Trial of 'Hotel Rwanda hero' begins amid wrangles over jurisdiction

Clement Uwiringiyimana
·3-min read
Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, walks inside the courtroom in Kigali

By Clement Uwiringiyimana

KIGALI (Reuters) - Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier depicted as a hero in a Hollywood film about Rwanda's 1994 genocide, was charged with terrorism-related offences in a Kigali court on Wednesday at the start of a trial that has drawn international scrutiny.

His family say Rusesabagina, a critic of President Paul Kagame, is in poor health and his trial is a sham. Rwanda's government says he has fomented violence and directed deadly attacks on its territory from exile.

Rusesabagina, dressed in a prison-issue pink shirt and matching face mask for his court appearance, faces nine charges, including forming an illegal armed group, being a member of a terrorist group and sponsoring terrorism.

He was not required to enter a plea.

During pre-trial hearings, Rusesabagina said he had been abducted while on a visit to Dubai last year and forcibly returned to Rwanda. Rwandan officials have suggested he was tricked into boarding the plane.

Rusesabagina's lawyer, Gatera Gashabana, said the court lacked jurisdiction to try Rusesabagina since he was no longer a Rwandan citizen after acquiring Belgian citizenship.

Judge Antoine Muhima said he would rule on the court's jurisdiction on Feb. 26.

Rusesabagina's case has attracted international attention partly because the Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” was based on his life. The movie shows how Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, used his connections as a hotel manager to save ethnic minority Tutsis fleeing slaughter by majority Hutus.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the 100-day genocide. Rusesabagina's father was a Hutu; his mother and wife were Tutsi.

Rusesabagina, who is in his late 60s, subsequently obtained Belgian citizenship and moved to the United States. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour, in 2005.

CRITIC OF KAGAME

Rusesabagina later became a vocal critic of the increasingly authoritarian Kagame, who led rebel forces that fought their way into the capital Kigali and ended the genocide in 1994.

Kagame has enjoyed widespread support from Western donors for restoring Rwanda to stability, cracking down on corruption and boosting economic growth in the nation of 12 million.

But he is accused by rights groups of using autocratic means to quash political opposition and extend his 21-year presidency.

Several high profile political dissidents have been murdered abroad; the government has denied any involvement and Kagame denies accusations of abuses.

In a YouTube video in December 2018, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance to Kagame's government, saying that democratic change was impossible. The year before, Kagame won a national election with 99% of the vote.

In a September pre-trial hearing, Rusesabagina told the court that he had contributed 20,000 euros ($24,000) to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the military wing of the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party which he co-chaired from exile. But he denied any wrongdoing.

The European Parliament last week called on Rwanda to give Rusesabagina a fair trial and condemned what it called his enforced disappearance, illegal rendition to Rwanda and incommunicado detention.

Rwanda's parliament late on Tuesday rejected accusations that Rusesabagina will not receive a fair trial.

He is being tried alongside 20 other Rwandans whom prosecutors describe as FLN fighters.

(Editing by Maggie Fick, Katharine Houreld, George Obulutsa)