Paul Rusesabagina, a businessman whose role in saving more than 1,000 lives during the 1994 genocide inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, has been convicted of terrorism by a court in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
The 67-year-old was found guilty on Monday after a seven-month trial and faces a life sentence. Rwandan authorities accused Rusesabagina of being “the founder, leader, sponsor and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits … operating out of various places in the region and abroad.” He denied all the charges against him.
Rusesabagina was arrested in Kigali in August 2020 after a sophisticated operation to lure him back to Rwanda from exile in the US. He had travelled to Dubai where he boarded a private jet that he believed would take him to a meeting in Burundi but which landed instead in Kigali.
The abduction was aimed at silencing Rusesabagina’s outspoken criticism of Rwanda’s veteran president, Paul Kagame, supporters of the former hotelier say.
Kagame has rejected the charge, saying Rusesabagina was put on trial not because of his high profile but over the lives lost “because of his actions”.
“He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status,” Kagame said in television interview this month, promising that Rusesabagina would be “fairly tried”.
The trial opened in February and Rusesagabina, a Belgian citizen and US green card holder, has refused to attend hearings since March when his request to postpone the trial to prepare his defence was rejected. His lawyer has said Rusesabagina’s legal papers were confiscated by prison authorities. Twenty co-defendants are also facing lengthy prison terms on similar charges.
Kagame, who won a third term in power with 98% of the vote in elections in 2017, is a polarising figure who is credited with the development and stability that Rwanda has experienced since the genocide but also accused of intolerance of any criticism, whether domestic or international.
Several unsolved murders of Rwandan dissidents in African countries have been blamed on Kigali, though Kagame’s government has strenuously denied any responsibility.
South African investigators have said the government was directly involved in the killing of Patrick Karegeya, an outspoken critic of Kagame, in Johannesburg in 2014. Rwanda has denied any link to Karegeya’s murder, though two weeks later Kagame warned in a public speech that “any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price. Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.”
In July the Guardian revealed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, had been spied on using Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian dual national, had been compromised multiple times.
Rusesabagina was the general manager of a luxury hotel in Kigali during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people were killed with knives, clubs and other weapons in the genocide. Most of the victims were ethnic Tutsis but some were moderate Hutus.
The 2004 film told the story of how Rusesabagina used his influence and bribery to save the lives of 1,200 people who sheltered at the Mille Collines hotel in the capital during the worst of the massacres.
But Rusesabagina became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader turned president whose forces ended the mass killings, and he left Rwanda in 1996, fleeing to Belgium and the US.
In 2004 the American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience. A year later, Rusesabagina was honoured with a presidential medal of freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US, by George W Bush.
The Rwandan government disputes Rusesabagina’s story about saving people during the genocide, and Ibuka, a Rwandan genocide survivors’ group, has said in the past that Rusesabagina exaggerated his role in helping people escape.
Rusesagabina’s family said the cancer survivor, who is in poor health, was subjected to “torture” during his first four days in captivity. “This was an early sign – no fair trial begins with a kidnapping … then held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days, in violation of the UN’s rules for the treatment of prisoners. He has been mistreated under international standards throughout his imprisonment,” a spokesperson said.
Rwandan authorities have denied any flaws in the investigation or trial, and have said there was “no wrongdoing in the process of [Rusesagabina] getting” to Kigali.
“He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do. It was like he called a wrong number … It was flawless,” Kagame said last year.
The case against Rusesabagina centred on his alleged connection to a series of raids into Rwanda by rebels in neighbouring countries over the last decade.
Prosecutors said he recruited dozens of fighters of the Forces for National Liberation (FLN), a rebel group that has carried out a number deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years. The FLN was the military wing of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) political party, which Rusesabagina helped to found.
In June prosecutors said Rusesabagina had “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts” – a charge he denied.
During the trial, co-defendants gave conflicting and inconsistent testimony about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
These included Callixte Nsabimana, the FLN’s leader, who went missing in 2019 in the Comoros Islands only to reappear two weeks later in Kigali in police detention, charged with terrorism offences. Nsabimana was found guilty of forgery on Monday.
Judges in the court in Kigali took more than four hours to read the full judgment.
Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader in Rwanda who spent six years in prison for terrorism, said the Rusesagabina verdict had not been in doubt.
“In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive … How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?” she said.