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‘Hotel Rwanda’ inspiration Paul Rusesabagina sentenced to 25 years in prison for terrorism-related charges

Paul Rusesabagina talks to a prison guard inside the courtroom in Kigali, Rwanda, on Feb. 17. (Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters)
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NAIROBI — Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism during the Rwandan genocide made him an international celebrity and the subject of a Hollywood movie, was convicted in Rwanda of forming a terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The outcome of the months-long trial will be a surprise to few: Rwanda’s authoritarian president, Paul Kagame, has repeatedly characterized Rusesabagina as guilty, and Rusesabagina himself withdrew from the trial in March, saying he did not expect justice. Yet the verdict represented the conclusion of a remarkable chapter in the life of Rusesabagina, who was played by Don Cheadle in the film “Hotel Rwanda” and in 2005 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.

In her ruling, Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said the National Liberation Front, an armed group that was part of a coalition led by Rusesabagina, was responsible for attacks on civilians in Rwanda that involved killings, lootings, arson and assault. She pointed to a 2018 video in which Rusesabagina says that “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,” as evidence of his guilt.

“It was all with the objective of bringing terror,” she said. “They attacked people in their homes. They attacked people in their cars — or even on the roads traveling.”

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Lawyers for Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen and permanent U.S. resident, have argued there is no credible evidence showing that the National Liberation Front killed civilians or that the group was under the control of Rusesabagina. Instead, they say, the trial has been an attempt to rationalize the arbitrary detention of a well-known critic of Kagame, who has stifled independent media and political opposition in Rwanda.

“This guilty verdict was known from the beginning,” said Anaïse Kanimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter. “They want to silence him for life. He is 67 years old. And 25 years is basically a death sentence.”

Kanimba’s parents were killed during the genocide when she was 2, and Rusesabagina, her uncle, adopted her. She called on the Biden administration to exert pressure on Kagame to release her father, saying it was Biden’s chance to “walk the talk on human rights” and show that his administration is paying attention to what is happening in Africa.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Monday that the United States was “concerned” by the conviction.

“The reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict,” the statement read. “… We are concerned by the objections Mr. Rusesabagina raised related to his lack of confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel.”

The verdict came after years of sniping between Rusesabagina, who was credited with saving more than 1,200 people at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the 1994 genocide, and Kagame, the former commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who became the country’s de facto leader when his group ended the genocide.

Rusesabagina has vocally criticized Kagame’s authoritarian tendencies in recent years, and Kagame has said Rusesabagina exaggerated his role during the genocide and is seeking to overthrow him.

Author and former journalist Michela Wrong, who has followed the trial, said that while she did not want to opine on Rusesabagina’s guilt or innocence, it was clear that the trial has not been a fair one.

“It’s been a shame and an embarrassment, really,” she said, “because the lawyers for the government have broken procedural laws so many times, and in such obvious ways.”

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The trial prompted widespread condemnation in the international community, including from more than three dozen U.S. senators who urged Kagame to release Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds.

A report from the American Bar Association and the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative this summer found Rusesabagina had been denied the right to confidential communication with his attorneys, with prison authorities insisting on reading and intercepting messages; that the court did not test the motives and credibility of witnesses against him; and that Kagame’s repeated characterizations of Rusesabagina as guilty violated the presumption of innocence.

“This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry,” lead author Geoffrey Robertson, who was monitoring the trial for the Clooney Foundation for Justice, said in a statement. “The prosecution evidence against him was unveiled but not challenged.”

Attorneys for Rusesabagina say that, before the trial, he was tricked into boarding a plane in August 2020 that took him to Rwanda. Rusesabagina was traveling with a pastor who he said he believed was a friend and thought he was headed for Burundi to speak at churches. Instead, the pastor, who was working for the Rwandan government, lured Rusesabagina to Kigali.

Advocacy groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said that his arrest was illegal, amounting to an enforced disappearance. Government officials in Rwanda have spoken proudly about the operation, which Kagame called “flawless.”

Wrong, who recently wrote a book about the killing of Patrick Karegeya, a Kagame friend turned critic who was once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence, said she sees Rusesabagina’s trial as a part of a pattern of Rwanda’s president being unable to “tolerate dissent or challenges.” Others who have challenged Kagame have turned up dead over the years under strange circumstances, she noted, including in Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa.

“It is very important to Paul Kagame to demonstrate to his own citizens that he will reach out and find you wherever you are,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you go. … If you stand up to him, denounce him, challenge him, you will pay the price.”

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Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at SOAS University of London, said the case is more complex than how it has often been portrayed in international media, which he said has generally sided with Rusesabagina, or in the largely government-controlled Rwandan media, which has sided with Kagame.

Clark, who attended multiple days of testimony in Kigali, said he thought the government went too far in painting Rusesabagina as the orchestrator of attacks that prosecutors said killed at least nine people. But he said he thought prosecutors presented solid evidence that Rusesabagina provided funding to the National Liberation Front.

“It is not as clear-cut as the hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ has been unfairly arrested and prosecuted by this government that’s perceived as rapacious,” Clark said.

The reading of the verdict in Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-Border Crimes lasted more than six hours. Rusesabagina was tried with 20 co-defendants.

Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman for the Rwandan government, said in a statement that the evidence against Rusesabagina was “indisputable.”

“The people of Rwanda will feel safer now justice has been delivered,” she said.

Kitty Kurth, a spokeswoman for Rusesabagina’s foundation, said Rusesabagina’s family is concerned about his health. He was held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days without a light or reading material, she said, and with few visits from his attorneys.

Rusesabagina, who is a cancer survivor, has missed three cancer screenings and has not had access to his regular blood pressure medication, she added.

“Paul Kagame has been jealous of Paul Rusesabagina since the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was released,” Kurth said. “In President Kagame’s mind, there is only room for one guy named Paul in Rwanda, and it is Paul Kagame not Paul Rusesabagina.”

Max Bearak contributed to this report.

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