MS Risk Blog

Paul Rusesabagina: The ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero Convicted of Terror-Related Charges

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In September 2021, after a seven-month trial, a Rwandan court found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of being part of a group involved in terrorist incidents and was given a 25-year prison sentence. Rusesabagina is the former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, and was depicted by Don Cheadle as a hero in the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ about the country’s 1994 genocide. During the genocide, he was praised for saving over 1,200 lives. Since his arrest in August 2020, which he described as a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan authorities, the subject has gotten a lot of attention.

Paul Rusesabagina became well-known across the globe after ‘Hotel Rwanda’ illustrated him risking his life as the manager of a luxurious hotel in Rwanda’s capital, during the 100 days in which the Rwandan genocide occurred where over 800,000 people were killed – the majority being members of the Tutsi minority. Rusesabagina was a moderate Hutu who had a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. He emigrated to Belgium and the United States in 1996 after becoming disenchanted with President Paul Kagame’s new Tutsi-dominated government. After the exposure as a result of the Hollywood film, Rusesabagina, who was now a Belgian citizen and US resident, emerged as a vocal critic of Kagame. He leveraged his newfound celebrity status to call attention to what he labelled as human rights violations by Kagame’s post-genocide government, a Tutsi commander who rose to power after his forces seized Kigali and brought an end to the genocide. The Rwandan president is a divisive figure who is credited with Rwanda’s progress and stability following the genocide, but who is also criticised for his intolerance of any criticism, be it domestic or international. Several cold case murders of Rwandan dissidents in several African countries have been attributed to Kigali, despite Kagame’s government’s denials.

Rusesabagina went on to head an opposition group called the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD). In 2018, in a YouTube video, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, claiming that democratic processes continued to fail to bring about change in Rwanda. He said, “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed… Rwandan people can no longer stand the cruelty.” This was following Kagame’s third re-election win the year before, with 98.8 percent of the vote.

After a cunning plot to bring Rusesabagina back to Rwanda from exile in the US, he was apprehended in Kigali in August 2020. Then, Rusesabagina’s trial started in February 2021. His supporters claim he was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Rwanda. On the other hand, Rwandan authorities say he was tricked, rather than forced, into flying on a private plane. He thought the plane would take him to a meeting in Burundi but instead landed in Kigali. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch at the time, Rusesabagina’s arrest amounted to an “enforced disappearance,” which it regards as a serious breach of international law. One can see that from the very start, the trial was unfair. It all started with a kidnapping, and then Rusesabagina was held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days, in contravention of UN standards on prisoner treatment. Throughout his detention, he has been mistreated in accordance with international standards. Other individuals, whom were FLN members, were tried alongside Rusesabagina, and some testified against him.

He was indicted for  supporting a militarised wing of his opposition political platform (MRCD). The armed wing, called the National Liberation Front (FLN), is responsible for the death of nine Rwandans in attacks that occurred in the country between 2018 and 2019. Prosecutors said he recruited dozens of fighters for the FLN and that Rusesabagina had “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.” Some of the other individuals tried alongside Rusesabagina, who were FLN members, testified against him. During the trial, these FLN members testified in a contradictory and inconsistent manner about Rusesabagina’s level of involvement with the FLN and its fighters. The judge presiding over the case said, “We find Rusesabagina’s role in creating FLN, his provision of funds and purchasing for them secure phones to use, all constitute the crime of committing terrorism. We therefore find him culpable of the crime of terrorism.” However, Rusesabagina has denied responsibility for violence perpetrated by the MRCD’s FLN. He claimed he never ordered for people to be targeted or killed, although he did admit to sending money to the FLN.

Rusesabagina pulled out of the trial shortly after it began in March of this year, claiming that he was not being given a fair trial, which he was promised, and that he was not allowed proper access to his lawyers. Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader in Rwanda with a similar story to Rusesabagina, and who spent six years in prison for terror charges, said the Rusesabagina verdict was never in doubt. She said, “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?”

This case has undoubtably sparked worldwide criticism. His backers and supporters have hailed the trial as an example of Kagame’s ruthlessness in dealing with political opponents. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is in power in Rwanda, has continued to target people it considers a threat. The court decision was evidently intended to send a message to the opposition. This appears to be a ‘show trial’ with the goal of stifling dissent and ensuring that anyone criticising or questioning Kagame is simply not permitted to do so. Yet, Kagame has denied conducting a ‘show trial,’ claiming that Rusesabagina was put on trial not because of his prominence, but because of the lives lost as a result of “his actions.” Kagame also said, “He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status.” Ultimately, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in prison for “being a member of a terror group and participating in terror activities.” The option for pursuing a life sentence against Rusesabagina was scrapped as this is his first offence but given Rusesabagina’s age and bad health condition (a cancer survivor), the 25-year sentence looks more like a death sentence.

Lastly, this case is also important as while there are a number of high-profile dissidents and critics of President Paul Kagame in exile, the country has never been able to bring any of them back and prosecute them for terrorism. So, this case sends the message that those in the diaspora who criticise Kagame should also be aware that the Rwandan authorities can track them down wherever they are.