine dead.
While Rusesabagina denies any involvement in the attacks, he was one of the founders of the MRCD.
“The MRCD-FLN has committed terrorist acts. The MRCD cannot be separated from the military acts” of the FLN, declared Judge Béatrice Mukamurenz.
“The court concludes that Rusesabagina’s role in founding the FLN, providing funds to the rebels, purchasing communication tools for the rebels all constitute the crime of committing terrorism.”
During the trial, his co-defendants gave contradictory testimonies about Rusesabagina’s level of involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
Abroad, he used his global platform to campaign for political change in Kigali and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile. His family, who campaigned around the world for his release, claim that Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuse the Rwandan authorities of torturing him in detention.
The Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports Rusesabagina, earlier this month described the court proceedings as a “show trial” and said the government had provided no credible evidence against him.
“Paul’s family and team knew he would be found ‘guilty’ the moment he was kidnapped – no trial was necessary,” he said.
In July, meanwhile, an international media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, had been spied on using the Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a cell phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian binational, had been compromised on several occasions.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)