Paul Rusesabagina, the polarizing hero of the hit film “Hotel Rwanda”, went on trial on Wednesday in a closely monitored case in Kigali where he is accused of serious crimes including terrorism. His family says critics of longtime Rwandan President Paul Kagame have no chance of a fair trial and could die of ill health behind bars.
Rusesabagina, who was hailed for rescuing ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and awarded the US Presidential Medal for Freedom, was arrested last year in Rwanda after mysteriously disappearing during a visit to Dubai. Rwanda accuses him of supporting the armed wing of its opposition political platform, which has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks.
The circumstances surrounding the 66-year arrest of Rusesabagina, his limited access to an independent legal team and his reported deteriorating health have raised international concerns for the Belgian citizen and US citizens.
His family and lawyers say he was abducted abroad and returned to Rwanda illegally. They say that because he is an outspoken critic of the government, he can not get a fair trial there and that he has not been allowed to see international lawyers.
The former hotel owner, played by American actor Don Cheadle in the 2004 film, has been charged with 13 crimes including terrorism for starting an armed group in recent years accused of carrying out deadly attacks in Rwanda.
He appeared in court along with 20 others facing similar allegations in support of the National Liberation Front (FLN). The accused wore all face masks and the standard pink editions awarded to defendants in Rwanda.
‘I’m not a Rwanda’
Rusesabagina’s legal team has claimed that he cannot be tried in Rwanda until it is determined whether his extradition was legal.
“Let me say this again as I have said many times before. I am not a Rwandan. I am Belgian. The act on me should reflect that,” Rusesabagina told the court.
But leading prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said Rusesabagina’s parents were Rwandans and that he had never renounced his citizenship.
The judge said the court will consider Rusesabagina’s argument that it has no jurisdiction to try a non-citizen and announce its decision when the trial resumes on February 26.
The United States requires a transparent legal process
The case has aroused condemnation in the United States and Europe amid growing criticism of Kagame’s opposition to opposition figures. Critics say Kagame, who has been in power since 1994, systematically crushes his opponents and rules through fear.
On Wednesday, the United States called on the Rwandan government to provide humane treatment and a fair and transparent legal process in the case.
Rusesabagina’s family said this month that they were talking to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a conversation that the State Department described as one with “families of Americans being held hostage or imprisoned abroad.”
“This is a charade,” one of Rusesabagina’s daughters, Carine Kanimba, told the Associated Press before the trial. “They kidnapped him. It is a violation of due process and international law. He should be released immediately and unconditionally. “She claimed that Rwanda had produced evidence against her father.
Rwanda’s president after the arrest of Rusesabagina indicated in a national speech that he may have been tricked aboard a private plane in August to Rwanda, where he was handcuffed in a country where his family said he would never volunteer again.
FRANCE 24’s Simon Wohlfahrt reports outside the courtroom
The Rwandan court has opposed the original police account, which said that Rusesabagina was arrested with “international cooperation”, but instead said that he was arrested at Kigali International Airport in the capital.
The family is also worried about what they call Rusesabagina’s weakening condition. His external legal team at the end of last month claimed that his prescribed medication for heart disease was being denied and his local lawyer has said that Rusesabagina told him he fears he will die of a stroke.
Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Rwanda to give Rusesabagina a fair trial and to condemn what he called his forced disappearance, illegal handover to Rwanda and detention without a ban.
Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye described the resolution as “interference in an ongoing judicial process in Rwanda, a sovereign state with independent courts”.
Rusesabagina faces 13 charges including terrorism, complicity in murder and the formation of an armed rebel group. He will face trial with 20 alleged rebel fighters. Rwanda claims that civilians in the southwest of the country died in 2018 and 2019 due to basic work planned by Rusesabagina.
It is not clear how long Rusesabagina would stay in jail if convicted.
Yolande Makolo, a presidential adviser on communications, tweeted last week that victims and survivors “need justice done” and claimed that Rusesabagina and the others will have a fair trial.
It is a dramatic turnaround for Rusesabagina, who is credited with rescuing more than 1,000 people by protecting them at the hotel he succeeded in during the genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed.
The Rwandan government has long claimed that Rusesabagina’s role in the genocide was exaggerated.
After leaving Rwanda in 1996, Rusesabagina became an outspoken opponent of the government, which he accuses of many human rights violations.
Rusesabagina has previously denied funding for rebel groups, saying he was targeting criticism of Kagame’s government.
( Jowharwith AP and REUTERS)