Trial of ‘Hotel Rwanda hero’ begins amid family’s fears of injustice


Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier depicted as a hero in a Hollywood film about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, was charged with nine terrorism-related offences in a Kigali court on Wednesday, at the start of a trial that has drawn international scrutiny.

His family say Rusesabagina, a critic of President Paul Kagame, is in poor health and his trial is a sham. Rwanda’s government says he has fomented violence and directed deadly attacks on its territory from exile.

“We don’t expect a fair trial,” his daughter Carine Kanimba, told Reuters on Tuesday. “This hearing will be a theatre.”

The trial has thrust a spotlight not just on Rusesabagina, but on Kagame, accused by rights groups of using authoritarian means to quash political opposition and extend his 21-year presidency. Several high profile political dissidents have been murdered abroad; the government has denied any involvement.

Kagame, who led rebel forces that fought their way into the capital and ended the genocide in 1994, denies accusations of abuses. He has enjoyed widespread support from Western donors for restoring Rwanda to stability, cracking down on corruption and boosting economic growth in the nation of 12 million.

Rusesabagina’s daughter said that the charges against her father were fabricated and that he was denied his choice of defence lawyers. Judiciary spokesman Harrison Mutabazi said Rusesabagina was being tried like any other citizen.

“We give justice with due process,” he told Reuters on Tuesday.

Movie hero

Rusesabagina’s case has attracted international attention partly because the Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” was based on his life. The movie shows how Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, used his connections as a hotel manager to save ethnic minority Tutsis fleeing slaughter by majority Hutus.

An estimated 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the 100 day genocide. Rusesabagina’s father was Hutu; his mother and wife were Tutsi.

Rusesabagina later obtained Belgian citizenship and became a US resident. He received the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, 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 year before, Kagame won a national election with 99% of the vote.

During pre-trial hearings, Rusesabagina told judges he had been kidnapped from Dubai. Rwandan officials have suggested he was tricked into boarding the plane.

In a September pre-trial hearing, Rusesabagina told the court that he had contributed 20 000 euros ($24 000.00) to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the military wing of the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party which he co-chaired from exile. But he denied any wrongdoing.

Rusesabagina will be tried alongside 20 other Rwandans whom prosecutors describe as fighters for the FLN. Most were captured after attacks in Rwanda’s southern province in 2018, said judiciary spokesman Mutabazi.

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.

The resolution prompted a response from Rwanda’s parliament late on Tuesday.

“The Rwanda parliament rejects the European parliament’s baseless assertion that Paul Rusesabagina will not receive a fair trial in Rwanda, and calls on the government of Rwanda to continue to ensure this right is also fully upheld for the victims,” legislators said.