The businessman whose role in saving more than 1,000 lives inspired the film Hotel Rwanda has been tried in Kigali.
Paul Rusesabagina faces nine charges including terrorism and murder, and if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Rusesabagina’s family, an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, has accused the East African country’s authorities of abducting the 66-year-old American resident from Dubai in September and denying him fair legal representation.
They say that Rusesabagina, a cancer survivor with high blood pressure, is in poor health and that his trial is a sham. “We are not expecting a fair trial,” said his daughter Carine Kanimba. “This audience will be a theater.”
The trial is controversial. Kagame, who won a third term in power with 98% of the vote in the 2017 elections, is credited with the development and stability that Rwanda has experienced since the 1994 genocide, but is also accused of intolerance of any opposition, whether national or international. . Critics of his government are frequently arrested and several high-profile political dissidents have been assassinated abroad.
Rusesabagina’s daughter said the charges against her father were false and that she was denied the choice of defense attorneys. The spokesman for the judiciary, Harrison Mutabazi, said Rusesabagina was being tried like any other citizen.
However, the Rwandan authorities have yet to explain how Rusesabagina was brought to Rwanda. Officials in the capital have said he was arrested for what they described as “an international warrant” after flying to Dubai from his home in the United States in August last year.
Flight logs have identified a private plane that took off from Dubai and landed in Kigali at 6 a.m. on August 28, which is believed to be carrying Rusesabagina. During the pre-trial hearings, Rusesabagina told the judges that he had been kidnapped after being misled. Kagame denied the accusation, but suggested that Rusesabagina had been the victim of some kind of trick.
Rusesabagina was tried on Wednesday with 20 other suspected members of a rebel group called the National Liberation Forces (FLN), which has carried out several deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years.
The charges against him include the accusation that he is “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent terrorist groups, armed, extremists … that operate from various places in the region and abroad.”
At a pre-trial hearing in September, Rusesabagina told the court that he had contributed 20,000 euros (17,400 pounds) to the FLN, the military wing of the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party that he co-chaired from exile. But he denied any wrongdoing. Prosecutors allege that he also recruited dozens of fighters.
The 2004 film starring Don Cheadle told the story of how Rusesabagina used his influence as CEO of the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali to save the lives of 1,200 people who took refuge there during the worst of the 1994 genocide, in which it is estimated that 800,000 people were killed with knives, clubs and other weapons.
Rusesabagina then fled to Belgium and the USA, where was honored with a presidential medal of freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by then-President George W Bush in 2005.
He became a vocal critic of Kagame and called for armed resistance to the government in a YouTube video in December 2018, saying that democratic change was impossible.
The Rwandan government questions Rusesabagina’s story of saving people during the genocide, and some witnesses have said that it exaggerated its role in helping people escape death.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers said on Wednesday that, as a Belgian citizen, he should not be tried in a Rwandan court, but sent to Belgium. Government lawyers said that Rusesabagina had never renounced his Rwandan citizenship and added that the Belgian government had frequently cooperated with Rwanda in the investigation of his past activities.
Also among the accused is Callixte Nsabimana, leader of the FLN, who disappeared in the Comoros islands in 2019 only to reappear two weeks later in police detention in Kigali on charges of terrorism offenses.
Nsabimana told the court on Wednesday that he expected a speedy trial after two years in detention and that he had been embarrassed by Rusesabagina’s testimony. “Mr. Paul Rusesabagaina … was our leader and his mission was to become President of Rwanda … He wanted to be President of Rwanda and yet he was Belgian?” Nsabimana said.
The trial has attracted significant international attention. In December more than 30 members of the The United States Congress asked Kagame release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds and allow her to return safely to the United States.
Last week, the European Parliament called on Rwanda to grant Rusesabagina a fair trial and condemned what it called her enforced disappearance, illegal handover to Rwanda and incommunicado detention. The parliament of Rwanda rejected the “unfounded claim”.
Diplomats, including the US ambassador to Rwanda, attended the hearing on Wednesday, which ended when the trial was postponed until next week.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism