(LONDON) — After spending more than a year behind bars and standing trial, the man who inspired the acclaimed 2004 film Hotel Rwanda was found guilty of terrorism-related charges on Monday.
Former hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, 67, was tried in Rwanda’s high court alongside 20 other defendants on a number of charges, including forming and funding a terrorist group. While reading the verdict before the courtroom in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said evidence shows that Rusesabagina and the co-accused were part of a terrorist group and committed acts of terrorism, “which they later bragged about in different announcements and videos.”
“They attacked people in their homes, or even in their cars on the road traveling,” Mukamurenzi added.
So far, Rusesabagina has been convicted of forming an illegal armed group, being a member of a terrorist group and financing a terrorist group. The panel of judges was still reading out the verdict on the other charges, which include murder, abduction and armed robbery as an act of terrorism.
The charges stem from Rusesabagina’s leadership of an exiled opposition coalition called the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, known by its French acronym MRCD. In 2018, there were a series of deadly attacks on villages in southern Rwanda, near the country’s border with Burundi, and Rwandan authorities inculpated the National Liberation Front, or FLN, which is the armed wing of the MRCD. In a video statement released later that year, Rusesabagina pledged his “unreserved support” for the FLN, declared Kagame’s government to be “the enemy of the Rwandan people” and called for “any means possible to bring about change.”
Rusesabagina has acknowledged that the MRCD had an armed wing but denied his involvement and has maintained his innocence on all charges. The 20 other defendants in the trial were accused of being FLN organizers and fighters.
Rusesabagina’s family and attorneys have condemned the closely watched trial as a “sham” and said they were anticipating a conviction.
“We are happy that the charade of the trial is ending,” the Rusesabagina family told ABC News in a statement ahead of the verdict. “We have told the world over and over that there is no fair trial process in Rwanda, and the past months have shown that. There is no independent judiciary, and there will be no justice for our father. All we can do now is make this clear to everyone — a dictator will be jailing a humanitarian.”
A ruling in the high-profile case was expected a month ago but was postponed, with no reason given for the delay. Rusesabagina, who has been boycotting the court proceedings since March claiming he was not getting a fair trial, did not physically attend Monday’s session, according to his family and lawyers.
Rusesabagina, a married father of six, was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when divisions between the East African nation’s two main ethnic groups came to a head. The Rwandan government, controlled by extremist members of the Hutu ethnic majority, launched a systemic campaign with its allied Hutu militias to wipe out the Tutsi ethnic minority, slaughtering more than 800,000 people over the course of 100 days, mostly Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to protect them, according to estimates from the United Nations.
More than 1,200 people took shelter in the Hotel des Mille Collines during what is often described as the darkest chapter of Rwanda’s history. Rusesabagina, who is of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, said he used his job and connections with the Hutu elite to protect the hotel’s guests from massacre. The events were later immortalized in “Hotel Rwanda,” with American actor Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Rusesabagina earning an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 2005.
After the movie’s release, Rusesabagina rose to fame and was lauded as a hero. He also became a prominent and outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been in office for the last two decades. Some genocide survivors who stayed at the Hotel des Mille Collines have since accused Rusesabagina of exaggerating his role in saving them or even profiting from it.
Rusesabagina, who fled Rwanda with his family in 1996 and is now a Belgian citizen and permanent U.S. resident, traveled to Dubai on Aug. 27, 2020, to meet up with a Burundi-born pastor who Rusesabagina alleges had invited him to speak at churches in Burundi about his experience during the Rwandan genocide. Later that night, the pair hopped on a private jet that Rusesabagina believed would take them to Burundi’s capital, according to Rusesabagina’s international legal team.
Rusesabagina did not know that the pastor was working as an informant for the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) and had tricked him into boarding a chartered flight to Kigali.
Rwandan prosecutors allege that Rusesabagina wanted to go to Burundi to coordinate with rebel groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Rusesabagina’s whereabouts were unknown for several days until Rwandan authorities paraded him in handcuffs during a press conference at the RIB’s headquarters in Kigali on Aug. 31, 2020. Rusesabagina alleges he was bound and blindfolded by RIB agents who took him from the plane to an undisclosed location where he was gagged and tortured before being jailed, according to an affidavit that includes a memorialization of a conversation between Rusesabagina and one of his Rwandan lawyers. The RIB has denied the claims.
Rusesabagina has been held at a Kigali prison since then, including more than eight months in solitary confinement, according to his international legal team. The U.N.’s Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days is torture.
Rusesabagina’s family and legal representatives have accused Rwandan authorities of kidnapping him and bringing him to the country illegally. The Rwandan government has admitted to paying for the plane that took Rusesabagina to Kigali, but Kagame said there was no wrongdoing because he was “brought here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do.” The court ultimately ruled that Rusesabagina was tricked into coming back to Rwanda but was not kidnapped and thus the charges against him couldn’t be dropped.
Rusesabagina’s trial in his home country has captured worldwide attention since it began in February, with his family and attorneys calling on the international community to intervene. They said his privileged documents are routinely confiscated in prison and he has been denied access to his international legal team, including his lead counsel, Kate Gibson, who has previously represented Rwandan accused before the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda.
“Paul Rusesabagina’s inevitable conviction is the end of a script that was written even before he was kidnapped in August 2020,” Gibson told ABC News in a statement ahead of Monday’s verdict. “The only thing that has been surprising in watching this horror show unfold over the last year, has been the brazenness and openness with which the Rwandan authorities have been willing to systematically violate all of the fair trial rights to which Paul was entitled.”
“The Rwandans had every opportunity to showcase their judicial system and put on the fairest of fair trials,” she added. “They did the opposite.”
Rusesabagina’s family and lawyers have also expressed concern about his health and treatment behind bars. They said he is a cancer survivor who suffers from hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and that he has been denied his prescribed medication.
“If the international community does not step in,” the family said, “he will probably be in jail for the rest of his life.”
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