By Faith Nyasuguta
Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero that became a viciously candid government critic will spend 25 years behind bars for terrorism charges after what his supporters dubbed a politically sparked show trial.
He was found guilty by a Kigali high court of involvement in a rebel group liable for the deadly gun, grenade, and arson attacks in Rwanda between 2018 and 2019. The group saw the death of nine people.
“He founded a terrorist organization that attacked Rwanda, he financially contributed to terrorist activities,” Justice Beatrice Mukamurenzi revealed at the end of a seven-month trial.
During the trial, Rwandan prosecutors had sought life imprisonment for the ex-hotelier, 67, who is credited with saving over 1,200 lives during Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
His actions also influenced the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. However, justice Mukamurenzi said the sentence “should be reduced to 25 years” as it was his maiden conviction.
During his sentencing, neither Rusesabagina nor his lawyers were in court. His family has however voiced concerns about his health saying the sentence could see him die in jail.
Another 20 co-accused persons who appeared in court in handcuffs and in pink prison attires were all slapped with sentences ranging between three and 20 years.
Since his arrest in August, last year after boarding a plane he believed was en route Burundi but instead landed in Kigali, Rusesabagina has been behind bars.
According to his family, Rusesabagina was abducted and had turned down the nine charges against him as a move by a vengeful government for his outspoken views.
Early September, President Paul Kagame thwarted criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in court not because of his fame but following the lives lost “because of his actions”.
Hearing of the case was launched in February this year but Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen, and a US green card holder shunned it since March accusing the court of “unfairness and a lack of independence”.
The USA, which had awarded the convict its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 among other governments and rights groups had voiced concerns about his transfer to Rwanda.
On Monday, Brussels, and Washington both said they were troubled that Rusesabagina was denied a fair trial.
“The reported lack of fair-trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, citing objections raised by Rusesabagina over access to his lawyers.
On the other hand, Belgium’s foreign ministry had indicated that despite appeals from Brussels, “Rusesabagina did not benefit from a fair and equitable trial”.
“The presumption of innocence was also not respected. These elements de facto call into question the trial and the verdict.”
The government of Kagame accused Rusesabagina of belonging to the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group linked to attacks in 2018 and 2019 that saw nine people dead.
He pleaded not guilty to any involvement in the attacks but was an initiator of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
“MRCD-FLN committed terror acts. MRCD cannot be separated from military acts” of the FLN, justice Mukamurenzi said.
On trial, his co-defendants narrated conflicting testimonies about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
The Kigali government lauded the outcome, with spokeswoman Yolande Makolo tweeting: “The evidence against the accused was indisputable, and Rwandans will feel safer now justice has been delivered.”
Rusesabagina was the ex-manager of a Kigali hotel, Hotel des Mille Collines, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Some 10 years later, American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that unveiled his story to an international audience.
Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the United States. For years, he used his multinational platform to campaign for political change in Kigali and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile.
Campaigning globally for his release, his family says that Rusesabagina is a political prisoner. They have further accused the authorities of torturing him while in custody.
Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba revealed that his advanced age made the punishment “equivalent to a death sentence”. “We fear that my father will be killed in prison,” she added.