Last month, a Rwandan court sentenced Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism during the Rwandan genocide inspired the “Hotel Rwanda” movie, to 25 years in prison after he was found guilty of forming a terrorist group. Now, prosecutors who had sought a life sentence are appealing the judgment.
Rusesabagina, a prominent critic of Rwanda’s authoritarian president, Paul Kagame, was sentenced after a months-long trial decried by supporters and international observers, including the American Bar Association, as procedurally flawed and politically motivated. He has maintained his innocence.
“Rwandan authorities may see an interest in keeping the trial in the news in an attempt to control the story,” said Carine Kanimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter, in an email. “They want the world to see Paul Rusesabagina as a terrorist, because this is not only punishment … but it will also have a chilling effect on others who might want to dissent.”
“25 years is already a life sentence,” she added.
Along with 20 other co-defendants, the 67-year-old Rusesabagina was accused of being behind attacks committed by the National Liberation Front (FLN), the militant wing of an opposition coalition. He acknowledged playing a role in the political coalition, but said he had no responsibility for the actions of the armed group.
Rwandan judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi had pointed to a 2018 video in which Rusesabagina said 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 culpability in acts that resulted in the death of at least nine people.
Lawyers for Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen and U.S. green card holder, have argued there is no credible evidence showing that the FLN killed civilians or that the group was under his control.
The State Department, which had previously raised concerns about the fairness of the verdict, and Belgium’s foreign ministry did not immediately return requests for comment.
Rusesabagina gained international recognition after a Hollywood movie, in which he was played by Don Cheadle, showcased his role sheltering more than 1,200 people at a hotel he managed during the Rwandan genocide. During that massacre, which ran for 100 days from April to July 1994, Hutu ethnic extremists killed some 800,000 people.
The genocide also brought to power Kagame, who has controlled Rwanda since he led a Tutsi army that quashed the mass killings. Under Kagame’s rule, Rwanda has made substantial progress on economic development and women’s rights.
The president was once hailed as a “visionary” statesman by Western leaders such as the former British prime minister Tony Blair, but rights groups have grown increasingly concerned about how his critics “have been intimidated and silenced, arrested, or forced into exile” in recent years.
Kanimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter, said that her father gets a five-minute telephone call with his family every week. The former hotel executive’s attorneys say that he was tricked into boarding a plane in August 2020 that took him to Rwanda. Rusesabagina had left the country for Belgium more than two decades ago.
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.”
Rusesabagina is not the first critic of Kagame to have run into trouble abroad. Col. Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief turned opponent of the president, was found dead in a South African hotel room in 2014.
The Rwandan government denied any involvement, but former defense minister James Kabarebe reportedly said: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog.”
Rachel Chason in Nairobi contributed to this report.