Paul Rusesabagina, the polarising hero of the hit movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’, went on trial, on Wednesday, on charges including terrorism that drew international calls for his release.
Rusesabagina, whose actions during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide inspired the movie, had been living abroad for years before appearing in Kigali under arrest in mysterious circumstances in October.
His family and lawyers said 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.
The former hotelier, who was played by American 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.
‘I am not a Rwandan’
Rusesabagina’s legal team has argued he could not be tried in Rwanda until it is established whether his extradition was legal.
“Let me say this again as I have said before many times. I am not a Rwandan. I am Belgian. The case file on me should reflect that,” Rusesabagina told the court.
He said he had been required to apply for an entry visa when visiting Rwanda on two occasions in 2003 and 2004: “This is how foreigners are treated,” he added.
But lead prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said Rusesabagina’s parents were Rwandans and he had never renounced his citizenship.
“He was reported as a Rwandan to the Belgian authorities, also holding dual citizenship as a Belgian, so the court should disregard his claim.”
Ruberwa said Belgian authorities had “fully cooperated” with their investigation and assisted by sending documents about Rusesabagina to Rwandan authorities.
The 66-year-old had already been denied bail, which he sought on account of poor health.
Rusesabagina is credited with sheltering hundreds of Rwandans inside a hotel he managed during the 1994 genocide, in which 800 000 mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
But in the years after Hollywood made him an international celebrity, a more complex image emerged of the staunch government critic, whose tirades against the regime of long-serving Rwandan President Paul Kagame made him an enemy of the state.
Kagame has been in power since 1994 and is accused by critics of crushing opponents and ruling through fear.
The United States, which awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, said it has raised his case with Rwanda and asked for information on how he returned to the country.
“We’ve continued to urge the Rwandan government to provide humane treatment, respect for the rule of law and to provide a fair and transparent legal process, including access to legal counsel of his choosing,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Thirty-seven members of the US Congress jointly urged Rusesabagina’s release, echoing a resolution by the European Parliament.
In a letter to Kagame, the US lawmakers warned of risks to relations, saying that Rusesabagina is a US permanent resident and that Rwanda transferred him out of the United Arab Emirates.
“Your government’s resort to the extrajudicial transfer of Mr. Rusesabagina demonstrates a disregard for US law and suggests a lack of confidence in the credibility of the evidence against him,” said the letter signed by the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate and House committees handling foreign affairs.
‘We waged war on Rwanda’
In an earlier court hearing, Rusesabagina admitted to helping form the FLN, the armed movement of an opposition party he founded in exile, but denied any roles in its crimes.
Rwandan authorities blamed the FLN for a series of deadly attacks in 2018 in Nyungwe, a forested area which is popular among tourists coming 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.