The man who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda has been convicted of terror offences and sentenced to 25 years in prison in a trial that human rights watchdogs and other critics of Rwanda’s repressive government described as an act of retaliation.
Paul Rusesabagina, credited with saving ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and a recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, boycotted the announcement of the verdict after saying he did not expect justice in a trial he called a “sham”.
The US resident and Belgian citizen was convicted on nine charges including the formation of an illegal armed group, membership in a terrorist group, financing a terror group, murder and abduction. He was charged with 20 other people.
The circumstances surrounding his arrest last year, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported worsening health have drawn international concern for the 67-year-old who left Rwanda in 1996.
Mr Rusesabagina, who remains in custody, says his arrest was in response to his criticism of long-time Rwandan President Paul Kagame over alleged human rights abuses.
Mr Kagame’s government has repeatedly denied targeting dissenting voices with arrests and extrajudicial killings.
Monday’s ruling came more than a year after Mr Rusesabagina disappeared during a visit to Dubai, and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
The group had claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in the south of the country in which nine Rwandans died.
“We knew from the day he was kidnapped that the verdict would be ‘guilty’ on some or all of the false charges. We are happy that the charade of the trial is ending,” Mr Rusesabagina’s family said in a statement.
A member of his legal team, Kate Gibson, added that “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”.
Throughout, Mr Rusesabagina has maintained his innocence, and his family alleges he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will, but the court ruled that he was not kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight.
Rwanda’s government has claimed he was going to Burundi to co-ordinate with armed groups based there and in Congo.
Mr Rusesabagina said he was gagged and tortured before he was jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied that. His lawyer, Felix Rudakemwa, says Mr Rusesabagina’s legal papers were confiscated by prison authorities, and his family has feared he might die from poor health behind bars.
He is credited with saving more than 1,000 people by sheltering them at the hotel he managed during the genocide in Rwanda in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed.
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