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'Hotel Rwanda' hero awaits verdict

Cristina Krippahl
September 19, 2021

A Rwandan court is expected to issue a verdict on Paul Rusesabagina. His story, in which he saved scores of people during the Rwandan genocide, inspired the film 'Hotel Rwanda,' but now Kigali accuses him of terrorism.

Rwanda | Paul Rusesabagina |
Rusesabagina faces life in prison if convictedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The verdict on Paul Rusesabagina, a long-time critic of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, is scheduled for Monday, September 20. His trial attracted international attention due to his role in rescuing hundreds of people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis.

President Kagame, in early September, defended the trial of Rusesabagina saying the 67-year-old former hotelier was in court not because he is famous but because of his later actions.

Rusesabagina is charged with nine offenses, including being a member of a terrorist organization, financing terrorism, murder and armed robbery.

The charges relate to a series of attacks carried out by the armed National Liberation Front (FLN) in southwestern Rwanda between June and December 2018, during which nine civilians were killed.

The FLN is the military wing of the Mouvement Rwandais pour le Changement Democratique, which Rusesabagina co-chairs.

In a September 2020 hearing, he admitted to being involved in setting up the FLN. He and his family, however, deny giving support or taking part in any violence or killings.

Rusesabagina could face life in prison if convicted.

He gained celebrity status after the release of the Hollywood film "Hotel Rwanda" in 2004. The Oscar-nominated movie depicts how he saved the lives of more than 1,200 Tutsi by giving them refuge in a hotel he managed during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw the massacre of some 800,000 Tutsis along with moderate Hutus.

Free speech concerns in Rwanda

Mystery surrounds Rusesabagina's arrest

During the trial, Rusesabagina's lawyer argued that the court didn't have the jurisdiction to try Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen who says he is a victim of illegal rendition.

Rusesabagina was traveling from the US, where he lives, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in August 2020 when he disappeared for several days only to appear in handcuffs in a Kigali court. Former Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye told Al Jazeera said the government had paid for the flight that brought Rusesabagina to Rwanda.

"If a citizen of Belgium is deported legally to Rwanda, they can be tried locally. But is that what happened? We need to examine how he was arrested because it did not comply with the laws," Rusesabagina's lawyer Gatera Gashaba said, according to AFP.

The US Congress released a letter sent to Rwanda's government late last year, which urged the government to allow Rusesabagina to return to his home in Texas on humanitarian grounds, as the 66-year-old suffers from ill health and is a cancer survivor.

It also expressed "grave concern" over the manner in which the Rwanda government "extrajudicially transferred Mr. Rusesabagina from the United Arab Emirates to Rwanda."

The EU parliament also issued a joint resolution calling for Rusesabagina's release and condemning his "enforced disappearance, illegal rendition and incommunicado detention."

In turn, Rwandan lawmakers have criticized the EU's resolution as "imperialistic," according to online news site the East African.

Rwandan parliamentarians and senators said the EU resolution interferes with Rwanda's sovereignty and undermines the country's independent judiciary.

The EU, they said, has "focused on Paul Rusesabagina and ignored the victims of his crimes who also demand justice," the East African reported.

Film still I "Hotel Rwanda"
The film 'Hotel Rwanda,' based on Rusesabagina's story, gained worldwide attentionImage: Tobis Film/picture-alliance

A controversial figure

"I think the charges [against Rusesabagina] have some credibility," political analyst Phil Clark of SOAS at the University of London told DW.

"He has become a bit of a YouTube sensation, especially in the Rwandan diaspora, where he often places videos of himself calling for the armed overthrow of the regime in Kigali," Clark said.

In Rwanda, Rusesabagina, an ethnic Hutu, has previously sparked outrage and accusations of promoting ethnic hate speech after he warned of another genocide, this time by Tutsis against Hutus. He also claimed that biased traditional courts were overlooking war crimes by Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

"Many welcomed his arrest as good news, saying that this way some parts of the country are not going to be destabilized again," DW correspondent Alex Ngarambe said. "Others say he was a politician and, as such, just playing politics."

Some also accuse Rusesabagina of exaggerating his heroism.

"Some of the survivors [who stayed in the hotel] and the government say that he did not save them, and actually asked for money from them to let them into the hotel for safety," Ngarambe pointed out.

This is backed up by Rwanda expert Phil Clark, who said that some survivors told him they had to pay for protection, while others were handed over to their killers by the former hotelier.

"What happened is much more complex than the film 'Hotel Rwanda' would suggest," Clark said.

"From interviews with survivors inside the hotel, one of the things that I know is that many of them are very angry that he was basically able to hijack the story of what happened in the Hotel des Mille Collines by using that film and the international notoriety that he enjoyed thereafter."

Ruanda Paul Rusesabagina
Rusesabagina says he was illegally renditioned to RwandaImage: Imago Images/Belga/M. Maeterlinck

'Rwanda keeps a lot of Western diplomats up at night'

Meanwhile, Rwanda's opposition sees Rusesabagina's arrest and trial as another example of President Kagame's well-documented attempts to quash dissent. Kagame recently denied that his government had used the Israeli spyware Pegasus to monitor his critics, including Rusesabagina's daughter.

Kagame has ruled Rwanda since the end of the genocide and won the last elections — in 2017 — with nearly 99% of the vote.

"On the one hand, you have a society that uses aid finance extremely effectively," said Phil Clark, adding that Rwanda had established one of the best working welfare states in the region, stimulated economic growth, and made "great strides" in terms of peace and reconciliation.

On the other hand, Rwanda is an authoritarian state with "no viable political opposition inside the country, where dissidents have been routinely killed or harassed over the last ten or fifteen years," Clark said.

"Western donors like their recipients to be nice liberal democrats, who also use their financing effectively."

This makes Rusesabagina's arrest and trial one more complication in a country that poses a real dilemma to the West.

"Rwanda keeps a lot of Western diplomats up at night just because of how complex the country is," said Clark.

Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this article, which is an updated version of an article that first appeared on February 17th, 2021.