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'Hotel Rwanda' hero's terrorism trial starts

Cristina Krippahl | Kate Hairsine
February 17, 2021

Paul Rusesabagina was lauded as a hero in the West for saving people during Rwanda's genocide. His story inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda". Now he is on trial for terrorism in Kigali.

Paul Rusesabagina, dressed in a pink, standard-issue prison uniform and wearning a mask, speaks to his lawyer
Paul Rusesabagina (R) talks to his lawyer Gatera Gashabana inside the courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda on February 17, 2021Image: Clement Uwiringiyimana/REUTERS

The trial of Paul Rusesabagina, a long-time critic of President Paul Kagame, has begun in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

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

He appeared in court on Wednesday alongside 20 others facing similar charges. The accused all wore face masks and the pink standard-issue uniforms assigned to defendants in Rwanda.

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, Rusesabagina admitted to being involved in setting up the FLN but said he never supported any violence or killings.

Rusesabagina, whose high-profile arrest in August attracted international attention, faces a maximum of 25 years in prison if convicted.

Paul Rusesabagina in handcuffs is escorted to a courtroom
Paul Rusesabagina is escorted to court in Rwanda on October 20, 2020Image: Clement Uwiringiyimana/REUTERS

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.

Mystery surrounds Rusesabagina's arrest

On Wednesday, his lawyer began by arguing 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. 

"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," his lawyer Gatera Gashaba said, according to AFP.

On the eve of the trial, the US Congress released a letter that they had sent to Rwanda's government late last year.

The letter urges Rwanda's 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 expresses "grave concern" over the manner in which the Rwanda government "extrajudicially transferred Mr. Rusesabagina from the United Arab Emirates to Rwanda." 

The EU parliament issued a joint resolution last week, similarly 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 The East African online news site. 

During a virtual session on Monday, parliamentarians and senators said the EU parliamentary 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.

Rusesabagina long been a controversial figure

"I think the charges [against Rusesabagina] have some credibility, to the extent that I think that a trial is necessary," political analyst Phil Clark of SOAS at the University of London told DW shortly after Rusesabagina's arrest. 

"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 has also previously sparked outrage and accusations of promoting ethnic hate speech after he warning 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 conflict. 

"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.

A still of the movie Hotel Rwanda with actors Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle
Witness accounts of what happened at the Hotel des Mille Collines differ from the movieImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

"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," DW correspondent Alex Ngarambe said.

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."

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

Rwanda's opposition sees Rusesabagina's arrest and trial as another example of President Kagame's well-documented attempts to quash dissent.

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.

President Paul Kagame and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin
Germany is an important donor of aid to RwandaImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

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.

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.