Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed in a 2004 Hollywood movie as a hero who helped save Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, has admitted to a Kigali court that he formed an armed group but denied he supported any violence or killings.
The 66-year-old former hotel manager was propelled to fame after the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda depicted him using his connections with the Hutu elite to protect Tutsis fleeing slaughter during the 1994 blooshed.
After years in exile, where he became a fierce government critic, he appeared under arrest in Rwanda’s capital last month after apparently being lured into a private jet under false pretences.
In recent years Rusesabagina co-founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition party based abroad. While he has previously expressed support for the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Nyungwe, near the border with Burundi, his exact role has been unclear.
“We formed the FLN (National Liberation Front) as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy,” he told the court, wearing a pink prison uniform.
“The agreement we signed to form MRCD as a political platform included the formation of an armed wing called FLN. But my work was under the political platform and I was in charge of diplomacy.”
Wearing a pink prison uniform for his bail hearing on Friday, Rusesabagina told the court that he helped to form the National Liberation Front to assist Rwandan refugees, but said he never supported violence.
The judge postponed ruling on his application for bail until October 2.
Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and US permanent resident who has been a prominent critic of President Paul Kagame, is charged with 13 offences that also include financing terrorism, complicity in murder, recruiting child soldiers and forming a rebel group. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 25 years in prison. It is not clear when his trial will begin.
Earlier this month, he described how he disappeared while visiting Dubai and then turned up days later in Rwanda, a country his family says he would never return to voluntarily. Speaking to The New York Times with Rwandan authorities present, he said he thought the private plane he boarded in Dubai was going to Bujumbura, Burundi, where he had planned to speak to churches at a pastor’s invitation.
Instead, Rusesabagina stepped out of the plane and was surrounded by Rwandan soldiers, the report said. He said he was then tied up, could not see anything and did not know where he was.
The Rwandan court has said he was arrested at Kigali International Airport, contradicting an earlier police version that he was arrested through “international cooperation”.
Human Rights Watch has asserted that Rusesabagina was “forcibly disappeared,” saying that the lack of lawful international extradition proceedings suggests that Rwandan authorities do not believe their evidence would stand up to independent scrutiny.
Rusesabagina had asked to be released on bail, citing poor health that has caused him to be taken to hospital three times since his arrest. He looked frail during his first court appearance.
“I assure the court that I will not flee from justice,” Rusesabagina said in his earlier bail application, which was denied. His court appearance Friday was to appeal that rejection.
The denial of bail further alarmed his family, which along with some human rights and legal groups has expressed concern that his arrest is the latest example of Rwanda targeting critics. “We have no hope that he can be given fair justice in Rwanda and ask for his immediate release,” daughter Carine Kanimba said on social media earlier this month.
Rusesabagina is credited with saving more than 1,000 lives during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. For his efforts, he was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. But he has faced criticism from Rwandan authorities in the years since he began speaking out against alleged human rights abuses by Kagame’s government.
Government supporters reject Rusesabagina’s criticism, saying Kagame’s leadership supports democracy and economic growth.