Rwandan court finds ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero guilty in terrorism case
KIGALI, September 20 (Reuters) – A Rwandan court on Monday sentenced Paul Rusesabagina, a former hotel manager portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood film about the 1994 genocide to 25 years in prison after being convicted of terrorism.
Rusesabagina, 67, who was celebrated around the world after being played by actor Don Cheadle in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”, is a fierce criticism of President Paul Kagame. He denied all charges and said he was kidnapped in Dubai this year to stand trial. His supporters have called the trial a sham and proof of Kagame’s ruthless treatment of political opponents.
“Rusesabagina (…) is found guilty of being a member of a terrorist group and of participating in terrorist activities, but he is acquitted of having created an illegal armed group,” said Judge Antoine Muhima.
Prosecutors had requested a life sentence for Rusesabagina on nine counts, including terrorism, arson, hostage-taking and the formation of an armed rebel group. He was found guilty of eight counts.
Rusesabagina admitted having played a leading role in the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group opposed to the Kagame regime, but denied any responsibility for the violence perpetrated by its armed wing, the National Liberation Front ( FLN).
Among the twenty other defendants tried with him was Callixte Nsabimana, better known as Sankara, spokesperson for the FLN. He 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. Nsabimana was 20 years old.
Rusesabagina refused to participate in the trial and did not appear in court after attending the first hearings in a hot pink prison uniform, face mask and handcuffs.
The 2004 film depicts him risking his life to shelter hundreds of people as the manager of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital Kigali during the 100-day genocide, when ethnic Hutu extremists killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and Moderate Hutus.
Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar and Rusesabagina received the Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor – from US President George W. Bush in 2005.
Some genocide survivors accused Rusesabagina of using their suffering to appear heroic.
“He dramatized his actions in a film and won awards he did not deserve,” Naphtal Ahishakiye, executive secretary of the Ibuka genocide survivors organization, told Reuters by telephone.
Rusesabagina’s family have previously called such comments a smear campaign.
Rusesabagina used his fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who seized power after his forces captured Kigali and ended the genocide.
Rusesabagina’s father was Hutu and his mother and wife were Tutsi. He became a Belgian citizen after the genocide and lived in exile in the United States until last year.
In a video posted to YouTube in 2018, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, saying change could not be achieved through democratic means. The year before, Kagame had been re-elected with 99% of the vote.
Rusesabagina’s trial began in February, six months after arriving in Kigali on a flight from Dubai. His supporters say he was kidnapped; the Rwandan government suggested that he had been made to board a private plane. Human Rights Watch said her arrest amounted to enforced disappearance, which it characterized as a serious violation of international law.
Kagame denies accusations of abuse and has benefited from support from Western donors to restore stability and boost economic growth. Rights groups describe the Rusesabagina case as part of a scheme to intimidate Kagame’s political opponents.
“The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has continued to target those perceived to be a threat,” said a Human Rights Watch report last year, which also detailed arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment and torture.
REACTION TO VERDICT
Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba said the family knew what the verdict would be.
“He was denied access to his lawyers, to his international legal team, even to his Rwandan lawyers, he has limited access to them, then he was held in solitary confinement for 250 days,” he said. she declared.
Rusesabagina’s Rwandan lawyer said they would meet with him to see if he wanted to appeal. He accused the Rwandan authorities of intercepting legal documents and denying him access to an international team.
Belgium and the United States criticized the lawsuit.
“Mr. Rusesabagina did not benefit from a fair and equitable trial, in particular as regards the rights of the defense”, declared the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmes in a press release.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said “the reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict.”
Faustin Nkusi, spokesperson for the Rwandan prosecution, insisted that the trial was fair, that Rwanda used to hold high-level trials and that the accused had plenty of time to prepare.
Reporting by Clément Uwiringiyimana; Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Clement Rossignol in Brussels, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Katharine Houreld; edited by Peter Graff, Ed Osmond and Grant McCool
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