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Family of Paul Rusesabagina accuse Rwandan authorities of kidnapping him and say he will not get fair trial
The businessman whose role in saving more than 1,000 lives inspired the film Hotel Rwanda has gone on trial in Kigali.
Paul Rusesabagina faces nine charges including terrorism and murder, and if convicted could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The family of Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, have accused the east African country’s authorities of kidnapping the 66-year-old US resident from Dubai in September and denying him fair legal representation.
They say Rusesabagina, a cancer survivor who has high blood pressure, is in poor health and that his trial is a sham. “We don’t expect a fair trial,” said his daughter Carine Kanimba. “This hearing will be a theatre.”Advertisementhttps://f9838e67846a70fad601858ef5795ca7.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
The trial is controversial. Kagame, who won a third term in power with 98% of the vote at elections in 2017, is credited with the development and stability Rwanda has experienced since the genocide in 1994, but is also accused of intolerance of any opposition, whether domestic or international. Critics of his rule are frequently detained and several high-profile political dissidents have been murdered abroad.
Rusesabagina’s daughter said the charges against her father were fabricated and that he was denied his choice of defence lawyers. The judiciary spokesperson, Harrison Mutabazi, said Rusesabagina was being tried like any other citizen.
However, Rwandan authorities have yet to explain how Rusesabagina was brought to Rwanda. Officials in the capital have said he was arrested on what they described as “an international warrant” after flying to Dubai from his home in the US in August last year.
Flight logs have identified a private jet that took off from Dubai and landed at Kigali at 6am on 28 August, which is believed to have been carrying Rusesabagina. During pre-trial hearings Rusesabagina told judges he had been kidnapped after being duped. Kagame denied the allegation but has suggested Rusesabagina had been the victim of some kind of trick.
Rusesabagina went on trial on Wednesday with 20 other alleged members of a rebel group called the National Liberation Forces (FLN), which has carried out a number deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years.
Charges against him include the accusation that he is “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits … operating out of various places in the region and abroad”.
In a September pre-trial hearing, Rusesabagina told the court he had contributed €20,000 (£17,400) 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 general manager of the Mille Collines hotel in Kigali to save the lives of 1,200 people who sheltered there during the worst of the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed with knives, clubs and other weapons.
Rusesabagina later fled to Belgium and the US where he was honoured with a presidential medal of freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, by the 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 democratic change was impossible.
The Rwandan government disputes Rusesabagina’s story about saving people during the genocide, and some witnesses have said he exaggerated his role in helping people escape death.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers said on Wednesday that as a Belgian national he should not be tried in a Rwandan court but sent to Belgium. Government lawyers said Rusesabagina had never renounced his Rwandan citizenship, adding that the Belgian government had frequently cooperated with Rwanda in investigating his past activities.
Also among the defendants is Callixte Nsabimana, the FLN’s leader, who went missing in the Comoros islands in 2019 only to reappear two weeks later in police detention in Kigali charged with terrorism offences.
Nsabimana told the court on Wednesday he hoped for 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 the president of Rwanda … Did he want to be a Rwandan president yet he was Belgian?” Nsabimana said.
The trial has attracted significant international attention. In December more than 30 members of the US Congress asked Kagame to release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds and allow him to return safely to the US.
The European parliament last week called on Rwanda to give Rusesabagina a fair trial and condemned what it called his enforced disappearance, illegal rendition to Rwanda and incommunicado detention. Rwanda’s parliament rejected the “baseless assertion”.
Diplomats including the US ambassador to Rwanda attended the hearing on Wednesday, which ended when the trial was adjourned until next week.