Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose story inspired the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, has gone on trial in a closely-watched case in Kigali where he stands accused of several crimes, including terrorism.
A longtime critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rusesabagina had been living abroad for years before appearing in the capital under arrest in mysterious circumstances in October.
His family and lawyers say he was abducted overseas and brought back to Rwanda illegally. They say that as he is an outspoken government critic, he cannot receive a fair trial there and that he has not been allowed to meet with international lawyers.
If convicted, Rusesabagina faces a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The former hotelier, who was depicted as a hero by actor Don Cheadle in the 2004 film, has been charged with 13 offences including terrorism for starting an armed group in recent years that is accused of staging deadly attacks within Rwanda.
He appeared in court alongside 20 others facing similar charges for supporting the banned outfit, the National Liberation Front (FLN). The accused all wore face masks and the pink standard-issue uniforms assigned to defendants in Rwanda.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, who has been monitoring the case, said Rusesabagina has not taken a plea.
“Rusesabagina has said, through his lawyers, that he is not a Rwandan citizen but a Belgian national,” Wambua-Soi said. “This is significant because it is going to determine how the court is going to handle his case. He also says that the High Court division that handles cross-border crimes is not competent to handle his case. He wants his case moved to Belgium,” she added.
Prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said Rusesabagina had dual citizenship and could therefore be charged by either state.
In exile, Rusesabagina headed the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) and has admitted in court that he was one of the founders of the FLN, which has claimed deadly attacks in Rwanda.
Rusesabagina, however, also said he never supported any violence.
Rwandan authorities blamed the FLN for a series of deadly attacks in 2018 in Nyungwe, a forested area which is popular among tourists visiting to see endangered mountain gorillas.
The attacks prompted France, Germany, Canada and Australia to advise their nationals against travel to the area.
One of Rusesabagina’s co-accused, FLN commander Callixte Nsabimana, appeared to have sided with the prosecution, however it was unclear why he had turned on a man he said had been “my president”.
“He had ambitions to become the president of Rwanda. Now how do you have such ambitions when you’re not Rwandan?” Nsabimana said.
“We waged war on Rwanda, and failed and were captured. It is embarrassing for him to now claim that he is not Rwandan,” said Nsabimana, who was arrested in April 2019.
Rusesabagina’s trial has drawn international attention.
The United States, which awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, has demanded he be given a fair trial, while the European Parliament has called for his release.
The case has been adjourned until February 26.