‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero given 25-year sentence in ‘terrorism’ case

Government critic Rusesabagina was portrayed as a hero for saving lives in a Hollywood film on the 1994 genocide.

Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, is escorted in handcuffs from the courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda September 25, 2020
Paul Rusesabagina, 67, was arrested last year on arrival from Dubai after what he described as a kidnapping by Rwandan authorities [Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters]

Paul Rusesabagina – a one-time hotel manager portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood film about the nation’s 1994 genocide – was found guilty of being part of a group responsible for “terrorist” attacks and sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Rwandan court.

Rusesabagina boycotted Monday’s verdict after declaring he did not expect justice in a trial he called a “sham”.

The case has had a high profile since Rusesabagina, 67, was arrested in August 2020 after what he described as a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan authorities.

He was accused of supporting an armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change. The group had claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in the south of the country in which nine Rwandans died.

“He founded a terrorist organisation that attacked Rwanda, he financially contributed to terrorist activities,” Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of Rusesabagina.

Rwandan prosecutors had sought a life sentence the former hotelier, credited with saving over 1,200 lives during the 1994 genocide. But Mukamurenzi said the term “should be reduced to 25 years” as it was his first conviction.

‘Show trial’

Since being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle as the hero of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina – based in the United States – emerged as a prominent critic of President Paul Kagame.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Brussels, Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba said her father should be released and allowed to come home.

“This verdict means nothing for us. Our father was kidnapped,” Kanimba said. “He was dragged across international borders in violation of international law.”

“My father knows that his rights were violated … that’s why he decided to step out of the trial, and this is all political,” she said adding that her father was “a political prisoner”. “The charges are completely invented.”

A Belgian citizen and US resident, Rusesabagina was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts during the genocide [File: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP]

The daughter said her family was “very worried” about Resesabagina’s health and were afraid he would die in prison.

“Every Friday we have a five minute call with my father … he doesn’t sound at ease. He sounds like the prison authorities are pressuring him, keeping him from saying what he wants to say and keeping us from really saying what we want to tell him. And the call is really short. My father emotionally he’s strong, he’s very strong individual emotionally. Physically though we are very, very worried.”

Author Michela Wrong, who recently published a book on Rwanda, told Al Jazeera the verdict was clearly a message to the opposition.

“This seems like a show trial, which is really aimed at silencing dissent, making sure that anyone standing up, criticising and challenging Kagame is simply will not be allowed to do that,” she said.

“The verdict is making clear to people who are in the diaspora and criticising Kagame that the government can get them wherever they are.”

Rusesabagina was targeted for challenging Kagame’s government for years, said Wrong.

A Belgian citizen and US resident, Rusesabagina was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts during the genocide.

Rusesabagina denied all charges against him, while his supporters described the trial as proof of Kagame’s ruthless treatment of political opponents.

The Rwandan government had said Rusesabagina would get a fair trial, but it has drawn international concern. In December, 36 US senators wrote to Kagame, urging him to release Rusesabagina.

“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” said Geoffrey Robertson QC, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch expert on the case.

“The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged. Given Mr. Rusesabagina’s age and poor health, this severe sentence is likely to be a death sentence.”

‘Enforced disappearance’

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence on nine charges, including “terrorism”, arson, taking hostages, and forming an armed rebel group that he directed from abroad.

Rusesabagina became a global celebrity after the Hollywood film, which depicted him risking his life to shelter hundreds as the manager of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, during the 100-day genocide when ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority.

Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Rusesabagina used his fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who took power after his forces captured Kigali and halted the genocide.

Rusesabagina’s trial began in February, six months after he arrived in Kigali on a flight from Dubai.

His supporters say he was kidnapped. The Rwandan government suggested he was tricked into boarding a private plane.

Human Rights Watch said at the time his arrest amounted to an “enforced disappearance”, which it called a serious violation of international law.

Rusesabagina said he was gagged and tortured before he was jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied it.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies