Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, has faced 12 charges including “terrorism” in a case shining a spotlight on opposition to President Paul Kagame.
Brought to a Kigali court handcuffed in a van inscribed “RIB” for Rwanda Investigation Bureau, Rusesabagina wore an anti-coronavirus mask and sat pensively during the hearing on Monday.
He did not immediately offer a plea but one of his government-appointed lawyers, David Rugaza, said Rusesabagina was on trial for exercising his freedom of speech.
Rusesabagina, who once called for armed resistance to the government in a YouTube video, was accused of “terrorism”, complicity in murder, and forming or joining an armed group, among other charges.
The 66-year-old former hotel manager was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda using his connections with the Hutu elite to protect more than 1,000 Tutsis fleeing the genocide.
After the genocide, Rusesabagina acquired Belgian citizenship and became a resident of the United States, turning into a strong critic of Kagame whom he accused of stifling the opposition.
“He got a Belgian citizenship in 1999 and therefore there is another key issue here where one might say that Rwanda is trying a foreign citizen on freedom of expression that he enjoyed while abroad,” Rugaza told the one-judge hearing.
Rusesabagina is the recipient of several international honours, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President George W Bush awarded him in 2005.
However, some in Rwanda, including Kagame, have accused Rusesabagina of exaggerating his heroism, which he denies.
Kagame has ruled Rwanda since the end of the genocide and won the last elections – in 2017 – with nearly 99 percent of the vote. He has enjoyed widespread credit for restoring Rwanda to stability after the genocide and boosting economic growth.
But international rights groups and political opponents say his rule is increasingly tainted by repression.
It is still unclear how Rusesabagina came to be in Rwanda, although Kagame hinted in an interview earlier this month that he may have been tricked into boarding a private jet.
Rwandan police have said Rusesabagina was arrested on an international warrant. His family dispute that and say he was kidnapped from Dubai.
Human Rights Watch last week said Rusesabagina was a victim of enforced disappearance.
In a statement on Wednesday, Amnesty International called on Rwandan authorities to guarantee his right to a fair trial.
“The lack of transparency around the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina and reports that he has been denied access to the lawyer hired by his family are red flags that cannot be ignored as the authorities prepare for his trial,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s director for East and Southern Africa.
Kagame has said Rusesabagina’s trial will be held openly and conducted fairly. “We are obligated to do this,” he said in the televised interview. “We want to do things in a right way.”