‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero sentenced to 25 years on terror charges

“Hotel Rwanda” hero Paul Rusesabagina (center) in the pink inmate’s uniform arrives at the Nyarugenge Court of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda, on Oct. 2, 2020, surrounded by guards of Rwanda Correctional Service.

KIGALI, Rwanda — The man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving hundreds of his countrymen from genocide was convicted of terrorism offenses Monday and sentenced to 25 years at a trial that human rights watchdogs and other critics of Rwanda’s repressive government have described as an act of retaliation.

Paul Rusesabagina, credited with sheltering ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, called the trial a “sham.”

The U.S. resident and Belgian citizen was convicted on eight charges including membership in a terrorist group, murder and abduction. He was charged along with 20 other people.

The circumstances surrounding Rusesabagina’s 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.

Rusesabagina has asserted that his arrest was in response to his criticism of longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame over alleged human rights abuses.

Monday’s ruling comes more than a year after Rusesabagina disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition political platform, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.

The armed group claimed some responsibility for attacks in 2018 and 2019 in southern Rwanda in which nine Rwandans died. Rusesabagina testified that he helped to form the armed group to help refugees but said he never supported violence — and sought to distance himself from its deadly attacks.

Didn’t expect justice

Throughout, Rusesabagina has maintained that he is not guilty of the charges against him but said he didn’t expect to get justice.

“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,” Rusesabagina’s family said in a statement.

Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo tweeted shortly after the sentencing that the evidence against Rusesabagina was “indisputable.”

“Rwandans will feel safer now justice has been delivered,” Makolo wrote.

Rusesabagina’s family alleges he was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda against his will to stand trial. But the court ruled that he wasn’t kidnapped when he was tricked into boarding a chartered flight. Rwanda’s government asserted that at the time he was going to Burundi to coordinate with armed groups based there and in Congo.

Rusesabagina said he was gagged and tortured before he was jailed, but Rwandan authorities denied that. His attorney, Felix Rudakemwa, has asserted that Rusesabagina’s legal papers were confiscated by prison authorities.

Presumed guilty

Amnesty International criticized the proceedings, noting that Rusesabagina was initially denied the right to choose his own lawyer. It added that Kagame’s comments that “Rusesabagina had ‘done something terribly wrong, committed a crime,’ may have prejudiced the defendant’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “the reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” and he urged Rwanda’s government to examine “shortcomings” in the case, including Rusesabagina’s reported lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and case documents.

Belgium’s foreign minister, Sophie Wilmes, said that “despite repeated appeals from Belgium, it must be concluded that Mr. Rusesabagina has not been given a fair and equitable trial.” She said Belgium remained in close contact with him.

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