Rwandan court finds 'Hotel Rwanda' film hero guilty in terrorism case

Paul Rusesabagina at the headquarters of Rwanda Investigation Bureau in Kigali, Rwanda August 31, 2020. [Reuters]

A Rwandan court on Monday found Paul Rusesabagina, a one-time hotel manager portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood film about the 1994 genocide, guilty of being part of a group responsible for terrorist attacks.

Judges were still going through a number of other accusations against Rusesabagina and 20 other defendants during a lengthy reading of a verdict. They were expected to pronounce sentence later on Monday.

Rusesabagina, 67, who was feted around the world after being portrayed by actor Don Cheadle in the film "Hotel Rwanda", is a vocal critic of President Paul Kagame. He has denied all charges and said he was kidnapped from Dubai this year to be put on trial. His supporters called the trial a sham, and proof of Kagame's ruthless treatment of political opponents.

Prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Rusesabagina on nine charges, including terrorism, arson, taking hostages and forming an armed rebel group which he directed from abroad.

Rusesabagina has acknowledged membership in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group opposed to Kagame's rule, but denied responsibility for violence carried out by its armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Paul Rusesabagina. [Reuters]

Other defendants tried with him include Callixte Nsabimana, popularly known as Sankara, who was a spokesman for the FLN and told the court Rusesabagina was not a member of the armed wing. The judges said the two groups were indistinguishable, referring to them as the MRCD-FLN.

"They should be found guilty for being part of this terror group," judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said of the defendants.

Rusesabagina has refused to take part in the trial and has not appeared in court in months, after attending the first few hearings in a bright pink prison uniform, face mask and handcuffs.

The 2004 film depicted him risking his life to shelter hundreds of people as manager of a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital Kigali during the 100-day genocide, when Hutu ethnic extremists killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for the role and Rusesabagina received the Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian award - from President George W. Bush in 2005.

Rusesabagina used his fame to highlight what he described as rights violations by the government of Kagame, a Tutsi rebel commander who took power after his forces captured Kigali and halted the genocide.

President George W. Bush (R) presents his Presidential Medal of Freedom to Paul Rusesabagina, November 9, 2005. [Reuters]

Rusesabagina’s father was Hutu and his mother and wife were Tutsi. He became a Belgian citizen after the genocide and lived in exile in the United States until last year.

In a video posted on YouTube in 2018, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, saying change could not be achieved by democratic means. The year before, Kagame had won re-election with 99% of the vote.

Rusesabagina's trial began in February, six months after he arrived in Kigali on a flight from Dubai. His supporters say he was kidnapped; the Rwandan government suggested he was tricked into boarding a private plane. Human Rights Watch said at the time that his arrest amounted to an enforced disappearance, which it called a serious violation of international law.

Kagame denies accusations of abuse and has enjoyed support from Western donors for restoring stability and boosting economic growth. Rights groups describe the Rusesabagina case as part of a pattern of intimidating Kagame's political opponents.

"The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) continued to target those perceived as a threat to the government during 2020," said a report last year by Human Rights Watch. "Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities continued."